Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Installing The Old Blue & White (2)

More flower arranging today...Emma Redstone came to help, along with David.

The History Bit: Origins of Blue and White

Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

Extracts from the transcript from the BBC Radio 4 series The History of the World in 100 Objects

Episode 64 - The David Vases

The David Vases (made in 1351). Porcelain; from China
"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea."

The thrilling opening lines of Coleridge's opium-fuelled fantasy still send a tingle down the spine. As a teenager I was mesmerised by this vision of exotic and mysterious pleasures, but I'd no idea that Coleridge was in fact writing about a historical figure. Because Qubilai Khan is a thirteenth-century Chinese emperor and Xanadu merely the English form of Shangdu, his Imperial summer capital. Qubilai Khan was the grandson of Genghis Khan, ruler of the Mongols from 1206 and terror of the world. Wreaking havoc everywhere, Genghis Khan established the Mongol Empire - a superpower that ran from the Black Sea to the Sea of Japan and from Cambodia to the Arctic. Qubilai Khan, his grandson, extended the Empire and became Emperor of China, which leads us to the objects for this programme.

Under the Mongol emperors, China developed one of the most enduring and successful luxury products in the history of the world, a product fit for stately pleasure-domes, but which spread in a matter of centuries from grand palaces to simple parlours all over the world... it's Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. We now think of blue-and-white as quintessentially Chinese, but as we shall discover, this is not how it began. This archetypal Chinese aesthetic comes in fact from Iran.

The importance of Chinese porcelain is hard to over-estimate. Admired and imitated for over a thousand years, it's influenced virtually every ceramic tradition in the world, and it's played a star role in cross-cultural exchanges. In Europe, blue-and-white porcelain is practically synonymous with China. And we've always associated it with the Ming Dynasty. But it was the David Vases, now in the British Museum, that made us re-think this history, for they predate the Ming and were in fact made under Qubilai Khan's Mongol Dynasty, known as the Yuan, who controlled all of China until the middle of the fourteenth century.

Seven hundred years ago most of Asia and a large part of Europe were reeling from the invasions of the Mongols. We all know Genghis Khan as the ultimate destroyer and the sack of Baghdad by his son still lives in Iraqi folk memory. Genghis's grandson Qubilai was also a great warrior, but under him Mongol rule became more settled and more ordered. As Emperor of China, he supported scholarship and the arts, and he encouraged the manufacture of luxury goods. Once the Empire was established, a 'Pax Mongolica' ensued, a Mongolian peace which, like the Pax Romana, ensured a long period of stability and prosperity. The Mongol Empire spread along the ancient Silk Road and made it safe. It was thanks to this Pax Mongolica that Marco Polo was able to travel from Italy to China, and then return to tell Europe what he'd seen. And one of the startling things he'd seen was porcelain.

The David Vases are so-called because they were bought by Sir Percival David, whose collection of over one and a half thousand Chinese ceramics is now in a special gallery at the British Museum. ... These two vases are obviously luxury porcelain production, made by artist-craftsmen delighting in their material.

Porcelain is a special ceramic fired at very high temperature: 1200-1400 degrees centigrade. The heat vitrifies the clay, so that like glass it can hold liquid, in contrast to porous earthenware. And the heat also makes it very tough. White, hard and translucent, porcelain was admired and desired everywhere, well before the creation of blue-and-white.

The very word 'porcelain' comes to us from Marco Polo's description of his travels in Qubilai Khan's China. The Italian 'porcellana', 'little piglet', is a slang word for cowrie shells. They do indeed look a little like curled-up piglets. And the only thing that Marco Polo could think of, to give his readers an idea of the shell-like sheen of the hard, fine ceramics that he saw in China, was a cowrie shell, a 'porcellana'. And so 'little piglets', porcelain, we've called it ever since - that's if we're not just calling it china. I don't think there's another country in the world whose name has simply become interchangeable with its defining export.

The savagery of the Mongol invasion destabilised and destroyed local pottery industries across the Middle East, especially in Iran. So when peace returned, these became major markets for Chinese exports. And in these new markets blue-and-white ware had long been popular. So the porcelain the Chinese made for them mirrored the local style, and Chinese potters used the Iranian blue pigment, cobalt, to meet local taste. The cobalt from Iran was known in China as 'huihui qing' - 'Muslim blue' - clear evidence that the blue-and-white tradition is Middle Eastern and not Chinese. Here's Craig Clunas, an expert on Chinese cultural history:

"Iran, and what's now Iraq, are the kind of areas where this sort of colouring comes in. This is a technique that comes from elsewhere, and therefore it tells us something about this period, when China is unprecedentedly open to the rest of Asia as part of this huge empire of the Mongols, which stretches all the way from the Pacific almost to the Mediterranean. Certainly the openness to the rest of Asia is what brings about things like blue-and-white, and it probably had an impact on forms of literature. So from the point of view of cultural forms coming into being, the Yuan period is extraordinarily important."

