Thursday, August 25, 2016

In the southern part of the mountainous heartland of China is an iconic city rich in history and culture. The one and half million people that live there navigate the city in what seemed to be utter chaos, but was actually a well-choreographed normality of everyday life. Go to the city center and you will find various groups of people carrying out aerobic exercises, carts of freshly steamed dumplings, and life-scale bronze statues of working potters. This is the city of Jingdezhen, commonly referred to as the world's ‘porcelain capital.’  Everywhere you look there are porcelain workshops, giftshops, antique shops, potters, sculptors, glazers, and kilns. Between them are delicate porcelain works being transported by the cartful amongst the rapid buzz of cars and scooter horns.  

A bronze sculpture of a potter in the city center.
In the midst of all this there is a studio that operates at a different pace, where you can find a man with red-rimmed glasses delicately cleaning an intricate mold of a teacup in an atmosphere of solitude and calm. This is the studio of Takeshi Yasuda, a world-renowned ceramic artist that has been located in Jindezhen for more than a decade. I was recently given the privilege of traveling to China to work with him in his studio thanks to the Warren Mackenzie Advancement Award granted by the Northern Clay Center. It was a month of my life full of culture shock and deep investigation into the life and studio practice of an artist who is a continual inspiration to me. 

A crosswalk signal in Cobalt Blue
I should start by attempting to describe the remarkable nature of Jindezhen. What is astonishing to me is the scope and presence of ceramics throughout the entire city. Aside from the colorful shop signs lining the streets, there is a consistent blue and white color scheme everywhere made up mostly of the iconic white porcelain with cobalt blue decoration. The sidewalks are adorned with the occasional mosaic pattern, porcelain tiles are often incorporated into the sides of buildings and fences, and giant thrown porcelain cylinders encase street lights and traffic signals. One day I came across a plumbing operation in which workers had uncovered layers of earth about 8 feet below the street level. There I saw literally thousands of small pottery shards acting as filler to the grounds beneath the sidewalks.  Porcelain was all around me, even embedded in the ground I walked on.   

A typical Porcelain shop

Jingdezhen began dominating the global production of porcelain over 1000 years ago during the Song Dynasty.  Before then, porcelain was made up of only one raw earth material referred to as petuntse, or 'china stone.' Found primarily in the south of modern-day China, the clay was mostly feldspathic and therefore produced the luscious translucency of the material. The simplicity of the clay also made it extremely difficult to work with. Pots were often warped and disfigured as a result of over-firing.  The success rate of each kiln was so low that scarcity of the material was beginning to become an issue. It was soon discovered that kaolin, a similar volcanic mineral to china stone, could be added to increase the refractory levels of the clay. The stronger, more versatile clay body instantly became the Chinese standard of excellence. It was at this time that Changnan Town, situated at the south of the Changing River, became the center of porcelain production because of its close proximity to both china stone and kaolin deposits. During the Jingde period of the Song Dynasty(1004-1007 A.D.), Changnan Town was renamed to Jingdezhen, or 'Jingde Town.' With some modernized techniques, Jingdezhen continues the tradition of being a hub of porcelain production in China.

An example of Takeshi's current work

I discovered Takeshi’s work while studying abroad in England. I came across the Design Sourcebook: Ceramics by Edmund De Waal and found a section devoted to Takeshi’s creamware series. I was drawn to the work for the way that it solved the simple problems of ergonomics and utility. Takeshi has a clever sense of discovering how pots can be held and how they work. His current work is a continuation of his ingenuity, but I do think that it has a heightened sense of process. He talked to me about how the potter's wheel was invented to help ease the process of rapidly making pottery and how he tries to explore different applications of it as a tool to make personalized expression. Pots are at times assembled with thrown pieces that were formed upside down, the lips of bowls are formed by violently ripping clay from the walls, and tool markings are left to deliberately archive a cut or scrape mark during the plastic state of the porcelain. He told me that he is not concerned with efficiency or  rapid production, but rather with whatever is necessary to make the intended expression. Each mark is made using the seductive local porcelain and barely-blue glaze, occasionally embellished with a brilliant gold luster. It’s a glacial, enduring surface that enables the work to evoke a timeless presence. Takeshi’s work is a collection of ideas that challenge common practices of making vessels and the result is always a straightforward well executed formal gesture.  

My job was to immerse myself in Jingdezhen through the lens of Takeshi Yasuda’s studio and learn as much as I could about this wild new place. The challenge of taking full advantage of such a rare opportunity is as exciting as it is daunting. Thanks again to the Norther Clay Center and the Warren Mackenzie Advancement Award for the ability to take this trip.

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