* * * * * * * * MANIFESTO * * * * * * * *
My work explores and extends the creation of Chinese ceramics in which traditional skills continue to be used and integrated into contemporary artistic concepts aiming to expand into a wider context. Searching for resources from traditional culture and using them as a mirror to advance and to continue the current culture is an important element of contemporary Chinese ceramics.
I am passionate about traditional skills and interested in materials and forms. Contemporary ceramics offers a sufficient room for me to extend my intent. The interinfluence between eastern and western cultures is also the area I would like to explore further.
Artistic creation has long been restricted by rules and traditional views. In fact, in my point of view, there is difference between following tradition and with respecting tradition. In the field of ceramic art creation, to reinforce the traditional ceramics discourse through which to open up a new direction in development of ceramics is my aspiration .
In tradition, surface decoration in Chinese ceramics is always a very important part. The pureness and whiteness of the porcelain was often decorated densely whereas my work I kind of subvert the tradition while retaining it by using traditional composition and skills for decoration.
The advancement of civilization and technologies of the modern world benefit many of us, on the other hand contradiction and conflict have increasingly intensified. Seeking harmony is desired. Simplicity gives calmness through which to generate a moment of tranquillity. The organic form of the object and refined porcelain with an unglazed / partly glazed surface conveys a tactile quality as well as emphasizes the original nature of the material.
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After receiving the summer project, I took my time to go over my past experience aiming to pinpoint my future direction in ceramics especially for my third year graduation. Interestingly, the ceramics objects which triggered my interest regardless of western or eastern style are mostly very similar – well-balanced forms and shapes, which demand a high level of skills.
What type of artist and what kind of genre do I consider myself to be? This question would be hard for many experienced ceramicists or artists to answer and it is even harder for an inexperienced student like myself. Moving on to my third year I am still not very sure where I belong. In retrospect my previous experience, good skills, form and shape are my pursuit. I would position myself a formalist. I am also interested in objects that can stand alone have one meaning but will be take on a different meaning if they were placed together.
Through personal growth, I am eager to pursue my own culture and it is growing stronger within me. The study of ceramics leads me to reacquaint myself with my culture and I feel fortunate that the dissertation topic I found is related to both my subject and culture. During my final year a higher standard of graduation work is needed, plus the completion of my dissertation which is related to Chinese ceramics. In these circumstances, I applied for a residency at a pottery workshop in Jingdezhen this summer.
Artisans in Jingdezhen still insist on producing work by hand and also using traditional skills and techniques. A high level of skill and balance of form are extremely important in traditional ceramics art, everything has to be perfectly made. The porcelain work which is produced in Jingdezhen mainly tends to be conventional.
During my visit to Jingdezhen I had the opportunity to learn some of their traditional skills – throwing, carving, blue and white painting, underglaze and on-glaze painting. Those skills and techniques have been used by Jingdezhen’s ceramics artisans for hundred years. The experience of visiting Jingdezhen was fascinating. I was overwhelmed by their exquisite skills and techniques used in producing ceramics.
Either in the eastern or western culture, pottery represents tradition. People are still using the same traditional methods, pinch, slap, coiling, which were developed in ancient times to create pottery items and has an intimate relationship in our daily lives. The only difference is the life of human beings and civilizations have become far more advanced. The use of ceramics are not only limited to practical purposes but has also evolved to reflect people’s life style and personal taste, and sometimes even removed its practical value to purely aesthetic appreciation.
In fact, this phenomenon does not only exist in the modern time. Back in the 16th century when porcelain was exported to Europe from China, royals and houses of aristocracy regarded the value of Chinese porcelain the same as gold. It was always placed in cabinets, on pedestals or chambers where luxury items were held. Owning Chinese porcelain was for showing an individual’s wealth and distinguished status in society.
There is no doubt that the trip to Jingdezhen had broadened my horizons. But I felt strange that was no matter where I had been, in the streets, shops, art galleries or even roadside stalls in Jingdezhen people were selling and manufacturing similar products. In terms of designs they have not much differed from hundreds ago. A question has been raised that is whether Chinese ceramics can only live in its glorious past?
Admittedly, to sustain the legacy which has passed down from predecessors is important to make it a requirement that Chinese ceramics keep pace with the modern world as well as push its boundaries even further.
Chinese art has a certain contradiction with western modern art. Chinese traditional art is skill-oriented and heritage is essential while western art meaning is the most valued.
“‘Art’ (literally, ‘the skill of beauty’)”, Lu Peng, 1967.
