Claire Blakey, The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent
The initial inspiration for Ahead of the Curve came from a museums networking visit to China I attended in 2009, organised by the British Council's Connections Through Culture programme. The visit, which incorporated the cities of Beijing, Xi'an, Guangzhou and Hangzhou, provided an insight into the rapidly developing Chinese museum sector. It led to a grant application to the British Council to visit the ceramic city of Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, as well as the contemporary Chinese art centres of Beijing and Shanghai. The research visit took place in 2010 with Kate Newnham from Bristol Museum & Art Gallery accompanying me. Both Bristol Museum & Art Gallery and The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent have important collections of Chinese ceramics and Bristol has a unique collection of Chinese glass. The Wilson, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum has an interesting Chinese collection with an unusual group of jars made in China for the Indian market. We were keen to get an insight into contemporary ceramics and glass production in China and to look at ways to highlight and complement the historical Chinese collections in our museums.
The visit to Jingdezhen opened our eyes to this ceramic city which has been producing porcelain for over a thousand years. We were able to visit factories and workshops to get a glimpse of current ceramic production. These manufacturers included those making pieces inspired by historical ceramics, such as the Jiayang Porcelain Company, as well as more contemporary production, such as the ranges produced by design company Spin Ceramics.
It was also fascinating to see how the landscape reflected the industry and how Jingdezhen's lifeblood was clearly reflected in her streetscape. During this visit, we saw little evidence of studio potters working in the city. We knew that some of the many graduates of the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute (JCI), as well as MA ceramic courses at Tsinghua University in Beijing and the Fine Art College at Shanghai University, must go on to work in the sector. Visits to all of three of these institutions, but especially to the JCI, impressed upon us the sheer number of students involved. The JCI has two campuses with the original campus hosting the 1,700 students of ceramics out of a total student body of 17,000 (figures accurate in 2010). The schools of art ceramics and industrial ceramic research are the most important of their kind in the country.
Thanks to a Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant from the Art Fund Kate and I were able to return to Jingdezhen to explore this part of the industry. On this occasion we were also joined by Helen Brown, then Collections Manager at Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum (The Wilson), now Curator of Applied Art at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. Suggestions from colleagues at the Victoria & Albert Museum (in particular Anna Wu and Luisa Mengoni, whom we deeply thank) meant that we were able to meet a wide network of studio potters. Some were well-established, teaching at the JCI or at another of the major universities, but the majority were at the beginning of their careers. They welcomed us into their workshops and it was fascinating to see the wide variety of work being produced. Thanks to the support and advice of Lynn Fu from the British Council, Shanghai we met journalist Jessie Gu who had recently written a magazine special on Jingdezhen for Grand Design magazine (no.3, January 2012). This meeting led to even more contacts and ideas. We were also fortunate to be able to meet Felicity Aylieff and Takeshi Yasuda, both of whom have studios in the city.
The Pottery Workshop, a centre for ceramics education and art communication, was established in Hong Kong in 1985. It has since opened branches in Beijing, Shanghai and Jingdezhen, where it occupies the old Sculpture Factory, formerly a state-run factory producing rubber glove moulds and figures of Chairman Mao. Jingdezhen, its largest branch, has welcomed ceramic artists from across the world to its residency programme since 2005. The Sculpture Factory complex also houses studios, a gallery, a shop, a café and facilities for potters including a public gas kiln, slip caster, mould maker and a kiln for lower-temperature firing. On Saturday mornings there is a Creative Market where budding ceramicists sell their own, carefully vetted, work.
Caroline Cheng, whose work is in the collections of the British Museum and the Fitzwilliam Museum, is the Pottery Workshop's Director. She feels it is vital to nurture young potters and has established a programme of year-long residencies for graduates of the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute, enabling them to pursue their artistic goals without financial pressure.
Whilst in Jingdezhen we met two graduates of the residencies whose work had developed during this programme. Both of these potters, Wang Xiao and Yao Yiliang, feature in this exhibition.
The visit enabled us to draw up a long list of potters and glass makers to include in the exhibition. We selected the artists, rather than specific work. Perhaps most importantly, the visit also allowed us to meet in person our colleagues at twocities gallery in Shanghai, who are our partners in China for this exhibition.
Shannon Guo is a ceramics specialist who also heads the jewellery and metals studio at Shanghai University's Fine Arts College. She established twocities to support good local artists producing contemporary ceramics, glass, wood and metal, and to show that there are other contemporary art forms besides Chinese painting. The gallery is situated on Shaoxing Lu, a charming street in the heart of the French Concession and a former publishing centre. The gallery's name comes from the intention to create a 'good' city through arts and events which champion "...beauty, commitment, thoughtfulness and community." The exhibition would not have been possible without twocities' support and expertise.
