We at YMT are paying a lot of attention to ceramics at the moment, so many of us have made our way to the British Ceramics Biennial. The main event is based in the disused Spode Works in the centre of Stoke-on-Trent.
To reach the site from Stoke station is only a five minute walk, but it’s a that walk takes you under a branch of the West Coast main line, over the Trent & Mersey canal and across the A500 dual carriageway. Your trip into economic history has already begun.
Spode needed excellent transport links because its workers used to turn large volumes of raw materials into large volumes of high quality, mass-produced, ceramic commodities. The biennial uses the same site to show high quality, hand-made, contemporary ceramic art. The fuzzy line between the factory-made and the hand-made, and our confusions around work, craft, labour, economic value and artistic values are underlying themes of the whole show. One of the central exhibits, for example, is Clare Twomey’s ‘Made in China’, which comprises 80 giant red vases ordered by email from Jingdezhen, China, and one nearly identical British-made vase decorated with real gold leaf.
The Chinese pots have particular resonance in a factory closed due to global competition. It’s worth remembering too that one of Josiah Spode’s main technical achievements was, in the early 1790s, perfecting the formula for imitating Oriental porcelain and so beginning the successful production of ‘Bone China’ in Britain. Which was, of course, a mixed blessing for the people of Stoke:
“The potters as a class, both men and women, represent a degenerated population, both physically and morally. They are, as a rule, stunted in growth, ill-shaped, and frequently ill-formed in the chest; they become prematurely old, and are certainly short-lived;” Dr. J. T. Arledge, senior physician of the North Staffordshire Infirmary 1863
The main exhibition space is a well worth a visit in its own right for its range of work by established and emerging artists, together with the best of British student talent.
For me though, the experience took on a different and unexpected aspect when I began to explore the wider site. The factory closed only five years ago after more than two centuries of continuous production. It is derelict and largely abandoned, but still just about habitable and still full of remnants of the working life it contained.
For this Biennial a series of 40 different researched and thoughtful artistic interventions and re-presentations of these remains are scattered throughout the buildings. Visitors are invited simply to explore. The result is a game-like experience which works on all sorts of different levels and plays on all your senses.
The interventions are very individual but also feel very connected, part of a whole piece. They are collectively titled ‘Vociferous Void’ and, thinking about it afterwards, it probably is their response to the void, the absence of the workers, their activity and their noise, that helps to tie these works together.
Anyway, the Spode Works has been brought temporarily back to life with a magical combination of art, heritage, curatorship and pies. If you’d like to read up more there are lots of materials available online, but if you can, do get yourself along to the factory before it closes its gates, once again, on 10 November.