I spent last Friday in Stoke-on-Trent at the British Ceramics Biennial which is there until November 10th. Ceramics isn’t something I have ever considered myself to be particularly interested in before and the prospect of spending an entire day looking at them wasn’t entirely appealing. But let me tell you, the BCB blew all my misconceptions out of the water. This event brings together several different artists and art organisations to create a contemporary and incredibly inspired collection. From ceramic sculpture to video art and installation pieces, the entire biennial had me gasping and exclaiming at the sheer ingénue of everyone involved.
The various exhibitions were spread across the various buildings that had made up the Spode pottery factory which has now been closed for a number of years after Potmeirion Pottery purchased the brand. I absolutely love that the biennial took place in this abandoned factory as it really drew attention to the issue of traditional British business and the fact that so many are failing, resulting in the unemployment of hundreds people on a regular basis. The factory really lent itself to a lot of the instillation pieces which were based on this theme of an abandoned business as well as presenting a huge open plan space for the exhibitions.
The only downside was that the factory was really quite chilly, I would advise gloves and thick socks for visitors, and in quite a state of disrepair. During my visit it was raining really heavily and there were several quite leaks in the roofs affecting some of the instillation pieces which required electricity. However this decaying state inspired Kate Lynch’s Helping Hands project which had visitors in the first week placing cut outs along the walls suggesting the rebuilding of the industry and repair of this wonderful space.
The most impressive pieces, in my opinion, were part of the FRESH 2013 selection. This is a platform for newly graduated art students to promote their work and help the public to realise that ceramics can indeed be an art form. Clare Twomey’s Made in China is a really strong piece which the viewer is immediately met with on entering the BCB through the main entrance. Twomey has taken 80 vases made in Jingdezhen, China and placed amongst them one vase decorated by Royal Crown Derby which is worth more than all of the others together. The work calls into question themes such as cultural appropriation, mass production but also the engagement of the viewer with the art piece. My fellow classmates and I had great fun exploring the art piece and trying to find the vase which was the original.
The Ibstock Brick Pavilion featured an artist who was exhibited in the FRESH 2011 selection and was quite a highlight for me. The pavilions are a new addition to the BCB and create a space for the public to interact with four artists’ experiences with the ceramics industry. Lawrence Epps’ office workers encased in brick blocks carried on from his commuters of the last Biennial’s Fresh 2011 and formed an interactive piece in which viewers were filmed taking a brick away from the available pile. At the end of the BCB, we were told, this film will be played backwards to make it appear as if we, the audience, had placed all the office workers there. Mine is now working hard on my coffee table in my living room.
Another exhibit which had a profound effect on me was the Re-Build project of place settings created by Ruth Spaak working with a women’s self-support group. I felt awash with emotion looking on at these beautiful pieces of art made from broken pieces of ceramics that were found in the Spode factory, something that surely mirrors the lives of the women who have created them.
Overall, the British Ceramics Biennial was a truly wonderful experience and provided a really interesting look at an art form not often exhibited, especially not on such a large scale. I found it incredible thought provoking and refreshingly interactive, overall the entire event has been well organised. I personally am just disappointed that it will not be back for another two years.