Geng Xue, Mr Sea, 2013–14, stop-motion animation of porcelain sculptures; tableau/installation of same sculptures,
video: 13 min 15 sec, installation: dimensions Variable, Image courtesy White Rabbit Collection Sydney
by Luise Guest
This article is excerpted from a quarterly essay in Garland magazine, titled “Drifters” in Jingdezhen: Past meets present in the porcelain capital.
Porcelain Encounters and Clouds of Silica
Before I travelled to Jingdezhen in the winter of 2016, my knowledge of its thousand-year history and continuing significance in the global porcelain trade was as almost as sketchy as that of the Europeans who first saw imported Chinese porcelain almost 500 years ago. They speculated wildly about what this fine, white material could be made of, with guesses ranging from “a kind of juice” that coalesces underground (Cardon in 1550), to Scaliger’s fanciful 1557 hypothesis that it was made from eggshells and the shells of umbilical fish, pounded into dust, mixed with water, shaped into vases and buried underground for a hundred years. Marco Polo’s explanation was slightly more realistic:
The dishes are made of a crumbly earth or clay which is dug as though from a mine and stacked in huge mounds and then left for thirty or forty years exposed to wind, rain, and sun […] By this time the earth is so refined that dishes made of it are of an azure tint with a very brilliant sheen.
Had you asked me then about the nature and history of porcelain my response would have been as vague. But in 2015, quite by chance, I encountered Geng Xue’s 2013–14 Mr Sea (海公⼦), in a Shanghai gallery. The protagonists of her video are jointed puppets made of blue and white glazed porcelain, brought to disturbing life with stop motion animation. Their undulating, trance-like movements through an eerie porcelain landscape of coral-like branches and creepy shadows depict the erotic encounter between a scholar and a beautiful woman—a liaison that ends very badly indeed. Mr Sea was beautifully, seductively nightmarish, and the artist’s technical virtuosity was immediately evident. The work includes an installation of porcelain figurines and backdrops (shown together with the video in Ritual Spirit at Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery in 2017) that emphasises both the fragility and the narrative possibilities of the material. I became fascinated by the work of Chinese artists who, like Geng Xue, draw on their history and craft traditions to make work that seamlessly enters the global contemporary.
Mr Sea adapts a story from a famous Qing Dynasty collection of supernatural tales. Pu Songling’s Liaozhai Zhiyi (usually translated as “Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio”) is an extraordinary seventeenth-century collection of 500 fables featuring assorted shape shifters, ghosts, goblins, fox spirits, scholars and demons among its cast of characters. Composed over a roughly 30-year period, many of the stories focus on ill-fated romances between mortals and supernatural beings. This juxtaposition of sexual desire and the uncanny especially interested Geng Xue, as we shall see.
I was already familiar with the work of Liu Jianhua and other contemporary Chinese artists working in the medium of porcelain, but I knew of Jingdezhen only as the place where Ai Weiwei’s famous sunflower seeds were fabricated and painted. Certainly, it had never occurred to me to go there. But life is sometimes almost as randomly strange as Pu Songling’s supernatural stories. In December of 2016, after the White Rabbit Collection had partnered with the UK-based Centre for Chinese Visual Art, the opportunity to visit Jingdezhen most surprisingly presented itself. Professor Jiang Jiehong had initiated a research project investigating the viability of traditional Chinese craft practices and their connection with the work of contemporary artists. Everyday Legend:
Reinventing Tradition in Chinese Contemporary Art, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, aimed to examine the decline of traditional crafts in a rapidly urbanising and globalising China, exploring possibilities for their revitalisation by contemporary practitioners. The premise of the research lay in China’s twenty-first century socio-cultural context: can contemporary artists re-examine, re-imagine and engage deeply with tradition yet still be critically reflective? This question dovetailed beautifully with my research interest in relationships between ancient and contemporary Chinese art practices, and the fluxing local/global nature of contemporary art.
So, representing the White Rabbit Collection I joined the first Everyday Legend field trip, studying textile production in Suzhou and porcelain in Jingdezhen. I flew to Shanghai and met Professor Jiang and other project partners, Professor Oliver Moore from the University of Groningen, Professor Lv Shengzhong from China Central Academy of Fine Arts, Nan Nan and Sebastian Liang from Beijing’s New Century Art Foundation and facilitator Hiu Man Chan and embarked on a short but profoundly significant journey. This essay reflects on the significance of Jingdezhen to both Chinese and foreign ceramic artists and explores tensions between local and global, past and present, and between artisans and artists. It raises more questions than it answers, as did the research project itself—it is intended to contribute to an ongoing conversation.
