Ceramics and glass: a talk on contemporary Chinese art

wan liya ceramics

I was glad that I had the chance last night to hear Kate Newnham, Senior Curator at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, describing her work on a show of contemporary Chinese ceramics and glass, which she co-curated with specialists from The Potteries Museum, Stoke-on-Trent, Shanghai University and twocities gallery, Shanghai.

The touring exhibition “Ahead of the Curve” presents work by 20 Chinese artists, many of whom have not shown before in the UK. While preparing the exhibition, the British team made two research trips to China, where they explored ceramics studios within Chinese universities, and in artists’ homes in Jingdezhen.

I haven’t seen the exhibition yet but the overview given in this talk suggested a quite disparate body of work – not so surprising when you have 20 artists of different ages, crafting in different media and selected precisely because they are innovative and at the cutting edge.

Still, Newnham highlighted several unifying trends, such as artists inspired by the classical Chinese tradition, artists following a more international trajectory, and artists with a particularly conceptual focus.

Wan Liya (b. 1963) illustrates the first and last of these trends, with his porcelain replicas of plastic household bottles, traditionally decorated in famille rose enamel. There is a visual dissonance that reminded me of certain works by Ai Weiwei (b. 1957) – marble replicas of unexpected objects, such as a hard hat or a CCTV camera. I saw these in his Blenheim Palace show in 2014.

Curiously, the underlying humour also reminded me of installations by the Korean artist Meekyoung Shin (b. 1967), who creates detailed replicas of vases in coloured soap – that is, replicas of precious objects, as opposed to replicas of throw-away objects decked out to look like precious objects. I saw these at Korean Eye 2012 and in her London show in 2014.

I was fascinated too to learn about the contemporary artists working in glass. Newnham explained that it is only 15 years since the first glass studios were set up in Chinese universities, so this is a new and developing area. She highlighted (among others) works by senior glassmaker Zhuang Xiaowei (b. 1956), and a mysterious piece by Shelly Xue (b. 1981) – a pair of angel wings synthesized from a host of narrow glass tubes.

Ahead of the Curve: New china from China
Talk by Kate Newnham, at Burlington House, London
14 April 2015

This talk focused on the touring exhibition Ahead of the Curve: New china from China, previously on show at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, and currently on show at The Potteries Museum, Stoke-on-Trent until 31 May 2015.

This talk was open to members of the Oriental Ceramics Society; information on how to join this group can be found on their website.

Above: Wan Liya, Birds' Twitter and Fragrance of Flowers (detail), 2010. Image: Wan Liya, at http://www.bristolmuseums.org.uk/bristol-museum-and-art-gallery/whats-on/ahead-of-the-curve/.

Below: Shelly Xue, Gather Series - Angel is Waiting II, 2014. Image at:

shelly xue angel wings