In September 2011, a group of Irish ceramic artists will travel to the Chinese town of Fuping, Shaanxi, to make the foundation collection for the newly built Irish Pavilion at the Fule International Ceramic Art Museum. The Irish Pavilion will showcase the best of the new wave of ceramic art emerging from Ireland, marrying the ancient techniques of the East to our own cultural traditions. It is a permanent exhibition space created to house the work of those ceramic artists whose subtlety, skill and vision captures the spirit of contemporary Ireland. Eleanor Flegg, writer, and Andrew Standen Raz, film maker and photographer, will travel with the group to document the residency. The Irish Pavilion opens on the 4th October 2011.
The blog is written by Eleanor Flegg, whose opinions may not necessarily reflect those of the group.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Kathleen as Cinderella

The wheel - 100 years old and belonging to a horse-drawn cart - is shortly be used to anchor a flock of hummingbirds.

Sara and sewing kit

Sara wraps the iron handle of a salvaged door in traditional Chinese red as part of an installation piece

Tina, in studio

The rare sight of Tina taking a break

Frances, with sagar

The sagar is a traditional Chinese firing tool. The work is fired inside the sagar which protects it. The sagar can also be filled with sawdust and sealed to blacken the surface of the clay. What came out? Watch this space...

Alex in studio

Some of Alex's work is inspired by the forms of traditional Chinese furniture

The yellow brick road

Mr Dufeng, the owner of the factory, has come back from his holiday. He is our cordial sponsor – we're supping at his table – and tomorrow he plans to take us to the archaeological site. This project – the historic kiln, the ancient shards, the forthcoming museum – is where his heart lies. The contemporary museum project, of which we are part, has the air of a former favourite toy. Mr Dufeng hopes that his discovery may be the missing link in Chinese ceramic history: the long lost, thousand-year-old Dingzhou kiln. The problem is, he wrote in a recent article, that 'because of the existing system, our archaeologists working on ceramics have not been able to exchange freely and therefore could not be verified by practice and the conclusions obtained have been totally inconsistent with the history, even to the point of being regarded as a laughing matter.'1 But if the kiln is what he hopes it is, it could 'lead to rewriting the ceramic history of China'.
Mr Dufeng is very rich, very successful, and of a generation that would have known China in the 1960s. I have big unspoken questions about this, but also smaller ones. Does he own the Patriotism Education Centre? Did he build the lovely park that surrounds it? And the people whose houses were knocked down to make way for the park – were they properly compensated? But I won't ask him. Our translators – bright, sweet girls – are already a little frightened of the boss. They, and their families, live locally. What if someone came to harm, even in a small way, as a result of the (ultimately selfish) desire for a good story?
All Fuping – not only our sponsor – is strategically awaiting the next president of China. Fuping, described as a village, has a population of 800,000 and the atmosphere of a one-street town in the Irish midlands; it is growing at a rate that makes the Irish property boom seem sluggish. A new railway is being carved through the farmland on the outskirts of the town, the earthworks forming a raised road that the locals use as a promenade (Chinese people seem able to enjoy themselves almost anywhere). Escaped from the compound, and out on an explore, we followed this walkway until it ended in a perilously constructed bridge and, from here, climbed a road of crumbling yellow brick to a much older part of town.
I'm wary of romanticising poverty, but the quiet network of streets with their small adobe-brick houses felt as though we had slipped back in time. There was magic in every corner - old wooden gates reinforced with iron banding, tiled roofs flung up at the edges like a skirt in the wind, millstones set among the bricks in the road. We caught glimpses through doorways into shady courtyards where piles of yellow corn-cobs were laid out to dry. We heard singing and wandered towards the music until we found a little cluster of musicians and singers practising throaty, scratchy, operatic songs. Stools were offered, and friendly greetings. 
On the way home we were beckoned down an alleyway and invited into a little courtyard under a pomegranate tree. Old stone carvings: weathered lions, feathered dogs. Our host, learning of our interest in ceramics, brought us in to see his collection of shards and a few intact pieces: a Qing Dynasty vase in pride of place beside the Mao portrait. Aside from this, not much in the way of possessions. Tethered goats, aching to be milked and small, well-tended dogs barking from a safe distance.
If you brought a little Chinese dog home with you, Alex asked, do you think that it would settle in?
It would have been so easy to miss this. Our hosts discourage us from exploring and none of the previous residents mentioned that there was, within walking distance, a wonderland of deserted pagodas, cave dwellings carved out of the mud cliffs, and a whole street devoted to the construction of coffins. There is no earthy reason that any Western traveller would come to Fuping, lodged, as it is, up the exhaust pipe of Chinese industry. If you came here by accident you would leave, straight away. There is nothing here. But there is also everything. And in a few years it will be gone – this magical doomed landscape on its plateau of mud. 
So I'm thinking about shards and ancient kilns and progress, and the value of the old in relation to the new. No answers here, but Fuping is a jewel.
1Dao Clayform, No.1, 2010, p87

