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Art of Clay on New Track

Ceramics are no longer merely containers for food or drink that our ancient ancestors started to make and use thousands of years ago.

Ceramics are no longer even just beautiful decorations that people put in a cupboard or on a desk to show off their social status and aesthetic tastes.

In modern times, a ceramic work of art may well be neither useful in daily life nor pleasant to the eyes of ordinary art lovers. But it is very likely to touch or shock a viewer's heart and soul. That is modern ceramic art, or new ceramic art, in professional terms.

Although new ceramic art as part of modern art has developed in Europe since the late 19th century and has prospered in the United States in the past 50 years or so, the trend has only emerged since the early 1980s in China -- a world repository of traditional ceramics -- as a result of diversification of art forms accompanied by rapid economic development, experts say.

"It is true that new ceramic art emerged in China relatively late but Chinese new ceramic art has, since the very beginning, taken a road very different from that of any other nations and regions in the world," remarked Hang Jian, a professor of art history and theory from the College of Fine Art of Tsinghua University in Beijing, the former Central Academy of Arts and Crafts.

Ceramicists as Designers

According to Hang, the attempts of modern Chinese ceramicists to reform this traditional applied art can be traced back to the 1950s when Zhu Da'nian, a professor from the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts, was responsible for producing a new type of porcelain vessel that was different from the products of former official kilns for State banquets of the newly born People's Republic of China.

Zhu, who had studied ceramics in Japan, introduced some modern elements in the designs to create a style that was highly decorative, brightly colored and with distinctive human interest.

In addition to Zhu, most of the first generation of New China ceramicists -- including Gao Zhuang, Mei Jianying and Zheng Ke -- studied abroad and were influenced by Western modern ceramic art of the early 20th century, Hang said.

But, for more than two decades, their reforms were primarily limited to blending the practical functions with decorative beauty in producing ceramic works for daily use.

Ceramic design entered the mainstream in colleges of art and most ceramics graduates of schools such as the former Central Academy of Arts and Crafts became designers of ceramics for daily use, instead of artisans in a traditional sense.

The second generation of New China ceramicists, who were mostly students of the first generation of ceramicists, basically followed their teachers but distinguished themselves by the introduction of new concepts that stimulated the movement of Chinese new ceramic art around the same time as the 1985 New Art Wave in China. Among these ceramicists are Chen Jinhai, Chen Ruoju, Yang Yongshan, Zhang Shouzhi and Zhou Guozhen.

Ceramics as Art

It was only in the early 1980s that China witnessed the rise of a new generation of professional artists who managed to express themselves through the media of clay and fire.

A group of artists in Southwest China's Guizhou Province, including Liu Ying and Yin Guangzhong, took the lead in exhibiting their ceramic art works, mostly earthenware. The works immediately caught the attention of critics and the public due to their strong sense of social concern in concept and an impressive primitive power in form.

In the late 1980s, more ceramics graduates from art schools joined the movement of Chinese new ceramic art and soon grew to become the backbone of the trend. These ceramic artists are more sensitive to new trends and are more capable of strategic thinking in a global cultural context.

Yi Ying, an art critic and professor from the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing, said: "In contemporary society, ceramics have gradually broken away from the practical functions of traditional ceramics as well as the tendency of aestheticism that derived from that. As a modern art form, ceramic art has been equipped with the functions of modern art in its aesthetic nature, formalistic expressions and stance in cultural criticism."

As a result, Yi said, there are three basic types of new ceramic art in contemporary China. Artists such as Bai Lei, Chen Zhengxun, Lu Bing and Yang Guoxin seek to explore the formalistic possibilities of the media of clay and fire. Their works are often noted for their incomplete texture, impromptus touches, and shapes that are achieved incidentally as a result of material and temperature.

Artists Liu Zheng, Luo Xiaoping and Zhang Xiaoli however, used the art of ceramics more as a means of self-expression and a reflection of their own living experience in contemporary society. Zhang Xiaoli's work "Flowing Brush No 2" is one such example that vividly records the feelings of the individual artist. The linear movement of the brush and the static product after firing create an interesting contrast.

The third type of Chinese new ceramic art is more prone to social and cultural criticism of problems of contemporary society and culture, representing a greater leap forward for ceramics as a modern art. Among the artists representative of this type are Bai Ming, Lu Pinchang, Zheng Ning and Zuo Zhengyao. Bai's recent porcelain series "Form and Process," for example, tends to express his attitude towards traditional culture, which he believes is both time-worn and sensitive. The effects of traditional Chinese ink painting are introduced into the ceramic work that is in the form of an installation project.

"In my understanding, modern ceramic art primarily explores the inner world of the human being in modern society, rather than the real world itself. Through new methods and forms, it reflects the flow of thoughts and people's interpretations of the world and the society in which they are living," said Bai, who is also a teacher at the College of Fine Art of Tsinghua University.

Problems and the Future

Also an avid promoter of Chinese new ceramic art, Bai said that new ceramic artists in China have been able to keep their distance from the dominant influences of theories and styles of Western modern ceramic art, building up their individual styles and an increasingly mature local art. At the same time, they continue to apply the new techniques, materials and methods of Western modern ceramic art in their own artistic creation.

As well as Bai Ming, artists such as Bai Lei, Lu Bing, Luo Xiaoping, Yao Yongkang, Zhou Guozhen and Zuo Zhengyao have enjoyed recognition both nationally and internationally in recent years.

But Bai Ming pointed out that ceramic works by contemporary Chinese artists are not rich and diverse enough in style, material and technique. "There are not many classic works and ceramic artists of this time," Bai said.

"What is even more worrying is that many contemporary ceramic artists are not very knowledgeable about art history and the history of ceramic art itself. They still put too much emphasis on techniques and methods, which can be largely blamed on the poor education in ceramic art in Chinese colleges today," Bai continued.

"Without a profound knowledge of visual images, it is hard to make clear the complicated relations between Eastern art and Western art, and traditional art and modern art. It is even difficult for a ceramic artist to find his or her own position."

Experts such as Pi Daojian, an art critic and professor from the Guangzhou-based South China Normal University, agree that it is impossible for modern ceramic art to break away totally from tradition. It is noteworthy that, since the mid-1990s, more and more Chinese ceramic artists have realized the importance of traditional ceramic art as a resource in developing a local type of new ceramic art.

"We have every reason to believe that Chinese modern ceramic art since the 1990s, like the experimental ink painting of China since the 1990s, has developed an important artistic language in contemporary Chinese art," remarked Pi.

"Because of their inborn relationship with Chinese traditional culture, the arts are more practical and forceful in promoting the modern transformation of Chinese culture than various Western art forms."

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