Roger Law, artist and satirist
It was a long march from London’s East End to China’s Jingdezhen. The first step was closing the factory gates on the satirical puppet workshop Spitting Image. Moving to Australia, it turned out, was the next great stride. No one can live in Australia for long without becoming very aware of the influence of China, both culturally and economically. As fast as the Australians miners can dig raw materials out of the ground they are shipped to China. And the cultural exchanges between the two countries follow thick and fast. Australia is China’s favoured concubine.
Ah Xian, a Chinese contemporary artist now an Australian citizen, introduced me to Jingdezhen, China’s Porcelain City. First through his work exhibited at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney in 2001, and then when he was kind enough to meet up with me in Jingdezhen.
I was surprised to discover that most of the workshops in Jingdezhen are highly specialised, family businesses – skilful pottery sweatshops, not unlike my Spitting Image puppet factory. Porcelain City was as busy making things as the UK in the 1950s, I felt oddly at home in this strange culture.
I travel extensively in Australia drawing surreal and exotic creatures found in the wetlands and seas around that sunburnt country – everything from Weedy Sea Dragons to Cheer-leader Crabs. I was looking for a way to use this Aussie bestiary.
Finding a way to work collaboratively with artisans in Jingdezhen is problematic. I began working in Porcelain City when failure was affordable. And fail I did. My failures gave me a better understanding of the properties of porcelain and carving seemed to be the way to use my Australian drawings.
Finding craftsmen to work with me was also difficult. ‘Why should I learn to do something I shall never need to do again?’ was one very good answer I received. Finally a young carver, Mr Wu Songming, was willing to risk working with me. The Cheer-leader Crabs and Weedy Sea Dragons started to appear on fine porcelain.
Jingdezhen calls itself Porcelain City with good reason. Over a million pots a week are made there – a small city by China’s standards with most of its 700,000 residents involved in making ceramics. On my first visit to Jingdezhen the workshops were busy turning out copies of copies of traditional designs. The last decade has seen a creative and economic revitalisation of its workshops. The traditional blue-and-white ware of Jingdezhen, Qing Hua, is still the city’s bread and butter, but new designs reflect demand from the growing Chinese middle class.
On my first visit everything in Jingdezhen was filthy – except for the people. How the workers achieved it is a small miracle. After a day on the earth floors of the workshops, strewn with slabs of wet clay and porcelain dust, the men and women emerge spotless, the women’s high heels as clean as the day they were bought. The workshop conditions were grim. No doors in the doors, no glass in the windows. Humid in the summer and brass monkeys in the winter.
I have seen the city change unrecognisably. The bicycles have morphed into motorbikes, the motorbikes to cars. The workshops now have concrete floors but the potteries still ensure plenty of carcinogenic intake of copper, lead, zinc and solvents etc.
My translator, Joey Zhou, refrains from translating when a conversation becomes heated. I can become very volatile in 100% humidity. Joey will wait until things calm down. I asked him why Chinese are not more direct when dealing with problems. ‘That is not the Chinese way.’ Joey replied sagely. ‘They will say nothing and hate you secretly.’
ROGER LAW is at Sladmore Contemporary from 30 October to 15 November.
The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum to 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP