Thursday, October 30, 2008

Another Portuguese connection

I began to make China Blues soon after a week's holiday in Portugal with my family. Just before the holiday I had got the go ahead from Deptford X that I was to be included in the festival. We stayed in self catering accommodation on the outskirts of Porto, in the grounds of a family estate. The family business was wedding banquets and the owners (who were grandparents) lived on the estate and tended the garden which was full of fruit and vegetables. On our penultimate day, they invited us to have lunch with them and the rest of the family and we had a marvellous feast followed by a tour of the banqueting rooms. It turned out, to my surprise, that our hostess, Maria, was an enthusiastic collector of Willow Pattern. She and her husband Antonio had travelled quite a lot and had been to Macao, and also to England and the Midlands potteries. The china they used for the wedding banquets wasn't Willow Pattern but featured the family crest and had been ordered from Royal Staffordshire. Maria had also been a highly regarded chef and had cooked for British royalty and the president of Brazil on state visits to Porto. Anyway, she had an enormous collection of blue and white, and most of it was Willow. It was an interesting co-incidence.

A Portuguese Connection

Cilda Meireles is a Brazilian artist showing at Tate Modern until January 11th 2009. It is a retrospective of his career and there are eight large scale installations...his work is described as "powerful and compelling", "elegant", "possessing clarity and mystery, science and poetry".

It's all that and political too. And breathtakingly beautiful.

I mention him on this blog because of one of the pieces "Through" (or "Atraves") which can be seen on this page (click on the picture to see more of the piece)...
As you walk through the installation in a maze of see-through walls made of different materials (such as plastic shower curtains, wire fencing, glass fishtanks - with see-through fish!) you step on panes of glass laid over already broken glass. You can feel the glass shattering at its weakest points under your feet, making a delicious crunching sound. It's a powerful feeling, being allowed to do this in a "don't touch" sort of place. It's especially liberating if you've just seen the Rothko treasures on the same floor (although in a completely different way he was also dealing with boundaries). The staff periodically go round with a brush and sweep up tiny shards that have fallen from visitor's shoes.

It is about being able to pass through prohibitions and barriers. Meireles says that by stepping on the glass (and breaking it) you are freeing yourself - "metaphorically breaking each piece of debris, each prohibition or obstacle"...

I was thinking about my recent rather small (and by no means comparable) attempt at an installation, China Blues. When I first began to make the piece, I was troubled by it being bound in the round shape. I had taken for granted the constructed and distorted view of the eastern hemisphere and I wanted it to bleed out. But since there were to be visitors and, especially, an Open Day with lots of children crashing around - and some people were already not seeing the piece and walking straight into it - it became apparent that I would need to mark the edges very strongly, not least because should anyone trip over it they might cut themselves quite badly. So I collected white chalk pebbles from the beach at Greenwich and laid them on the perimeter.

As that decision was in the making I was also thinking that drawing the countries in the gravel was too literal and that I should just fill in the whole circle with the pottery shards - and invite people to walk on the piece. What a fun interactive experience it would be! But then the piece was already advertised as "18th century pottery assembled in the shape of the Eastern hemisphere" and it also had to last 4 weeks for the duration of the festival...

So, the possibilities were there for a completely different piece. I thought perhaps I would remove some of the gravel land masses as the weeks wore on - symbolic of the rising seas - but which country first? And this would also mean finding more pottery to fill in the encroaching sea areas and that would be lots more work...

I also regretted that South America was absent from my "world in pieces", not that this continent was part of the history I was describing, but for the Portuguese connection - as the first Europeans to find and trade with the East. Oh well, never mind.

I also thought about having a final event in which I could invite people to come and walk on the piece, but there was another idea on the cards which was, far from destroying it, to keep it in place at Creekside Centre. Even as the piece was being made, plantlife was starting to grow through the gravel. Nick Bertrand and myself both liked the idea of seeing what else might sprout through given time...a sort of greening of the land...

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Birds Eye View

The first Western balloon flight was in 1783, 25 minutes from Versailles to Paris. The first international flight was in 1785, Dover to Calais in two hours. By this time the fashion for chinoiserie was fading, and yet the Willow Pattern was born and became hugely popular. David Richard Quintner in "Willow! Solving the Mystery of our 200 Year Love Affair with the Willow Pattern" writes:

"Technically, the Willow Pattern design is formed from a series of receding horizontal planes in which, as a rule, the nearest objects to the viewer are shown the largest, and the farthest smallest. challenge European art norms..."

And no exception to ancient Chinese codes for landscape painting. Except for the birds."It is in the way the pair of birds suddenly appears as a design element that we can find the most significant clue to the psychological mind-shift that occurred in western Europe in the 18th century...

"The plate design's aerial view...offered highly charged elements which were the talk-of-the-town...Man and avian nature face to face, eye to eye...The Caughley design...might well have deliberately marked the success of manned ballooning.

"The success of ballooning gave humankind a new perspective on the world; it changed the nature of art's vision; it changed the essence of mapmaking and of concepts of waging war; it changed the way Europeans saw themselves and their symbols."

But how come the Chinese developed the aerial view, Quintner asks, and it is here he speculates on the idea of the Chinese having invented ballooning in the 14th century. After all they had already invented gunpowder in the 9th century, and rockets originated and were developed between 1150 and 1250 AD, and by 1350 multi-stage rockets were actually designed and used...

He also quotes from Chinese Art by William Willetts:

"In China (there is) the 'law of three sections'...each plane is drawn as though seen from the same angle of vision. Buildings and other objects in the middle distance and background, which should show a foreshortening proportional to their height above the horizon, are drawn as though they were at ground level. There are, in fact, three separate horizons...Separate objects are drawn as though the eye were free to vary the horizontal direction along which it looks into the depth of the picture...As a convention of primitive landscape, the bird's eye view may have been suggested by early experiments in map making."

Excerpts from Willow! by kind permission of the publishers: General Store Publishing House, Ontario, Canada. ISBN 1-896182-78-X

Balloon image: 'Utopian flying machines of the previous century', printed in Paris c.1890-1900. More images:

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Deptford Willow Pattern

Here I have all the elements except the three people crossing the bridge. Plus a couple of things that don't exist yet (but are being built, credit crunch or not).

Actually I have two bridges (the Ha'Penny Hatch footbridge and the DLR) across the creek instead of just one (when there are in reality also two road bridges). The Mandarin's house is a jumble of new and old buildings; the newer ones are gated communities. The island is the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf. The two skyscraper images are taken from the developer's hoardings at "Creekside Village" and "Greenwich Reach", their height determined by the cranes currently in place. Yes, they really will be that tall. The building on the left has an exaggerated perspective because it will have a triangular base, but this is how the developer wants it to be seen...terrorising the locals. This same developer has had his architects draw up plans for the whole of the area, featuring endless repetitions of this building all the way down my road. Dubai on my doorstep. Naturally, the birds are vultures.

I am still working on this collage...In his book Willow! David Richard Quintner suggests the Willow image, based as it is on elements of Chinese design, takes one vital aspect from the Chinese, that of non-Western perspective. It is an aerial view. Quintner speculates that the Chinese invented the hot-air balloon well before the French (a hot-air balloon featured strongly in the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony this year, without comment from the BBC team covering the event)...either way, ballooning was the technological advance of its day when the Willow Pattern was introduced...

Creek Willow

This is a willow growing in Deptford Creek. Now all I need is a bridge, a river, an island, a fenced-in property, two birds...

Deptford X has finished

Great to have been involved in this secret backwater of a festival, which finished last Sunday. Didn't get to see everything as I had to sit with my piece, but I managed to get pix of the following (sorry, they're not particularly Willow Pattern related and nor are they very good pix!):

Deepa Chudasama's BINDI DRAWING on the arches at Ha'Penny Hatch (she worked on two arches but I only have a pic of one arch)..."examining the historical tradition of mark-making on surroundings and bodies"...

Katie Gilman's 10,597..."the distance in miles between Deptford and Tasmania - the birthplace of the artist and final destination of convict boats that sailed from Deptford in the early to mid 19th century...drawing on the history of rope making..."

Fran Cottell's GOLDEN BALLS, which were dotted around Deptford in all sorts of unexpected places...referencing architectural domes...(turns out I wasn't the only one manically spray painting balls this September)...


Also, there was Leila Galloway's HOLD, Patrick Semple's MEMORIAL TO THE UNKNOWN SHOPPER, and a show by Patrick, Bea Denton & Paul Marks in Paul's new space ARCH, a great film by Anita McKeown ( and some guerilla art from Rachel Hale. Rachel was not included in the programme, but her POLITE SIGNS raised a chuckle from everyone who came across them...

