British Ceramics Biennial – Stoke on Trent

I visited the British Ceramics Biennial (BCB) in Stoke on Trent a couple of weeks back. It has taken me a while to digest the experience and I’m hoping that this post will help confirm and define my impressions of it as an exhibition and ceramic showcase as well as any pieces that were of interest.

Situated in the recently vacated (2008) Spode factory, the exhibition sprawled across the factory floor; small works grouped on tables, large works free standing and interactive.

(Sales, S. 2015)

Usual names in the ceramic field were present; Paul Scott and Charlotte Hodes exhibiting familiar pieces. Though its size and prominence was initially wowing, Pauls Scott’s free standing work (shown above) had been poorly displayed. The shoddy tile arranging did little to enhance the pedestrian work of this much favoured artist.

The newly parred back, undulating roof was captivating and I am sad to admit that I spent far longer enraptured by this than many of the ceramic works on display. Artistic Director for the BCB, Barney Hare Duke confirmed that this year BCB had stripped back the Spode building, removing elements from the building’s ceramic manufacturing history. Cold and dusty, the building felt very unsuited to a Biennial of this stature and if the links to this buildings heritage are being parred back then the question must be asked, why have the BCB at Spode at all?

(Sales, S. 2015)

The breadth and variety of the work exhibited was vast however, and the skill of some artist makers was exceptional. In line with my own research into ceramic making methods I was intrigued by the work of Hyu Jin Jo and James Duck and in particular Hannah Tounsend; all of which were exhibited under the Fresh programme of the festival, recent graduates within the ceramic field. There was a vitality in the work and a freshness missing in the long standing, established artists.

(Sales, S. 2015)

Hannah Tounsend went on to win Fresh at BCB and receive a residency at  in Denmark. I was particularly captivated by her vessel pieces [that] are formed using a hybrid making technique of slip-casting and throwing (Tounsend, H. 2015). She builds up layers of slip in a plaster mould before throwing the top section. The result; an object in obvious, captivating conflict. This making method is fascinating and a clear example of how opposing methods of ceramic construction can be brought together harmoniously and potentially for the better.

Like Tounsend and Mclean many of the works questioned the material, perceptions and the developing technologies of ceramics making. There was a resonating chime regarding process and the potential or liitations of ceramics as a material. Sadly here in lies my problem. Only one artist appeared to make his work about issues outside of the ceramic field. Vilas Silverton’s Zen Rogue Sculptures were oddly comical, concerning yet calming. Silverton produces idols ‘on an inner journey that will end in perfection’ (Silverton, V. 2015), each one flawed but about to reach enlightenment.

(Silverton, V. 2015)

This was a Biennale about British ceramics; a wonderful, versatile medium and how the British use it in their practice. But if this was a painting Biennial, a whole host of worldly issues would have been explored. Why does ceramics need to look inwardly on itself to produce work of importance? Surely ceramics can be more than its medium. Despite the wide range of work exhibited and how I was marvelled and intrigued by the making methods, I will stand by the idea that ceramics does not and should not be confined by its medium. Good ceramic work should look outside of its discourse and explore more than its developing technologies. By this result, the BCB fell short. I hope that my contemporaries  will do more to represent ceramics than being simply the sum of its parts.


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