Tag Archives: China

Kindness of strangers at the World Crafts Council Golden Jubilee

Aileen Webb from American Craft Council, courtesy American Craft Council, www.craftcouncil.org

Vicki Mason attempts to distil her experience of attending (as an exhibitor) the World Crafts Council 50th Golden Jubilee Summit, held in Dongyang China, (1822 October, 2014)

I came across a striking image of American philanthropist Aileen Webb recently. In the image Aileen, who founded the World Craft Council (WCC) in 1964, is about to get astride a Norton motorbike, she looks pretty happy. It was not the sort of image I expected to come across given the more staid images my cursory Googling of her had revealed. I could only conclude that Aileen looks like she might well have enjoyed well-crafted vehicular transport as well the sort of craft I associated her with. Aileen’s legacy, through this organisation, lives on and I had the pleasure of being an exhibitor with the organisation as it celebrated its 50th anniversary in October, in Dongyang, China. Hosted by the Chinese, current presidents of this global organisation, about 400 folk attended and participated in the celebrations.

The agenda for the five day summit led to many rich experiences, new friends, craft feasts for the eyes and mind, and many laughs. The opening event had it all: music, symbolic keys, the wearing, raising and waving of flags, speeches full of wise words and balloons. The gala dinner had even more. That night we experienced a fashion show, delegates wearing national costumes, toasts and demonstrations of knife skills and noodle making by highly skilled culinary wizards. Sitting at big tables with strangers meant they weren’t strangers for long after these sorts of displays and antics. Craft was the uniting force at all the events and a curiosity to know more about one another and how craft played out in everyones story led to fascinatingly rich conversations as we made our way around Dongyang.

Vicki Mason with her volunteer helpers

As an exhibitor in the newly minted exhibition building, (which was being finished as we all arrived for set up) and just one of the many shows taking place, I was very taken with the kindness and friendliness of my neighbours from Malaysia who set the tone for the whole event. As a representative of the South Pacific I was in with those from the Asia Pacific subregion and it was the gorgeous Sarawakians who welcomed me for lunch on day one so I didn’t have to eat alone. This welcoming friendliness subsequently led to them helping me with a sale, lending me their power outlet, sharing their deep knowledge about the glorious crafts they had bought to show and sell, and I was even gifted with a piece of jewellery that I will treasure. There are so many warm memories from exhibiting. I loved trying the Chinese sweets and snacks my 21 year old volunteers/translators offered up then winning them over so they could gain confidence in practising their English on me. At the end of the show I realised I had been getting daily visits from a Chinese man. He seemed to just want to hang out, pore over every jewel, try and have bit of a chat and then flick through a sumptuous new book about contemporary jewellery from Australia and New Zealand.

Kevin Murray addressing the WCC Craft Summit

Lectures, meetings, parades, awards, competitions and workshop tours were just some of the activities programmed. While I, like everyone else,  didn’t get to everything due to the con-current nature of running these sorts of large multi stream events, each activity was shared over breakfast or dinner as we all came together. It was so great to find like-minded, warm, generous folk from all around the world who were and are equally as mad about craft in its myriad of forms as I am.

What became apparent to me as I gained a sense of this wonderful international not for profit organisation, is that there is such a rich international craft vein to tap into. All of us were welcomed, whether working with more contemporary approaches to craft or traditionally it’s an all-inclusive group and the richer for it. This WCC summit bottled for a few days the vitality that is craft today. Feeling part of a larger family that I hope I can contribute to in some small way into the future left me inspired. Craft in Dongyang seemed to act as a cultural diplomat of sorts, promoting tolerance, respect and mutual understanding for our common humanity. It pervaded this melting pot event, confirming Aileen’s initial intentions fifty years ago that the crafts can lead us forward perhaps towards a more peaceful future.

Vicki Mason is a contemporary jeweller working from Melbourne in Australia. Vicki would like to thank the WCC Chinese presidency for being such welcoming hosts.

Batik Dreaming in Central Java

Dancers at opening of Semarang International Batik Festival

Dancers at opening of Semarang International Batik Festival

Batik is one of the world’s idiomatic crafts. Alongside techniques such as pottery, filigree, ikat, glass-blowing and wood-carving, it is a unique language of expression which has come to define a global cultural inheritance. In a rapidly dematerialising world, as more of life is conducted in the cloud, it is increasingly important that the gifts below that time has bestowed are maintained. Without space for innovation and creative exchange, skills such as batik will cease to play an active role in what we make of our world.

Within the craft canon, batik is particularly expressive. The flow of wax through the canting lends itself to a fluid graphic form, reflecting a sinuous natural world. The history of batik is the story of its surrounding culture: originating in Java, it has been influenced by the traffic of cultures in south-east Asia, including block-printed fabrics from Gujarat, Chinese jewellery and Dutch tastes.

Master Batik artist Abdul Syukur and Yogjakarta artist

Master Batik artist Abdul Syukur and Yogjakarta artist

Abdul Syukur 'Human Diplomatic Art' primishima cotton 105 x 105cm 2012

Abdul Syukur 'Human Diplomatic Art' primishima cotton 105 x 105cm 2012

But there’s also a subtle mystery in batik. Like darkroom photography, it works from the negative, beginning with an inverted version of its final outcome. Unlike more direct techniques such as painting, it requires a greater understanding of the interrelation between many phases of waxing, dyeing and watching. Maybe it’s that consideration of other processes that helps it reflect an interrelation of cultures.

A recent entrant to the calendar of batik events is the Semarang International Batik Festival. Semarang is a city of about 5 million on the north coast of Central Java. Founded by an Islamic missionary in the 15th century, Semarang soon fell under Dutch control and became an important trading centre, attracting Chinese merchants. Semarang shares with the other coastal batik centre Pekalongan a vibrant pesisir style featuring bright colours and graphic forms. Semarangan style batik patterns include the tamarind plant and historic features. However, the other batik towns of Central Java, such as Yogyakarta and Solo have a higher profile. But being overlooked provides the city with a powerful motive to raise its profile, particularly as the capital of Central Java.

Kampoeng Semarang is a hybrid cultural-commercial complex that has been developed by a young local entrepreneur, Miss Wenny. Miss Wenny is a new generation business woman with an interest in civic development. Her Semarang International Batik Craft Centre has transformed what was previously a dangerous area of the city into an active commercial hub. Only a year old, Kampoeng Semarang includes batik shops, restaurant, conference facilities and workshop space.

I’d been invited last year to visit Semarang wearing my World Crafts Council Asia Pacific hat. I noticed that although there seemed to be an active if small batik sector at work, there was little space for it to develop. There was no opportunity to experiment with new designs or products. A festival seemed an important step towards fostering skill development, innovation and increased exposure. To my surprise, KS quickly agreed and set a date in early May, leaving only five months for preparation. I had to credit them their confidence, but I was a little doubtful of what they could achieve in such a short time.

It was clear that we had to quickly mobilise international support for this venture if it was to succeed. The festival had to make the right impression on the local dignitaries if it was to be ongoing. And there was great promise in its future.

For the World Crafts Council, the batik festival was an important avenue for re-activating Indonesia’s presence in the region. While there is strong south-east Asian representation from Thailand and Malaysia, Indonesian participation had declined in recent years. It has been hard to activate the national and regional crafts councils.

Realising this opportunity, the newly appointed Senior Vice-President of the WCC Asia Pacific Dr Ghada Hijjawi-Qaddumi decided to attend with a mission to recruit new representatives. Her warmth and enthusiasm helped support the event greatly, and she even contributed $1,000 towards a prize for batik art in next year’s festival. Dr Ghada was joined by the President of the WCC, Mr Wang Shan, based in Beijing. China is hosting the 50th anniversary of the WCC next year across three cities, and it is important to have Indonesia as a significant part of this celebration of world craft. There was a very neat historical resonance in the WCC presence at this event, reflecting the importance of the Arab and Chinese influences in the development of the region.

Australia is a relatively newer visitor to Indonesia, though now the relationship is particularly strong with growing ties of economy and tourism. There has been a particularly rich history of batik exchange between the two countries. This has included connections with Aboriginal communities such as Ernabella and Utopia, where the batik has been particularly suitable for the fluid nature of art making. And in textile art, the influence of Indonesian batik has been important, reflected in the touring exhibition in Contemporary Australian Batik in 1989.

Now there is scope to extend this partnership to include design. Already there are fashion designers like the Queenslanders Easton Pearson who work with Indonesian batik, but there are many other possibilities for product development. Sangam: Australia India Design Platform has been growing a network of designers and craftspersons interested to collaborate. There is many prospects in expanding this network to include Indonesia.