“….to reject of the previous stage of art by a new art movement by which to reflect a new value of the work” (translated by author), Xu Bing, 1955.
How can they coexist and balance both these valuable elements?
The conceptual differences of the eastern and western arts exist to some extent in contradiction and I did not know how to deal with this disagreement. I then involuntarily drew this sketch. To express the tension between these cultural difference in terms of art’s expression while illustrating my feeling at that moment.
In order to continue my idea, I began to study some other artists who have the same cultural background or the same creative ideas like mine.
Ai WeiWei “Sunflower Seeds”, 2010
Millions of porcelain seeds were made by experienced craftsmen using traditional skills and techniques out of ceramics in Jingdezhen. Every single seed was made and decorated by hand. The use of materials and techniques, the making process and the place of production gathered multi layers of meanings. The work has a very strong sense of tradition and deeply reflects the artist’s cultural background. This work fully conforms to the western conceptual art but without losing the artist’s cultural identity.
The artist Ah Xian was born in Beijing, China. He was once a rebel generation artist in his time in China but he then moved to Australia since the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1986. The works shown in these photos include “China China”, 1999, Metaphysica, 2007 and “Concrete Forrest”, 2009.
Xian employs the contemporary use of ancient mediums including blue and white painting, lacquer and cloisonné, bronze casting as well as symbolic metaphysical objects in his work. His art is the intertwining of his traditional and cultural heritage with the influences of western art.
“China China”, 1999,
This series of work was produced and finished in Jingdezhen with sponsorship of the Australia Council. These hyper realistic porcelain busts were first live casted, which is a technique from the west and had never been used in traditional art making in Chinese. Then eventually hand painted with typical blue and white patterns by skilful painters in Jingdezhen. It is unclear whether the artist deliberately covered the busts’ eyes and mouths with the iconic patterns or landscape scenery which are very often used in Chinese conventional porcelain works. The paintings like tattoos embedded into the busts signify the cultural root of the artist that is difficult to be removed. In addition, after glazing, the busts were completely covered by the glaze which enhanced the feeling of suppression as if the figures cannot articulate themselves.
The painting on the busts is usually used to demonstrate harmony and peacefulness in conventional Chinese painting. These bizarre strikingly beautiful busts are completely subverted this tradition. In contrast the works deliver a quality of fear, distress and anxiety.
- The part of philosophy that is concerned with trying to understand and described the nature of truth, life, and reality. (online Longman Dictionary)
- The part of philosophy that involves the study of ideas about life, existence, and other things that are not part of the physical world. (online Macmillan Dictionary)
In this series of work, live casted busts are still retained as a main subject matter but the use of material has been changed from porcelain to bronze which was once regarded as having higher value than ceramics during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1100BC). Metaphysical objects are assembled on the busts’ heads. Those objects symbolize a particular meaning in Chinese metaphysics. Forgive my limited knowledge of metaphysics as I can only base this on my personal understanding of my tradition to analyse and speculate the meaning of some of the objects which are used in this series.
Red Fish 2007
The red fish (koi carp), in Chinese culture red is associated with fire. It symbolizes good luck and energy. Red is very often seen at celebratory events such as weddings and birthdays. The koi carp represents good fortune, success and prosperity.
Crane on tortoise 2007
In Chinese mythology both the crane and tortoise symbolize immortality and longevity.
Pagoda is one of the classic buildings in ancient China. It usually relates to religion, Buddhism or Feng Shui.
Bizarre is the first impression of this series of work. Comparing with the China China, the facial expression of this series of busts show more relax. Though the placement of those auspicious objects suggest some sort of pressure on it. It is probably another way used by the artist to express his feeling towards his tradition.
“Concrete Forrest”, 2009
Faig Ahmed is a fine art based artist from Azerbaijan. The artist engages with his tradition by using traditional rugs as his media. The artist deconstructs and reassembles the traditional patterns used on rugs to create a virtual space, or to create a transition of the patterns from a still / inert stage to melting down and flowing onto the floor. It is believed that CAD software is used to achieve the designs and are hand knitted afterwards. In some of his works the rugs have been removed from their functional purpose into a sculptural form. Traditional patterns have been distorted to a strong sense of motion which echo to the movement of the whole piece of art work. His works involve with technology and a traditional approach that give a new perspective to a conventional design.
Designer : Wang Shu and Lu Wen Yu
Materials which are representative on traditional Chinese architecture were used in a contemporary context. It’s worth noting some of the material used by the designer is salvaged materials.
