Monday, December 12, 2011
Thursday, October 6, 2011
The Irish Museum of Ceramic Art has been officially opened!
The short version is that the ceramists have done Ireland proud. Their exhibition is creditable by any measure and, according to Dr I Chi Shu, among the best of the international collections. It is a job well done and – crucially – done in a spirit of friendship. The Irish group held together! This was not always a foregone conclusion. Pressures were intense, personalities various, and there were many occasions when individuals put their own opinions aside in the better interests of the group.
More on the exhibition to follow. It deserves more attention than I can give it in transit and the last week has been a whirlwind.
From everybody's point of view, the timing was tight. Some of the Irish were working until the very last minute. The final kiln was cracked a mere few hours before the opening. There were instances of plinths melting from the heat of recently fired work. A few hours before this, some of the ceramists were patiently waiting for the paint to dry so that they could hang their work. The Visitor Centre at Fuping was transformed into a creditable exhibition space – white walls, natural light, and a waterproof roof! But it was a rollercoaster ride.
The outside of the building was finished a week before the opening. We were cheered by the sight of our lovely new gallery. The ceramists had worked long and hard for this. The little arched bridge in front of the building was paved, the verges trimmed with gold paper, and the courtyard lined with flowers. The windows sparkled and, at the entrance to the compound, an inflatable triumphal arch was flanked by three red lanterns, each the size of a small car and fringed with gold. Proper recognition for Irish ceramics at last!
Alas, no. The decoration was nothing to do with the Irish effort. Fuping Ceramic Art Village is a three-star tourist attraction and hopes to gain a fourth star. In China, one knows about these things in advance and the red carpet was rolled out for the inspectors. The lettering on the triumphal arch – now deflated – translated as 'Do Not Use Fake Money'. And the red lanterns bounced off into the sunset, tied to the back of a tiny three-wheeled truck...
With ironic sighs, the ceramists went back to work. It rained. The gold paper around the hastily concocted flowerbeds began to sag. But just when it was all beginning to look a little sad, a large stage appeared, overnight, with a red banner announcing the launch of the Irish Museum of Ceramic Art. And the Visitor Centre became a museum.
Bells! Drums! Fireworks!
They know how to do a launch in China (none of us can hear properly).
So honour has been satisfied and there are planes to catch.
But this doesn't feel like an ending. I will be blogging long and hard before I have made sense of the Fuping experience.
Sunday, October 2, 2011
Saturday, October 1, 2011
Thursday, September 29, 2011
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Monday, September 26, 2011
Kiln anxiety is mounting. There are two kiln areas – one in Chinese control and the other under Irish jurisdiction. The Chinese kilns are expertly managed by Mr Maa, but on his terms and the room is locked at night. Also, Mr Maa has a brisk approach to temperature control and it was perceived that some of the Irish work needed more cautious treatment. Hence the Irish-managed kilns with tense, tired ceramists anxiously twiddling gas jets around the clock. Tempers are running high. There are a great number of chiefs and very few Indians.
I had originally planned to write this blog as a murder mystery. That idea was abandoned after the incident of the Twelve Angry Potters, when it seemed that I might be the obvious victim.1 But, what with sleep deprivation and battles for kiln control, the murder mystery idea has been revisted, this time by the ceramists themselves. There have been suggestions, muttered between gritted teeth, of potential victims and the ends that they might meet.
Despite these tensions, most of the work has emerged in good order. But the combination of unfamiliar materials and an unknown kiln is a risky one and, last night, one of the kilns over-fired. Some pieces collapsed, disintegrated, or cracked; others – intended as warm terracotta – are now muddy brown. A few hardy pieces survived with an attractive burnished finish but, in general, it was a sad moment.
To diffuse the stress we have made several trips to the massage parlour – not the one in the back of the hotel with the smiley ladies and the disturbing atmosphere – but less confusing establishments in town. The first experience was very direct: a seedy hotel room, four beds in a row, a few mosquitos, and pillowcases that had done long service since their last wash. Here, fully clothed, we underwent an effective but bruising massage, akin to being beaten up and without regard for Western sensiblities. Relaxation, for example, didn't come into it. One of the masseuses, who was very young, was continually amused by the television, which showed rowdy Chinese comedy throughout.
The following week, we went for a more upmarket massage. The hotel was posh – somewhere between disco and brothel in appearance – and the television showed an exceptionally violent drama with lots of blood, but the massage was excellent. Pain thresholds were given due regard. The masseuses were fascinated by how different we were to them – our messy hair, our blotchy skin, our stubbly legs – they couldn't get over it! Lots of photographs... Laura's masseuse was especially excitable and lay down on the bed on top of her to show the difference in size.
All would have been well if it hadn't been for our Chairman, who knows a few words of Chinese. Having exhausted the usual pleasantries, which included telling his masseuse that she was beautiful, he tried to explain that he was a potter. When language failed, he began to describe, with his hands, the curved form of a vase, followed by the rising motion of clay on the potter's wheel. His intentions were misunderstood. It was clear, even in Chinese, that she had seen his type before.
Possible headline for this incident: Retired Academic Disgraced in Chinese Massage Parlour with Former Student. Further suggestions welcome.
1See 'To blog or not to blog'
Saturday, September 24, 2011
Thursday, September 22, 2011
Last night, the graveyard shift. Firing is under way and the huge gas kiln needs tender attention throughout the night. The Irish take shifts in pairs, four hours at a stretch. Everything works but nothing is mechanised and the wiring is atrocious. Mr Wong the kiln hero electrocuted himself on a loose wire – we all know not to touch that one now. But night time in the workshop brings its own magic. One morning, around 4am when the cavernous space was at its chilliest, the ceramists on duty had a visit from a small disorientated factory worker. She was probably about eighteen, but looked much younger. Nobody knows where she came from. She sidled up to them for warmth and sat silently, half asleep and shivering with cold, her hands wrapped around a paper cup of tea. Later, just before dawn, Sara and Tina played a game of badminton to keep warm. The little factory worker perked up and had a go.
The next morning the vigil was broken by the arrival of a small disorientated owl.
Beyond the workshop, the factory operates through the night, without much more than an electric bulb over the area where people work. Hot tiles rattle down the conveyor belt into a crowded space where women grab and pack, grab and pack. Tiles are pressed from dust that spills into the pockets of a belt rising, like an escalator, over the heads of the workers. The air is thick with silica dust. A solitary worker shovels coal into the tunnel kiln's insatiable fiery guts. The scene is part Dickensian, part post-apocalytic action movie. Where is the muscled hero, clothes in tatters and slung with machine guns?
Through the grog window, the dawn is breaking. This is the window – approached by an unstable pile of bricks, through which the women fetch grog to roughen the clay. Out here, as the coal smoke billows into the lightening sky, are the grog mountains – grit and the raw ingredients of clay. And here are the sheds where clay is made – ramshackle buildings where ball-mills the size of cement mixers grind stone to dust in a monstrous row. Vats, swimming-pool scale, mix liquid clay like batter throughout the night.
And as we wandered (unauthorised, unsupervised) through a Chinese factory at dawn, the workers greeted us – Laura and I – with shy and friendly smiles.