Ai WeiWei’s Unbroken is coming to Toronto’s Gardiner Museum

The Gardiner Museum in Toronto will be hosting Ai WeiWei’s Unbroken this spring.  The exhibition opens on 28 February and continues until 9 June. Today, all that was visible was a sign saying ‘Installation in Progress’.

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This is not the first time that Ai’s work has been shown in Toronto.  In 2013, the Art Gallery of Ontario exhibited Ai WeiWei:  According to What? .  For me, the most moving section of this large exhibition was Remembering.  If you did not know the work of Ai, you might just walk past the stack of children’s backpacks.  For Ai, this was the singular work that landed him in trouble with the Chinese authorities.  The story is one of unnecessary tragedy.  In 2008, a earthquake destroyed a school in Sichuan Province.  Parents asked why the relative new building should collapse so easily.  The answer that they came to was that it was due to government negligence, a lack of building codes and regulations.  Ai could not shake the scenes of devastation from his mind and he searched for information on how many had been killed.  Months and months he spent collecting the names of the 5219 children who died that day.  A year later, Remembering opened in Munich.  Ai covered the  facade of Haus der Kunst’s with a quote from one of the children’s mothers spelled out using children’s backpacks.  The design he used and the colours were inspired by the Toys R Us logo. On his return to PRC, Ai was jailed for being a dissident for eighty-one days.  In 2015 he was allowed to leave China.  Ai does not know if he will ever return.  The authorities tell him that he is free but he doesn’t trust them.  He first relocated to Berlin with his family; he has his studio there.  Today, he still works at his studio in Munich but lives in Connecticut.  One of the biggest questions I have is:  Will Ai take on the humanitarian issues related to immigration and the United States now that he is living in that country again?

Unbroken contains elements of several previous shows.  In fact, his performance, caught in photographs, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, is probably one of his most iconic.  Others included at the Gardiner will be Sunflower Seeds and Coca Cola.  Sunflowers was first shown at the Tate Modern in 2010.  It was part of the Unilever Series and consisted of  100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seed husks spread over the floor of Turbine Hall.  Viewers were initially invited to walk across the installation but the ensuing amount of dust laden with silica caused the Tate Modern to rope off the exhibition for the health and safety of its staff and those coming to view the work.  Much of the significance of the piece was, thus, lost.

Porcelain is synonymous with China.  Indeed, many of you might have used the term ‘China’ to refer to the porcelain dinnerware belonging to your grandmothers.  The 100 million husks were made by hand and painted individually by individuals working in Jingdezhen, the porcelain capital of China.  Many saw the work as a comment on the global politicsl of cultural and economic exchange while others look to the significance of the symbolism of the ‘Sun’ and the ‘Sunflower’ in reference to Mao and his followers. Others see this as a comment on the individual within mass society; each of the individual seeds is part of the greater whole.  For those working within the field of ceramics, it is easy to ponder the working conditions of masses of individuals producing porcelain that boasts the economy of the country while all make very little income.

In 1995, Ai began painting Han Dynasty urns with the recognizable emblem of the American soft drink maker, Coca-Cola.  It should be noted that he has not stopped painting them since he began.  Sotheby’s has the occasional one in a sale.  These pieces are terribly subversive.  They immediately imply the destruction of China’s traditional culture!   At their first showings, visitors wondered if the vases that Ai had so boldly painted with the bright red lettering, Coca Cola, were actually fakes.  Anyone who has visited the Saturday Dirt Market in Beijing knows precisely how well ceramic fakes are constructed in PRC.  Han vases and tiny clay figurines from the same era are offered alongside ‘original’ Song dynasty yellow porcelain cups for a few dollars.  On the one hand, the act of defacing the Han vase is an iconoclasm no different than when the Muslims capturing Constantinople destroyed the mosaics in the Haiga Sophia.  Ai assures everyone that the vases are authentic and so plentiful that their monetary and cultural value is negligible.  Still, for those who do not know this, the act of dropping an ancient piece of art is unthinkable and, as with any other art work, raises both alarm and questions.  It is interesting to note that Coke was being sold in China in 1920.  It is one of the oldest American firms trading in the country and in 2009 accounted for half of the soft drink sales in the country.  Some argue that the shared imagery – that of a traditional ceramic urn made by anyone covered with a bright red American logo, is a fitting allegory for twenty-first century Chinese culture as the country grows into the number one consumer culture in the world (set in 2019 to be the leading purchaser of luxury goods).

