Du Dakai discusses about ceramic in modern times
It's obvious that ceramic enjoys a long history and glory in China. Since it was created, through the feudal dynasty, the Republican period until modern times, ceramic has been quite cherished and favored no matter in the royal garden, among common civilians or across Asia and European countries. Over thousands of years, myriads of ceramic varieties are building this family up: blue and white porcelain, colored glaze, clashing color, famille rose and enamel.....they flourished, spread to Europe and met a flood of orders in the western countries. Today, we still don’t forget the way they were treasured. Perhaps the pass success and glory was too great for the modern ceramics to match or catch, a good many artists are trying to find a new way out with limited results. But when we look at the western countries, we would find their modern ceramic art thriving in a superior pace. Today, what bottlenecks have set back China's ceramic development? And where is the way out? Below is an interview with Du Dakai, prof. & doctoral supervisor of the Academy of Arts & Design, Tsinghua University and head of Chinese Contemporary Academy of Arts, who would share his own thoughts on modern ceramics as a fan of this art.
Dark Green 38cmX112cm 2013
Connections with ceramic
Q: Hello, Mr. Du, would you briefly talk about when you really came into contact with art, and how did you start to become interested in ceramics?
Du: I started in the Art and Craft Institute of Qingdao. Later, the institute set up a shell carving handicraft factory, and I spent 16 years working in that factory. After the college entrance examination resumed in 1978, I was admitted to the Central Academy of Art and Design, and began to study and work in the Department of Decorative Arts. You know the capital airport murals? We painted it.
Q: Yes, I've seen many of your public murals. Did you come into contact ceramics during that time?
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Du: There was quite a fever over wall painting after we drew those airport murals, which brought our department huge fame and a lot of invitations that commissioned wall painting. We really dedicated quite a long time to that. I stayed in school since 1980 and left until 1990. I spent almost a decade studying murals and the associated arts or crafts. When we started to draw the murals, there were a lot of materials involved, like metal, ceramics, and lacquer technology. So, that means I began to know about ceramics by the medium of murals. We seldom drew murals on flat surfaces, and most were some daily-use articles. That's why we managed to make some contributions to expanding the ceramic art into the plane space. It was also in this state that I came into contact with ceramics. I also made mat glaze ceramics for Hebei Library. Based on this ceramic, we began to involve in three-color transfer, glaze and colors transfer and fancy glaze transfer. As ceramic is shiny and sensitive to light, I hope there would be some more introverted and quiet works free of light spots. That's why I preferred the mat glaze, which is free from the limitations of the reflected light I just mentioned.
Q: I heard that you are also a collector of ceramics. Could you let us know why you're interested in collecting them and how you think of ceramic art?
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Du: In fact, I have done all this for experiment. It is still a way of breaking the historical tradition even in today. It is a special contribution of our department. It is exactly because of this contact with ceramics that developed my interest in this art. I’m obsessed with ceramics. I’ve been collecting ceramics for more than a decade. I like the unglazed products, namely those collected before the Tang dynasty in today's words. Now I've got a full house of them and can’t collect any more, but I know I always like them. Sometimes I feel ceramics and art reached the same height of success in ancient China. Personally, I believe ceramics is even more successful that art. If you really know about ceramics, you would exclaim how beautiful they are.
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Influence from literati and painters
Q: People thought that ceramic products are created by craftsmen, and literati intellectuals were rarely involved. That makes the artistry of ceramics relatively weak. But in the 50s and 60s, some famous domestic artists, like Lin Fengmian and Zhu Danian, participated in the creation of ceramic art, and they all had innovations in form and content. How do you see the ceramic creation in ancient China? And what’s your opinion about the influence of literati and painter’s involvement in ceramic creation on the development of this art?
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Du: Ancient literati would get involved. For instance, it’s written in the history that court painters would help design the official kiln, select the glazing color and match the pattern. Without their involvement, China's ceramics today wouldn’t have made such a remarkable achievement. It’s also true that the official kiln only served a limited geography and yielded little, so the ancient artists, especially literati and painters, didn’t have much chance to directly deal with ceramic production. Today, there has been a transitional change in our aesthetic and artistic evaluation. The ancients held a positive attitude towards the creation of the intellectual class, but not the folk art. They were selective between scholars and craftsmen. But now as we have a new understanding of art, I believe the achievements of folk art are by no means lower than those of literary men. It is difficult tell which one is better than the other. Chinese art, as a whole, should be the combination of creative achievements of these two fields. Perhaps there is a gap in their academic qualifications, but in the artistic evaluation, there is not much difference. That is a historical progress. The same is true in the West. Many western masters of modern art have their own judgments and cognitions about folk arts, from which they drew nourishment that contributed to their later successful creation.
