Porcelain, with its historical pedigree and transcultural relevance, its material allure and anthropomorphic resonance, offers artists a unique way to move between the global and the intimate, the mass produced and the handmade, and the foreign and the domestic. But why do so many contemporary Chinese artists use porcelain in their work? In New Export China: Translations Across Time and Place in Contemporary Chinese Porcelain Art (University of California Press, 2023), I dive into this unique genre of ceramic art in search of a broader framework for contemporary Chinese artistic practice. Focusing on the work of four artists from the 1990s through to the 2010s – Liu Jianhua, Ai Weiwei, Ah Xian, and Sin-ying Ho – I trace the extent to which the materiality of ceramics has been used to highlight China’s role in global trade and to explore the function of this medium as a vessel for the transmission of Chinese art, culture, and ideas.
With New Export China now appearing on bookstore shelves, in this talk I’d like to introduce one of the four featured artists: Ah Xian, a familiar name for art lovers across Australia, and especially in Sydney. Ah Xian first turned to ceramics in a spirit of artistic inquiry, searching for a material that could serve his technical and aesthetic aims, later coming to associate it with a birthright denied and a heritage that he perceived to have been neglected by other Chinese artists. Returning to China in 1996 for the first time since he relocated to Australia seven years earlier, he sought to “rescue” traditions of porcelain making from the oblivion to which he feared they had been consigned. In the China China series of porcelain busts that he created in collaboration with artisans in the industrial city of Jingdezhen, once renowned as the world’s “Porcelain Capital”, however, these traditions are combined with an attention to the facial features of the artist’s models that foregrounds the personal and idiosyncratic. These works embody the project of the self as a negotiation with multiple dimensions of personal and cultural meaning, a palimpsest of experiences in which the frequently self-referential dynamics of cultural identification remain ever visible.