May 26, 2009

Flow of Wisdom

The porcelain of Jingdezhen goes back long and deeply into Chinese history. Jingdezhen porcelain, developed in the Song and Tang, was a treasure of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The processes that make this clay workable are codified from the days of the Imperial kilns. In my first days of working in the studio at Jingdezhen, it was this fine white clay itself that invited me. I began exploring the clay in my hands, making, as I often do to start, stones and bones. The clay was soft. The weather was rainy. The clay, as it slowly dried, became chalky and fragile. This clay, made mostly of feldspar, is difficult to work. The stones and bones gathered to dry. Students gathered to wonder why I was making these stones, sticks, spirals, bones. 我还不知道。I don't know yet, I answered.

When I arrived here I thought I would do some work with bamboo, inspired by the lashed bamboo scaffolding seen in construction sites all over Asia and intriguing to me since my 1975 visit to China. Bamboo is an amazing plant, a grass really, that spreads its shoots shallow and far.
The bundle of bamboo trimmings I got from a gardener on campus the first day was of little use but to attract attention from students curious about the foreigner as I worked outside the studio sorting and trimming. Again, the answer to the question of what I was doing was "我还不知道? I still don't know". This not knowing was alien to the way of thinking here.

This batch of bamboo never found its way into the work. At some point I would know, or I would not. Some pieces come together after much consideration and planning; others find their way to being through the working. This was the kind of work that was to develop through the work, without clear ends.

Still unsure as to how to proceed, I, at last, appropriated a 3 meter split bamboo with a soft arching curve, with its strengthening divisions exposed and began to consider an installation using these made and found materials. I washed the bamboo and considered how to use it.

The stones and bones were finished to the "ring like a bell" density of the 1300C fire as my time in Jingdezhen was ending. And gently ring they did. I lashed the the ends, hung the bamboo from a tree branch outside the studio with help from James Gao and WuFei. I printed inspirational quotes in English on slips of paper that were tied to the lashing. These were copies of the ones I gave to students after an English Walk and Talk earlier in the week. Rich in cultural reference, I had explained the meanings to them. Quotations from Picasso, Martin Luther King and other Westerners were added to Chinese voices, from Buddha, Lao tze, Confucius, Dalai Lama, and Mao.

I sorted the stones were sorted by color of clay, from Tianbao clay browns to porcelain whites with painted cobalt blues and stripes of white clay through cobalt base between. I lashed each unglazed stick with ends glazed as jewels and hung it from the end of the bamboo. Together they rang lightly in the wind. A horseshoe shaped porcelain stirrup supported the other end. Stones flow like geologically from dark to light. A listening head looks up for more, absorbing knowledge dripping from above.

It didn't last long. I heard from friends that children pocketed the stones and by the end of May Day Festival it was gone. So it goes. Friends enjoyed the language of my art and process and will remember, as I remember the making.

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