Ahead of the Curve: New China from China

Ahead of the Curve, the first exhibition of its kind in the UK, showcases the latest developments in studio ceramics and glass art from China.

The history of Chinese ceramics in particular has often involved the creating of figural sculptural forms, from ancient tomb figures to representations of the Goddess Guanyin. These range from life-size, such as the terracotta warriors, to small animal figures. Chinese studio potters share sculptors’ techniques with much of the work in the exhibition being modelled or cast (wheel thrown work is less common). Chinese studio glass uses similar techniques with most of the glass in Ahead of the Curve being kiln formed cast glass, the means of production leading to explorations of mass, form and transparency. Such concerns signal the cross-over between sculpture and ceramics. Here the boundaries are blurred and questions of the catagorisation of the works as either ‘ceramics’ or ‘sculpture’ are raised, particularly as artists today are regarded as ‘multi-disciplinary’.

This is a travelling exhibition, supported by public funding from Arts Council England,and is a partnership between three UK museums, which began its tour at The Wilson, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, has now transferred to Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and will close at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent. The three museums all have important Chinese ceramic collections, with Bristol also holding the most significant collection of Chinese glass outside China. The project was inspired by these collections and the possibilities of re-invigorating them by showing what was happening in contemporary ceramics and glass. A long-term aim, when funding allows, is to add work by contemporary makers to the collections. The exhibition would not have taken place without the help of our Chinese partner, twocities gallery, Shanghai, which with its curator Shannon Guo, has been a leading force in showing work by some of the key makers.

Ahead of the Curve began as a research project supported by funding from the British Council’s China-UK Connections through Culture programme and the Art Fund’s Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grants. In 2012 the three co-curators, Claire Blakey, Kate Newnham and myself visited Shanghai and Jingdezhen to investigate contemporary making. We all had an idea from previous visits that something exciting was going on.

There are several reasons for the new spirit in Chinese ceramics and glass. The decline in the traditional ceramic industry is significant. This was based in Jingdezhen which has been the centre of Chinese porcelain production for more than 1000 years and was where porcelain was made for the Emperors. In recent years there has been increasing competition from cheaper ceramics produced elsewhere in Asia forcing many of Jingdezhen’s factories to close. In the city is Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute which has historically trained ceramists for the industry. The Institute is beginning to change its focus, from training highly skilled potters for what was a conservative industry, to a training which encourages a more creative approach. Here and in other universities there are now more studio-based courses. Many of the tutors on these have led the way and some of their work can be seen in the exhibition.

Also important for contemporary ceramics and glass has been the growth of a consumer society in China which has led, especially in the last two or three years, to the development of small galleries and boutiques selling studio style ceramics and other crafts. There has also been a revival of interest in traditional tea making (including the opening of traditional tea houses and tea shops) which requires a range of ceramics to support it.

Another influence has undoubtedly been the success of contemporary Chinese artists. Some of the makers included in the exhibition, notably Xu Hongbo and Chen Guanghui, work in a way that is more closely allied to contemporary art practice. Here it is interesting to note that perhaps the most famous of the contemporary artists, Ai Weiwei, has often chosen to work with ceramics. In glass, most important has been the development of studio glass-making departments which have only recently emerged in Chinese universities. Here there is a very strong link with the UK and work in kiln glass pioneered by the University of Wolverhampton. A number of the Chinese practitioners have studied on the University’s MA course.

The exhibition is a survey show with one or two examples from each artist. The work is wide-ranging and draws on many different sources, but there are common themes. One of these is the use of traditional forms and particularly decoration. In ceramics traditional fencai, enamel, decoration has been an inspiration. This is sometimes a direct take from eighteenth-century famillle rosedecoration with birds, flowers and foliage, as in Wan Liya’s work, or uses stylised versions of traditional motifs, as on the figures made by Shao Changzong. Perhaps the strongest theme is the huge change taking place in Chinese society. Some of the work represents an elegy for a simpler, more grounded, way of living. Wang Ping who comes from Zhejiang province uses a distinctive green and black palette which refers back to the colours of his home town and its more traditional way of life. Huang Chunmao choses to work with vegetables and gourds, finding meaning in these everyday objects, and, as he puts it makes ‘a home for the heart’. 

Wan Liya makes precious the throw away and mass-produced in his finely decorated ceramic paper cups, detergent bottles and Tetra Pak containers. Others are inspired by ceramics themselves; Jiang Yanze takes as reference ceramic wasters making new structures from tablewares which have a life of their own, while Zhang Jingjing is inspired by the beauty in the misshapen rim of a Song tea bowl to create large sculptural pieces.

Traditional architecture and classical landscapes have inspired the glassmakers with Guan Donghai taking as his inspiration the city gate which he makes in glass which imitates jade and bronze. Wang Qin explores the qualities of immateriality and transparency to create minimalist glass boxes which contain the hint of a Chinese landscape.

There is a sense of struggle in some of the work and this becomes more apparent on reading what the artists have to say about it. The artists struggle with the burden of tradition; questioning what do they should take from the huge legacy of historic Chinese ceramics and how they should express themselves as makers in contemporary China. For the first generation of makers the response is often about their dialogue with a rapidly changing world. For the younger makers it is about finding their own form of personal expression. This is most apparent in the work of the two youngest makers, Wang Xiao and Yao Jiliang (main image), both of whom pursue very individual forms of self-expression. The dilemma is perhaps captured best in Shannon Guo’s introductory essay for the catalogue in which she refers to the makers being ‘at the crossroads’, and ‘as some artists describe it’ looking for the way to find ‘their way home’.

Main image: Shelly Xue, Angel is waiting 11, 2014, glass (photo: © Shelly Xue 

Ahead of the Curve:
The Wilson, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, 11 October – 30 November 2014
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery 13 December 2014 – 1 March 2015
The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent 14 March – 31 May 2015

Aurora Corio