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.

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.  


  1. Great writing Eleanor and good advice from your potter friend !
    The relief from the noise of the incessant rain and the first bisque intact is just wonderful. Finally got a good night's sleep, under two duvets and woke up warm as toast to hear the flautist passing nearby.
    I've never been to this part of the world before and am facinated by the contrasts in every walk of life here. Apart from our responses in clay ,Andrews images and your way with words are capturing an atmosphere I will always treasure.
    Looking forward to cycling the wall in Xi'AN this Sunday .

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Very evocative writing Eleanor. I feel like I'm there among the politics, hopes, mud, art and glitter. Well done _ Jasper

  4. As an outsider, the blogging provides great insights in the process you're all going through. Your observations are careful and measured. I think you all won't be able to judge the value of your blogging until well after you've got back. Great writing, really great! L x

  5. Excellent writing Eleanor - thanks for your blogs!

  6. as a non- potter, ceramicist or anything that messy (other than my enchiladas, which are to die for) I greatly appreciate the maelstrom of emotion that pre firing creates. I have noted it many times from friends and colleagues. the sulky droop of face and the non- answering of the telephone. Power cuts, kiln malfunctions or other catastrophes are too terrifying to contemplate.
    Those of us in textiles can lead a less earthy relationship with our materials if we want. I know similar wobbles; the shake of the hand as we reach for a pair of scissors to dismantle, finish or reevaluate a piece of cloth. When the thumb splits and the fingers start to bleed over the work, or the pinpricks on the finger start to scar a piece of silk are comparable moments of anguish. Just how will this work get finished if I really have got tennis elbow?
    I am told I am not pleasant to be around at this stage. My long suffering lodger has a sudden urge to visit her sister for a few days. Coincidence or in hiding from pre exhibition phsychosis.
    The creative journey can be so lonely and isolating. To be able to share such a wonderful experience happening to such a talented group of people, so far away is a great privilege.
    I'm sorry I came to the blog so late but am thoroughly enjoying it in retrospect! The one thing every practitioner values most is honesty. We may not take it well but its the only thing that helps us move forward.

  7. Eleanor, what a great job! Gripping entertainment this autumn ..your blog and Downton Abbey ; ) Hilary