It is an exciting time for anyone interested in the work of this contemporary artist.  And a big round of applause goes to the Gardiner.  Their director and curators have worked hard to keep ceramics relevant.  As such, they have brought world-class speakers and exhibitions to Toronto.  Not long ago there was a conversation with Garth Clarke, another was the co-sponsorship with the AGO of Edmund de Waal’s talk on the history of porcelain coinciding with the launch of his book, The White Road.  Last year, Yoko Ono’s Riverbed came to the City.  I only wish I lived closer……

 

 

Kendra Wile’s Secret Gardens

Teaching beginning wheel throwing where students meet once a week for three hours for a period of twelve to thirteen weeks can be a challenge.  For the students, it takes dedication, perseverance, time, and a lack of fear of failure to be successful.  Some of you might have followed this blog for the past you months.  If so, you will know that I had the most extraordinary group of talented young women in this single class.  I was blessed.  Many of them could be found working at any hour of the day or night in the throwing room.  Kendra Wile was no exception.  Also, she always had a smile on her face.

The last assignment for the students allowed them flexibility.  It read:

THIS IS A CHANCE FOR YOU TO ADD SOME ORIGINALITY AND INNOVATION IN YOUR WORK.  IT COULD BE THE WAY THAT YOU SHAPE THE CLAY, DECORATE THE SURFACE, OR COMBINE THE INDIVIDUAL FORMS TOGETHER.  USING A MINIMUM OF 8 DIFFERENT FORMS, YOU ARE TO CREATE A SINGLE OBJECT OR A SET THAT REPRESENTS YOUR OWN AESTHETIC IN CERAMICS.  THIS MEANS THAT YOU HAVE TO CONSIDER BOTH THE FORM AND THE FINISH.  YOUR PROJECT WILL BE GRADED ON 40 % QUALITY OF THE THROWING AND ASSEMBLAGE, 40 % QUALITY OF THE GLAZING AND APPROPRIATENESS TO THE AESTHETIC THAT IS YOUR OWN, AND 10% FOR VISUALIZING YOUR IDEA IN CLAY AND 10% FOR APPROPRIATE PRESENTATION.  – WITHIN A LIMITED FRAMEWORK, THIS IS A CHANCE FOR YOU TO BE YOU!

My very best friend, the late Charlie Scott, who started the wood firing tradition at the School of Art, always said that ceramics was more like architecture than any other medium.   Ironically and sadly, Kendra will be leaving the School of Art and taking a place in the Faculty of Architecture this coming year.   Her last project suggests that she is extremely patient, knows how to deal with enclosed space, can offer surprises with the reveal, and understands the use of colour.  She also makes decisions that are best for the project at hand, switching up her approach to firing and colour.

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Kendra created what on the surface looked like four soup or latte bowls with various knobs.  She quietly sat them down on the lower platform and walked away, saying nothing.  Little did any of her classmates expect the environments inside when they lifted the lids.  Ellina was fascinated.  She got really close staring into the tiny interior environments.

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In the end, Kendra chooses wisely.  She opted to use underglaze stains and fire her work in a cone 5 or 6 oxidation environment in one of the electric kilns rather than lose the detail in the gas reduction kiln.  Can you imagine the time it took her to create each one of these?  Did she secretly use tweezers?  And how many times did she have to redo an interior?  We will never know!

What I do know is that exciting things are going to come from this very creative young woman and I, for one, cannot wait to see what she will design and what kind of a name she will make for herself in the world of architecture.

Sara loves porcelain

Sara Berg has been working with clay for a little over a year.  One day after our class, Sara came to talk about the clay that the School was buying for the students:  Danish White.  She didn’t like it and insisted that her work would improve enormously if she were allowed to use porcelain.  I don’t know how many ceramic instructors have had a student come and declare an affinity with porcelain so early in their education but, I never had.  Indeed, for those of you unfamiliar with porcelain it is, as famed Canadian ceramist Harlan House proclaims, ‘a difficult mistress’.  Porcelain was made famous by the Chinese early in their history.  China has, along with Germany, the right drying conditions for this pure white material – lots of humidity and the right temperatures.  It needs to be dried slowly.  Our throwing area sometimes obliges but on more occasions than not, it doesn’t.  Everything dries too quickly!  House also says that one has to love trimming because, with porcelain, you will be doing a lot of it.  None of this, of course, daunted Sara.  With my permission she went off to purchase a box of porcelain returning to the ceramics area where she worked most of the night.  Sara was right.  She has a wonderful relationship with this fine bodied clay.  In a former life, it is quite conceivable that she was a porcelain master.

