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.

Research Photography: Explore; Bottle Factory

Research Photography: Forage; Silica & Iron slurry, New Shengli Porcelain Factory

Research Photography: Forage; Rice husk ash burning 

Research Photography: Experiment; Jingdezhen glaze development 

Research Photography: Experiment; Jingdezhen glaze collection 

In the final weeks of my residency I worked on a series of medicine bottles, influenced by fragments I found lying in piles of rubble around the factory grounds. Each bottle was slip cast in either porcelain found onsite at the factory (aged and full of impurities); red clay foraged from the edge of the factory grounds (unstable and rich in iron); or porcelain purchased from the last factory still using local Jiangxi kaolin. The bottles were glazed with materials from the archive developed during the workshops. The results were 8 bottles with a selection of 20 tops, all interchangeable with one-another. The collection is an ode to the depth and breadth of the ever-shifting landscapes of the city's craft industry. To its history and to the infinite store of knowledge held by the local masters but also to the next generations of makers, carrying their identity forward into a new version of the city. 

 

Above from left 2 right:

Bottle 2/8 Clay body; porcelain glazed with foraged feldspar & kaolin 

Top 12/20 Clay body; porcelain glazed with foraged feldspar & red clay

Bottle 5/8 Clay body; waste porcelain glazed with foraged red clay

Top 3/20 Clay body; waste porcelain glazed with bone ash & banana tree skin ash

Bottle 7/8 Clay body; foraged red clay glazed with foraged waste refined iron slurry

Top 17/20 Clay body; porcelain glazed with foraged red clay

Bottle 3/8 Clay body; waste porcelain glazed with bone ash & banana tree skin ash

Top 9/20 Clay body; porcelain glazed with rice husk ash

 

 

 

 

Left from left 2 right:

Bottle 6/8 Clay body; foraged red clay, glazed with banana tree skin ash. 

Top 10/20 Clay body; foraged red clay, glazed with freshwater mollusk shell

Bottle 8/8 Clay body; foraged red clay, glazed with Boehmeria Nivea grass & kaolin 

Top 1/20 Porcelain body; glazed with red clay & freshwater mollusk shell

Bottle 3/8 - Clay body; waste aged porcelain glazed with bone ash and banana tree skin ash. Top 19/20 - Clay body; waste porcelain glazed with bone ash & flint & fresh water molusk shell. 

 

Bottle 7/8 - Clay body; red clay glazed with waste refined iron slurry. Top 12/20 - Clay body; porcelain glazed with foraged feldspar & foraged red clay.

Bottle 4/8 - Clay body; porcelain glazed with rice husk ash. Top 13/20 - Clay body; porcelain glazed with fresh river mollusk & waste porcelain. 

Bottle 5/8 Clay body; waste porcelain glazed with foraged red clay

Top 15/20 - Clay body; porcelain, refined iron slurry & forraged red clay, glazed with banana tree skin ash.