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The first British ceramics Biennial 2009.

ON LEARNING OF THE PLANS FOR A BRITISH BIENnial (BCB) celebrating the endeavours of its best ceramists I was delighted. Many of our European neighbours have for decades organised such events with great success promoting both artists and country. Indeed last year my review of the French Biennale in Vallauris appeared in this publication.

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I was also heartened to receive the news that the venue for the BCB would be Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire. Stoke is synonymous with the manufacture of ceramics and 'Staffordshire' is a euphemism for pottery in Britain. The region is referred to as the 'Potteries' and is inextricably linked with the names of great ceramic dynasties such as Wedgwood, Spode and Minton. Sadly the area has been in decline since the 1950s and many of the most illustrious names in ceramics are no longer producing but simply exist as brands.

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Therefore hosting the first BCB, heralded as one of the most prestigious events in the country's cultural calendar was important as part of Staffordshire's regeneration initiative. The [pounds sterling]40,000 fund for prizes seemed to guarantee that the event would attract both public and media attention, bringing much needed revenue and investment to this deprived area. Nowhere, I felt, could be more fitting for the launch of this exhibition which is designed to showcase the inventiveness and dynamism of ceramic artists and designers working in Britain today.

In common with many shows of its type, the BCB examines work in four categories: Industry, one off pieces, batch production and ceramics for the built environment. Exhibits from all four categories were to be shown in Stoke's City Museum and Art Gallery which was the main venue for the Biennial. Satellite exhibitions and events were to be held in venues round the famous 'six towns': Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke, Fenton and Longton.

The Museum contains an unparalleled collection of British ceramics covering more than 400 years of production and embraces the work of commercial manufacturers and one off studio pieces. For anyone with a passion for pottery or porcelain, this is a display not to be missed and I was pleased to learn that exhibitors had been encouraged to highlight particular pieces from the collection which had interested or inspired them; thereby, creating a dialogue between past, present and future.

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Unfortunately, the museum is not suited to hosting an event like the BCB as it lacks a suite of spacious galleries where works can be seen to their best advantage instead of being spread out over three levels in spaces unsuited for the purpose. The problem of the inappropriate exhibition space was further exacerbated by the lack of any printed guide as to the location of each category on exhibit. Inexplicably the curators had also chosen not to provide site specific information boards relating to the work of individual exhibitors. This was a major impediment to the viewer's understanding and appreciation of the work as it was even unclear in some instances whom was responsible for a particular piece; a problem sadly not resolved by consulting the attendants present. This proved a frustrating experience for visitors to the exhibition and left some of the exhibits almost unintelligible.

The first exhibition area featuring Batch Production comprised a group of display cases placed awkwardly with little space for the viewer to appreciate the work on exhibit. Pieces by Louisa Taylor, the award winner in this category, stood out from the rest. Her refined range of stacking vessels with exaggerated loop handles had a pleasing simplicity and elegance.

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Having moved into a separate exhibition area, one encountered works from several different categories being shown within the same space. For those unfamiliar with the work of individual makers this was a confusing and unsatisfactory experience. Among others showing in this room was the only Japanese exhibitor Ikuko Iwamoto.

Iwamoto's delicate monochrome porcelain pieces are successful on every level. The viewer is struck by their allusions to natural forms and one can not help but be curious as to how they were created. Fine translucent hemispherical husks appear to be pierced by innumerable thorn-like projections. Multiples of these elements are sensitively arranged both in a case and across a wall to create captivating compositions. The shadows cast by the pieces added an extra dimension to the installation, which was the most memorable of the show, and I was extremely surprised to learn she was not among the prize winners.

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Neil Brownsword's exhibit, awarded the prize for best 'One Off' piece, was also visually compelling. He combined a video sequence depicting a derelict site in the 'Potteries' with a display of found objects and pieces of his own making. Using these he cleverly evoked the history and traditions of the area through his use of shards and discarded kiln furniture. The works had a sculptural quality reminiscent of British Sculptor, Anthony Caro's 'table pieces'. The colour, texture and scale induced an emotional response from the viewer, which for me combined nostalgia for things past and lost with a sense of pleasure at what the future may hold. Though I was impressed with this piece, I was left wondering how much of its impact depended upon the found and video elements. Would his constructions be as potent viewed individually?

Brownsword also contributed another piece to the BCB which was shown in one of the satellite spaces, the Art Space Gallery. The Marl Hole documented his collaboration with Alexandra Engelfriet (Netherlands), Torbjorn Kvasbo (Norway), Pekka Paikkari (Finland) and filmmaker Johnny Magee (UK). The video depicts each artist creating a piece over five days within the environment of Ibstock Brick's marlpit. I cannot say I found this memorable and was certainly more aware of the galleries uncomfortable interior than the impact created by any of the pieces.

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In contrast, the work of Ken Eastman in collaboration with the Royal Crown Derby Porcelain Company made a lasting impression. His series of organic curvilinear vessels decorated with sumptuous Japanese Imari patterns featuring extensive gilding epitomised the ultimate in luxury and ostentation. The asymmetrical nature of the forms combined beautifully with the traditional colours and patterns associated with this great British manufacturer. It was an exciting new departure and Eastman was the fitting recipient of the Industry related award.

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David Roberts' distinctive display of vessels left the viewer reeling at his technical virtuosity and ability to address the present while evoking past civilisations.

Clare Twomey lent an atmospheric and theatrical air to the exhibition with her piece Epoch featuring a table laid with cutlery, crockery and glasses all in white which could have been a set relating to Miss Havisham from Dickens' Great Expectations. This piece had a profound emotional weight as the viewer could not fail to make connections between the exhibit's ghostly whiteness, the redundancy of the objects on the table and the declining fortunes and prominence of Stoke's primary industry.

The organisers of the BCB set out with a grand vision "to reveal Stoke-on-Trent to the world and the world to Stoke-on-Trent". I'm afraid, and disappointed, to say that they failed to achieve this for many different reasons. Accessing the various sites of the exhibition was difficult given the lack of dedicated transport. A shuttle service was provided between venues once per month. Given the disparate range of locations and the difficulty for visitors navigating the labyrinthine traffic systems, this was a major issue. Did the organisers only expect visitors once per month?

Despite their associations with ceramics, all of the venues were, to varying extents, inappropriate for the work on display. This was particularly true of the Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke where the nature of the spaces and their scale meant that some exhibitors were consigned to 'exhibition hell' in a corridor adjacent to loading bay doors and opposite the toilets. Another unsatisfactory aspect also relates to the venues and this was the total absence of a simple information sheet detailing the identity and location of each exhibiting artist. This problem was compounded by the decision not to include information boards within the exhibition. These deficiencies significantly contributed to a sense of dissatisfaction on the part of the visitor who left the Biennial having been denied the opportunity of fully engaging with the work on display.

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Finally, an important element of any exhibition purporting to be of international standing is a well-produced catalogue providing contextual information concerning the event and its specific exhibits and exhibitors. A publication of this type ensures that there is an ongoing awareness of the exhibition, which will lead to greater attendances and participation in the future. The failure of the organisers to produce any sort of catalogue is an act of gross naivety and a disservice to all of those artists and designers whose excellent work deserves to be more widely represented. How can you hope to have a worldwide appeal when you make so little effort to engage with your audience?

An Independent Review by Michael C. Stewart

Michael C. Stewart is a painter and lecturer on Fine Art and Art History. He lives in the UK. (www.michaelcstewart.co.uk)
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Author:Stewart, Michael C.
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 1, 2010
Words:1535
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