Over the course of three months in the summer of 2018, Sara worked on her cobalt blue painting.  She devoured any book that crossed her path on ancient Chinese  ceramics and, in particular, the beautiful blue and white of the Yuan and Ming dynasties.  Just like the painting students at the School who learn by copying and then changing the work of the old masters, Sara studied the shapes and the painted decorations.  In the process she began to learn the symbols that the Chinese used and what they meant to their culture.  On some work she added a contemporary twist.   During the fall of 2018 she abandoned the standard studio glazes used by most of the ceramic students and began a study of Chinese Chun and celadon glazes.  Mixing and testing, firing, taking photos, making notes – all of this became second nature to her.  And it has paid off with some remarkable work.  She also pushed herself more and more with her trimming to the point that her work was almost too thin!

In 2019, Sara Berg will begin her Honours year.  For Sara, who lives and dreams porcelain, it will give her a chance to focus entirely on her exhibition pieces.  In the meanwhile, it is sheer joy to stand back and watch such a talented young woman continually honing her skills.  Porcelain is, indeed, her ikigai – that thing that she wakes up in the morning so happy to do, wanting to learn more and more and never getting bored.

 

The second wood firing had its challenges but it was very successful and all were happy.

It is one thing to fire your own wood kiln so many times that you know its behaviour.  And, yes, we can predict certain things but students brand ‘new’ to wood firing or only having participated in a single wood firing workshop are handicapped to say the least.  Our kiln was designed to use Poplar logs but we cannot get Poplar logs in the late fall.  They have been cut and split for firewood sales.  So, we tried oak slabs, very hard oak slabs and a partial grate.  What did we discover?  The kiln can reach 13.5 on the Oxyprobe in 12 hours with a 3 hour gas pre-heat.  The top of the kiln needs to be ignored.  Oak by itself is not good.  It creates immense amounts of ember but if you want to raise the temperature and finish the job, it had to be mixed with scrap lumber and pine.  The ration was 1 part oak to whatever else we could lay our hands on.  The pots, as anticipated, that were placed in the throat had amazing yohen effects.  Kusakabe would love them!  The students also learned many things about the glazes.

In the ceramics area we have big pails of ‘shop glazes’.  I have no idea who started this practice and, at times, it is a hindrance, not a help.  The students – because the tiles show the glazes by themselves and then mixed with one other studio glaze, cause a lot of dipping.  Dipping without thought, dipping and getting the glaze too thick and when the work comes out fantastic the dipping often causes blank looks on the faces of the students!  Of course they have been told to have a method of recording so that they know what they did and could replicate it.  One of the best of these ‘dipping’ pieces was a tea bowl by Jiawei Dai.  I wish I had a photo of it.  She put temmoku underneath and Haystack Green on the upper half.  It was fantastic.  In fact, those old Sun dynasty glazes fired in the wood kilns of 9th and 10th century China are superb.  The other glazes were the ash ones that we made out of the Poplar ash from the first firing.  Those included a Nuka (gorgeous soft white), a red made with half ash and half low fire red clay, and an amber.

The bagwall question plagued us.  In the end, we put it at the back and loaded the middle half of the kiln tight and put Kewen’s walls there so that we would, hopefully, keep the flames dancing about and the ash as well.  It seems to have worked great!

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We also had lots of ash…did someone say a 12 hour firing in a Bourry box doesn’t produce ash?  It does!  and almost all of the students got to experience what every wood firing potter in the world knows:  grinding is a part of the process.  They also learned about alumina hydrate and the difference between wadding made with it and without.

They were a great group, full of laughter, great at problem solving, and community minded.  Everyone did their part.  Even one of the students who had recent foot surgery showed up on the last day and found that while they couldn’t be outside in the cold, they could grind and clean shelves.  Incredible.  They are such a good group and the plan is to fire the kiln again in April when the weather has warmed up (or in May) outside of a class for fun and also for them to be able to undertake it with some assurances about the oak and the other scraps and pine – that it works!