A term used by local artisans of Jingdezhen pottery workshops and kilns—the insiders—describes the outsiders, the throngs of visiting artists, curators, researchers and writers:they are jingpiao, or “Jingdezhen drifters’. The expression derives from an earlier idiom. Beipiao, meaning “northern drifters’, was common parlance in the 1990s and described young artists, musicians and other creatives who drifted into Beijing to make a precarious living there. Today, the term jingpiao describes all the waidiren or outsiders—Chinese or foreign—who find themselves in Jingdezhen. Why does this small, prefecture level city in one of China’s poorest provinces draw so many people from across the globe? To find out more, I’ve spoken with four artists who make work there, or whose work is in some way inspired by their time there. Liu Jianhua and Geng Xue, whose work is held in the White Rabbit Collection, are discussed in detail, while the Australians Merran Esson and Juz Kitson provide a different point of view. I asked each artist to tell me why Jingdezhen exerts such a gravitational pull on Chinese artists immersed in their own thousand-year-long porcelain history and on foreign visitors.
Common threads emerged in these conversations. The first, and perhaps most
significant, was about materiality. It concerned the “stuff” of working with clay, kilns and glazes, the physical labour of working with such materials, and the meaning/s that this embeds into their work. Another was the impact of landscape and the importance of place. In contrast to other art forms that, in this digital age, could be fabricated anywhere at all, it is the specific environment of Jingdezhen that partly explains its allure. This is a place with a long history and an extraordinarily strong physicality, as I discovered myself
when I collected ancient shards beside an aggressive flock of geese on a country hillside, watched painters decorating figures of Guanyin and artisans unloading kilns stacked with blue and white vases, or wandered through the “ghost” market asking questions. “Zhende ma?” (is it real?); “Bu zhende!” (not real!) answered the vendors with disarming honesty.
Geng Xue, who lives and works mostly in Beijing, stressed the physicality of working with clay, and the sense of place that she found in Jingdezhen:
Jingdezhen is a very small place surrounded by mountains and hills, and when I set up my studio there I worked as if I was living in nature […] I would work with my friends to make clay, make things from clay, and I would work among the mountains. Sometimes we would fire the kiln to make porcelain and stay up very late […] my work contains my own labour and it’s a totally different experience from working in the studio where you are imagining everything. I think in the real environment, in nature, the working state is very different … I can monitor the dryness and wetness of the clay very carefully and I know how to make them, in what kind of shape, and I’m very sensitive about it […] I can feel it with my hands.
That final phrase, “I can feel it with my hands’, appears simple and yet is so complex. Any artist or maker of objects knows exactly what she means. Musing on the same question, Merran Esson quotes Eduardo Paolozzi on how it takes a thousand tiny hand movements to create a work of art. She wrote: “These words have inspired me for over three decades, capturing the spontaneity that happens when I work directly with clay. The word ‘touch’ is integral to what we do.” Knowledge and understanding are experienced as unified elements of the making process; thought and action are not separate. For some Chinese artists this reflects Daoist beliefs in the harmonious balance of yin and yang.
Juz Kitson has also been influenced by the landscape around the city, and by her wanderings through the chaotic streets of Jingdezhen:
Often, I’m directly influenced by my immediate surroundings and the natural landscape and mountainous ranges. For example, Yellow Mountain and areas around Gaoling have found their way into my drawings. I’m constantly visiting the street produce and meat markets and antique stalls to see what will find its way into the works, often making moulds of obscure vegetables or visiting traditional Chinese herbalists/medicine doctors.
Merran Esson’s response is more equivocal, although she realises in retrospect that her experiences at the Jingdezhen Pottery Workshop in 2008 may have influenced her more than she realised. She remembers that for the first several days it was overcast and grey: “I didn’t realise I was living in a cloud of silica.” But on the third or fourth evening there was a big wind. When she woke, she suddenly understood that Jingdezhen is surrounded by mountains. Having always made works referencing specific landsapes, whether Scottish hillsides, the Snowy Mountains in NSW or, more recently, the trees of the Monaro, Esson wondered whether she could, or should, incorporate the shapes of this Chinese landscape into her work. She was struck, too, by the enormity of Jingdezhen, the scale of production, the sheer number of kilns, factories, workshops:
found China almost too much, it was too overwhelming […] China excited me, and it frightened me, to be perfectly honest. The influence it had on me was that it made me realise I am but a small cog in the wheel of international ceramics. If you go to China and you have the whole wheels of Jingdezhen, which I call the kilns of the world […] there’s so much going on there […] if you have that at your fingertips then you can put out a body of work that can support the international market …
… The big pot factory really opened my eyes to the size of the kilns and the potential of what anybody can do in China. It excited and scared me – partly because I realised that there were people there who could help me, but it would take me away from the handmade […] the enormity of the mass production and wondering whether we would all be sending our work to Jingdezhen one day…
Juz Kitson’s first response to Jingdezhen was not dissimilar, but she has returned many times, enthralled by what she found:
What surprised me the most was the infrastructure, the enormous industrial spaces and rundown buildings, piles of porcelain shards and silica dust covering the streets, a city bustling with artisans working around the clock […] The work ethic amongst the town has certainly had a profound effect on my practice, I relish long studio days, working day and night to create intensely meticulous handcrafted installations.
The reason I keep going back, like so many other foreign artists, is the accessibility to materials, glaze technology and firing techniques used in Jingdezhen that are inaccessible to me in Australia. The quality of the material is the highest I’ve experienced world-wide. There is a frantic energy to the city, a constant buzz of production, everyone meeting daily deadlines. A universal thread that brings the Jingdezhen locals, Chinese Nationals and International “drifters”
together is our common obsession with the material.
Chinese Porcelain: A Global Brand
When I arrived in Jingdezhen in December 2016 with the Everyday Legend research team, we were guided by celebrated contemporary artist Liu Jianhua, who had been apprenticed there in his uncle’s workshop as a boy. This gave the group an entrée into workshops, artist residencies, factories and conversations with locals that would not otherwise have been possible. We examined dragon kilns snaking up hillsides, visited the newly opened Taoxichuan Art Museum and Art Precinct, San Bao Ceramic Art Village and its workshops and artist residencies. We watched kilns being packed, fired andunpacked, and porcelain ranging from kitsch ornaments to contemporary artworks in production.
No visitor to Jingdezhen can fail to be awed by its long history. Commercial pottery production is generally agreed to have developed during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE). Wares from Jingdezhen soon caught the eye of the imperial court and the emperor decreed that all imperial porcelain was to come from its kilns. The town was renamed the township (zheri) of the Jingde emperor. This was industrial-scale production long before the Industrial Revolution changed the face of Europe. Porcelain from Jingdezhen was exported to the Middle East, Korea, Japan, South and Southeast Asia and it may well be the world’s first global brand, continuing unabated for more than a thousand years. Even during the dark years of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), the factories pragmatically churned out statues of Mao instead of Guanyin figurines. Jingdezhen’s prosperity waned during the Reform and Opening Up period in the 1990s, but its decline has been arrested in recent years by the arrival of contemporary artists from inside and outside China and new studios, workshops and artist residencies, as well as by the growing international reputation of Chinese artists creating work with the assistance of Jingdezhen’s artisans and expert porcelain painters. One such artist, with generational ties to the porcelain centre, is Liu Jianhua.
Porcelain Poetics: Geng Xue
Geng Xue (b.1983) is from a younger generation, but she is as immersed in porcelain history as Liu Jianhua. Her chosen medium reflects her deep interest in traditions of Chinese culture, inflected by her study of film and animation techniques in Germany. Geng’s subjects generally emerge from Chinese classical literature or Buddhist texts: “All the stories are the artery of Chinese history,” she says. She has made a study of ancient ceramics and paintings in museums and archaeological sites including Dunhuang, Xi’an, Luoyang, Jingdezhen and the Longquan celadon kilns. Like Liu Jianhua, she most admires “sexy” Song Dynasty porcelains:
I use them as examples or models to guide my study and even replicate; they appear very clear, very transparent and very beautiful […] such beautiful, simple shapes and with very beautiful sexy glazes. And I think I have learned a lot from ancient Chinese culture and tradition […] Without the thousands of years of history of porcelain in China, without this foundation, I think my work cannot be empowered.
For Mr Sea, however, she turned to the blue and white cobalt glaze introduced to China via the Silk Road from Persia. Blue and white porcelain is so inextricably associated with Chinese cultural traditions in the popular imagination that it has come to symbolise Chineseness. Jingdezhen is filled with blue and white wares, real and fake, right down to the streetlights along the main roads of the city.
Geng animated multiple hand-made figures and objects to reinterpret the story of a young scholar who sails to the shores of a mysterious island where he falls under the spell of a beautiful girl. It was the tragedy of erotic obsession in Pu Songling’s tale that particularly interested Geng Xue, with its positioning of female protagonists as sirens or femmes fatales. The violent arrival of a terrifying serpent with a slithering, segmented body, and the alarming hint that the beautiful girl and serpent are actually one and the same, brings their ill-fated affair to a bloody conclusion.
Geng Xue built, glazed and fired every element of the sets and characters, experimenting with lighting and camera angles to make an ancient allegory of doomed love relevant to the modern world: “I think that what you desire and what you fear are just the same, and the things you desire can even destroy you,” she says. The technical virtuosity with which both Geng Xue and Liu Jianhua employ construction, firing and glazing techniques ensures that porcelain can convey complex contemporary ideas. I wondered whether the experiences of Australian craftspeople in Jingdezhen might provide a different prism through which to examine the significance of the medium, and the continuity of the ancient porcelain capital as a centre of knowledge and transcultural exchange.