The British Ceramics Biennial in Stoke-on-Trent

In the first of our blogs on the six-week BCB festival, Ceramic Review’s Editor Sue Herdman muses on some of the highlights 

The China Hall in the one-time Spode Factory makes for an intriguing setting for the British Ceramics Biennial. Italian, I’m told, in its design, its undulating roof has the feel of a Thirties Lido; the stone floors release a silky dust underfoot, and the huge windows channel a beautiful quality of light into the spaces.

In each of those, something is happening.

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Arrive, first, at AWARD. Here caldrons – or rather Caroline Tattersall’s Geysers – bubble; Andrea Walsh displays her sophisticated collection of Faceted Boxes; and Aneta Regal’s volcanic sculptural pieces (above), informed by glacial landscapes, trees, riverscapes and rocks, inhabit the corner of an L-shape in the hall. This, too, is where you’ll spot work by exciting makers such as Paul Scott and James Rigler, whose sky blue columns of clay are topped by gleaming porcelain fronds.

To one side ‘action sculptor’ Bruce McLean, new to Stoke, has responded to this industrial site by making tiles, with a twist. Supported by Johnson Tiles, he is, as the BCB team describe: ‘ripping into ceramic process, marking and painting, pushing through the kiln…’. His ensemble includes pots and plates – a limited edition of the latter. The results are powerful, fluid and painterly.

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Weave your way to the furthest end of the hall and you’ll discover Nao Matsunaga’s totemic sculptural piece (above). As you circle and gaze, you’ll spot Nao’s fingerprints in the clay: forensic evidence of the artist’s will, imprinted on his chosen material. Around the central structure he is placing works from the last two years – forming a curious henge of ceramic sculpture.

To see Nao’s work, the visitor is led along FRESH. Here lie pieces by 22 innovative new makers and ceramic artists, chosen by a selection panel faced with hard choices. 150 makers and artists applied. The names featured here are those to watch. Hannah Tounsend, Hyu Jin Lo, James Duck and more. At a time when dedicated ceramics courses are closing, it is more than heartening to see fresh talent being given a platform. We will feature many of these makers in future issues of Ceramic Review.

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Among the stand-out displays for me was Neil Brownsword’s remarkable and tender Re-apprenticed – a project that sets out to examine and artistically reactivate the skills of past pottery industry employees. Neil has apprenticed himself to three such people: china painter Anthony Challiner, copper plate engraver Paul Holdway and china flower maker Rita Floyd. On the day I visited, Paul was at work engraving a bird and flora, his process projected live, onto the wall (see above). Visitors were drawn to this. His audience included two past factory employees. They stayed for over an hour, reluctant, clearly, to leave.

There are over 75 artists taking part in BCB, with multiple events. It continues until 8 November. We’ll be posting more blogs, highlighting other ‘encounters’, including the poignant Resonate. Watch this space…

Ceramic Review is media partner to BCB. For more visit www.britishceramicsbiennial.com
Photography: Katherine Caddy, copyright Ceramic Review

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