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, October 6, 2011

A museum at last

The Irish Museum of Ceramic Art has been officially opened!

The short version is that the ceramists have done Ireland proud. Their exhibition is creditable by any measure and, according to Dr I Chi Shu, among the best of the international collections. It is a job well done and – crucially – done in a spirit of friendship. The Irish group held together! This was not always a foregone conclusion. Pressures were intense, personalities various, and there were many occasions when individuals put their own opinions aside in the better interests of the group.

More on the exhibition to follow. It deserves more attention than I can give it in transit and the last week has been a whirlwind.

From everybody's point of view, the timing was tight. Some of the Irish were working until the very last minute. The final kiln was cracked a mere few hours before the opening. There were instances of plinths melting from the heat of recently fired work. A few hours before this, some of the ceramists were patiently waiting for the paint to dry so that they could hang their work. The Visitor Centre at Fuping was transformed into a creditable exhibition space – white walls, natural light, and a waterproof roof! But it was a rollercoaster ride.

The outside of the building was finished a week before the opening. We were cheered by the sight of our lovely new gallery. The ceramists had worked long and hard for this. The little arched bridge in front of the building was paved, the verges trimmed with gold paper, and the courtyard lined with flowers. The windows sparkled and, at the entrance to the compound, an inflatable triumphal arch was flanked by three red lanterns, each the size of a small car and fringed with gold. Proper recognition for Irish ceramics at last!

Alas, no. The decoration was nothing to do with the Irish effort. Fuping Ceramic Art Village is a three-star tourist attraction and hopes to gain a fourth star. In China, one knows about these things in advance and the red carpet was rolled out for the inspectors. The lettering on the triumphal arch – now deflated – translated as 'Do Not Use Fake Money'. And the red lanterns bounced off into the sunset, tied to the back of a tiny three-wheeled truck...

With ironic sighs, the ceramists went back to work. It rained. The gold paper around the hastily concocted flowerbeds began to sag. But just when it was all beginning to look a little sad, a large stage appeared, overnight, with a red banner announcing the launch of the Irish Museum of Ceramic Art. And the Visitor Centre became a museum.

Bells! Drums! Fireworks!

They know how to do a launch in China (none of us can hear properly).

So honour has been satisfied and there are planes to catch.

But this doesn't feel like an ending. I will be blogging long and hard before I have made sense of the Fuping experience.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Celadon in the museum

The reconstructed pots have white sections - this seems to be par for the course in China - all the Terracotta Warriors have been extensively rebuilt. But I'm glad that the little broken jug at the front hasn't been reconstructed. So delicately thrown and you can see what's going on inside.

Laura knew what this was for!

The little holes at either side of the base confirmed her suspicions but, just to be certain she checked with our translator. 
'Oh yes,' said Melody (age 24, wide-eyed), 'Do you not have such things in Ireland?'

Sgraffito (ancient)

This may be a historic example of the ubiquitous sgrafitto technique now copiously used. A few centuries underground have improved it no end.

Sgrafitto (modern)

The girls working at the Pottery Art Village scratch patterns through a layer of glaze down to the clay below - the resultant decorative black and white ware is EVERYWHERE in the complex. There's no escape from it.

Graceful ancient vase with dragons

This vase is part of the museum collection at Fuping

Dragon detail

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Behind the scenes at the museum

Yesterday we were taken to see our host's archaeological collection. This is where his famous shards are housed – the discovery that may cause Chinese ceramic history to be re-written. On purely aesthetic grounds it is a spectacular display of ancient ceramics, celadon glazed, and nicely presented in a small, well-lit, museum. The collection contains some truly beautiful pieces. The skill in their making is breathtaking, likewise the grace of their design. For some, this is enough: the work is definitely old and shows a technical proficiency that is difficult to match today.

But the historian in me is writhing. All the pieces, allegedly, came from a local kiln site discovered in 2008. On the basis of their appearance, Mr Dufeng (our host) has identified the shards as Tang Dynasty or earlier. However, they have not yet been accurately dated. Part of the problem is that Mr Dufeng and the Chinese archaeological establishment do not appear to be friends. As an amateur enthusiast with a clear commercial interest in putting Fuping on the archaeological tourist trail, Mr Dufeng is not highly regarded by Chinese scholars. But Mr Dufeng thinks that the establishment has a vested interest in discrediting his discovery. 'It is difficult,' he says, 'to change history. The experts do not want to admit it because they have written something in a book.'

Electro-carbon dating would clear the confusion up nicely; Mr Dufeng is aware of this and plans to buy the appropriate equipment from Europe. Financially this is a massive investment. But, even if the shards are as important as he imagines, there are still questions to be answered. The collection appears to be uncatalogued and the pieces are neither labelled nor numbered. They are stored according to theme: a box of little dragons, a box of tea-pot spouts. Many pieces have been hurriedly reconstructed by the workers in Mr Dufeng's own factory with scant regard for conservation principles. I can imagine archaeologists throwing up their hands in horror at the damage that has been done. Also, we saw no photographs of the shards in the ground, nor any record of their excavation. Unless Mr Dufeng has documented the excavation process, he may find it difficult to demonstrate the provenance of his collection.

After visiting the museum, Mr Dufeng took us to see the kiln site itself. We drove up a muddy track and through fields of corn. The entire site, he says, covers a 6 sq. km area. Most of it is under cultivation. We left the car and, pushing our way through the rustling corn, surprised an amateur archaeologist at work. Our driver let out a roar and leapt after him. The enthusiast fled through the muddy fields at speed, clutching his shovel.

Literally crunching ceramics shards underfoot, we came to a field of bare earth where fragments of translucent green celedon poked through the surface. Part of the area had been excavated with a JCB. The group scattered and, like beachcombers began to glean shards from the clay. Could we take them? Mr Dufeng nodded. He is a generous man. We left, our pockets rattling with fragments of ancient civilisation.

My own shards – so quickly did I vacate the moral high-ground – are in front of me as I write. I don't know what to do with them. I don't even know what they are. And I'm finding this difficult on several levels. I think that Mr Dufeng's interest in archeology is genuine. As his guest, I am complicit in his schemes, even without that small reproachful pile on my desk. But it seems wrong to see ancient and exquisite ceramics used as a tool for empire building. They deserve a more tender, more disinterested treatment.