Porcelain: A Contemporary Cultural Touchstone
Nancy Selvage, 2012
Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province has a thousand-year history of porcelain production thanks to abundant raw materials provided by southern China’s unique geological history, centuries of clay and glaze development, large scale imperial patronage, ravenous global demand, and an enormous industry of specialized and skilled clay fabricators, glaze painters, and kiln firers. This small city was the major source of porcelain for the imperial court as well as for the entire world from the thirteenth through the early nineteenth century, greatly impacting cultural exchange, aesthetics, ceramic technology, and daily life globally.
Europe was not able to produce porcelain until 1709, a thousand years later than <?China and after centuries of experiments throughout the Middle East and Europe. These experiments failed to produce porcelain, but they did develop valuable new ceramic technologies.
Within the past generation Jingdezhen is experiencing a renaissance and has a new role to play in the development of world ceramics. Now that contemporary artists are as mobile and multicultural as Jingdezhen’s historic exports, this city’s remarkable concentration of ceramics expertise and creativity has become a mecca for Chinese and international students, artists, and designers. A variety of educational programs and artist residencies and a wealth of skilled labor and studio workshops support the increasing influx. In exchange, the new talent brings ideas and commissions that expand visions and options.
During the reform period of the last few decades, Jingdezhen’s porcelain artists have been in the unique position of being able to participate in the resurrection, preservation, and contemporary development of their cultural heritage. The confluence of new opportunities for global exchange and creative development within a city, that has maintained the infrastructure and skills for a millennium-old craft tradition, is an extremely rare set of circumstances.
Attracted to Jingdezhen, several contemporary Chinese diaspora artists have come to use porcelain as a “touchstone” for expressing and examining cultural identity. For some of them the cultural mix of Chinese materials with foreign styles in China-trade porcelain has a new relevance. The hybrid nature of historic export ware reflects personal multi-cultural experiences and family histories.
Throughout the twentieth century most Western studio potters and artists rejected the decorative tastes, skilled perfection, and value of the bourgeois objects associated with Chinese export ware and industrial manufacture. In sharp contrast to these aesthetic values, the purity of white porcelain has regained favor among studio potters, contemporary artists are finding new relevance in eighteenth and nineteenth-century aesthetics, and there is a renewed interest in industrial products and processes. For Western artists these areas of relevance include appropriated reuse, reinterpretations of cultural iconography, provocative social commentary, nostalgia with a conceptual edge, and collaborative production processes.
All of the artists in this exhibition have invigorated the development and flowering of contemporary porcelain art in Jingdezhen with the diversity of their cultural perspectives, intellectual and emotional impetus, creative skills, and personal experiences. This fertile period in Jingdezhen’s remarkable history is nourishing a new generation of local talent, capturing global attention, and attracting national and international artists, craftsmen, and designers.