Also, I really enjoyed Ben Cummins' PAVEMENT SONNETS, DEPTFORD SCARS, an audio-walk around Deptford which narrates the history of the area. He missed out on talking about the art one might see on the way, but nevermind. Presumably it is still available for download at the Deptford X website.

Lastly, on the third Sunday of the festival, Creekside Centre ran a Walk Up The Creek, late in the afternoon, and Helen Barff came to take pictures of her boat and say a few words about her piece. Here we are setting off down to the creek.

If you fancy a walk up a creek, go to their website and check for dates and times.


Picture courtesy:,_Cochin_synagogue.jpg

18th Century hand painted porcelain tiles from Canton, on the floor of the Jewish synagogue in Cochin, Kerala.

These are referred to in Salman Rushdie's 'The Moor's Last Sigh'...

"Scene after blue scene passed before her eyes. There were tumultuous marketplaces and crenellated fortress-palaces and fields under cultivation and thieves in jail, there were high, toothy mountains and great fish in the sea. Pleasure gardens were laid out in blue, and blue-bloody battles were grimly fought; blue horsemen pranced beneath lamplit windows and blue-masked ladies swooned in arbours..."

An essay by Timothy Weiss "At the End of East/West: Myth in Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh" examines the novelist's 'cultural hybridity' and explores ideas about narrative and myth-making.
"The vignette of the Cantonese tiles is one among numerous tales in miniature that illustrate the creative, mythmaking process of the novel as a whole. 'In the end, stories are what's left of us, we are no more than the few tales that persist,' muses the dying Moor..."

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Belitung Wreck

On From Our Own Correspondent on Radio 4 this morning, Simon Worrall reported on a marine archeaological discovery in the Indian Ocean that perhaps dates from 826AD...

"Among the most sensational artefacts found in the wreck are three dishes decorated with cobalt from Iran which represent the oldest blue and white ware ever found, setting back by several hundred years the invention of what would become known all over the world simply as "china.""

Read the rest of the report "The treasure trove making waves" at:

Friday, October 17, 2008

Smashing Glass

The Greeks aren't the only ones smashing things. In the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony, the penultimate part is the Sheva Brachos, or seven blessings. After the blessings, the couple share (for the second time) in drinking a cup of wine, and the groom breaks a glass with his right foot by stamping on it. This custom apparently dates back to Talmudic times and is intended to symbolise the Temple in Jerusalem being destroyed. A utensil is broken to show identification with the sorrow of Jewish exile – a breaking of hearts. Everyone then shouts Mazaltov! and the band starts playing and all begin dancing.

A modern interpretation is that this is the last time the groom gets to put his foot down...or that it is a warning to the couple that life together won't always be as happy as that day...or that human relationships are fragile.

Or it means breaking ties to the past...or refers to a broken world...

Modern ceremonies might have the couple breaking the glass together and sometimes a Rabbi might say "May your marriage last as long as it takes to put the glass back together", which is of course forever since the glass cannot be repaired. Although it could be reblown, rather like reincarnation in another life...

A symbol of plenty – the shards represent the children from the union...

Perhaps it's the bride's hymen about to be broken...(or is that the veil?)

There is also the custom of breaking the plate - at the beginning of the wedding the mothers of the bride and groom get together and smash a very large plate. The pieces of the plate are given to the bride-to-be. If the plate is decorated with words from the Torah and she gets a piece with a whole word on it, she feels very lucky. Left over pieces might be made into a mosaic...

Blimey, wedding customs are pretty weird stuff, and there are so many similarities across religions...veils, canopies, silver spoons...breaking a cake over the bride's head...even though customs may be old and inherited, they are also borrowed, added to and tampered with...worth a project in itself.

Smashing Plates

So anyway I found that article I was looking for:

"In its earliest form, plate smashing may be a survival of the ancient custom of ritually "killing" the ceramic vessels used for feasts commemorating the dead. The voluntary breaking of plates, which is a type of controlled loss, may also have helped participants in dealing with the deaths of their loved ones, a loss which they could not control.

"Similar offerings may also have been presented at other times to include the dead in festival proceedings, with the result that this custom for the dead began to be tied in with all kinds of celebrations...

"Breaking plates can also be a symbol of anger, a classic part of domestic disturbances. Since plate breaking often occurs at happy occasions, it may have begun as a way of fooling malicious spirits into thinking that the event is a violent one instead of a celebration.

"Worldwide, noise is believed to drive away evil, and the sound of the plates smashing against the stone or marble floors of Greek houses would be loud enough to scare off almost anything.