Here we were fortunate to receive assistance from the Australian Embassy to bring two textile masters. Tony Dyer has been successful in establishing a career in batik art, sustained by overseas collectors. Dyer had last been in Indonesia nearly 40 years ago, when he was just starting his career in batik. We were able to show his work and Tony provided a hands on engagement with participating artists, swapping techniques and discussing the finer points.

Director of Pekalongan Batik Centre Pak Zahir and Tony Dyer

Director of Pekalongan Batik Centre Pak Zahir and Tony Dyer

Tony Dyer swapping ideas with local batik artists

Tony Dyer swapping ideas with local batik artists

Dyer was joined by Liz Williamson, Associate Professor at College of Fine Art, University of New South Wales and a designated Living Treasure of Australian craft .Williamson teaches a unit Cultural Textiles, where students have been traveling to India in order to engage rich living traditions of embroidery and dyeing. The hope was that she would find the right kinds of people and places to bring a contingent of next generation designers to Central Java. She presented her range of Woven in Asia which gave a taste of what a craft-design partnership might entail.

Liz Williamson talking wtih local batik artists

Liz Williamson talking wtih local batik artists

Liz Williamson talking with Chinese and Indonesians

Liz Williamson talking with Chinese and Indonesians

There were some key international players, then, for the all-important Simbolisasi (Gunting pita) opening of the inaugural Semarang International Batik Festival. Around 9am, the dignitaries started to arrive. This included the Governor of Central Java Bibit Waluyo, whose wife heads up the Crafts Council of Central Java. He was joined by the Dr Prasetyo Aribowo, Head of Culture and Tourism, Central Java, Professsor Ahman Sya, Director General of Creative Economy and Esthy Reko Astuty, Director General of Tourism Marketing. It was clear this was an event of national significance.

Professor Ahman, Kevin Murray, Ms Wenny, Ms Wuloyo, Bibi Wuloyo, Dr Ghada, Wang Shan

Professor Ahman, Kevin Murray, Ms Wenny, Ms Wuloyo, Bibi Wuloyo, Dr Ghada, Wang Shan

It was fascinating to witness the graceful nature of a Javanese opening ceremony. As with every occasion, this included elegant young women performing traditional dances. There was a fashion parade of both men and women showing colourful if demure garments by designers Anne Avantie and Ira Priyono. I was particularly surprised to see group prizes for best batik technique—it doesn’t seem the way here to single an individual out for attention. The event was officially opened by the Governor banging the traditional drum, which he did with a trill on the side before heaving into the drum proper. More significantly, he then went to the workshop to sign his name in hot wax, so it could be dyed into a commemorative batik afterwards.

Fashion model for Semarang International Batik Festival

Fashion model for Semarang International Batik Festival

For the next three days there were stalls selling batik and craft products, which helped create a buzz. The live music was particularly good, including some languorous Keroncong, a Latin inspired Indonesian music. As word of the festival spread, high profile batik artists started to appear from the elsewhere region, showing how important such a forum might be beyond Semarang city.

The Governor of Central Java, Bibit Wuloyo checking on the wax before signing his name.

The Governor of Central Java, Bibit Wuloyo checking on the wax before signing his name.

On Saturday night, the reason for the timing of the festival became apparent with the Semarang Night Carnival. This was worth a trip to Semarang on its own. The costuming was inventive and exuberant. An other-worldly blend of traditional and modern music brought it to life. At the final concert, Semarang was sea of colour and movement, undulating to the rhythms of Indo-pop. Who knows what might happen if the batik festival were to form a partnership with the carnival, where it could feature the craft of making costumes.

Semarang Night Carnival

Semarang Night Carnival

On the final day, the organisers met with the international visitors to discuss how their event might develop. It was heartening that they able to accept the shortcomings and see this as a trial run. Much could be achieved quickly by establishing a database of batik artists and creating events like workshops where they could participate. It was clear that there wasn’t a media network that could assist organisations like Kampoeng Semarang to get word out.

Now that the first Semarang International Batik Festival is over, we can start dreaming of how it might develop. Would a prize be important, or is competition against the more collective nature of Javanese culture? Is there scope for individuals to develop pathways into batik as an art form? Would there be interest in collaborations with foreign designers?

One issue that did come up in the discussion was the depth of meaning attached to batik. Traditionally, it is a textile that gives meaning to life, with different patterns reflecting various rites of passage, such as pregnancy. I personally am interested in the labuhan ceremony, where people gather on the beach to throw their troubles in to the sea.

A challenging space has been opened up between the Semarang International Batik Festival and the Semarang Night Carnival—between batik as a product and the rituals that bring people together. There is much life in that space between.

Semarang has shown it is willing and capable of holding an international batik festival. It’s up to us all now to work together and help make the next one realise this promise.

If you have any comments or suggestions for the next Semarang International Batik Festival, please leave them in the comments below.

To stay in touch with future activities of the World Crafts Council Asia Pacific, subscribe to the newsletter at www.australasiancraftnetwork.net.

Thanks to the Australian Embassy, Jakarta, for supporting the Australian contingent, as well as Liz Williamson and Tony Dyer for giving themselves to the event. Pungki Purwito and Riza Radyanto organised the initial tour through Semarang, December 2012. Thanks for Wenny Sulistiowaty and Teguh Imam Prasetyo at Kampoeng Semarang for their commitment to batik. James Bennett and Jan Nealie provided much useful advice on the history of Australian-Indonesian batik exchange. Peter Craven helped greatly with the Indonesian connections. Malcolm Smith offered a warm welcome to Yogyakarta. And special thanks to World Crafts Council colleagues Dr Ghada Hijjawi-Qaddumi and Mr Wang Shan for giving their time to this precious event.

Unmaking the Future–the aesthetics of post-industrial ceramics

The view from inside the conference in Bergen

The view from inside the conference in Bergen

Like Australia, Norway finds itself with a rare gift – a financial bounty stemming from non-renewable natural resources. The news analysis in Australia often invokes the Norwegian model as a responsible investment of this wealth for future needs. With the Making or Unmaking? conference, Norway was able to host an international conference on ceramics like few others today. The premise was the use of the readymade by ceramic artists – rather than make work themselves, these artists repurposed existing works. This was the culmination of a four-year research project ‘Creating Art Value: A Research Project on Trash and Readymades, Art and Ceramics’. It was programmed with the ambitious exhibition THING TANG TRASH – Upcycling in contemporary ceramics (curated by Heidi Bjørgan), as well as a large number of ceramic exhibitions especially presented by galleries around Bergen.

And the view looking out from the conference

And the view looking out from the conference

The project leader and Norwegian writer Jorunn Veiteberg assembled some of the finest European craft minds to consider this question. It began with the English visitors. Glenn Adamson opened the conference with a slice of Postmodernism exhibition that he recently curated for the V&A. He focused particularly on the eschewal of authenticity by movements such as Memphis, which positioned style far above substance. It offered an important historical reference point for contemporary questioning of original production. Carol McNicoll followed with an artist talk that personified the conference theme with a feisty opposition to fine art etiquette. Fellow ceramicist Clare Twomey then offered an elegiac account of enduring ceramic crafts, such as plate lining. The meat of her paper was the account of her present work. This had two components. The first were a series of 80 tall red vases produced in the Jingdezhen ceramic powerhouse – ’80 vases in 8 days, China brings us miracles.’ The second an attempt to reproduce one of these in England, involving scouring for a large-enough kiln. The installation showed the one plaintive vase set among the sea of cheap Chinese imports. For Twomey, what distinguished the English vase was that its decoration sat under the surface, compared to the Chinese vases whose designs were more imposed on the surface.  The installation seemed to demonstrate that despite miraculous productive capacity of Chinese industry, it was still no match for the subtle craftsmanship of English labour.

Tanya Harrod followed with a beautiful lecture on the theme of the rag-picker, covering many examples of art projects that extracted works of beauty from the slums. She spoke highly of the work by Brazilian artist Vik Munos, featured in the film Wasteland, who donated money from the sale of his works to the favela dwellers who made it possible. While critical of those who mindlessly use the poor of the world to make high-end design, Harrod praised those who embrace the act of making with all its responsibilities. Caroline Slottee and Paul Scott provided examples of work with readymade ceramics and Ezra Shales considered the role of museum as a contested site for these works.

On the second day, Monica Gaspar introduced the concept of the infra-ordinary as a space opened up by use of the readymade. She provided a feast of contemporary work associated with her recent exhibition ‘Re-defining the Applied’, which reflected a shift away from the object itself to the way in which we inhabit. A highlight was the film by Swede Olas Stephenson where a gang breaks into a house to create musical symphonies using objects from each room. Andrew Livingston followed with a bold attempt to place use of the readymade in the context of sustainability. It made perfect sense, but the ethical logic seems at odds with the aesthetic context of the conference. Barnaby Barford’s artist talk presented narrative as an alternative context of the readymade. His film for the exhibition brilliantly demonstrated the power of pathos in the leftover figurine.

