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?