"There is a phrase used by children about sidewalk cracks - "Step on a crack or you'll break the Devil's dishes". In early Crete, ritual offerings and vessels were thrown into cracks and fissures located near peak sanctuaries. These "cracks" would certainly have had "dishes" in them, and later followers of Christianity may have demonized the old practice.

"Since the children's chant is actually a caution to avoid stepping on cracks, it may refer back to ancient associations with these "dishes". So breaking plates during a performance may be a way of protecting the dancers and musicians by destroying supposedly evil influences present in the poor plates...

"...Usually, breaking plates in praise of a musician or dancer is considered a part of "kefi" - the irrepressible expression of emotion and joy.

"A plate might also be broken when two lovers parted, so that they would be able to recognize each other by matching the two halves even if many years passed before they met again. Small split versions of the mysterious Phaistos disk are used by modern Greek jewellers this way, with one half kept and worn by each of the couple.

"Breaking plates is also an act which implies abundance - "We have so many plates we can break them!" - similar to lighting a fire with a piece of paper money."

Etc etc. (by a travel writer called deTraci Regula at

Breaking China

I wanted to say something about broken china and was looking for an article I read some time ago online about smashing plates, and googled "Broken China". Apparently there is a 1996 solo album of the same name by Pink Floyd's Richard Wright that documents his wife's battle with depression...Hmm...

But the search also led to Runa Islam, Dhaka-born film-maker and current Turner Prize nominee. One of her films shows a woman slowly knocking china off some plinths...The link came via an American blogposter who introduced the link as "for more 'women-and-broken-china' art, visit...". Seems we have a genre of our own, and I can't wait to see her film.

I also found a blog by a guy who seems to be of religious persuasion (he quotes the Bible a lot) but he said something interesting...I quote (and remove religious references)...

"What is shattered china worth on the open market? I looked it up on ebay and there was nothing for sale. Nobody wants to buy shattered china..."

Wrong, Josh, it's called Pique Assiette - broken china for mosaics - and there's plenty of it about and plenty of hobbyists making mosaics out of it. But generally I agree that it has no value for most people, and is generally thrown away rather than mended. He continues:

"I found a broken china vase that came with free shipping. As of this writing, nobody bid on it at all. I am afraid that imperfect china is not worth much these days. Not even a dollar...

"Over 30 years ago, The Friend published a story by Iris Syndergaard about the early Mormon pioneer women who gave up their china dishes and porcelain to help make the stucco for the Kirtland temple. The broken china was needed for holding the plaster together. The poor saints had no wealth, yet they gave it. They took their china and shattered it, made it worthless, and gave it away. When the construction was completed, the temple shimmered whenever the sun rose or set on the edifice."

He then quotes:"God uses broken things. It takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to give rain, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength." ["Broken Things," an excerpt from Vance Havner, The Still Water]"

I also found another blog (can't find the link now) where a woman writes that her grandmother used to say that a broken heart is like broken china. You can mend both, but you'll still see the cracks.

Here is a blurred picture of my China Blues piece. The sun is shining brightly and by screwing up one's eyes, it's possible to imagine sitting on some decking on the Med gazing out at a shimmering sea...

Friday, October 10, 2008

Kate Murdoch's 10x10

To mark the tenth anniversary of Deptford X Kate Murdoch has created an installation at Framework Studios of 100 treasured objects, inviting for one day only - today, the 10th of the 10th - people to take an object and replace it with one of their own.

I took from her installation a tiny Willow Pattern tureen and replaced it with a 500g box of 'Temple of Heaven' Shanghai Gunpowder Chinese Green Tea. As I posed for her husband who was documenting the event I accidentally dropped the object's little lid which smashed on the floor. Everyone thought I'd done it on purpose - like I'm the queen of broken china - but I was very annoyed with myself.

Kate began the bartering or swapping process at 10am this morning and by 8pm more than 50 objects have been swapped. Some swaps are on objects that have already been swapped. She's stopping at 10pm. It's such a fun project it would have been great if it'd gone on all weekend.

Sex Toys?

I had originally fancied the pottery that washed up at Deptford was the result of the East India Company repairing its ships here. Porcelain was carried in the holds, serving as ballast, with the more precious and perishable tea on top, and so might be found littering the shore...but then I found blue and white further upstream, and also it wasn't porcelain, perhaps bone china, but mostly delftware or earthenware. The Museum of London then told me it was because everyone used to discard their rubbish in the river.