Tension and pressure were my initial emotion towards my ideal. At the end, I found that too much concern about the use of “skill” led to certain degree of restriction. So, I started to manipulate the shape without forethought or not care too much about the initial intention as the same time to see my respond to the material. I gradually found that the simple shape and pure whiteness of the material gave me a sense of calmness.
The choice of this form is probably subconsciously reflected in my experience which I have in my research where I came across many ceramic pieces in ancient China in which yu-hu-chun vase is my preference. The shape of these vases have been one of the typical shapes in Chinese ceramics since the Song Dynasty. The elegance and well-proportioned pear-shaped curve gradually narrows down to its slender neck. The body is covered with jade-liked sage green celadon glaze. The whole piece of work deliver a feeling of serenity and calm to the audiences. Blending the eastern element into my work essentially related to ceramics is my objective. In the tutorial with Claire it was suggested that cobalt could be used to express the meaning. As blue and white is one of the classic types in Chinese ceramics history as well as being known internationally.
In traditional Chinese ceramics glazes and various surface decoration are used to cover the entire piece of work. The attention appears to be diverted to the decoration rather than to appreciate the piece as a whole. Furthermore, I would like to retain the pure simple form of the object as I found that this is the most important element of it. Its nice curve, smoothness and whiteness convey a tactile quality and calmness. Considering my intention to show the form of the piece, minimize surface decoration may be necessary. I sketched out some ideas (see next part of writing) to decorate the objects and carry out some glaze tests.
Even though I have not yet decided what kind of decoration I will use on my work, I keep practicing the craft technologies I learnt from Jingdezhen when I have time. In blue and white painting, the pigment uses for blue and white painting is cobalt, as many people know. The oxide is a strong colorant and the colour shows stability even in high firing. I also carried out a test of different types of cobalt which I brought back from Jingdezhen in order to find out the colours they would produce as well as getting to know how to use them in my work, as necessary. Instead of traditional Chinese patterns, I put in a contemporary content by using a traditional process. It is a completely different experience of painting on a flat surface and a round surface. The latter is not easy to control the brush stroke lay evenly on the surface whereas the experience of the previous one is closer to painting on paper.
There are three elements I would like to integrate into my work
- To show the pure form of the objects and whiteness of the porcelain
- A sense of the Orient in particular related to ceramics
- Use of traditional skills
In Claire’s tutorial, she suggested that I can use cobalt to show a sense of cultural identity or Chinese ceramics that I think was a good idea. Based on her suggestion I made a sketch to estimate the general effect of the pieces. Later, in a tutorial with Pete who reminded me that cobalt could be used by other cultures and that I should aware of this. His advice drove me to develop another idea. However, I still reckon the meaning it may not strong enough to demonstration the pieces with a sense of contemporary and establishment of a new visual language on traditional basis.
After firing the vessel at 1280°C, it shrank about 13-15% from its original size. This greatly reduced its aesthetic value. In this regard, I needed to make another mold and scale the vessel up by about 15%. On the advice of Caroline, the vessel was precisely calculated and measured in sections in order to enlarge the shape without losing its original ratio.
Following the ratio which we measured on the sketch book, I marked lines on the plaster chunk then gradually turned away the excess plaster from the chunk section by section. I made a mistake when I was making this plaster chunk. I miscalculated the measurement of the plaster. It led to the plaster chunk being too wet to turn which was about 20mm from its surface. Looking for the right dryness for turning. I needed to increase the turning process from just one day to three days.
The time spent on refining the shape was no less than the turning processes. As seen from the second photo below, the plaster left at the bottom needed to be removed at the same time without disturbing the curve line of the vessel.
Finally, the enlarged plaster core had been made and ready for making a mold for slip casting. I was quite happy with the overall outcome, even though it could have been more perfect if the neck was slightly longer.
Considering that the pure form and whiteness of the object are very important elements which I do not want to disturb too much, I took the advice of Mr. Andrew Livingstone to carry out experiment on decorating the stand on which an object will be placed. The purpose of decorating the stand is not only for aesthetic value but also to give direction to the audience to reflect their thought back at the object.
The idea of this intention was derived from my observation of people who reacted to the object while I placed it in my work space. The object has been sanded 4-6 times by using sandpaper of various grit in order to deliver a skin-smooth-liked texture. This smooth texture, the curvy fullness form and the whiteness of the object convey a tactile quality which attracted people’s attention. Curiosity and imagination were also stimulated at the same time. They started to question what this object is for and how the object would be used or decorated. The object is just like a blank canvas inviting people to put in their interpretation.
