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.