The prime motivator of our interest in contemporary glass art was Bristol's collection of some 300 pieces of Chinese glass from the H R Burrows Abbey bequest given through the Art Fund in 1950, which is recognised as the best of its kind outside Asia. The collection dates mainly to the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and includes vases, dishes, snuff bottles and items for the scholar's desk. Although glass has been made in China for thousands of years, the use of glass for individual, sculptural art is a more recent phenomenon. In 2010 we were able to visit the key studio glass courses in Chinese universities, both established in the year 2000: those at the Fine Arts College, Shanghai University set up by Professor Zhuang Xiaowei and those at the Academy of Arts & Design, Tsinghua University, Beijing, set up by Associate Professor Guan Donghai. Both Professor Zhuang and Professor Guan trained in glass-making at the University of Wolverhampton, UK, whose staff members Professor Keith Cummings, Andrew Brewerton and Stuart Garfoot had taught and formed excellent links with a number of Chinese glass artists.
Since 2000 Professor Zhuang and Associate Professor Guan's students in China have gone on to set up glass courses at some twenty Chinese universities and the studio glass movement in China is gathering momentum. On our visit in 2010 we were able to visit the glass studios at Shanghai University and Tsinghua University, meet the course leaders, students and alumni and see their work. This was followed by further meetings in 2012 and 2013. At Shanghai and Tsinghua Universities the teaching focussed on kiln-formed glass which is the main technique used by the glass artists featured in the exhibition.
Ahead of the Curve: new china from China is the fruit of our visits to China and the partnership between our three UK museums and twocities gallery, Shanghai.
Our aim has been to create an exhibition which gives an insight into the wide variety of work currently being produced in China. In selecting artists at different stages of their careers, we hope to give an idea of the burgeoning studio pottery and glass scene. Powerful historical traditions have collided with new opportunities for individual expression and this is played out in the works created. Influences such as training and geographical location are also apparent. It presents a survey of the work of twenty ceramic and glass artists working at the forefront of their fields. It is naturally diverse and eclectic, reflecting the different interests, styles and techniques of the individual artists. The exhibition has been developed with the help of the many people listed below who were generous with their time, advice and introductions. We hope that the exhibition will encourage visitors to see Chinese ceramics and glass in a new light and that it may lead to further fruitful projects with Chinese artists and partners in the future.
We would like to thank Arts Council England for generously funding this touring exhibition through Grants for the Arts with special thanks to Andrew Proctor for his encouragement. We would also like to thank our respective institutions, for giving us the opportunity to work on this exciting project.
Our combined thanks to the following, without whom the project would not have been possible:
The Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grants programme, The Art Fund
Connections Through Culture, British Council
Dana Andrew, Felicity Aylieff, Antoaneta Becker, Charlie Booth, Andrew Brewerton, Teresa Canepa, Professor Cao Jianwen, Tao-Tao Chang, Chen Guanghui, Chen Zhou Mei Zi (Angela), Caroline Cheng, Cheng Hongxia (Iris), Jason Cleverly, Professor Keith Cummings, Joanna Espiner, Catherine Fehily, Mandy Fung, Associate Professor Guan Donghai, Tony Fairfield, Malcolm Ferris, Hugh Francis, Dianne Francombe, Dr. Juliette Fritsch, Jane Gong, Jessie Gu, Brian Guo, Associate Professor Shannon Guo, Sam Hallett, Han Xi, Han Yun Chiao, Dr. Sharon Harper, Keith Harrison, Jessica Harrison-Hall, Chelsea Horvath, Huang Chunmao, Huang Yunpeng, Tristram Hunt M.P., Anna Jackson, Jiang Yanze, Kang Qing, Eric Kao, Rose Kerr, Kong Mingzhe (Zeppelin), Michel Lee, Vanessa Lee Taub, Li Jianshen (Jackson), Liu Changbing, Linda Lloyd-Jones, Lucy Lu, David Luo, Dr. Kevin McLoughlin, Karen MacDonald, Dawn Mason, Dr. Luisa Mengoni, Ingrid Murphy, Ouyang Xiaosheng, Lyn Palmer, Matthew Partington, Dr. Stacey Pierson, Peng Zanbin, Graham Rudd, Shao Chanzong (Kong), Wan Liya, Wang Ping, Wang Qin, Wang Xiao, Tony Watts, Jane Weeks, Chris Williams, Imogen Winter, Anna Wu, Wu Hao, Xin Yaoyao, Xiong Baixu, Xu Hongbo, Tonny Xu and Santaoxuan factory, Xue Lv (Shelly), Yao Jiliang, Takeshi Yasuda, Joy Yin, Yu Caiyun, Zhang Hongxing, Zhang Jingjing, Professor Zhuang Xiaowei, Zhao Lantao, Jay Zhou, Zhou Yang