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.

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'


  1. this is truly one of the most amusing blogs I have ever read. I fear for the safe return of all of our ceramicists. I'm sure Chinese prisons are not comfortable and hope hand gestures will be kept to a minimum in future.

  2. Wow you are making yearn for a return for china. It seems like your having an even a more surreal and strange time than I had. I can't wait to hear all about it when you get back.