Porcelain City: Jingdezhen is an exhibition focusing on the contemporary works of four artists, each raised in and working in different countries. It is a very small exhibition, and is by no means meant to offer an in-depth exploration of the ceramics industry, or indeed even a detailed understanding of the four artists’ wider works. Rather, it is a ‘taster’ of the wealth of activity and practices passed down through generations in this small Chinese city that, whilst unheard of by the majority of people, has been supplying the world with porcelain for centuries.There is a tendency to think of international trade as a relatively modern phenomenon. However, when examinig places like Jingdezhen, we realise this is far from the truth. Jingdezhen has been a centre for porcelain production for well over a thousand years, exporting throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe and justly earning its nickname “Porcelain City”. Despite being a relatively small city by Chinese standards -- its population is around 700,000 compared to Beijing’s nearly 20,000,000 -- Jingdezhen today still produces over one million ceramic objects for worldwide distribution every week, and many of these objects are still made in small family-run workshops.
Two of the artists in this Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition approached the project as established potters in their own right (Felicity Aylieff and Takeshi Yasuda), while the other two (Roger Law and Ah Xian) approached it from the position of artists. However, each of the four are joined by a fascination with ceramics and the city, and a hope to mix their experience with the expert knowledge of the Jingdezhen ceramics workers -- undoubtedly some of the most skilled in their profession anywhere in the world.
Felicity Aylieff combines her understanding of European aesthetics with Chinese design to create enormous porcelain vases that are a fusion of Eastern and Western design.
Takeshi Yasuda, who was born in Japan but has spent a large portion of his life living and working in England, uses his deep understanding of both ceramics and culture to create serenely minimalist and delicate designs that stand in juxtaposition to the large, bold works of the others.
Roger Law, one half of the team behind the iconic satirical puppet show Spitting Image, was introduced to Jingdezhen by Ah Xian in the early 2000s, and since then has returned there regularly. Combining his own skills with the ancient techniques of pottery, he carves intricate illustrations of his own design onto giant vases.
Finally, Chinese born Ah Xian seems to be the most innovative of the four. Ah Xian creates sublime porcelain busts and incorporates them into classic Chinese designs, such as the famous cobalt blue landscape.
The city of Jingdezhen was brought into the limelight last year, too, when world famous artist Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds were installed in the Tate Modern. Tens of thousands of unfired porcelain sunflower seeds were spread out over the Turbine Hall, each individual seed hand-made by residents of the city -- again, highlighting the city’s importance as a porcelain production centre, but also highlighting the diminishing demand for a product that can be produced cheaper elsewhere, therefore threatening the future of Jingdezhen’s industry.
However, with projects such as these on display, and a heightened awareness of the history of the city, it is now beginning to enjoy a renaissance, with many foreign artists choosing to relocate or to visit the city to learn its craft, and become a part of its prestigious story.
Unless you are a diehard ceramics fan, the exhibition itself is probably not going to make you instantly fall in love with the medium, although that is not to say that each piece on display isn’t a triumph of collaboration, beauty and design. The display sparks the imagination and opens up a whole world of innovation and technique spanning more than a thousand years, and works perfectly to provide a contemporary angle to the multitude of beautiful ceramics on display in this recently refurbished section of the Victoria and Albert Museum.