Two weeks of camping, driving, painting, hiking, and playing Bananagrams in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada.
I arrived in Jingdezhen just after dark. The streets, illuminated by streetlights atop pillars of blue and white porcelain, buzzed with the honks of car horns and swerving scooters, chinese pop music playing from speakers as women of all ages danced in unison in the small, shadowy parks. People spilled out of storefronts onto uneven sidewalks, slurping noodles and shooing away hungry dogs. Osaka, Japan, which I had left only twelve hours earlier, seemed like a different universe.
I’ve been afraid to write about Jingdezhen (these photos have sat wordlessly for nearly a month) because I’ve read so much excellent writing that has fallen short. The city has been described by eloquent (and often exoticising) laowai for as long as they have been visiting, which is to say at least 500 years, and even the best descriptions I have found leave me feeling incomplete and frustrated. Today I shed a tear in an art gallery in Santiago, Chile, watching a movie about Ai Weiwei’s porcelain sunflower seeds being made in Jingdezhen. More specifically, I cried as I watched other people watch the documentary, half-engaged, distracted. I cried because, despite the film’s beauty and authenticity, it couldn’t begin to capture the city. I was forced to accept that I won’t be able to, either. Not in words, not in photos, not in video, not even in my own memory. I also cried because I’m having a rare IUD period from the body wackiness of an Australia to Chile time change, but that doesn’t make my feelings any less valid!
That massive disclaimer aside, I have come to terms with the fact that I need to at least TRY to write about my two months spent in China, sooner rather than later. After eight months mostly on my own logistics-wise, it was a welcome relief (and necessity, in China) to have the support of an artist residency at The Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen. This meant my own room in a building with other artists from around the world (Sweden, The Netherlands, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong), a gorgeous communal studio space next door, communal meals, weekly lectures (including giving one myself!), and help with navigation, translation, and trip planning. The narrow streets surrounding The Pottery Workshop are lined with expert mold makers, model makers, tools shops, public kilns, glaze sprayers, blue and white painters, boxmakers, packaging shops, and, of course, finished ceramic objects old and new of all kinds for sale. I faced a bit of a conundrum: I could make large quantities of porcelain work here relatively cheaply, but 1. This isn’t really the type of work I want to make and 2. The shipping of ceramics is expensive and I have nowhere to store or show or sell it when I return to the United States. I opted instead to focus on photography and a few unfired clay projects, before finally deciding to fire a set of unglazed porcelain cups and a series of 100+ small geologic structures near the end of my stay, filling one very heavy box that will, fingers crossed, beat me home to Colorado by a few days.
Jingdezhen is changing fast. By the end of my time there I could grasp the seeming paradox of how a city with over one million people could still be considered a “small town.” In the two months I was there, a new rooftop bar opened next door to The Pottery Workshop, a building behind The Pottery Workshop was torn down and rebuilt, and nostalgic stories of “last year” described changes that should seemingly take decades given my limited understanding of urban development timelines. I could write endlessly of the tensions between tradition and innovation (I bought a small 3-D printed porcelain vase in Jingdezhen for the irresistible irony of it), consistency vs originality (very different from the culture of appreciating the mark of the maker and imperfections in Japan), or even geology vs human stubbornness (the geology of this place made it what it is, but it’s now the collective human knowledge here that causes it to remain a center for ceramic production).
Highlights from my time in China beyond the wonderland of the sculpture factory included exploring vast museums of kilns and historical ceramics, hiking cliffside paths in the clouds at the taoist mountain sanctuary of Sanqingshan, and a whirlwind tour of Shanghai on my final day, ending with a Maglev train to catch a flight to Melbourne after five months in Asia.