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Footprints in clay

Sinead is making work  inspired by the informal dance classes on the streets in China. The patterns on the porcelain panels are taken from the soles of her new Chinese runners.

Street dancing in Fuping

Laura and I gave it a lash - comfortably at the back on the class and pretty much doing the opposite of everyone else. All very well until the class turned around and we were in the front...

Xi'an in the rain

It was Bladerunner weather

Sara on kiln duty

These are the two gas kilns at the back of the workspace - noisy monsters in a huge dusty room. Due to a shared wiring arrangement they can't both be run at the same time.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Ten Little Ceramists

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'


Made in China

The seeds of inspiration

Kate's piece is sprouting nicely

Fiddly little feckers

Kathleen on humming bird construction duty - this is going to look amazing!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Making Tang glazes

The glaze in process is used to mimic a distinctive tri-colour glaze used in Tang Dynasty ceramics (618-907AD). The main ingredient is red lead. This is a toxic, cumulative ingredient absorbed through the skin.

Tang glazes - before

Tang glazes, recently applied (Mandy's work)

Tang glazes - after

Tang glazes after firing (Mandy's work)

The factory by night

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Through the grog window

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.  

At the edge of the grog mountain

The beauty of industry

The factory by day

Press moulding roof tiles (1)

Press moulding roof tiles (2)

Mixing by hand

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

To blog or not to blog

The rain has stopped! The sun found a rare chink in Fuping's polluted pall and the first bisque firing has emerged intact. Spirits have risen. It was, one can now admit, a tough couple of days. Bad weather, inadequate clothing, cold showers, and concerns about work led to an atmosphere of anxious disgruntlement. The blog was identified as a source of unease. Might it offend our hosts? Alienate our funders? Jeopardise future residencies? And what if I wrote that the Irish work was crap?
Interesting questions here about the relationship of critical writing and ceramics. There is a general consensus that critical writing is a Good Thing and that ceramic art needs more of it, and it was certainly very brave of this particular bunch to invite a writer to join them on a month-long residency. But was it wise? Our situation in China is mildly ludicrous – the non-existent Irish Pavilion, the crumbling aspect of the museum complex, the uncertain future of the collections... The artists have a right to be disappointed – this is not what they were promised. But there is not much to be done about it and their reaction has been to make the best body of work that they can, under the circumstances. The question is – how should this be documented? A promotional approach might emphasise the wonderfulness of it all, thereby satisfying funding bodies and securing future residencies. But critical writing is not obliged to keep people happy – it aspires to tell it like it is.
From a writer's perspective, the residency is fraught with dilemmas. It takes place in a brick factory where women sift red lead glaze with their bare hands (among other shockers) but the interaction with the factory and the workers is also beautiful and inspiring. How many Westerners are ushered into the heart of Chinese industry? It is a privilege but a disquieting one. And what if the Irish work, or some of it, really was crap? Thankfully, it looks promising but it's still too soon to say. And, if it were otherwise, I doubt that I would have the courage to say so (I'm uncomfortable with this - kindness or weakness?). I do think that Irish ceramics might benefit from a critic who showed a little more backbone when it comes to aesthetic judgements, but I would prefer if it didn't have to be me.
In the midst of all this turmoil I spoke to a faraway ceramist of much experience. He said: never mess with a bunch of potters coming up to a firing. It's an emotional time. Everything will settle down once the work is fired.
The kilns, in the meantime, are under twenty-four hour vigil.  