The day ended with Jorunn Veiteberg herself who expounded the thesis behind the conference. She loyally used local artists to illustrate her thesis that the ceramic readymade is following Duchamp’s liberating gesture with ‘Fountain’ to liberate the art object from the ‘fetish’ of the handmade. Veiteberg argued that re-purposing existing ceramics opens up new possibilities of creative intervention.

The last day began with Michael Petry, author of The Art of Not Making. His ebullient talk covered many instances of artists using skills of craftspersons, praising those who acknowledged their contributions. As one of those grateful artists themselves, Petry spoke very much from the commissioner’s perspective, focusing more on the grand ambitions of the artists than any creative input from technicians. The Polish ceramist Marek Cecula followed with a wonderful account of his career in ceramics, parallel to his remarkable personal journey as a survivor of the holocaust who returned to make work about the value of human labour. Linda Sormin followed in the afternoon with a lively short account of her practice in making ceramic interventions in museum spaces around the world.

As the second last presentation, I attempted to introduce the relational dimension of the readymade. This regarded the commissioned object, rather than the found object. I focused particularly on the work of artists who have their work made in Asia. Rather than a post-industrial aesthetic, I considered a ‘para-industrial’ condition where work responds to the scene of making ‘elsewhere’.

Rather than leave space for questions at the end of each paper, the conference was programmed with generous breaks where participants could discuss issues among themselves. While this was quite convivial, it was difficult to tell what the conference had achieved at the end. Making or Unmaking? provided a symbolic departure from the studio model of the ceramicist, whose work reflects the personal experience of clay. But it left hanging the question of where this is going. Is it opening ceramics up as an installation-based art form? Is it part of the elegiac moment in Europe as it sees its manufacturing capacities drift off to Asia? Does it reflect a sustainability ethic that eschews making anything new, in favour of re-purposing the old? These questions needed airing, either in response to papers or in panel discussions.

Most pressing is the gradual loss of a global dialogue around ceramics. Last month’s Gyeonggi Ceramix Biennale in Korea did not have one entry from Britain, and there was little opportunity for dialogue between representatives of east and west. As globalisation continues to expand, it seems a mistake to turn inward. Modern ceramics has such a rich history of borrowing between cultures.

Norway has set the pace. We now need to pass the baton.

PS. If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the excellent catalogue, then send an email to KHiB publications at resepsjonen@khib.no. Price: NOK 250,- (EUR 34) + handling expenses. More information here.

Korean Gyeonggi Ceramix Biennale 2011–site of a future ceramics renaissance?

'Toya' was mascot to the biennale. This version of the bowl man cradling a bowl was especially poignant.

'Toya' was mascot to the biennale. This version of the bowl man cradling a bowl was especially poignant.

Ceramics seems very important in Korea. Its ancient past is defined by styles of pottery. The ubiquitous onggi pot holds a family’s precious store of kimchee, hopefully enough to see it through the winter. And with the Gyeonggi Ceramix Biennale, Korea has established the key international event in the world of ceramics.

At the core of the biennale are three complexes each containing galleries, sculpture gardens and activity centres. The official centre is at Icheon, which features the international exhibitions, including competition shows and focus on French and Dutch ceramics. As you might expect, the competition was ‘hit and miss.’ There were quite a few ‘good enough’ generic pieces, but still enough remarkable works to make the trip worthwhile.

Over three floors of galleries, the work that particularly took my eye was by a Chinese artist, Meng Fuwei.

Meng Fuwei 2008.5.12 detail

Meng Fuwei 2008.5.12 detail

I’m not normally taken by figurative ceramics, but this work presented an uncanny sympathy between content and materials. The fact that both people and building debris were made of the same clay gave a real emotional depth to this installation. Looking at it, I realised that on hearing news of an earthquake disaster, I unconsciously separate out loss of human life from physical destruction to buildings. This logic helps us deal with the compassion fatigue brought on by 24 hour news cycles: even if a whole building had collapsed, at least the inhabitants might be alive. Meng Fuwei’s work closed off that mental escape. Alongside the rubble were scene of great pathos, as clay people cradled each other and dead bodies lie flat, their hands having been crossed in respect. Work like this deserves broader exposure. It not only tells us of what an earthquake must be like, but also intimates a real pulse beating in the heart of contemporary Chinese ceramics. Fuwei himself was a victim of the 2008 Szechuan earthquake, and has been making work about it ever since. This installation was awarded the Gold Prize.

Despite the odd powerful work, the main exhibition lacked a curatorial hand to guide the visitor. Given that the curator had resigned only three month’s before the opening, the organisers had done wonders to create a credible festival. There was an attempt to give curatorial structure to the international competition with a thematic based on the elements, ‘Journey into Fire’. But this seemed rather after the fact, and served to suggest how much more powerful the spaces could have been with a strong narrative frame.

Yeoju Bandal Art Museum was a more popularist complex containing exhibitions of applied ceramics. Much space was given to an exhibition of ceramic jewellery. I wasn’t particularly convinced by the work on display. I thought it would have been more interesting to see jewellery that made reference to ceramics as an art form, rather than include some brightly coloured glazed pieces. There’s been some interesting jewellery that draws on ceramic traditions, such as recent adornment in terracotta from Bengal.

Other exhibitions about ceramics and glass and digital media were quite strong. But I liked the best the exhibition of tableware settings. These ceramic sets spoke of the social dimension of ceramics as a way of bringing people together – not just the living.

'Thankful feast' table setting by Min Il Kim

'Thankful feast' table setting by Min Il Kim

The ‘Thankful feast’ by Min-il Kim is designed to be used during a ritual meal shared with ancestors. The key element is a plume of words from poem in Korean that are bring sucked into a ‘moon jar’. Porcelain on charcoal was a powerful combination.

The more traditional pieces could be found in the third complex, the Gwangju Gyeonggi Ceramics Museum. The highlight here was a joint exhibition of Korean and Chinese ceramics, including a feast of celadon. In an international event like this, it is especially interesting to see how Korean culture orients itself not just to the global centres of the West, such as France and Netherlands, but also its older neighbours including China. This is a key to its global positioning.

Thinking about the other powerful neighbour to the east, I was left wondering what a show of Korean and Japanese ceramics might be like. There was a touching hint of this dialogue at one of the forums. Over two days, the international visitors presented papers on the ceramic scene. Sadly, there was virtually no dialogue with the local Korean scene during these talks, apart from occasional barbs by the moderator, Jinsang Yoo, an art theorist from Seoul. The discussion became animated around the topic of acknowledging the work that ceramicists contribute in collaboration with contemporary artists. The Taiwanese professor Ching Yuan Chang reflected on the way Asia culture is oriented more to craft than the West, which hampers creativity because work is traditionally left unnamed. During a break, in company with the Japanese curator Akira Tatehata, I asked Jinsang Yoo if he had heard of the Kizaemon tea bowl, the famous work of the ‘anonymous craftsman’ that was ‘discovered’ by Soetsu Yanagi in the early 20th century. Tatehata very gingerly explained this emblem of Japanese-Korean relations – how the most revered piece of ceramics in Japan should come from the most humble of ceramic workshops in Korea.

At the time, I was thinking about the paradox contained in this story: when the value of work is attached to the humility of the maker, how can it be recognised in a way that rewards the producer? You can’t have work made ‘anonymously’ by Joe Potter. Or can you? Could anonymity be branded? 

But after some googling, an alternative possibility suggested itself. On Richard Roth’s blog post about this bowl, he quotes Yanagi’s impression of the response that Koreans had to the elevation of their most humble product:

Emerging from a squalid kitchen, the Ido bowl took its seat on the highest throne of beauty. The Koreans laughed. That was to be expected, but both laughter and praise are right, for had they not laughed they would not have been the people who could have made such bowls… The Koreans made rice bowls; the Japanese masters made them into Tea-bowls. 

In hindsight, Yanagi’s comments beautifully reflect the colonial thinking behind such primitivism. While the Korean work might be celebrated in Japan, it is really a testament to the sophistication of Japanese taste rather than Korean culture. Hmm. Wouldn’t it be interesting to imagine a series of ceramics which explored that Korean laughter a little more…

Some of the pageantry of the Ceramix Biennale, as traditional Korean dancers are interrupted by a team of runners arriving to light a ceremonial porcelain bowl

Some of the pageantry of the Ceramix Biennale, as traditional Korean dancers are interrupted by a team of runners arriving to light a ceremonial porcelain bowl

I was left with the impression that Gyeonggi Ceramics Biennale is a tremendously important event on the international cultural stage. We should be immensely grateful to the Koreans for giving this event their support and vision. I hope it remains a stage for international dialogue about clay. With good planning, it is possible for this event to even extend its reach. It has potential in particular for reaching out to the fragile ceramic traditions that are being revived in collaboration with artists. Korea could be the home of a ceramic renaissance. That would be something to revive the spirits of a flagging world.

