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.