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The final group critique for the Beginning Wheel Throwing Class

It is hard to believe that it is now December 6.  The students in the Beginning Wheel Throwing class worked for the entire month of September to perfect their cylinders.  Then they moved on to throwing bowls off the hump as well as with throwing individual bowls on bats in October and early November.  For the last few weeks they have been working on their final project for the course.  This was a chance for them to add some originality and innovation in their work rather than following the strict guidelines of the previous two projects.  Using a minimum of 8 different forms, they were to create a single object or a set that represented their aesthetics.  The range of work really did reflect much about their own personalities and aesthetics.

Miao Liu loves copper red glazes and was very disappointed that the School did not have a copper red in the studio glazes.  But she worked with what was available and discovered that the combination of two glazes, equal parts clear and Haystack Green, can, if fired in the right part of the gas kiln in a highly reduced atmosphere, produce copper red.  Her study in small flower vases was tied together through glaze.  Haley Bean chose to make a very contemporary tea set with straight sides and pulled handles, formed in such a way when she attached them that they had an urban edge.  This was in great contrast to the more vibrant curves of the mugs made by Leandra Brandson.  Allison Banman took an entirely different approach.  Her project would be, in the end, gifts for friends and family.  She successfully carved and incised special quotes for one, cats for another, dragon flies for yet another – a time consuming task that often fails for beginners because they get the cut outs too close together.

Bowls are the mainstay of potters around the world.  A former student did a project and in it, Anwen described the meaning of a bowl for the Chinese.  It is what you eat out of every day – not the plates of Westerners.  Various shaped bowls are used for soup and rice.  If one loses their job, their bowl is symbolically broken as they have shamed their family.  Thinking about other cultures such as the Anazasi, they placed bowls on top of the heads of the deceased, piercing the center of the bottom in order to release the soul of the dead.  For us, bowls are comforting.  You can wrap your hands around them and warm up in the winter.  You can fill them with nourishing food holding your hands out in offering.  Carolyn Dyck created two series of delicate mixing bowls using a specific dowel to make certain that the height and width complimented one another.  One set was in the shape of the Sung dynasty lotus rimmed bowls while the other was plain.  One was made out of Danish White while the other was out of Death Valley – giving her an opportunity to explore the reaction of the two clay bodies with a similar glaze in the reduction kiln. Hyounjung Lee worked on rice bowls while others opted to challenge themselves by taking on the teapot.  Ellina Pe Benito was not frightened away by the thought of a tea set complete with serving plate, creamer and sugar.  But, as she knew, you have to make more than one because, invariably, something happens.  Greenware can break, pieces can stick to the kiln shelves while others may tip over in the kiln and stick to one another.  You have to always have a back up plan.  Ellina also remembered to keep the top of the spout higher than the rim so the hot tea would not go pouring out all over the table.  Tingjung Meng worked on serving and eating dishes in the Asian style while others, such as Hae Lim Choi, made coordinating cups, saucers, and plates.  Cassandra Cochrane created tiny espresso cups with rolled handles.  Lauren Sneesby is the only person I have met who created mosquito coils in the shape of pigs while Hannah worked on a sculpture in the shape of a watering can.  Eun Choi opted to paint her rose with acrylics knowing that the colours would be washed out in a cone 10 firing.  Kendra Wile surprised everyone with what was hidden inside her cups – landscapes of the ocean and the desert.  I really hope that I have not missed anyone!  Each was very special.

This group of young women stuck it out through the throwing of hundreds of cylinders to get 40 good ones for grading.  They spent all their spare time in the clay studio for approximately six weeks until the pressure was off and they could center the clay without it controlling them.  I cannot wait to see what they do in the future.

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Hospitalfield Residency

It was such a wonderful surprise Friday morning to open my mail and find out that my submission to be a resident artist at Hospitalfield in Arbroath, Scotland was successful!  Located outside a little fishing village on the North Sea about an hour and a half’s drive from Edinburgh, Hospitalfield was founded in the 13th century by Tironesian monks.  Back then it was a hospise for those who had either leprosy or the plague.  In 1665, it was purchased by James Fraser.  Wikipedia tells me that Sir Walter Scott stayed here in 1803 and 1809 and used it as the model for  ‘Monkbarns’, in The Antiquary published in 1813.  Patrick Allan-Fraser later gifted the property to be an arts center.  Hospitalfield was Scotland’s very first School of Fine Art and the first art college in Britain.  Many prominent Scottish artists have spent time here, either studying or as a resident.  They include Joan Eardley, Peter Howson, Wendy McMurdo, Callum Innes, Alasdair Grey among a highlighted list of others.  Today, the center encourages artists of all ages, disciplines, and backgrounds to apply to work together in their beautiful natural lit studios.

