British pottery is alive and well at the British Ceramics Biennial 2011 in Stoke

By Jenni Davidson | 04 October 2011

A photograph of a Spode blue and white Italian Blue pattern china cup and saucer.
A Spode Blue Italian cup and saucer© British Ceramics Biennial
Event: British Ceramics Biennial, various venues, Stoke-on-Trent, until November 13 2011

The phoenix of British ceramics is rising from the ruins of the old Spode factory. That is the message of second British Ceramics Biennial.

The revival of the Spode brand and the potential regeneration of the original Spode factory site by Stoke-on-Trent City Council as part of a city centre improvement programme are at the heart of what this year’s festival is about.

Whereas the inaugural ceramics festival in 2009 was dotted across various venues around Stoke-on-Trent, this time round the majority of the six week event takes place in the original Spode factory in Stoke Town.

Philip Elgin's Something Borrowed, Something Blue has its starting point in the traditional Spode blue and white china.

A photograph of a plant made of raw clay.
Phoebe Cummings, detail from residency studio© British Ceramics Biennial
When the Spode factory closed in 2008, moulds and bits of pottery were left lying just as they were. Elgin has taken some of the original moulds, including two historically important tureens, and created new designs with them.

His collection include images of football players - a 21st century version of classic religious imagery - naïve renditions of some traditional Spode motifs from the Italian Blue collection, and numbers taken from wheelie bins.

But it isn’t just about Spode. What's exciting about the festival is the sheer, and surprising, variety of exhibits. They range from bricks, tiles and classic tableware to installations, performance and conceptual art, from traditional processes to experimental techniques.

Ceramics is not one of the most high profile fields in the art world, but it is clearly alive and well and there is a lot going on.

One of the most interesting exhibitions in the festival is the selection of work from Sundaymorning@ekwc.

EKWC, the European Ceramic Workcentre in the Netherlands, is an experimental ceramics workshop where artists - most of whom have never worked with clay before - spend a residency working on a project involving ceramics. It has been suggested as a model for a UK ceramics centre in Stoke-on-Trent, which would build on Stoke’s heritage as the heartland of ceramics in the UK.

Projects from EKWC range from producing tiles with right-angled corners to saddling a ceramic pig. The crazier the idea the better, it seems.

The centrepiece of the display is David Rickard's literally high impact installation, Test Flight. Rickard made giant balls of glazed clay and dropped them from various heights onto the Economist Plaza in London to see the effects.

Among the other unusual pieces on display are examples of Simone van Bakel's ceramic body art, which is designed to be implanted under the skin, Tanja Smeets' bricks covered in bulbous lumps, like a bizarre clay fungus, and Maxime Ansiau's blue ware skyscrapers.

A photograph of a pope made out of ceramic.
Philip Eglin, Popes and Prostitutes (2010)© British Ceramics Biennial
Another major part of the show at the Spode factory is FRESH, an exhibtion of the work of 41 students studying ceramics at institutions in the UK.

Although it does have the feel of a degree show, there are some interesting works, including Sun Ae Kim's pseudo-historical dating plates, Saya McNairn Yanagi's trickster figures and Elodie Alexandre's autobiographical Somewhere Elsewhere.

As well as this, there are installations: Caroline Tattersall has built a house of ceramic keys, David Cushway spins plates, and Peter Lewis's spark plug explores the history of the factory during wartime.

Away from the Spode factory, in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, there is another exhibition of new work. AWARD features the 24 finalists from a competition of over 150 entries to win a £10,000 Spode Award.

The works range from Merete Rasmussen's primary coloured spirals and Phoebe Cummings' lichen-like unfired clay botanicals to Eglin's ceramic figures of popes graffitied with pictures of prostitutes and instructions for putting on a condom.

Across the road at the AirSpace Gallery contemporary artists from AirSpace spent three days working with ceramicists from Manifold Studios in London on ad hoc collaborations and the results are now on display.

At the train station it might still be possible to see some of Laurence Epps' miniature clay figures from his Human Resources project.

And after all that you’ll need a cup of tea - what's more appropriate after a day of looking at ceramics than putting some crockery to good use?

For more on the British Ceramics Biennial visit

More photos from the biennial:

A photograph of a pig made of ceramic with a saddle hanging from ropes.
Goele de Bruyn, Untitled (the swing) (2010)© British Ceramics Biennial
A photograph of a bright blue ceramic spiral.
Merete Rasmussen, Dark Turquoise Loop, (2010)© British Ceramics Biennial
A photograph of a plate with a blue Japanese-style picture of a river with boats and people.
Philip Eglin, Gone Fishing© British Ceramics Biennial
A photograph of small plates and bowls with houses and people in them and pastel coloured trees.
Sun Ae Kim, Teatotalism (2011)© British Ceramics Biennial
A photograph of small clay figures with briefcases walking on a pavement with a London skyline in the background.
Laurence Epps, Human Resources (London) (2011)© British Ceramics Biennial
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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