The last word at the biennale opening: at the end of a fulsome award ceremony, the audience was presented with a speech of its own to make in conclusion.

The last word at the biennale opening: at the end of a fulsome award ceremony, the audience was presented with a speech of its own to make in conclusion.

The Visible Hand: What Made in India means today

You are invited to a discussion about Australia-India partnerships in craft and design.

Thursday 21 July 6-7:30pm
Yasuko Hiraoka Myer Room, Sidney Myer Asia Centre, University of Melbourne

Speakers include Ritu Sethi (Director, Craft Revival Trust), Chris Godsell (architect with Peddel Thorp), Sara Thorn (fashion designer) and Soumitri Varadarajan (Industrial Design, RMIT)

This is a State of Design event presented by Sangam – the Australia India Design Platform, a program of the Ethical Design Laboratory at RMIT Centre for Design, in partnership with Australia India Institute, Australia Council, City of Melbourne, Asialink and Craft Victoria.

India is both one of the world’s leading economies and a treasury of cultural traditions. While in the past, many craftspeople and artists have travelled to India for creative inspiration, today new partnerships are emerging in design. Architects, fashion designers and industrial designers are finding new opportunities in the demand for skills both inside and outside India. In particular, India has an enormous capacity of craft skill that is lacking in the West. As India gears up for increased export activity, how will the ‘Made in India’ brand compare to ‘Made in China’? What are ways of local designers to add ethical value to their products through partnership with India? How can cultural differences between Australia and India be negotiated to enable productive partnerships?

Design can play an important role in building partnerships in our region. Globalisation is now extending beyond the large-scale factories of southern China to include smaller village workshops in south Asia. This offers many opportunities for designers to create product that carries symbolic meaning. But to design product that is made in villages requires an understanding of their needs and concerns.

This event is about design practice that moves between Australia and India. It is looking at how the stories of production can travel across the supply chain from village to urban boutique.

This seminar is part of Sangam – the Australia India Design Platform, a series of forums and workshops over three years in Australia and India with the aim of creating a shared understanding for creative partnerships in product development.

RSVP by 15 July to rsvp@sangamproject.net. Inquiries info@sangamproject.net.

Sangam – the Australia India Design Platform, is managed by the Ethical Design Laboratory, a research area of RMIT Centre for Design, including researchers from Australian Catholic University, University of Melbourne and University of New South Wales. It is supported by the Australia Council as a strategic initiative of the Visual Arts Board and the Australia India Institute. Partners in Australia include Australian Craft & Design Centres including Craft Australia, Arts Law and National Association of the Visual Arts. Partners in India include Craft Revival Trust, National Institute for Design, the National Institute of Fashion Technology and Jindal Global University. This platform is associated with the World Craft Council and the ICOGRADA through Indigo, the indigenous design network.

Photo of Kolkata flower market by Sandra Bowkett

Review by Christine Nicholls of the Willow Pattern Story



The Willow Pattern Story, 2008, Text by Ian Howard, Mandarin translation by Jingzhe Le, Illustrations by Lucienne Fontannaz, 3D PRECISION PTY LTD, www.Jingzhe-art.com.au, ISBN 9-78-0-9805816-0-7



Le fabuleux récit du Willow Pattern, 2008, Text by Ian Howard, Illustrations and French translation by Lucienne Fontannaz, Publi-Libris, Switzerland, http://www.publi=libris.com/, ISBN 9-782-940251-57-5

Reviewed by Christine Nicholls

Reproduced with permission from Asian Art News, Hong Kong

Scene 1: 'The palace and gardens of T'so-Ling', image courtesy of Lucienne Fontannaz and Ian Howard.

Scene 1: 'The palace and gardens of T'so-Ling', image courtesy of Lucienne Fontannaz and Ian Howard.

Scene 1: 'The palace and gardens of T'so-Ling', image courtesy of Lu

These two beautifully designed, elegant books are the result of successful collaboration between Sydney-based husband and wife team Ian Howard and Lucienne Fontannaz. Ian Howard is an artist, academic and writer, while Swiss born Fontannaz is an artist, writer, curator and translator, whose deep, long-term research into the narratives, myths and legends of diverse cultures has led her to publish widely in the area.

Fontannaz’s abiding fascination with the willow pattern and its attendant rather complex narrative has its origins in her childhood in Switzerland, where her parents were the owners of a willow pattern tea set. The francophone family referred to the willow pattern as ‘le motif chinois’ (‘the Chinese motif’). As a small girl Lucienne, entranced by its distinctive patternings, began making her own drawings ‘directly from the plates’. As she grew up and began travelling around Europe, she became aware of the ubiquity of crockery featuring the dominant blue and white of the willow pattern. It was as if all the places I visited, grand and humble”, says Fontannaz, “had somehow been visited earlier by this curious design, linking them all”.

Scene 2: The summer house, image courtesy of Lucienne Fontannaz and Ian Howard.

Scene 2: The summer house, image courtesy of Lucienne Fontannaz and Ian Howard.

Scene 2: The summer house, image courtesy of Lucienne Fontannaz and Ian Howard.

Scene 3: A new perimeter fence, image courtesy of Lucienne Fontannaz and Ian Howard.

Scene 3: A new perimeter fence, image courtesy of Lucienne Fontannaz and Ian Howard.

Scene 3: A new perimeter fence, image courtesy of Lucienne Fontannaz and Ian Howard.

Soon after Fontannaz met Ian Howard in Montreal for the first time, he asked her whether or not she knew of ‘the Willow Pattern’. Replying that she did not, later on the same afternoon Ian Howard presented Lucienne Fontannaz with a cup and saucer. Astonished, she recognized that the ‘willow pattern’ on her prospective husband’s gift was one and the same as ‘le motif Chinois’ of her European childhood!

Fontannaz illustrated her first book on the willow pattern more than thirty years ago. That book, with text written by the distinguished Barbara Ker-Wilson and published by Angus and Robertson in Sydney in 1978, is now out of print. Nonetheless it is evidence of the enduring nature of Fontannaz’s enthrallment with the visual elements of this celebrated design and the tragic story underlying it.

In her excellent and informative introduction to the 2008 bilingual English/Mandarin version simply titled the Willow Pattern Story, Lucienne Fontannaz begins with the bold assertion that the “…Willow Pattern is unquestionably the most popular ceramic design ever produced…

Very well known in England where it was created more than two centuries ago, this blue and white design, mainly seen on tea sets and dinnerware, is also known to many individuals and cultures around the world. The popular success of the design has led to its being applied to a range of other objects, such as tea towels, greeting cards…folding screens and even textiles for soft furnishings. In recent years individual artists have incorporated the design, in whole or in part, into their paintings, collages, sculptures and ceramics. This is an indication of the widespread and deep cultural significance the Willow Pattern has as a contemporary motif”.

Fontannaz goes on to detail the history of the design, including the seventeenth century English passion for ‘chinoiserie’; the surprisingly low cost of importation of fashionable Chinese porcelain from Jingdezhen and elsewhere in China to England and Europe at that time; the various factors that led English potteries to mass produce appropriated Chinese designs and to create their own ‘oriental/ist’ motifs, particularly the Willow Pattern; the British use of transfer printing and the associated use of the distinctive cobalt blue colour in the willow pattern; the manufacturers’ eventual branching out into different colour schemes including brown and red; and the uncertain origins of the narrative accompanying the design.

Scene 7: The great escape, image courtesy of Lucienne Fontannaz and Ian Howard.

Scene 7: The great escape, image courtesy of Lucienne Fontannaz and Ian Howard.

Scene 7: The great escape, image courtesy of Lucienne Fontannaz and Ian Howard.

Scene 8: Young fugitives in hiding, image courtesy of Lucienne Fontannaz and Ian Howard.

Scene 8: Young fugitives in hiding, image courtesy of Lucienne Fontannaz and Ian Howard.

Scene 8: Young fugitives in hiding, image courtesy of Lucienne Fontannaz and Ian Howard.

In addition, Fontannaz provides expert guidance in interpreting the individual graphic elements of the willow pattern, beginning with the pagoda on the right hand side of the plate, and continuing in a clockwise direction to the top where two white doves, representing the doomed lovers, signify the end point of the narrative. There is also some discussion about the genealogy of specific elements in the pattern (for example, the plates’ borders are definitely British) and further speculation about the genealogy of the narrative itself.