My project examines the transience of time using ceramics, photography, and weaving.  I will be photographing the landscape many times during the day while I am living there.  Those images will be translated into colour slips for my bottles.  Eventually, there will be 56 finished works representing the time spent in Scotland.  These are part of a much larger installation for an exhibition at the School of Art Gallery, University of Manitoba, in the summer.  It is especially inspiring that a jury, consisting of individuals who did not previously know me or my work, should give my project a vote of confidence.  For me, personally, it comes at a time of transition in my life and work and to say I am excited about this opportunity would be an understatement.

Afternoon tea with Destiny, Gunda, Terry, and Harlan

I am not actually having afternoon tea with Destiny, Gunda, Terry, and Harlan but, oh, how nice that would be!  But they are here with me regardless.  Harlan House’s Row House candle holder is always somewhere easily in sight.  Oh, what a nice man Harlan is.  He stopped having his annual open houses a couple of years ago but he still takes calls from collectors and clients and hasn’t stopped working.  He just wants to set his own schedule and after more than 50 years of working with porcelain surely he has earned it.  Harlan has also left another legacy.  He spent the past couple of years working on a digital book.  You can find it on his website – just search Google or ask Siri.  Last week he said that I knew everything that was in it but he hoped it would help my students.  And, indeed, it will just like the videos that he has inserted in his site have helped them to understand the great amount of effort that one has to put into trimming if they want to work with porcelain.  Most are too much of a hurry to allow the porcelain to cure as it dries.  For those of you who read my article on Harlan in Art and Perception you will know this story but, for those of you that don’t, it is a good way to remember to take care with your work.  You can have a giggle, too.  Harlan built a room within his carriage house studio to dry his porcelain.  He put regular household bricks on the floor and there were windows and those baby humidifiers from the 1970s shooting out their warm mist.  His thrown pieces were on shelves where he could see them through the windows.  He said, “These platters are kind of like a love affair.  At first, everything is perfect.  Then about two weeks in you start to notice little things begin to happen” – an upturn of the lip -.  He would remove the pieces, place them back on the wheel and return them to dry.  I never did find out how many trips those large thrown platters made in and out.  By the time they made it to the gallery they were exceptional. but

Gunda is never far away but, this weekend she is firing her wood kiln in Canyon, BC getting ready for the last big market of the year.  Her temmokus are luscious – I do repeat that often.  They break at the rim and over the finger marks into a gorgeous kaki.  Someone told me once that she could “just fire them in a gas kiln”.  Of course, she could but then she would not be part of the complete process.  She often makes her own clays and mixes her own glazes.  She is part of every aspect of the firing and my back breaks when I think of her climbing in and out of her Manibigama kiln with the heavy silicon carbide shelves.  But, if she put everything in the gas kiln it would lose that subtle softness that only comes with wood firing.  Gunda is the only studio potter I know of that makes her teapots so that you can actually fit, with ease, one of those large strainers in the top opening.  I thank her every time I want to make a full pot…and she is with me in spirit every day otherwise I would find myself travelling to BC far too often.

This is what I mean when I talk about the joy that quality handmade items make to your life.  I am not talking about the “crap” out there and the word “craft” still gets a bad name from people who purchase bags of parts of things and assemble them together and call themselves an artist.  It takes a long time of study and the mastery of the material to be someone whose work won’t make it into the garage sale in five years time.  Terry Hildebrand is young.  I wrote about my favourite plates of his yesterday.  Today one of them is holding the offering of lemon and rosemary scones to my guest while Destiny Seymour’s textile ties the whole lot of these lovely people together.

We have a very close friend, Ruby, who is a Cree Medicine Woman.  She deals with the dead.  But she has imparted a lot of wisdom to me over the years (thank you, Ruby).  One thing that I learned is to only surround yourself with the work of “good” people.  Remove the objects made by those who carry negative energy.  The world is full of it, why bring that into your house?  How lucky am I then to be having Saturday afternoon tea with such a remarkable, creative group of good and kind people?  Think about that when you are shopping, too and support these wonderful makers who have chosen to live a creative life.