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A visit to the British Ceramics Biennial

Lee Kang-hyo's opening performance
Lee Kang-hyo’s opening performance (image courtesy British Ceramics Biennial)

The first work to greet you as you entered the Spode China Works – the primary venue of the British Ceramics Biennial in Stoke-on-Trent – is the monumental work created in situ by Lee Kang-hyo. At the opening of the exhibition Lee did one of the performances for which he has become known: the decoration of a large pot to the sound of samulnori percussion music. The rough, elemental work is full of energy.

Also in the main venue was the work of Kay Aplin – a deconstructed end view of a Korean pavilion: representations of roof tiles in richly coloured glazed porcelain:

Opposite was the work of Kim Jin and Baek Kyung-won entitled Shadow Workers, paying tribute to the work of female potters in a style familiar to lovers of Wedgwood Jasperware. Reflected in the mirrored acrylic that provided the background of the porcelain figures you could see the rooftiles of Aplin’s Pavilion. Both the Korean potters had a residency at Aplin’s Ceramic House earlier in the year.

In a large space at one end of the works was the collaboration between Neil Brownsword and Oh Hyang-jong. On one side of the room there was a veritable forest of giant onggi vases, the work of the Korean potter. These vases were the last pieces to be manufactured in this space: immediately following the closing of the Biennial, this part of the factory was to be boarded off, awaiting some future property development yet to be specified. Thus the collaboration – which included Neil Brownsword’s performative piece Factory – involving the creation and disposal of clay flowers by Rita Floyd, a former skilled artisan who used to be employed in the potteries – paid tribute to the skills and lives of the workers who have produced Stokes famous products over the decades.

Nearer the window was Brownsword’s Embodied Matter – piles of untreated clay in various forms – a reminder of the sheer physicality of the manufacturing process:

In the centre of the room was the recognisable work of Kim Juree: a detailed model of the Falcon Pottery in unfired clay, gradually subsiding and dissolving into a puddle of mud – sadly and all too accurately representing the derelict condition of the buildings today.

Much of Stoke’s industrial heritage is Grade II Lister, and the costs of maintaining the buildings while also battling against the flood of cheap imported work meant that most factories gave up the struggle years ago, and thus the buildings have become abandoned.

Projected onto the bare brick wall of the interior was a time-lapse video of one of Kim’s Hwigyeong models gradually collapsing (like the one currently displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum):

Kim Juree: Evanescent Landscape: Falcon Pottery Stoke-on-Trent (2017) - with a projection of her Hwigyeong work dissolving in the background
Kim Juree: Evanescent Landscape: Falcon Pottery Stoke-on-Trent (2017) – with a projection of her Hwigyeong work dissolving in the background

Kim Juree’s work was also on show in the museum atttached to the Wedgwood works in Barlastan. Here her work was of workers’ cottages (associated with Stoke’s Middleport Pottery) gradually collapsing.

Slightly less tangible collaborative work was also available: British and Korean sound artists had worked together to create an audio tour: you had to download an app onto you iPhone, and then walk around a couple of locations in the centre of Hanley. Your inbuilt GPS would trigger different ceramic-related sound recordings. Ryu Han-kil’s Texture Shifting could be heard outside the City Central Library, Choi Sehee’s Friction at Bethesda Chapel and Kim Young-eun’s Some Sounds from Kitchenware at AirSpace Gallery. British sound artists Jez riley French, Joseph Young and Jason Singh contributed works audible at the Spode Works, Emma Bridgewater and the Potteries Museum respectively.

Hanley's Bethesda Chapel - site of Sehee Choi's sound piece entitled Friction
Hanley’s Bethesda Chapel – site of Sehee Choi’s sound piece entitled Friction

I kept Lucky Seven Minicabs busy during my day trip from London by rail. Without a car you are at a serious disadvantage if you want to tour the highlights of the potteries. But the trip was well worthwhile as an experience of some of Britain’s heritage and of course to see the collaborations of the individual artists concerned.

The British Ceramics Biennial was at various locations in the Stoke-on-Trent area, 23 Sept – 5 Nov 2017. This article was expanded and updated following a conversation with Neil Brownsword and Kim Juree in the V&A at one of their Open Studios.

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