What becomes clear is that this complex history involves a plurality of eastern and western influences that converge and co-exist in the graphic elements of the willow pattern itself and its associated story. That such cultural diffusion was occurring before the advent of mass globalization makes it even more remarkable as a transnational phenomenon.

The balance of both books is devoted to Ian Howard’s lucid retelling of the successive episodes that collectively comprise the willow pattern story, complemented by Lucienne Fontannaz’s marvellous illustrations. Fascinatingly, in his account of the sad story about two star-crossed lovers, Ian Howard identifies a surprisingly contemporary environmental theme, relating to the critical role played by the weeping willow tree in the unfolding drama. Howard also draws attention to the importance of nature in more general terms, and its capacity either to obstruct or to further – as happens in this case – human endeavour. His re-interpretation not only convincingly places the narrative in the context of the present, giving it greater contemporary relevance and resonance, but it is also an inspired touch.

Scene 13: Revenge, death and sacrifice, image courtesy of Lucienne Fontannaz and Ian Howard.

Scene 13: Revenge, death and sacrifice, image courtesy of Lucienne Fontannaz and Ian Howard.

Scene 13: Revenge, death and sacrifice, image courtesy of Lucienne Fontannaz and Ian Howard.

Scene 14: The two eternal doves, image courtesy of Lucienne Fontannaz and Ian Howard

Scene 14: The two eternal doves, image courtesy of Lucienne Fontannaz and Ian Howard

Scene 14: The two eternal doves, image courtesy of Lucienne Fontannaz and Ian Howard

Both books are strongly recommended. They would make excellent gifts for persons of either gender, especially because the pattern itself is so well known while by contrast, the ‘story within the story’ is relatively unfamiliar. The broad cultural reach of both the willow pattern imagery and the accompanying narrative also makes these books perfect gifts for overseas associates, friends or visitors.

Artlink launch: Connie Zheng’s five principles for working in China

Stephanie Britton, Connie Zheng, Kevin Murray, Jacqui Durrant, Emily Potter, Neil Fettling and Fiona Hall

Stephanie Britton, Connie Zheng, Kevin Murray, Jacqui Durrant, Emily Potter, Neil Fettling and Fiona Hall

The launch for Artlink gathered together the local Melbourne contributors to the After the Missionaries issue. To mark the occasion, Dr Connie Zheng from RMIT spoke about the nature of doing business with China. Her thoughts provided much food for thought about the new kinds of dialogue opening with countries like China. Here’s an excerpt:

Speaking about how Chinese do business, two words came into my mind: ‘paradox’ and ‘duality’.

A paradox is a contradiction or a situation that is not in line with our common sense. In fact, just a few days ago, I happened to experience such paradoxical situation, which might give you a bit of glimpse into how Chinese do business. [Dr Zheng related a story about visiting a shop in Springvale to be offered a special ‘Chinese price’ much lower than that offered to non-Chinese].

While a paradox is a situation one encounters passively, a duality tends to be a choice or response one actively makes. Indeed, the Chinese shop owner would have to have dualistic response to different customers every day instead of being consistent as most people in the West would do…..

Why do Chinese work this way? Many would find such an approach illogical, yet for Chinese, they appear quite consistent and logical. Why? Because most Chinese worldview has been formed from many times of encountering paradoxes and dualistic responses to these paradoxes. As the Chinese worldview tends to be influenced largely by Taoism and Confucianism. One can find many paradox by reading the book of Taoism, Dao de jing. From there, you will read texts such as ‘there would be no love without hate, no light without darkness, no male without female’; this is quite different from what Solomon wrote in the book of Ecclesiastes, which has a very strong time-sequential sense ‘there is time for everything, a time to love, a time to hate, a time for peace, a time for war…’



Different to the Western’s thinking which is quite linear, time sequential, logical and analytical, Chinese thinking is correlative, non-linear, more holistic and in many ways appears illogical. So it is comfortable for Chinese to see that ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ co-exist. Crisis as expressed in Chinese word (wei ji) in fact represents not just threat but also opportunity. ‘Black’ and ‘white’ must be together to see things clearly. Chinese knows well that things are made of ‘East’ and ‘West’ (dong xi) and if anyone who act inhumanly, they are called ‘things’ neither from east nor west. Indeed any ‘contradiction’ is fine so long you have ‘spear’ and ‘shield’ which are the exact Chinese words (mou dun) for contradiction and paradox.

So you see, in the world largest socialist and communist country, free market thrives yet social service and welfare mostly lacks. Chinese business people are more relaxed when responding to these types of paradox than their western counterparts as paradox and duality are really part of their daily life. This is not to say that they like this type of life with lots of contradictions. In fact, for the very reason of their dislike, Chinese has developed, over centuries, certain rules of social and business dealings which help guide them to weave through this complex social and economic fabric.

Perhaps by briefly explaining these key business principles with a couple of examples, it may help us better understand how Chinese do businesses:

First of the utmost business principle is trust – Chinese words are cheng xing – sincerity and trust. Trust reduces the level of uncertainty caused by paradoxes. Without trust in their counterparts, it would be very difficult to even get Chinese to talk about any business.

The second principle is reciprocity. This is really the follow-up step to further reinforce trust between business parties. Gift-giving, sharing meals not going by Dutch but by taking turn to pay bills as a way to express this type of reciprocity.



The third principle is that of building strong relationshipguanxi as most of us probably all have heard of. Guanxi networks not only facilitate close circle business dealing, but also build almost a very strong ‘word of mouth’ marketing strategies without spending a cent on advertisement.

The fourth principle is to do with business operation within the in-group. I have earlier mentioned about how Chinese always think that they are doing things differently from the outgroup. To Chinese, in-group is easy to build trust. In-group when combined with patriotism can be quite scary sometimes in business dealing. For example, how Chinese respond to the collapse of deal with Rio Tinto [response from China to Australia’s anxiety about losing influence is to say that Rio is already a foreign-owned company anyway]. In-group business operation acts as a buttress to protect Chinese own business interests whilst saving face from having to explain paradoxical situations which only Chinese can understand.

The last but not the least principle is to ensure the close tie to certain higher bodies – so called having a hat to protect business interest. Hats are color-coded, ‘Red’ for the communist party and its associated agencies, ‘Green’ for the army, ‘White’ for foreign companies. Every Chinese business man and woman would need to spend substantial amount of time and resources to search and find these hats, and constantly please and play with these hats, especially the red and green hats. For pragmatic Chinese, white hat is very useful as it can blend with other hats and create new kinds of colour hats which are useful for business, so foreigners are definitely most welcome in China in terms of doing business.

With many paradoxes, dualities and rules only in-group Chinese can understand, how could we, Australians build a link and break into the art industry in China? In fact, I do not have answer. But I believe that the art works can truly be used as a form to build the global link.

For most of us, a fascinating piece of artwork can take our breath away so the differences in thinking and mindsets of the person who creates the piece are no longer important. Instead our focus shift to the beauty and meaning of the art itself. In the same way, I believe a true art form can dim down the differences between cultures and peoples and let the true humanity of life, love, peace, joy, compassion and understanding shine. With that note, I take great pleasure to launch this very special issue.

Janet DeBoos – hand-designed in Australia, factory-crafted in China



In Australia, ceramics is under siege. Since the boom of the 1970s, the number of courses available have rapidly declined. For today’s iphone generation, the dedication required by clay-making poses a significant lifestyle challenge – it threatens to disconnect you from the ‘clouds’ of text and image that give meaning to the day. Of course, as craft advocates we perceive the danger that this will lead to a closed system, where our cultural ecology loses the language of the material world outside. In ceramics, we have a particularly primordial understanding of the ground on which we stand. Without this ‘earth’, we risk a cultural short-circuit.

Thankfully, Janet DeBoos has been successful in adapting ceramics education to this new generation through her model of the ‘distributed studio’. Sustaining this is a new audience that she has discovered which is deeply appreciative of Australian ceramics. But it’s not the white knight of the American collector, willing to pay thousands for a unique work. Rather, it is the Chinese factory owner who can see in the Australian ‘hands-on’ ceramic style something of great value to his growing middle class market.

Janet seemed destined to work in China. She first encountered Chinese ceramicists in the mid-seventies, when a delegation came to East Sydney Tech. In 1996, she received an invitation to be part of the First Western Yixing Teapot Symposium, where she was introduced to Zisha-ware. This was followed in 2001 with an invitation from The Chinese Ceramic Industry to attend and speak at the International Forum on the Development of Ceramic Art in Zibo, Shandong province.





