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David G. McIntyre - Black Star for Asiaweek.
Chen Guanghui's chairs are decidedly non-functional.

Classic Change
Tradition bows to the avant-garde in an exhibition of cutting-edge Chinese pottery

The problem with tradition is that it is by definition dated. And restrictive. "I couldn't express what I was really thinking and feeling," explains Chen Guanghui, a Shanghai-based ceramic artist. Chen, 30, set aside his strict classical training, based on techniques developed as far back as the Tang dynasty, and moved into the realm of the avant-garde. He now creates large, clunky and very non-functional chairs that he believes meld the greatness of ancient Chinese ruins with the modernity of the information age.

Chen and four like-minded Chinese artists, all seeking a new ceramic perspective, are part of "Looking Back/ Forward," a two-week exhibition at Hong Kong's Pottery Workshop. Curator Caroline Cheng says mainlanders started experimenting with techniques from the West only two decades ago. "The attitude in China tends to be, 'we have 5,000 years of history here, so why do we need to look outside?'" Cheng says. In fact, so contemptuous were Chinese ceramists of work modified for European tastes in the 17th century that they rarely bothered to sign their pieces.

While respectful of traditional forms, Cheng also believes that China's ceramics scene could stand some outside influence. "The technological innovations from the West — like glazing and firing advances — could really change how Chinese artists even think of art," she says. "Western studio pottery makes a lot more possible." She chose the five artists, all of whom deliberately blur the line between East and West, because they have all begun to transcend those traditional limits to create exciting new forms of a classic medium. In creating pieces far removed from their training, they also have scorned the customary piecework of Chinese pottery. Not for them a series of master craftsmen presiding over each of the various stages of the craft: molding, firing, glazing. Chen and his colleagues just do it. All of it.

Zhou Wu professes a great admiration for ancient forms — hardly surprising given that the Zhejiang native grew up in the heart of China's renowned celadon region of Longquan. But Zhou, a lecturer and director of the Ceramic Art Center at the China National Academy of Arts, bridles at traditional demands for constant perfection. The slight crookedness and smudges on his vessels, he insists, are not mistakes. "These marks are like a record of the art process," the 36-year-old says. "If something always has smooth, trim lines, it usually has no energy." Zhou's almost corrugated pots exude a quiet vibrancy without abandoning the more established forms of functional pottery.

Chen Guanghui has moved beyond even those limits. Yet the Beijing-born lecturer in ceramics at Shanghai University still invests his chairs with decorative swirls of Chinese calligraphy, affirming his Chinese heritage. "Chairs are often a symbol of power in Chinese society," he says. "I didn't intend to produce something specifically Chinese. But I can't get away from being Chinese." Adds curator Cheng: "Chen's work is definitely an exception in modern Chinese pottery. His chairs are very modern, but they still have a kind of Ming dynasty feel."

Lu Bin's "fossilized" objects are also have a modern but ancient feel to them. An independent studio artist based in Shenzhen, the Nanjing-born Lu, 39, creates wry representations of tools for daily life — from name blocks to fish. His free-form fossil pieces hark back to pre-historic times, and only the odd Chinese character gives away their origin. Still, after Lu completes one of his fish studies, for which he uses a clay casing, he usually eats the model. "I'm not sure it's safe," says a surprised Cheng. "But he insists on it."

The other artists in the show, Bai Lei and Huang Chun Mao, also insist on marching to their own drummer. Bai, 37, once restored antique pots in Suzhou's archaeological collection. Now the Suzhou University lecturer creates abstract stoneware based on modern feelings. Huang, 28, from Jiangxi, concentrates on large figurative works shaped like clothing. "In my artistic language I am always looking backward, hoping to break new ground," he says. It's a language fast gaining currency.

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