Waiting for enlightenment

Mud into art - Tina

Skilful application of the hairdryer 

Mud into art - Sara

Working large

Mud into art - Sinead

Bending bricks with her bare hands

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Mud into art - Frances

Frances Lambe consults the map

Mud into art - Frances (2)

Irish roads in Chinese clay

Mud into art - Elaine

Elaine Riordan, wire mesh and clay 

Mud into art - Alex

Alex Scott works on press-moulded forms inspired by the ancient bronze bells of China

Cold rain and kiln heroes

I had thought, mistakenly as it turns out, that China was a hot country. A chill wind echoes through the studio while rain trickles into buckets placed strategically under leaks. The puddled approach to the building is negotiated via a series of bricks. A couple of those working on smaller pieces have brought them back to their hotel rooms so that they can work in bed and those still braving the studio are wearing summer clothes in multiple layerings and soggy trainers. It is possible to buy clothes in Fuping, they are cheap but small in size – only the skinniest of the Irish can squeeze into them and, in terms of shoe-shopping, we are all Cinderella's ugly sisters. Both men's and women's clothing range in style from fifties-hick to eighties-bling (frequently both these qualities are captured in a single garment). But, cold as it is, one artist after another has sacrificed fashion for comfort. 
And so today a motley looking crew loaded an equally ecletic selection of objects into the third kiln – a massive beast that, on our arrival, looked as though it hadn't been fired in years. But once the rubble had been moved it fired up nicely. The gas gushed, the air popped as it ignited, and the ponderous load was wheeled into place. Mr Wong, the kiln hero, took out his screwdriver and unwired the temperature gauge on the adjacent kiln to change over the wires (both kilns share a single power source). The temperature will rise slowly overnight while a rota of artists keep anxious vigil. Slowly does it! Drying conditions are not what they might have been, and there is more dampness in the clay than some might like. The mood is a volatile blend of optimism and fear (a piece that explodes in the kiln could take other people's work down with it; small cracks might lose the run of themselves...) But there is always the possibility that everything might be alright. If everyone can get a couple of pieces through this initial firing, the chances of a creditable collection are good.  

The path to the studio

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Curiouser and curiouser (part II)