On the strength of her presentation, DeBoos was invited to return and make work with the factory. She has subsequently made work in collaboration with Prof. Zhang Shouzhi in which she produced the form and he provided the decoration. Shouzhi’s design is based on a traditional Ding-ware, though it is applied with a decal rather than traditional hand-carving. The company produce only for internal market as they prefer to make work of high standards rather than cut costs as would be demanded for export. 250 sets were made and subsequently all were sold at the Zibo ceramic Industry conference and expo at the end of 2007. They sold for twice the price they would attract in Australia.





Janet’s experience reminds us how important it is to be open in dealings with businesses in China. While Australian craft has traditionally looked north (to the ‘developed’ countries in Europe, Japan and North America) to gauge its progress, the horizon needs to be broadened to engage with the emerging economies. In the case of China, the depth of appreciation for ceramics is something that a country like Australia could do well to import.

You can find an article by Janet about her China experience in the After the Missionaries issue of Artlink. The presentation set will be on display in the World of Small Things. Janet is current head of the ceramics department at the ANU School of Art, Canberra.

Beyond Fortress Ceramica: A knight’s tale

‘So long as beauty abides in only a few articles created by a few geniuses, the Kingdom of Beauty is nowhere near realisation.’

Bernard Leach 1

‘Fortress Ceramica’. I’m grateful to Garth Clark for so eloquently evoking the image of an institution that seems isolated from the world and resistant to the opportunities that lie in the outside work. The image of this secluded castle evokes in our minds phrases like ‘silo mentality’ that reflect old vertical hierarchies that are out of step with the flat networks of our time. For Clark, Fortress Ceramica is a bastion of the Anglo-Oriental Company, an imperial institution for the appropriation of other cultures into a self-righteous ceramic tradition. This company is besieged by the modern world, unable to adapt to the new values of our time.

The image of a beleaguered Fortress Ceramica conjures up the scene of a roundtable with knights sitting in frantic discussion as the Normans are about to scale the ramparts. What will these noble gentlemen do? Will they join the Normans, in the hope one day that they can present themselves at the glorious court of Paris? Or will they stay true to their faith, despite the great hardships they will face. We have already heard from Garth Clark of wonderful prospects for those like Grayson Perry or Jeff Koons who leave the isolation of the fortress behind for the bright lights of celebrity. Let’s look to the other path. Let’s follow one stubborn knight, Sir Bernard, who prefers to go underground for a while, in the hope that the ideals represented by Fortress Ceramica might be restored.

What are these ideals? Sir Bernard takes as his guiding principal the immortal words of John Ruskin that ‘the beauty which is indeed to be a joy for ever, must be a joy for all.’ 2 This knight’s tale considers how ceramics as a field might fare beyond its familiar craft setting, in some of the new developments in the art world.

Following the theme of medieval romance, our journey will take us to a region called ‘the green world’, 3 in reference to the forests, such as Arden and Sherwood, when heroes disappear into a mysterious other world of camaraderie and magic. In the green world, heroes leave beyond the royal power struggles for the utopian world of common folk. It is a space of transformation in narrative, appropriate to this period of change we now face in ceramics.

Having swam the moat and escaped the invading Normans, Sir Bernard seeks refuge in the mysterious forest. Across his path he encounters a strange object, which portends what lies ahead.

This portends strange


What’s in my bag, by Kinki (2005)

It’s a handbag, or rather a handbag’s contents displayed for the entire world to see. For Sir Bernard, this is his first glimpse of life outside Fortress Ceramica. There’s a wallet, a digital camera, some tissues, candy, the inevitable iPod, keys, chewing gum, pocket PC and sundry other items. It’s hard to imagine ceramics in this sea of disposable items and gadgets. But what surprise the knight are not so much the contents themselves as that they are on public display.

This particular handbag comes from a photo-sharing site, Flickr. ‘What’s in my bag’ is a common theme for users of Flickr. This is a rather modest example of the great ‘opening out’ of inner experience that seems to have occurred in our times. Through reality television programs like Big Brother and the Internet explosion of blogs, the boundaries of public and private seem to be erased. The ‘society of spectacle’ has turned endoscopic.

The ‘network age’, as some call it, reflects an increasing interconnectness between people, particularly in the affluent west. We see it in the street, with the rise of café society and the hegemony of the latte. The talking head of current affairs has been replaced by the panel format, as non-experts trade gossip and chat about recent events. A glimpse at any train or bus will find commuters busy texting and talking on their mobile phones. I link therefore I am. And to be offline is to be nowhere.

So how goes our noble knight of clay? Rather perplexed, one might say. For Sir Bernard, ceramics is a matter of individual conscience: clay speaks from the heart.4 To see ceramics as an individual pursuit best acknowledges the investment of time and labour that has gone into the development of skills, as embodied in the hands of the potter. Long hours of solitary labour are required to test the limits of the clay and experiment with glazes. The product of this quest thrives best in the gaze of the connoisseur, who holds up the vessel and appreciates its rare colour and form, and covets private ownership. Such connoisseurs would be suspicious of an artist too connected with the world, fearing the object was produced in a moment of fashion consciousness rather than solitary inspiration.

Sir Bernard steels himself before entering the forest, realising he is straying into alien territory. This apprehension is confirmed when he comes across a strange and irreverent gathering of people-a group of merry men, no less.

Art for everyone

In visual arts, the paradigm that many have adopted to respond to the convergences of our time is relational aesthetics. Defined in the writings of Nicholas Bourriaud, relational aesthetics moves the focus in art from the lone object to the relations between people that art is seen to enable. This art creates fluid communities, which assert democratic values in resistance to the consumerism that hijacks social relations for brand identification and market penetration. As Bourriaud defines it, ‘ relational art [is] an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space).’ 7 Here is art for the age of the mobile phone and service economy.

To the conventional gaze, relational art hardly seems like art at all. For instance, for a work in the 1996 Sydney Biennale, the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres filled a gallery with candies wrapped in gold cellophane. Visitors were free to help themselves to this bounty. The meaning of the work was not in the installation at all, but in the position that we find ourselves as a viewer when we weigh up individual desire against the collective responsibility in order to preserve an art work for public enjoyment.6 Relational art is not a mirror to life, it creates possibilities for community.

In our tale, Nicholas Bourriaud plays the role of Robin Hood, leading a creative group of artists in redistributing the spoils of artistic value from the lone studio genius to the emerging republic of ‘extras’. Both Robin Hood and Sir Bernard would seem to share a common enemy in the Normans-or global consumerism in our time. But they have radically different approaches. Bourriaud imbues relational aesthetics with a puritan disdain for art as a form of idol worship. He rails against the ‘dead object crushed by contemplation.’ It may seem there is little prospect for an object-centric art in this movement, but there are new works which honour craft in ways that do not focus on the individually made object.

In order to gather fellow travellers in his quest, Sir Bernard ventures forth, searching for a relational ceramics that champions the ideal of art for everyone.

A soft beginning

Though most relational art is performance based and ephemeral, there are some craft-based processes, such as the Buddy System by Cook Island artist Ani O’Neill. Inspired by her Raratongan grandmother, O’Neill has devised a touring art work that recruits visitors to learn crochet and make a simple flower design. The crocheted flowers are placed on the gallery walls in an ever-growing installation. At the end of the ‘exhibition’, these flowers are sent to a person nominated by the maker. Buddy System has been quite successful for O’Neill, featuring in many cultural festivals, including the first Auckland Triennial.

Textile art would seem a natural medium for gregarious uses as it lends itself to the social group. In Melbourne, we have witnessed the knitting revolution develop as younger people sought meaningful ways of coming together outside of the commodified spaces of entertainment. While commonplace as domestic craft in the previous century, such practices as crochet today are modestly effective forms of resistance to the hyper-consumerism focused on brands and technology. As the society of spectacle renders experience ever more vicarious, through obsessions such as celebrity gossip, the very involvement of visitors in the production of the work provides opportunity for a personal stand against consumption.

Might there also be merry men of clay?

The oriental path

The field of ceramics lends itself to greater specialisation than textiles and thus seems more difficult to realise as a collective endeavour. However, in the realm of sculpture, all paths lead to one man-an Englishman who has gathered an enormous crowd of followers during his pilgrimages to distant lands, Anthony Gormley.

Anthony Gormley’s Asian Field is one of the most promoted works in the current 2006 Sydney Biennale. Asian Field is part of a series of work the British sculptor produced by recruiting people from communities to produce figurines with local clays. Previous works have come from Bristol, Mexico, Brazil and Sweden.

Asian Field was produced by 347 inhabitants of the Chinese city of Xiangshan, aged between 7 and 70 years. Their brief was to produce clay figures that were the palm-sized, could stand upright, and have two holes for eyes. Gormley had planned to include 100,000 figures, but total ended up being 192,000, made over a five day period.



