Licence to kiln

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2008, 12:00am

Time was when potters could be executed for failing to please the emperor, but things have changed since then, says Beijing ceramic artist Feng Shu, exhaling in mock relief. Feng's refusal to bow to traditional grandeur makes him part of an emerging wave of ceramic artists on the mainland. 'I don't find the weight of the past a burden,' says the 26-year-old, who's gaining recognition for work such as Insects.

The collection, which features delicate, metre-long ceramic mosquitoes, praying mantises and dragonflies that hover on steel legs, refines and expands on Feng's graduation work at the Central Academy of Fine Art. Inspired by his childhood spent playing by a river, the mixed-material creations were developed over three years and have been shown in Mexico and Finland.

But the past still casts a shadow over the art form. Critics say mainland potters, especially in traditional production centres such as Jingdezhen, have avoided innovation, sticking instead to reproducing successful imperial forms. There's little modern expression of ceramics on the mainland, unlike painting or music which attract intense interest at home and abroad.

Bai Ming is among a few well-known ceramicists trying to break free from the cultural and institutional straitjackets that prevent many Chinese potters from attaining the creative stature of contemporaries from South Korea and Japan. It may take the mainland 10 years to catch up with them but the first shoots are there, he says.

'The technical skills of traditional-style potters at Jingdezhen or Longquan are very high but Chinese ceramicists need to become masters of their own creativity,' says Bai, who also teaches art at Tsinghua University

in Beijing. 'The beauty of the past arts can draw you in and trap you. Many young people dream of escaping that.'

There are other reasons for the creative lag, says Bai. Traditionally viewed as a craft rather than an art, ceramics was consigned to light industry after 1949. Only recently has ceramics begun to be taught as a creative subject.

'I want ceramics to be part of art, for ceramicists to be artists,' says Bai. 'The most important thing for young people today is how to solve the problem of being an artist first, then a potter. Clay is just a material. It's not an art in itself.'

Hsu I-chi, a geophysicist-turned-potter who first went to the mainland to work in 1979, agrees. That's why he set himself a bold goal 10 years ago: to build an art village and museum complex dedicated to international ceramics as a way to stimulate local creativity.

He discussed the idea with friends in the arts and business worlds, including Xu Dufeng, director of a tile factory in Fuping, a dusty town about an hour's drive from Xian. An arts lover, Xu thought Hsu's project would add value to his factory and agreed not only to provide land but to help fund it.

Fuping was perfect for Hsu's venture: the area had plentiful deposits of kaolin clay, and Xu's factory had industrial kilns for firing the works. They built studios for visiting potters from overseas and the first exhibition halls of the Fule International Ceramics Arts Museums (Flicam) opened in 2004.

Set in an undulating 400-hectare site, Flicam encompasses a hotel, workshops and quarters for potters dotted among orchards. Dozens of artists from around the world have since lived and worked at Fuping, which offers residencies but requires them to leave behind their work for display in the museums.

The seven eye-catching brick museums designed by general manager Fu Qiang, himself a potter and painter, are modelled on China's dragon and mantou, or steamed bun, kilns.

They house the works of potters from France, Australia, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Canada, the US, and a general museum with some Chinese input, including from well-known folk potter Wang Biyun. Six more museums are under construction for artworks from Mexico, Belgium, Germany and Britain. Hsu also plans to open an Eastern Europe museum. The project has eaten up 20 million yuan of the factory's profits, and finances are a perennial problem. 'We can't use up all their money,' Fu says.

Still, there is a rare synergy at Flicam, where artists and factory workers work side by side at the giant kilns.

Fu sees it as a happy mix of the material and immaterial. 'What we have here is the forces of production and abstraction, mixed together,' he says with a grin. 'It's a rare thing anywhere in the world.'

Fu and Hsu want visiting potters to focus on the local environment, and the results can be amusing: American ceramist Virginia Scotchie created a series of Chinese twig brooms, while Canadian Ann Mortimer made a mop surrounded by a permanent 'water' stain.

Others made liberal use of the Tang dynasty three-colour glaze, or played with local themes such as the terracotta warriors in nearby Xian.

'Our hope is that what younger Chinese artists see in these museums will inspire them to go out and do new stuff,' says Fu. 'We wanted a new perspective, new influences and techniques to compare with traditional Chinese pottery.'

Hsu believes Fuping is riding a new wave of creativity. Although their contact with Fuping is negligible, contemporary artists such as Huang Yan, Xu Yihui, Li Mingzhu and Lu Bin are making their mark in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Hsu says he wants to develop the international scene in Fuping before inviting Chinese ceramicists. 'I don't think they'll want to leave their work behind [now]. But once it's a success, they will.'

Fuping is well on its way: in September it will host the closing ceremony of the biannual General Assembly of the Geneva-based International Academy of Ceramics, which is being held in Xian.

Bai foresees mainland ceramics operating on two fronts, with traditional centres continuing to produce technically-skilled, traditional styles, while artists explore their individual creativity in major urban centres.

'Ceramics are barely represented in [mainland] contemporary art. Society doesn't see it as a strength, and there aren't that many people doing it,' he says.

'But I'm optimistic that in 10 years or so ceramics will become a true art form, and not just a source of economic production.'