Sunday, 30 October 2011

Bittersweet British Ceramics Biennial

The second British Ceramics Biennial (BCB) takes place this autumn in Stoke-on-Trent.  The organisers are hoping that the BCB will generate wealth and regeneration for Stoke and help to strengthen a new interest in ceramic wares. The 2009 BCB brought 35,000 visitors to the district, generating around £2 million for the local economy.  Held partly in the crumbling Spode Factory and partly at other sites in the town, including the truly marvellous Potteries Museum and Art Gallery at Hanley, the exhibition evokes bittersweet feelings. 

The Spode Factory is awash with signs and memories of a thriving and vibrant past, however, tragically, it's now a decaying, cold, damp and soul-less place.  As an exhibition venue - although a significant and historic presence in the town - it is perhaps a strange choice in its present state.

The BCB exhibitions are separated into a number of themed areas, including a large hall given over to artists from a Dutch collective known as sundaymorning@ekwc, an international workplace of artists, designers and architects who use ceramics. Many of their pieces are architectural in nature. There are further large areas dedicated to recent graduates in ceramic art from Colleges and Universities around the UK;  and to commercial and industrial ceramic manufacturers, such as hand-made brick makers and makers of ceramic water systems for use in drought-affected countries.  Added into this mix are various side rooms with all manner of ex-Spode paraphernalia of mixed historical interest left behind when the factory closed - and not forgetting ‘The Spode Room’, which is not so much a room as a temporary, cordoned off area, repeatedly cycling its flat-screen history of Spode's famous blue and white pottery, and displaying myriad examples of Spode patterns on isolated plates hung around its make-shift walls.

There is no question that much of the ceramic work at the Spode BCB site is interesting, innovative, exciting, stunning...  in some cases breathtaking… and there is work of an exceptionally high standard to suit all tastes, but there is something about the deterioration of the venue that seems to dampen the vibrancy of the displays.  Some of the exhibits overcome this, for example the bright and welcoming coiled pots of Thomas Weber that greet the visitor on entry to the exhibition, but many of the works struggle to compete with the atmosphere of the setting.

On a positive note, it is gratifying to see such a large number of examples of the excellent work of recent graduates.  Curated by BCB Directors and NACHE, the National Association of Ceramics in Higher Education, the Fresh for 2011 exhibition provides an important platform for showcasing work made in UK centres of ceramic art education and helps to promote the continued funding and support of such establishments for the future. 

In contrast to Spode, The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, housing the second part of the collection of BCB exhibits, Award, is a joy to visit and generates an over-riding feeling of hope:  a belief in the resurgence of Stoke’s ceramic prowess.  The museum is one of the finest examples in the country, notable for its dedicated conservation of world ceramic art throughout all ages.  The museum houses a mind-bogglingly vast collection of ceramic work that includes all of the most famous names, past and present, and is an absolute must for any visitor to the area.

The work on display in Award is mainly that of highly talented, established ceramic artists, such as Ken Eastman, Philip Eglin, Craig Mitchell (below) and Katherine Morling to name only a few, and is unquestionably awe-inspiring.

Compelling as it is though, it is unlikely that any visitor will not be distracted by displays in rooms adjacent to the Award exhibition.  This is entirely appropriate, for The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery holds many, many thousands of stunning ceramic works that should not be missed by any visitor. The real beauty of Award is that it provides a wonderful continuity to this superb collection and brings the observer seamlessly through to a present day display of delightful and accomplished ceramic works.

Visitors to Spode are advised to wrap up warm, visitors to Award are advised to set aside several days for the visit! Whatever you do, don't miss any of it!

The Second British Ceramics Biennial takes place in Stoke-on-Trent
 from 30th September to 11th December 2011
See website for more details: 

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