Japan. The longest time I’ll spend in any one country, 88 days, pushing the limits of a tourist visa but still only time to scratch the surface of this country both geographically and conceptually. In order to organize my thoughts for writing this I made a list of what I did in Japan and the list alone was long enough to be a post. And so, because I have a lecture to prepare in China (!!!!) and an empty studio waiting to be filled with work, here are one hundred exclamations from Japan:
Tokyo! New Years! Earthquakes! Pasmo card! Shibuya! Shinjuku! Asakusa! Uniqlo! Meiji! Muji! Vending machines! Hostel friends! Karaoke! Heated toilets! Squat toilets! Strong zero! Fuji! Tofu! Shake Shack! Kamakura! Calorie Mate! Jump rope tournament! Sumo! Mt. Takao! I’m 23! Snow! Leandro Erlich! Yuta Nakamura! Denki Buro! Design Sight 21-21! Squid! 7-11! Udon! Soba! Sushi! Okonomiyaki! Kinako! Burritos! Mashiko! Shino! Oribe! Tenmoku! Raw clay! Throwing! Teaching throwing! Guacamole! Cat! Rabbit! Strawberries! Kilns! Nanotechnology expo! Bioart conference! Ionat Zurr! Casio! Slippers! Ueno! Ice Cream! Reading books! Coffee! Pizza bun! Tokyo Marathon! Hakuba! Snow monkeys! Nagano! Sake! Baseball! Shinkansen! Kyoto! Zen gardens! Raku! Chocolate! Kyle and Adam! Chicken hearts! Raw chicken livers! Go! Bikes! Road construction! Yakitori! Uji! Nara! Earth-touching mudra! Tea ceremony! Cherry Blossoms! Ferry! Lawson! Naoshima! Teshima! Chichu Art Museum! Walter De Maria! Lee Ufan Museum! Benesse House! Takoyaki! Bizen! Onsen! Osaka! Odd Five! Gyoza! Mont Bell! Curry donut! Noah and Will! Aquarium!
P.S. If it seems like a lot of these are food-related you’re not wrong it’s about ¼ of them.
P.P.S. As always, more photos on instagram.com/rocksandclay!
10 weeks in Italy, accidentally the same amount of time as a Carleton term. After a 7am flight from Manchester, things started off overwhelmingly with a week in Venice visiting national pavilions and related events at the Venice Biennale. I tried to make sense of it all by hunting for ceramics as well as works that used rocks and other earth materials. Ceramics on their own (craft vs art debate!) are not something I expected to find in this setting, and I was mostly right, but references to ceramics as well as ceramic objects used in larger conceptual sculptures or installations were common. Personal highlights included the Taiwan pavilion’s show of Tehching Hsieh’s “One Year Performances” (not a surprise to anyone who knows me, I imagine), Damien Hirst’s ridiculous “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” at the Palazzo Grassi (say what you will, I’m a sucker for false scientific and historical didactics), and my newfound ability to say “I think mold is being over utilized as an obvious metaphor in contemporary art” and actually mean it.
Next was a train to Napoli (pizza!) where I stayed at an archaeology field base on the slope of Mt. Vesuvius. Turning my attention back in time 2000 years, I visited Pompeii and Herculaneum, where ancient ceramic studios and art were perfectly preserved by the eruption of 79 AD. I wrote about art and geology for Apolline Project, the archeology program who hosted me, and fell in love with Museo Madre in Naples. Side trips included a ferry to the island of Ischia, and a train to Sorrento. On Halloween, I took the train back north to Rome to rent a car (a convertible smart car, to be precise) and drive to the isolated Villa Lena in Tuscany. I arrived at the very end of their tourist season, and within a week the entire property was silent save for me and Paul the gardener. At Villa Lena I worked with some clay in their ceramic studio, creating hand-built closed-form geode-type things and helping Paul with some ceramics for the garden. I explored Tuscan geology, finding shells, trace fossils, and gorgeous grey clay. The highlights of my time in Tuscany, though, were visits to the La Meridiana ceramic school in nearby Certaldo. A ceramics friend from St Ives was working there, and a class of friendly female potters welcomed me on ceramic field trips and for an intense wood firing with the American potter Simon Levin.
A combo Thanksgiving/Christmas/birthday visit from my parents made my last week in Tuscany especially special, staying in Florence with side trips to Siena and Cinque Terre (rock hunting on the beach!). Before Italy, I had considered the art/science intersection largely within the realm of contemporary art and the 20th century, but living in Italy opened my eyes to the way the fields have been intertwined from classical times to the renaissance, as well. Centuries of art history means centuries of diverse art materials, and Italy’s dramatic geology (think volcanoes and orogenies) and central location for global trade is what makes these material combinations possible. There’s the obvious marble sculptures and stone inlay mosaics, ceramic and glass vessels, but also the geologically accurate landscapes in paintings and remarkable records of artist writings and commissions that inform the work.
