I am startled from my reverie by the crackle of the airplane speakers. They announce that our descent to Shanghai had begun. As the eleven-hour flight comes to an end I look through the window to see a limitless sky of unblemished, pre-dawn pink. As my eyes adjust from the light of the cabin I just make out below, mountaintops, dark shapes emerging through pale valley mists. An ambiguous landscape apparently devoid of human presence but fluid due to the motion of our plane. The sun fails to rise as we descend, so that time itself goes into slow motion. The space, the time, the empty abstract forms; it seems for a little we are inside an ancient Chinese painting of uncertain perspective.
I am on route to my third residency in China. Art residencies can be a curious form of practice. They may seem to offer an opportunity to develop new work. Free from the routine demands of normal life, with the stimulus of a new environment, a different culture even, there is the possibility for an intense period of study and a reappraisal of practice. On the other hand most residencies have the expectation, explicitly or implicitly, that the artist will produce a resolved body of work that in some way reflects the environment or context of the residency’s locus. This expectation is despite the fact that materials and equipment may be unfamiliar, time limited in terms of the natural pace of the craft, and the local way of doing things initially strange, or even incomprehensible.
It is perhaps inevitable that those who have but a few weeks with little opportunity to accumulate local knowledge will make work that relies on what they already know and understand. It is a strategy that fails to recognize that in foreign countries, as with the past, ‘they do things differently…’.
It is perhaps inevitable that those who have but a few weeks1 with little opportunity to accumulate local knowledge will make work that relies on what they already know and understand. It is a strategy that fails to recognize that in foreign countries, as with the past, ‘they do things differently…’. Even if the physical results are deemed successful the experience seems of questionable long-term value to either artist or host. It is interesting that when Takashi Yasuda moved to run the Experimental Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen and to explore porcelain, he felt that much of what he had learnt from working for forty years with stoneware was irrelevant. A decade on and he is still fascinated by porcelain and has set up his own studio in the town. But undertaking a residency in China is challenging for most western potters who encounter the confusing cultural juxtaposition of communism and capitalism, an immense weight of historic ceramic tradition and particularly in the south, which is geologically completely different to the north, materials that they are likely to find to be significantly different to anything they have encountered before. As Dr Nigel Wood points out, Chinese porcelain is one of the most misunderstood materials in the world.
In 2016 Bai Ming, ceramic artist and dean of ceramics at the prestigious Tsinghua University Beijing, invited me to be the first writer in residence at Shangyu Celadon, Modern International Ceramic Art Centre in Zhejiang province China. Bai Ming is the director of the clay centre in Shangyu, located on the Cao’e river as it enters Hangzhou bay south of Shanghai. The clay centre has been running for a couple of years and has hosted a substantial number of ‘western’ artists who’s work, made during the residency, is on display in the centre and given pride of place in the city’s museum along side an historic ceramic collection from the region, which is of great significance in Chinese ceramic history. Shangyu is known as the birthplace of celadon and there are over four hundred dragon kilns of huge capacity found in the area, dating from the Han and Six Dynasties period. Not far to the west lie the ancient kiln sites of Xiuneisi and to the south Longquan with their distinctive Guan glazes.