Anthony Gormley Asian Field installation shot from Sydney Biennale Pier 2/3, photograph by Kevin Murray

Sir Bernard is deeply impressed by the expansiveness of Asian Field . As one individual, he feels the gaze of nearly half a million eyes, an experience of both omnipotence and humility. There are also subtle variations in the clay evident across the installation, as the figures reflect the different qualities of clay distributed across the land. Asian Field certainly warrants the ‘long look’.

Intrigued, our knight approaches one of these figures. When he examines it closely, he finds to his surprise a quite crudely fashioned object, nothing like what he expected from the Chinese with their venerable traditions. Why would a great artist include works that a child could have made?

For Gormley, the series has two motives. The first is to honour the primordial mission of sculpture, as witnessed in the first human interventions into landscape which lifted horizontal rocks into vertical forms, reflecting the ascent of man from a four to a two legged beast. Thus Gormley transforms the resting nature of earth into the animated works of art.

Gormley’s second interest is to reverse the power relations in traditional art. As he says, ‘I want to democratise the space of art.’ Gormley gives over the privilege of making to the people. He is no longer the sole artist who creates the work. Rather, the work is produced as many others seek to express themselves. This reversal is parallel to the physical transformation of the gallery, from the crowd visiting the unique object to the multiple objects looking at the unique visitor. For Gormley, ‘you become the subject of art’s gaze rather than the other way round.’

All seems well and good. Gormley has been careful to acknowledge each individual participant. The installation is accompanied by photographs showing the face of the Chinese makers next to an example of their work. The combination of faces and figurines betray a rough idiosyncrasy, filled with humour and hope.

Our intrepid knight of clay finds much to admire in this egalitarianism. Sir Bernard holds dear the ideal of the ‘unknown craftsman’-the natural desire to make that is best expressed in the amateur spirit. This was an ideal he shared with his oriental brothers, who gave this anonymous production a revered Zen-like status.

His curiosity piqued, the knight inquires further. What can we learn from the objects in Asian Field about the lives of their creators? How are they different from others that have been produced in alternative cultures of the world? While eloquent about the vision of the artist, the objects themselves are surprisingly mute about their creators.

Our bold knight delves further into the world behind Asian Field .

New Chinese empire


Xiangshan factory photo by Andrea Tam

In Chinese history, Xiangshan is the revered home town of the nation’s father, Sun Yat Sen. Today, it is one of Guangdong’s ‘four little tigers’, specialising in hardware, appliances, casual wear and mahogany furniture industries. Many of us are probably wearing clothes made in Xiangshan, or use their devices in our kitchens. It’s part of the revolution in consumerism that has made inflation history and has given us all access to low-cost goods.

But as enlightened consumers, we know that this prosperity can come at a cost. In a famous case, workers in a Xiangshan factory were found working for as little as $22 a month making handbags for Wal-Mart. They were forced to hand over identity documents under pain of arrest, denied overtime pay and fined if spent too long in the bathroom.

How is Gormley’s installation situated in the context of contemporary China? There is nothing in Gormley’s work or statements that relates specifically to China. Asian Field was part of a British Council campaign called Think UK; it was first exhibited in the Imperial Palace next to Tiananmen Square. If we forget, for a moment, the boundary between the worlds of art and commerce, Gormley can be seen to be following a similar path to that other Western visitor, Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch aimed to introduce STAR TV into the Chinese market, which he considered the fastest growing into the world. As Murdoch said to the Asia Society: ‘Today, hundreds of millions of Chinese not only dare to dream but have confidence that their dreams will become reality.’

Like Murdoch, Gormley is presenting China as a sea of individuals, each with their own unique aspirations. But alas, there is nothing in what they produce that connects with the traditions that inform Chinese history, from the ceramics of the Ming Dynasty to the communist ideologies of the post-imperial era. These are placeless Chinese, ready to enlist in the Hollywood dreams of Foxtel.

There’s nothing new in this. The West’s great hunger for Chinese goods has always faced the difficulty of finding something to offer in exchange. In response to the British attempt to trade for tea and porcelain, Emperor Qianlong famously pronounced to King George III, ‘We possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.’ In response, the British cultivated a Chinese addiction to opium, which they could supply from their farms in India.

The west’s trade deficit with China is ballooning out. 7 What do we have to offer the Chinese that they can’t produce more cheaply and efficiently themselves? Not so much a thing, as a state of mind-individualism. The aspirational fantasies of western entertainment ( Titanic was one of Murdoch’s success stories in China) have the capacity to liberate the collective Juggernaught of China culture and unleash a sea of individual desires. They can become just like us.8

For Sir Bernard, the forest beyond Fortress Ceramica reveals itself as a place of mystery and disguise. While dressing himself up as Robin Hood, Anthony Gormley turns out to be a secret Norman, seeking to convert good people of honour into seekers of individual fortune. Next, our knight finds a Chinaman who comes dressed as a Norman. Is this another disguise?

A noble warrior reveals himself

So is this the end for Chinese ceramics in the west? Fortunately not. Also in the Sydney Biennale is the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. His signature piece is Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), which is a photographic documentation of the artist wilfully destroying a precious Chinese artefact. Ai Weiwei comments bluntly: ‘China is a factory of the world. So boring porcelain stay same 2,000 years: break.’ Naturally, our first response is to recoil with horror. Here is modernism at its most brutal-the destruction of tradition for sensational effect.

But in a way, there is something refreshing about this honesty. Ai Weiwei is performing openly what Gormley achieves by default. Weiwei’s recent work Ghost Valley Coming Down the Mountain (Museum für Moderne Kunst) featured 96 vases from the Yuan period reproduced from the original workshop. These filter ceramic tradition through a modernist lens, reducing the singular masterpiece into a grid of reproductions. While destroying the integrity of the original, Weiwei’s work honours ceramics tradition by disseminating it through a modern gaze. Like Asian Field , it replaces the one with the many, but it leaves the viewer with a means to connect with Chinese culture.

Tradition with a human face

In Australia, we have some notable examples of dialogue with China. Prominent recently in Australian galleries is Ah Xian, a refugee from Tiananmen Square. Recently collected by the National Gallery of Australia, Human Human is a life-sized figure finely ornamented by the traditional craftsmen at the Jingdong Cloisonné Factory in Hebei Province, east of Beijing. Its principle motif is the lotus, the traditional sign of hope on the journey to enlightenment. While incorporating a very traditional form of Chinese ornament, Ah Xian has made quite a radical shift in substituting the body for the vessel. For Ah Xian, this places the human body at the source of life, rather than nature.

Ah Xian can be compared to Gormley as someone who brings a humanism to China. But this humanism is not a force that forgets Chinese identity. For Ah Xian, this westernisation enables the tradition to flower in new and engaging ways.

Tradition with a western body


Ceramic collaboration by Robin Best and Huang Xiuqian for Writing a Painting, curated by Vivonne Thwaites

Such a path is also followed by Robin Best, in work for the beautiful exhibition curated by Vivonne Thwaites, Writing a Painting , which was presented at the University of South Australia School Of Art gallery at this year’s Adelaide Festival. The exhibition featured works by Robin Best in collaboration with the Chinese ceramic painter Huang Xiuqian and the Ernabella artist Nyukala Baker.

Best’s methodology is similar to Ah Xian’s, though she herself creates the forms that are then ornamented by foreign specialist artists. Her own work is known particularly for its subtle textures that often reflect the surfaces of the landscape that inspire her. For these works, she has given the surface over as an act of collaboration.

Like Ah Xian and Ai Weiwei, Best introduces a modernist aesthetic that abstracts traditional form. But hers is a more aesthetic interest in the formal beauty of spaces created by these shapes. In flattening the traditional vase, she has heightened the painterly quality of their decoration. As cultural dialogue, it may be relatively formal, but her collaborative method does entail mutual respect.

Relational ceramics seems more a matter of collaboration than popularisation. Collaboration retains the exercise of skills which embody the traditions that individual makers represent. Popularisation seems to reduce ceramics to a clay version of ‘finger painting’ that is too crude for the expression of identity.

Collaboration, not collation


Chandragupta Thenuwara and David Ray in collaboration

While there is good reason for choosing China as the partner for cultural exchange in ceramics, clay provides a language for dialogue with other countries. The Commonwealth Games project, Common Goods: Cultures Meet Through Craft , was devised to enable a reciprocal exchange between the skilled visitors from distant lands and the welcoming hosts at home. Common Goods fell under the umbrella of the South Project, which looks to possible exchanges between artists from across the south. There are many untapped connections for Australian ceramicists with the traditions of our southern cousins in Africa and Latin America. The South Project has uncovered a newly emerging field of ‘world craft’. Common Goods was just a taste of what this new genre might bring.