It may be my last weekend in England but at least I’m sticking with my unambitious but realistic goal of one blog post per country! After an incredible last week in Iceland exploring the Westfjords and south coast, I spent three weeks working at Leach Pottery in St Ives, Cornwall. My first few days were spent busily unpacking, cleaning, organizing, and displaying both a teabowl exhibit in The Cube Gallery and a Jim Malone show in the selling exhibition space, a good crash course in the English studio pottery tradition and the world of ceramic collecting and curating. The Leach is a combination of a ceramics museum, historic studio converted to museum, a mind-boggling ceramics library, and a modern functional studio (I threw on the wheel a bit, predictably producing closed forms and trying some exhibit-inspired teabowls). St Ives is also home to the magical Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, a branch of the Tate, and a number of other galleries and studios. There’s a well-established craft tradition there but ALSO a strong fine art tradition, so the intersection of these was quite interesting. As much as I loved my time at the Leach, I was also ready to leave as it meant finally moving out of a six-bed room in a hostel after three weeks of no privacy.
After leaving St Ives, I took a train to Rock, Cornwall for a night of peace with a friend of a friend before traveling on to another hostel, in London. I visited some potters (including a fellow potter/scientist) I had been emailing with at the London Design Fair, and completed a marathon of other London museums (Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain! Raw clay sculpture dissolving in water at Victoria and Albert!) before a couple days in Cambridge getting back to the science side of things at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences and lurking around the geology department lamenting the loss of Mudd (#ripmudd).
My last days in England have been spent in York, visiting a high school friend as well as the Center of Ceramic Art. Tomorrow it’s on to Venice (at 3am!), where we’ll see how my Duolingo skills hold up in a real Italian city and whether my clothes will finally be able to dry after a frustrating month of english damp.
Writing a blog post is intimidating. Roughly three weeks in and I already feel like I’ve been putting this off too long to possibly cover everything I want to cover. I’m in Iceland, my first stop on a year of travel learning about geology and ceramics and hopefully how those two relate. I realized pretty quickly that Iceland is an odd place to start a fellowship that’s fundamentally about clay, as it’s a relatively young volcanic island with practically no naturally occurring clay and no history of ceramic production before the 20th century. So rather than starting with a more literal interpretation of the project, one where I get my hands dirty and work with clay myself (don’t worry, that’s coming later), my time in Iceland has been related to clay in more abstract ways.
I’ve spent my days meeting a number of artists, mostly in Reykjavik, and asking them what materials they use, why they use them, and how their work relates to Iceland’s geology in less obvious ways than source materials. I’ve been on some day trips and weekend trips to interesting geothermal and volcanic sites, experiencing for myself the utter lack of anything resembling clay but marveling at the sculptural rock forms and dynamic environments I’ve found instead. I’ve also seen a lot of non-ceramic art that deals with science and geology, too, like Roni Horn’s Library of Water or stunning works in Studio Olafur Eliasson. After a week living in a hostel in Reykjavik I moved into a cozy room in a small science museum about an hour outside the city, opening up a whole different genre of questions about the role of museums and how we teach science vs. how we teach art, a topic I’m interested in comparing from place to place. I’m also experiencing what it’s like to live in a town with an utterly unfamiliar industry: fishing. As a Coloradan who went to school in Minnesota I have yet to grow tired of the novelty of waking up to the Greenland Sea outside my window.
Iceland is also a tricky starting point because it’s expensive. Taking the bus, making a nice meal, or going on a road trip are all tough on my budget, so I balance busy weekends exploring the city and wilderness with somewhat dull weekdays reading books, meeting visitors to the museum, exploring my immediate surroundings, working on future plans, and making some art. Also trying to learn Italian. At first I felt guilty about these more relaxed days, but I quickly came to realize that 365 days of constant motion and thought and daily adventure is unsustainable. I’ve been given this amount of time partly so I can do a lot, but partly so I can settle in and live in a place, processing what I’m doing and why.
That’s about all I have for now, feel free to send book suggestions, travel tips for Iceland/Italy/Ghana/Japan/China/Chile, or favorite vocabulary words for a beginning Italian speaker.
P.S. I’m posting photos more frequently at instagram.com/rocksandclay