We're told that the vases were purpose-made to be offered as donations at a temple, and that the name of their donor is Zhang Wenjin, who describes himself with great solemnity as a disciple of the holy gods. It gives his home town, Shuncheng in what is now Jiangxi province, a few hundred miles south-west of Shanghai. He was offering these two grand vases along with an incense-burner - the three would have formed a typical set for an altar. The incense-burner has been lost, or at least has not yet been found. ...

Foreign rulers, the Mongols; foreign materials, Muslim blue; and foreign markets, Iran and Iraq; all played an essential part in the creation of what to many outside China is still the most Chinese of objects, blue-and-white porcelain. Soon these ceramics were being exported from China in very large quantities, to Japan and south-east Asia, across the Indian Ocean to Africa and the Middle East. And far beyond that. Here's author Jenny Uglow:

"Then it comes to Europe, and the Dutch adapt it to their life, and so it comes to Britain, and we adapt it to the forms of jugs we like, the plates we love, and so on. It becomes translated, it's like a wonderful language which is perpetually translated to the culture where it's arriving and is loved. People say it's a very, sort of, elemental thing: it's blue and white, it's the blue sky and the white clouds, or the blue sea and the white sand. And behavioral psychologists who've looked at the way people react to colour say that blue and white is seen as immensely serene and relaxing. But I think also it has to do with the great long history - you know, a thousand years of history - and the way that the blue-and-white designs themselves seem to be mysterious and 'other' and have their own stories as well. It's a combination of colour appeal and historical appeal."

So, eventually, centuries after its creation in Muslim Iran, and its transformation in Mongol China, blue-and-white arrived in Europe and triumphed. Willow-pattern, the style that many people think of when blue-and-white is mentioned, was invented in England in the 1790s by Thomas Minton, and it was as much a fantasy view of China as Coleridge's poem. It was an instant success, and Coleridge may indeed even have been drinking his tea out of a willow-pattern cup as he emerged from his opium dream.

Blue-and-white porcelain was the first truly global luxury product, and one that could be infinitely adapted to suit all local tastes. The David Vases, the earliest dateable blue-and-white, were made as offerings to the gods; in the next programme we're with another high-status object, also used as a means of connecting with the supernatural... it's a ritual throne from the Caribbean.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Installing The Old Blue And White

Last Sunday, Dave Aylward came to assist me in the second phase of installation (there will be a third before the Deptford X Launch on Thursday). Nick Bertram, Creekside Discovery Centre's resident conservationist, took some pictures.

It looks like it is going to be very hard to make good photographic documentation of this piece as a whole, since so far any photos taken from a distance are seriously underwhelming...

Monday, July 23, 2012

The History of Art in Three Colours

Decided on Saturday to apply gold leaf to back of a small number of 'flowers', which will be sparsely scattered in the installation (hidden, in fact). Was therefore delighted then to see the trailer for an upcoming art documentary The History of Art in Three Colours. The first episode – about Gold – is Wednesday 25th July, the day before Deptford X opens.

"Dr James Fox explores how, in the hands of artists, the colours gold, blue and white have stirred our emotions, changed the way we behave and even altered the course of history. Together these three colours tell an entirely original and surprising story of ourselves and the world we live in."

Dr Fox "brings us the golden splendour of the Pharaohs, the transcendent blues of the Renaissance and the gleaming white marbles of the Enlightenment, as well as forgotten and curious works of genius. As he journeys across the millennia Fox introduces us to the eccentrics, the dreamers and the visionary artists whose works in gold, blue and white will change the way we see the kaleidoscopic world around us."

I wonder if the short series will mention the use of blue (and white) in the long history of ceramics – the blue came from cobalt rather than Lapis Lazuli...

Local musician David Aylward, who is helping me with the installation, drew my attention to The Wilton Diptych, housed in the National Gallery, painted as a portable altarpiece for the private devotion of King Richard II.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Deptford X 2012 (Fringe)

Have been making the 'flowers' for my Deptford X Fringe installation "The Old Blue & White" for the past two to three weeks (when not doing paid design work).

Have made two hundred so far, need a lot more. Emma Redstone has fashioned a steel 'spike' for me to hammer into the ground at the site to make holes to plant the flowers in – it is a brownfield site with little or no topsoil (a great environment for wild flowers).