I later discovered this was the case up until the mid 19th century when the process of waste regulation began. The Public Health Act of 1875 charged local authorities with the duty to arrange the removal and disposal of waste. By the end of the 19th century household waste was collected daily in moveable ash bins, and was sorted by hand (usually by women or girls) into salvageable materials.

A large proportion of waste was recycled, but breeze (fine ash) and hard core (rough stuff) from incinerated material was used in building materials. The broken pottery I found in Kent was brought down with ash by Thames barges to the brick works, where bricks used to build the prospering cities and factories were handmade up until the early 20th century.

Martin from The Herb Garden came by at Creekside Centre and, seeing a rather weird shaped bit of pot in the mosaic, told me that porcelain sex toys used to be imported from China and the ships' cargo was often confiscated by customs and thrown in the river. That was why there was so much pottery washed up, he said.

Then I got an email from Cheryl who lives opposite the centre: "Thanks for your email about your show. Janet mentioned the willow patterned ballast dumping near here. Also that a marble dildo was jettisoned? I am doing my 3rd year dissertation on vibrators. Yes. Any material at all would be gratefully received."

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

China Blues

Deptford X 2008 : Temporary Projects
26 September – 19 October 2008

Saturday & Sunday 1-5pm
Creekside Centre
14 Creekside SE8 4SQ

Shards of 18th and 19th century blue and white ceramic, found on the beach at Deptford, Greenwich, the South Bank and Kent, are assembled in the shape of the Eastern hemisphere 0n a 10ft circle of gravel already onsite. This ‘world in pieces’ attempts to recall the historical roots of blue and white earthenware, the passion for all things oriental, and the trade in tea and porcelain that led to England becoming the stronghold of one of the first mass-marketed products of the Industrial Revolution — blue and white transfer printed pottery. Manufactured in its millions, it was intrinsically interwoven with the growth and popularity of tea — a once sacred Chinese beverage reduced to a mere commodity in a traumatic encounter between East and West.

With thanks to Nick Bertrand and Kate Coss and all at Creekside Centre for their support, Paul Prestidge (Creekside EducationTrust) for the secret location of the Kent beach, Kate Sutton at The Museum of London, Christine Stewart and Maria Clemen who helped with beachcombing, and Shaun Barnett, Bill & Gus Clift for donating their own collections.

Patna Black

Deptford X : Temporary Projects
26 September – 19 October 2008

Saturday & Sunday 1-5pm
Creekside Centre
14 Creekside SE8 4SQ

Tea, porcelain, opium, silver and consumerism...

Or in this case, a silver car-paint-sprayed shopping trolley rescued from the Creek, car-paint-sprayed plastic footballs from Terry’s, Gunpowder loose tea from Housewives’ Cash n’ Carry, plus surprisingly pricey microwaveable Willow Pattern plates and the last 5 metres of silver coin dress edging from Peter & Joan’s.

A partly buried upturned shopping trolley disgorges its cargo like a shipwreck. The East India Company, who repaired its ships at Deptford, had free rein to use military force to establish monopolies in the trading of tea, silk and porcelain, wielding more power than any other commercial organisation in history. The Company's strategy for trade in China involved smuggling opium to pay for tea, a policy of state sanctioned drug running that created millions of Chinese addicts.

Broken China

Deptford X : DNA GROUP SHOW : The Value of Nothing
26 September – 19 October 2008
Saturday & Sunday 12-6pm
Framework Studios
5-9 Creekside SE8 4SA

Painting inspired by the Willow Pattern design
(61cmx61cm, tea, transfer, acrylic and oil on canvas)

Tea Drawings

Work in progress
(26cmx22cm, tea leaves on canvas)

Willow Pattern Story Retold

This project began two years ago with an exploration of the Willow Pattern Story. My mother used to tell my sister and me the story she learned (she knows not where) that goes with the plate. She had a set that was bought by my father in the late fifties.

My interest was sparked when I began beachcombing on Deptford foreshore, where I kept finding shards of blue and white ceramic that were mostly Willow Pattern.

I discovered there were many versions of the story - as many as there are versions of the plate. I also discovered the story was invented to sell the design, and that the plate did not illustrate an already existing legend.

This led to research into when and where the design was first conceived, and also I found myself looking into the culture surrounding breaking plates, and correspondingly, the breaking up or cutting up of words and narrative.