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Like Mr. Zhu Danian whom you just mentioned, he himself is a ceramics professional. I believe his knowledge of ceramics profoundly influenced his later creation. While artists are projecting their influences on the level of ceramics itself, they are also affecting its value. Craftsmen make limited contributions in this respect. In terms of market targeting, artists hope to find new channels for artistic creation, and for ceramics, it also welcomes artists to join in and help enhance its own artistic level, thereby increasing its market potential. All this is helping make a trend out of the cooperation between artists and ceramics.
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A zigzag road to innovation
Q: Some artists use ceramics to express traditional Chinese paintings. Do you think that is a good way for ceramic innovation?
Du: That's a problem. Judging from the historical reality, it is impossible for traditional Chinese painting not to involve ceramics, but I think that there is a difference between them. We cannot evaluate ceramics the same way we evaluate traditional Chinese paintings. Ceramics exists as an independent art. On one hand, artists provide new possibilities for the creation of ceramics; on the other, we also need to start from the reality of ceramic existence and look for new ways of development. Duplication of traditional Chinese painting shouldn’t be the evidence of the best existence of ceramics. That is a crux in China’s ceramic development.
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Today, many ceramic artists are transferring their original paintings to ceramics. I think we should focus more on the sustainability of the craft materials and explore possibilities from within. The ceramics itself is of a good shape and glaze color, and the Song Dynasty ceramics is the best, Ceramic patterns appeared after the Ming and Qing dynasties. You must realize the particularity of ceramic production process, which is limited by the process material. On the contrary, it is not possible to restore Chinese paintings entirely through ceramics. It is my own understanding that copying Chinese paintings to ceramics is not a good choice.
Now, the practice is that different artists are painting on the traditional utensil shapes. That may add some modern ideas and forms, but conflicts will certainly emerge. I also went to Jingdezhen and Handan to make the same paintings. At first, I planned to design different utensils and match them with the appropriate patterns. But there is limitation in terms of the process. I’m not familiar with the ceramic process and couldn't burn out the shape I drew. I wouldn’t say such process is unachievable. It’s just that our technology is not good enough for that. I set foot on some foreign land. Some colleges in Britain and the United States have set up the ceramics major, and I made a special investigation on that. Their ceramic art has been fully modernized in both form and craftsmanship, and we're still hovering between the conventionality and modernity. I think that's because we lack the consciousness and confidence in making our ceramic art modernized.
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Zhou Changxin's success in thick faience
Q: What do you think about the relationship between the technical and artistic properties of ceramics in arts and crafts? Why is the western ceramic art better than ours today? What’s our shortage?
Du: They form an inseparable unity in arts and crafts. When separated, they create no art. Ceramics belong to the field of polymers and are widely used in many space shuttles. The development of ceramics today is not totally satisfactory. I think that is also related to the fact that scientific research results in the field of ceramic polymers have not been translated into real results. We did not apply the of scientific results to the field of art. That's probably because of the lack of binding points between art and scientific research. I met an artist in Alfred's ceramic art profession in the United States. What he made is totally a breakthrough in the material craftsmanship. He himself has a knowledge background in this area, and he is willing to transform those achievements into the field of art. The final result presented is beyond the capabilities of the ceramic artists in our country. China's ceramics was better than Europe's in ancient times, but now the latter has taken on a new look.
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Ceramic art is more popular abroad than in our own country. Many Europeans have a small earth kiln or electric kiln at home, and glazes and throwing tools are also common in shopping malls. There are even professional venues like pottery bars, which is a good way of enthusiasm-based education. Having a lump of mud pinched in hand or burning it in fire to make different shapes could be a very interesting experience in the process of education.