There were nine pairings. One of these brought together local ceramicist David Ray and Sri Lankan artist Chandragupta Thenuwara. It was an unlikely but productive partnership.

Coming from the far flung Melbourne suburb of Ringwood, David Ray has an interest in the emancipatory potential of clay. For his Open Bench residency at Craft Victoria, David created a ceramic BBQ. At the performance that culminated this, David invited audience to make pinch pots that finished the installation. While his work remained the centrepiece, the audience could experience for themselves the plasticity of the materials.

His partner Chandragupta Thenuwara has invented his own genre of art-barrelism. Barrelism is the appropriation of the military paraphernalia of Colombo as art rather than sedimented violence. The bright combination of brown, green and yellow works in Colombo to achieve precisely the opposite purpose of camouflage. This decoration enables the barrels to stand out so they prevent the flow of traffic. Thenuwara cleverly subverts this by appropriating the barrel as a work of art and celebrating it in drawing, prints, installations and ceramics.

Chandragupta took advantage of the residency with David to explore camouflage as a three-dimensional form. He hand built ceramic tiles with wave shaped protrusions in camouflage colours. In response, David pursued the militaristic theme by forming a gun made of clay, which he was able to deconstruct into building-like forms. Together with the camouflage forms, the combined work had the appearance of a city grid, resting ambivalently as war rendered into peace or the hidden violence behind prosperity.



Chandragupta Thenuwara and David Ray collaborative work for Common Goods

It was a remarkable achievement given they had only three weeks, and innumerable cultural obstacles to traverse in this time. While we have had to learn to live with terror in the twenty-first century, it is a largely internalised fear. There is little evidence of threat in cities like Melbourne. The dialogue through clay with Sri Lanka offers us an opportunity to start giving form to these invisible fears.

To return to our lone craft crusader, the fall of Fortress Ceramica has not signalled the death of its ideals. There is in the area of cultural exchange a new appreciation of the capacity of clay to enable dialogue between those of different backgrounds, particularly between the consumerist west and the ‘productionist’ east. Such exchanges need to be reciprocal in order to sustain these differences while maintaining mutual understanding.

But cultural exchange is not the only adventure awaiting Sir Bernard in today’s forest, there are a number of other craft movements that take its egalitarian spirit out into the world. Let’s glimpse other paths leading out of the fortress.

Beyond the fortress 2 – a commoner’s tale



Honor Freeman with porcelain powerpoint

Reflecting the knitting revolution in textiles, the recent genre of ‘poor craft’ is an attempt to renew the spirit of craft with the use of common materials. In ceramics, Nicole Lister has employed her skills in porcelain to ennoble the humble packaging that normally accompanies ceramics. Beyond the object, Honor Freeman places porcelain in the public domain in the production of fake power points. Poor craft is a definite guerrilla movement of the Fortress Ceramica, determined to maintain the ideals of object making in a world dominated by hyper-consumption.10

Beyond the fortress 3 – a worker’s tale



Christian Capurro Another Misspent Portrait of Etienne de Silhouette

An alternative path is to focus on the way the object embodies the time spent in making it.

A work by Christian Capurro has some quite interesting relevance to ceramics. There are reports of a shortage of kaolin affecting porcelain production. One of the largest demands on kaolin is the production of glossy magazines. Capurro is one of a new generation of artists that turn labour into art. His work Another Misspent Portrait of Etienne de Silhouette commissioned a number of people to erase a page each from the male fashion magazine Vogue Hommes . They were asked to record how many hours it took to rub out the page, and what their normal hourly rate was. The work was thus calculated at $11,349.18.

While this kind of perverse conceptualism seems far from the ideals of the craft movement, it does suggest other paths for ceramicists, who might make a feature of their labour. Rather than selling a pot, one might sell the equivalent labour.11

Beyond the fortress 4 – a blogger’s tale

Finally, a new realm of underground action has developed recently in the production of blogs, daily web diaries. Blogs not only enable individuals to upload images and writing about their day’s concerns, but importantly it is a means of connecting people together based on shared interests. The blog becomes an informal project that solicits a mobile audience. The Danish ceramicist Karinne Erikson reflects not only on her challenges in the studio but also her involvement in a choir and occasional purchases. She adopts a popular method of dividing the week up into colours, so Red Friday includes images of Galerie La Fayette and an English stove. Part of new network includes Queensland ceramicist Shannon Garson, who used a bird theme for one week and encouraged visitors to submit works accordingly.


The attack on Fortress Ceramica symbolises the need to open up ceramics beyond interminable technical issues to external creative challenges. It offered as an alternative the rich opportunities available through the savvy commercial art world. Such opportunities often involve a disavowal of making and the celebration of cleverness. Trade in authenticity for relevance.

It is important to acknowledge that there are other paths leading out of Fortress Ceramica. While the field of relational aesthetics casts itself against craft as a process of commodification, there are strong affinities with its collective ideals. However, as a medium of skill, ceramics is more at home in reciprocal forms of collaboration rather than group work between strangers. Craft is for players, not bystanders.

Having lost the fellowship and security of the fortress, our gallant knight finds a spirit in the forest beyond that re-kindles his heartfelt beliefs. The tale is just beginning to unfold.


This is a version of a keynote paper delivered at the Verge:11th National Ceramics Conference in Brisbane 13 July 2006. It was written in response to the growing importance of relational aesthetics in the South Project, and the sense that contemporary craft needs to engage with this field of work if it is to sit alongside visual art. The paper is dedicated to Jane Sawyer, who first gave me a taste for clay when she generously took me on as a trial apprentice many years ago.

1. Bernard Leach, quoting Soetsu Yanagi, leader of Japanese craft movement, in A Potter’s Book London: Faber, 1940, p. 7

2. John Ruskin Arata Pentelici: Seven Lectures on the Elements of Sculpture London: George Allen, 1890, p. 23

3. ‘The green world has analogies, not only to the fertile world of ritual, but to the dream world that we create out of our own desires. This dream world collides with the stumbling and blinded follies of the world of experience, of Theseus’ Athens with its idiotic marriage law, of Duke Frederick and his melancholy tyranny, of Leontes and his mad jealously, of the Court Party with their plots and intrigues, and yet proves strong enough to impose the form of desire on it. Thus Shakespearean comedy illustrates, as clearly as any mythos we have, the archetypal functions of literature in visualizing the world of desire, not as an escape from ‘reality’, but as the genuine form of the world that human life tries to imitate.’

Northrop Frye Anatomy of Criticism New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1957, p. 183

4. ‘I think it is the precise quality of the machine, the nonhuman quality, that is driving hundreds of thousands of people back to clay. They want to enjoy themselves. They want to use and stretch their imaginations. They want to give expression to their feelings about life. They find clay to be a silent language, and in that language they are comparatively free to speak from the heart.’ Bernard Leach A Potter’s Challenge , p. 19

5. Nicholas Bourriaud Relational Aesthetics Paris: Les presses du réel, 2002 (orig. 1998), p. 14

6. Relational art might involve an artist cooking a dinner for a number of people. In 1993, the French artist Georgina Starr handed out sheets in a restaurant to customers dining alone, which spoke to them about the anxiety of solitary eating-anything to bring people together in unorthodox combinations.

7. ‘From virtually nothing in the 1980s, our trade deficit with China jumped to $103 billion last year. We exported just $22 billion worth of goods to China while importing $125 billion. By contrast, our trade deficit with Japan last year was 30 percent lower than that with China.’ http://www.washtimes.com/commentary/20030831-102452-7124r.htm

8. But as well as a monument to neo-colonialism, Asian Field is problematic for its message about clay. As the product of ‘unskilled’ labour, Gormley’s installation is a warning sign of the growing infantalisation of ceramics, where clay is seen as a form of spontaneous expression innocent of skill and virtuosity. A museum in Melbourne is developing a touring exhibition of ceramic horses made by children. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it would be a shame if audiences forgot the power of clay as a form of artistic expression.

9. Ceramics as a means of cementing relationships achieved its most literal expression in a recent series of events staged by Karen Casey, titled Let’s Shake . These reconciliation events involved indigenous and non-indigenous people shaking hands as the dental filling placed between the two hands slowly forms a solid impression. The clay-like substance compels two strangers to get to know each other. The length of time it takes for the material to dry dictates the duration of the relationship. The resulting negative shape of the handshake is then the material testament to the conversation. While celebrating the humanism of clay, this event highlights the seeming opposition between specialised skill and shared meaning.

10. For examples at Kevin Murray Make the Common Precious Melbourne: Craftsman House, 2005, or Craft Unbound

11. Examples of the ‘new labour movement’ were featured in an issue of Artlink in March 2005