China rising (Part 2)

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WHAT is the main difference between contemporary Chinese ceramic and glass art and what was available historically? “One of the major differences is that in the past, most of the glass or ceramic pieces were functional or decorative objects — tea sets, coffee sets, vases — made by factories or artisans. Contemporary artists just use glass or ceramics as a material to create something that makes a statement,” says Guo.

What kind of statement? “The ongoing challenge, especially for the younger generation, has been to figure out how to reinterpret the conceptual and material definition of ceramics in their own language,” writes Guo in the detailed 60-page brochure for the Ahead of the Curve exhibition.

“… contemporary Chinese artists are very eager to try to express their own thoughts with honesty, even when there is an obvious struggle to identify and represent who they truly are. After working with these artists for almost 10 years through twocities gallery, I have a feeling that they are on their way ‘home’, as some artists describe it. The picture may still be obscure, but it is promising and filled with hope,” she concludes.

In the brochure, the artists do speak for themselves in trying to capture the essence of their creations. Considering where they come from, some of these descriptions are surprisingly critical of the status quo.

“Materialistic indulgence, the numbing of the spirit, ignoring one’s own heart — all of these realities should be re-examined based on a cultural soil that provides help during tough times. The main thread running through my work is a unique perspective on cultural uncertainty,” writes artist Huang Chunmao of his Ambiguous Relationship series in porcelain, where he has taken the everyday forms of double-gourds and fruit and cast them in ceramics.

“Pavilions, terraces and open halls are important symbols in Chinese ink painting. They are resting areas for people passing by and also places to gather for people yearning for freedom. The pavilions and halls in these paintings always symbolise a spirit of freedom which despises utilitarian values,” says artist Wu Hao of his Cloud Pavilion series, which is done in stoneware.

They seem to be talking about more than just art. Consider the following statement by emerging ceramic artist Yao Jiliang: “Self-protection is an innate human ability. People camouflage themselves to avoid trouble just like animals. This work, Protective Colour, depicts a large bird with colourful wings hidden among flowers and playing with, or avoiding, the pursuing enemy. Obviously, the flowers are not able to hide the bird fully; it is still exposed. People also frequently deceive themselves like this bird does.”

Or Xu Hongbo, whose work has been described as “social acupuncture” by Jacques Kaufmann, president of the International Academy of Ceramics, because it often comments on social issues. His Clones series, which is a bunch of deformed babies melded together to appear like a smooth coagulated mass, examines “reproducibility” as an obsession in the modern world while embracing mass production as a valid artistic tool.

“My inspiration came from the two techniques of ceramic casting and biological cloning. I have a mould that consists of four independent parts of an infant’s body. When the four parts are luted and randomly joined with slip, the pieces become smooth and look natural. Actually, they are not natural at all. This is an expression of the alienation caused by technological excess,” he says.

Newnham spoke to Personal Wealth in a Skype interview about the pieces in the exhibition. “Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, ceramic artists have had more freedom than they had before, but sometimes the work you see is just not that cutting edge. The craft skills are amazing but there is still a certain amount that is quite kitsch in the older works.”

There have already been two major exhibitions in the UK featuring contemporary Chinese ceramics and glass. “First, there was an exhibition of glass organised by the University of Wolverhampton, which included works by some of the ceramic artists whom we are featuring in our exhibition, and that was called Glass Routes.

“Two years ago, there was an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge of works sent by the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute, and that was quite interesting. It was complemented by the works of Felicity Aylieff and Takeshi Yasuda, and also a piece by Caroline Cheng. But a lot of the pieces were quite old and the selection had been made by the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute rather than by Fitzwilliam, so it was not as exciting as it could have been,” she says.

That is why Newnham is so excited about the exhibition that has been put together for Ahead of the Curve. “The work we have in our exhibition is a newer selection and is more avant-garde.”

Caroline Cheng, who runs the Pottery Workshop, a centre for ceramics education and art communications in Hong Kong (it has since opened branches in Beijing, Shanghai and Jingdezhen), is another key person in the contemporary studio and glass art movement in China. According to the Ahead of the Curve brochure, Cheng feels it is vital to nurture young potters and has established a programme of year-long residences for graduates of the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute, enabling them to pursue their artistic goals without financial pressure.

This article first appeared in Personal Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 13 - 19, 2015.