Today's ceramics are divided into pottery and daily necessities. There are two different groups of people engaged in pottery and daily necessities production, and the recipients are also different. In foreign countries, there are four types of art that are popular, including fiber art, metal craft, ceramic art, and glass, all of which are divided into daily and artistic categories. Because they were converted at an earlier time, the division of talents also took place early. We only began to have ceramics professionals in the past ten years and are left far behind by the western countries in terms of specialization level. In particular, we haven't fully completed the transformation towards modernization. That’s a pity. We do have professional ceramists, but only in small numbers. Without quantitative change, there will be no qualitative change. But now many people are beginning to try it. I did not expect that Changxin would get involved.
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Q: What do you think of his works after you have seen Zhou Changxin's thick faience?
Du: He applied two methods. One is to use his own way to draw on the old shape, which is also a new form. But the traditional permeability in ceramics makes it necessary for you to know well enough about it before you get involved, including the technique, material and form. It’s not about an individual. I don’t think these artists have developed enough understanding towards ceramics. Personally, I’m not optimistic about that. I think his porcelain paintings in a later time are good. For starters, it’s a new form that never appears before. Changxin is, as always, bold and afraid of nothing, so he dares to make breakthroughs.
I also had a discussion with Changxin. I believe some parts (of his thick faience) are very good. When you get involved from an abstract perspective, you’ll find a lot of parts remarkable. Because the color of ceramics has a high degree of saturation, and carries a lot of chances with it, which are different from those in painting. The chances in painting are mostly about finishing the preset things, and the ceramic kiln change is its chance, which is unique and unrepeatable. I think he has opened up a new rehearsal in this area, and that is a very good thing. This is what I mentioned about the new awareness of ceramics and freedom from the restriction of tradition. Perhaps China has made too great ceramic achievements in ancient times, and that makes it impossible to completely ignore the influence. However, if we want to move forward, we must put behind the tradition temporarily, or enlarge the local length to a field or power that doesn’t exist before.
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I’m quite optimistic about the work Changxin has accomplished. I suggest that he may make some cutting in part, if the work isn't perfect in whole. That may help deliver a better result. He also has realized the same fact. Porcelain plate doesn’t exist in the ancient times. But with today's technology, we can have 5m long, particularly big plate. That’s what can’t be replaced by other painting genres, and that’s what's special about ceramics. If we only try to copy traditional Chinese paintings onto ceramics and can’t even make it look better than the paintings, why should we do it in the first place?
Q: Do you believe that no other painters or painting genres can render the same effect as Mr. Zhou did in his porcelain paintings?
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Du: Yes, only he can do this. That’s also why his value could be affirmed. If the same result can be achieved through other media, there is no need to do it.
In ceramic art, you don’t imitate from oil paintings, traditional Chinese paintings, or other things. That leads you to nothing. You have to develop your own style. That’s what matters. You see, some parts of his thick faience are particularly good. That’s the result of glaze mixing and kiln changing, something you can never preset. It is all about the reactions resulting from fire quenching.
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Q: What do you think he needs to before he gets a greater progress in this area?
Du: He is obsessed, too involved. I believe when he knows ceramics deeper and deeper, perhaps he will produce better works. I admire Changxin’s works. He is persistent. Although he could be reckless sometimes, he is willing to make changes. He may benefit more if he could learn it better, draw something useful from ceramics in a certain period of time and find out the best attributes.
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Q: Many people now call for ceramic modernization. How do you interpret such “modernization”?
Du: We can interpret that from the level of spiritual strength. What we don’t have in the past is what exists in modern times. Today, the people's nature doesn't exist in ancient times, and that makes it modern. Urbanization is also a modern term. To put it macroscopically, if we add all this to ceramics, it’ll be heavy. I think it’s just about technical means. Actually it's not totally the same as before. Modernity can be revealed if we try to make changes by using old materials with new means to render something that doesn’t exist before.
Q: Do you have any suggestions for modern ceramic art?
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Du: It is just an art that has changed from the traditional kind to another genre. In this process, the creative concept of traditional Chinese painting or oil painting will inevitably infiltrate, but if traditional Chinese painting still dominates ultimately, or we just simply use different materials to present Chinese painting or oil painting, that wouldn’t a worthwhile start. We should start within ceramics and find out the possibility of ceramic development from its materials and processes. That's the possible start in my opinion.
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