The director of the Ceramic Art Village, Dr I-Chi Hsu (pronounced itchy shoo) travelled from Beijing to inspect the residency. Wearing the most glorious Chinese jacket lined with pea-green silk, he formally welcomed the artists. First we visited his studio, a leaky circular building evidently designed by the same architect as the museums. The lights weren't working and we inspected a collection of ceramic art cautiously by torchlight. Then, also by torchlight, to his apartment – an immense and stately room, smelling of damp. The walls were lined with contemporary ceramics which, judging from its qualities, had not been made on the premises. The room was very unusual. There was a majestic fourposter bed, with mosquito netting in lieu of curtains. I-Chi referred to it as an 'opium bed' and suggested that we might like some opium (he was joking, of course, but it was such a very strange evening...) Behind us, and after some adjustment, a grand piano played quite loudly without a piano-player. The keys moved of their own accord, as if depressed by ghostly fingers.
One end of the room was dominated by a glittering Buddhist shrine, the other by a wallhanging of traditional Chinese calligraphy. This was, I-Chi said, a poem by Chairman Mao. We were a little taken aback. Researching this afterwards it seems that Chairman Mao was a notable poet whose work is taken seriously in literary circles both in and beyond China. (But can one seperate poetry and politics? And can one, with a clear conscience, drink the wine of someone who venerates Mao's poetry? Drink it we did – we were gumming for a drop of red and the Great Wall shiraz was the first we'd seen in weeks.)
As we refreshed ourselves, I-Chi explained his plans for the museum. While some of the work by the Irish will be put on temporary display, prior to storage, the ceramists are also required to exhibit 20% of their work at a new gallery in Xi'an, owned by the Fuping consortium. The work will be for sale and the artists will receive 40% of proceeds. Of the remainder, 40% will go to the gallery and the remaining 20% to the Fuping Pottery Art Village where, possibly, it will help to pay for the new museum. Opinions among the artists are divided. Some think that would be great to sell some work, others feel that this was not what we signed up for. In either case there is little to be done about it.
The Irish artists were also asked to donate a decorated tile for a new project that Dr I-Chi is commencing in Beijing. He is building a temple for his wife, a devout Buddhist who lives in the US where she moves in the higher echelons of Buddhist circles. The temple adjoins a further studio complex where visiting ceramists may undertake residencies. It is a plan with good business potential. Many Western ceramists are interested in Buddhism and someone who with connections in America could tap into a ready market of makers interested in combining a residency with spiritual practice. But the mixture of religion and business is culturally difficult for the Irish makers to negotiate. They are being asked to donate to a religious project that neither they nor their host have any spiritual connection with (Dr I-Chi admits to no real interest in Buddhism – it is his wife's area). On the other hand it is only a tile, and it seems churlish to baulk at the few demands of our generous host. The difficulty is that, in accepting the residency, we have become fully complicit in an arrangement that we don't understand. And this, in fairness, was something that we realised from the get-go.

Bisque series 1 - ready to go

Bisque series 2 - the reassuring whiff of gas

Bisque series (3) Torching the kiln

Bisque series 4 - Closing the door


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!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Curiouser and curiouser

Our fortunes have become inexplicably entangled with those of the next president of China.
The factory-cum-museum complex (we have begun to call it 'the compound') adjoins the Patriotism Education Base of Shaanxi Province. This is centred on a massive stone-carved figure extravagantly adorned with flowers (step too close and the alarm goes off!). It is a shrine to Fuping's hero – a first-generation communist leader and the father of Xi Jinping, expected to ascend to the presidency in about two years. The transfer of power is mysterious but, apparently, one knows in advance. In short, China's next president is a local lad.
Meanwhile, back at the compound, a kiln site possibly dating from the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) has been unearthed. This may be a significant find, and the factory owner passionately hopes that it will cause Chinese ceramic history to be re-written. Experts have been summoned and, if all goes well, the find will be authentificated by the time that Xi Jinping comes to power. The existing museums and the hotel will be torn down to be replaced by a five star hotel and a much larger museum built to showcase the archeological find. In terms of empire building, it is a staggeringly ambitious project. The Pottery Art Village could not be better placed. The archeological find could not have been more timely.
How this will impact the Irish, currently struggling to turn mud into art, is uncertain. The idea of an Irish Pavilion of ceramic art in China always did seem a little too good to be true. The Irish work will be temporarily displayed in the Tourist Reception Centre (the one that offers Rescue and Salvation Services) and then probably put in storage until a suitable location is built. This is not altogether a Bad Thing. The existing museum buildings, dimly-lit and leaking, are unsuited to their purpose – a redesign is in order.
All of this begs the question – why are we here? Few previous artists, from any country, have been able to do themselves justice in Fuping. The work in the existing collections is made under time-pressure with unfamiliar materials. While the selection of artists is illustrious, only a handful of their pieces really communicate. The Irish will doubtless produce a display on a par with the international standard, but it must be admitted that the bar is relatively low.
With these in mind – the lack of a museum space, a body of work made under limiting circumstances – the residency becomes about something other than the work that it produces. Every one of us – the documentation team is no exception – has been forced to fundamentally examine the way that we work. To be challenged at this level is not comfortable, but it offers a tremendous opportunity to learn. In this the Irish group are very supportive of each other (techniques shared, obstacles overcome) and the grace and humour of the Chinese people that we work with is humbling.
But could we be making a terracotta army for a twenty-first century empire?