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.
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Monday, September 19, 2011
Sunday, September 18, 2011
Saturday, September 17, 2011
Thursday, September 15, 2011
The big gas kiln in the studio was packed and lit for the first time this morning (it has since gone out). First the gas was switched on. The workshop manager climbed into the kiln and gave it a good sniff to make sure that it was working. He then lit a match and applied it to a hole in the kiln – and up it fired like a blow torch! This bisque firing is a turning point for the Irish group who have worked hard to have pieces ready for this. And it was only after much negotiation that they could arrange a slow firing. Just as the clay and working conditions are different in China, so too are firing methods. Health and safety concerns are also different. Lead glazes, for example, are cheerfully slopped around in buckets by gloveless workers. We may all return toothless.
For the ceramists, the timing is tight. The Fuping residency is unusual in that it requires a body of museum quality work to be made from start to finish, within a month. Given that the final two weeks must be devoted to drying and firing, this only allows a fortnight for making. There is precious little time to germinate ideas, and this is in contrast to most residencies, which allow time and space for creative development. Some of the makers are frustrated that China awaits – ancient, inspiring, and just a stone's throw away – when so much time is spent within the studio walls. The chance to explore a country so rich in ceramic history that it's actually called 'china' must, at least partly, be sacrificed to fulfill a brief.
But what the residency does offer is the chance to push work in new directions. Sometimes this happens by necessity – when foreign clay does not behave as expected alternative approaches must be found. If fine detail is hard to achieve, work can be made to a larger scale. Some makers find themselves handbuilding where they have been accustomed to throw, or learning to press-mould because slipcasting is unavailable. For others, and especially those in teaching jobs, the chance to devote a month to their own practice is particularly precious. Working in close quarters in an open-plan studio space also offers opportunities for the exchange of ideas. As people's work takes directions that they hadn't quite predicted, a small bit of advice, or even watching someone else work, can make a task much easier. This is the sort of interaction not usually available to practitioners working in their solitary studios.
In the last half hour we heard that the kiln is now firing again. Fingers crossed!