In December 2019, I participated in a Crafting Futures residency in Jingdezhen China, organised by The British Council and Fang Sou Commune to research the city’s intangible craft heritage and facilitate intercultural exchange between east and west.
Jingdezhen, in Jiangxi Province, is sometimes known as the ‘porcelain capital of the world’. The city is home to a millennium’s worth of skills; generations upon generations spent digging and cleaning and mixing white earth. Jingdezhen porcelain, or ‘white gold’, is revered throughout the world, but now due to centuries of mining all but one of the city's kaolin mines have been closed, forcing an industry born from the locality of naturally abundant minerals to rely on imports from neighbouring provinces to supply its ceramicists with the materials central to their craft.
During my residency I was drawn to exploring the potential for innovation and renewal within waste streams and undervalued resources in the city. I wanted to investigate materials that held local identities, like the porcelain once did, tied to narratives found in the city today. I also wanted to investigate the value of cooperation from the very beginning of a project - both as means of research but also to create a social environment in which I could learn about ceramics, the city, its history and culture, from the people who call it home.
In the first phase of my residency I curated a collaborative workshop project, working with a group of young local artists, focusing on sustainable materiality and experimentation inspired by the city's ancient porcelain history. The workshop was devised in three parts: explore, forage, and experiment. Each phase was done collaboratively and has been documented by Chang Lou and myself though digital and analogue photography.
Together, during this week-long project, we made a series of 66 new ceramic glazes made of locally sourced organic matter, foraged minerals and waste from industrial ceramic manufacture. The glazes were fired at a local public kiln: a huge, family run, gas fired oven a stone’s throw from our studio. The results of this series of experiments came together as a whole, creating a wall-hung installation, exhibiting a range of hand-made high-fired glazes. Each experiment holds a local identity, story or discovery, making the collection as a whole unique to Jingdezhen - a unique place.
During my stay I learned that Jingdezhen is currently gentrifying, fuelled in part by shifting economic and material realities and in part by the government’s desire to turn the city into a centre for Chinese heritage and arts - a magnet for tourists. Throughout the city there were lots of construction sites, some in progress, many abandoned and deserted. Most of these construction sites were once factories, huge red brick buildings with towering chimneys, floors littered with remnants of working life.
Research Photography: Explore; Public Kiln & Shengli Porcelain Factory
Over the road from my studio was a bottle factory that had been closed for production just before I arrived and lay abandoned for the entirety of my stay. It was clear that the community working from the site had not been given notice before they were evicted. It was an eerie building covered in the scars of what it had been, and I would hear whispers throughout the city, rumours of who or why the factory had been closed down. I could feel the grief from the local community over the closure, many old factory sites were being shut down and the uncertainty and lack of control was palpable.
The city of Stoke-on-Trent in England - home of pottery giants such as Wedgewood and Spode - is an analogous example - a place of strong tradition and community, where the passing of a system that centralises labour and community into one that centralises a nostalgic appreciation of craft engenders grief but also opens up horizons of possibility. The big pottery factories that employed whole neighborhoods are all but gone but the artisans who use history as one of their raw materials are bringing in new streams of revenue to the area. My practice is about materiality and narrative, and the materiality of narrative, and so this is a set of circumstances to which I am sensitive, and try to explore through my work.