In this glaze test I used different cobalt through which I would like to achieve an effect which is similar to Chinese ink painting to create my blue and white decoration on the object.
Aiming to avoid too much shrinkage to the object I tried to lower the firing temperature and at the same time to test some new clear glazes to see how they would react with the cobalt. The glaze test and the result of shrinkage were within my expectations but a new problem arose which was the clay body. The porcelain did not turn white instead it was a dull greyish colour. Although the colour of porcelain will differ depending on its production area, the whole design was completely ruined by this greyish colour.
After discussing and consulting the problems with TDs, Anne Gibbs, Claire and fellow students I carried out tests of different clay bodies and firing temperatures hoping to address the issue.
Trying to address the problem of whiteness I invested money in buying a bucket of bone china slip for experiments.
This is the first time I have used bone china slip. I was told beforehand that the material had a higher percentage of warping and shrinking during the firing but it will give a whiter tone.
The pictures below show the objects made out of different combination of porcelain and bone china slip. In the first picture, the object on the right is casted from porcelain slip, the one on the left is casted from bone china and the second picture is a different proportion of the materials. After they were bone dry, the rate of shrinkage can obviously be seen.
I did another clay body test which I hoped to get a whiter clay body but it turned the object into shards. The experiment was to layer up the bone china and porcelain slip. As the bone china tends to warp, so I slip casted a layer of bone china on top of the porcelain. At the same time, I ran some runny and stiff glaze tests that I hoped would make these two glazes partly blend together.
The glazes did not come out with the effect I expected whereas the clay came out very white which I had been trying to achieve. I believed the accident was related to either the shrinkage rate differences to the clay bodies during cooling or the temperature rising too fast in the kiln. The air trapped inside the object was forced to come out but the air hole may have been blocked by the stand where the object was placed and caused it to explode in the kiln.
But what I found may cause the clay to change to a greyish colour was the sand paper I used. Shown in the pictures below are slip casted objects using the same kind of porcelain slip but in picture [Fig.2] the one on the right was sanded before firing and the other was not.
Indeed, the bone china gave the ideal whiteness which I had been expecting. But the percentage of shrinkage is much higher than the porcelain. In addition, I have not started to test this clay body at different firing temperatures in terms of finding out about the issue of warping. Due to the time limitation, as well as spending too much time on testing the clay body this has led to me falling behind schedule. So, I took the comprise of lowering the firing temperature so that means my porcelain has not reached the stage of vitrification. Nonetheless, the porcelain will not be vitrified but I am very satisfied with the texture given by the material. I think if the porcelain had reached the stage of vitrification it will give a slight shininess that will reduce the tactile quality and our perception of the object.
Since I have lowered the firing temperature to get a whiter tone to the object, the glazes I used are no longer suitable for the work. Another series of glazes to test were commenced.
Unlike the previous tests, some of the cobalt did not show its blue due to the firing temperature not being high enough. There were only two types of cobalt which showed the blue colour at a lower firing temperature and the clay body showed cream white.
Following this test, I used the two cobalt to continue the firing test. I adjusted the firing temperature even lower in the hope that I got a whiter tone. In this test I got the whiteness but lost the cobalt blue .
Memories are like fragments, they are incomplete but subconsciously exist. Every now and then they will be sparked.
The illustration I am going to use is related to my personal memories as well as these three years of studying which has led me to the present approach. Although my techniques in drawing are still immature, I enjoy the process very much.
The illustration I drew on the objects was adopted from a technique called kai-guang, one of the popular techniques used by artisans in Jingdezhen. From the mid-late period of the Ming Dynasty, maritime trade was getting active and around the 16th to 17th century Chinese porcelain started being greatly transported to Europe. New designs of vessels had a greater extent of increasingly suiting the taste of foreign customers. It was adopted in many wares and especially used on plates. The technique is to draw outlines or patterns to create a border of small frames surrounding the main motifs or subject characters then paint within the frames with supplemental patterns. These sort of wares were largely exported to European countries.
My illustration adopted this method but it has a twist. In the traditional technique of kai-guang the frames are arranged symmetrically around the main motifs whereas in my drawing the frames were allocated in various positions and according to the curve of the objects the frames became elongated. The frames were no longer there as an auxiliary purpose, they became part of the narrative.
Since the object will be covered by paint, to avoid the image being smudged during the painting process, I divided the painting process into two parts. First, I drew with the motif profiles on the bisque fired objects by using cobalt then fired the objects at bisque temperature again. After the objects were fired the cobalt oxide was fixed on the surface and a different shade of cobalt was filled in afterward.