British Ceramics Biennial showcases some of the best of British craft

By Sarah Jackson | 30 September 2013

Festival review: British Ceramics Biennial, various venues, Stoke-on-Trent, until November 10 2013

Lisa Marie Svensk, Vailisa The Beautiful. Part of Fresh at BCB.
Lisa Marie Svensk's Vailisa The Beautiful is part of the Fresh programme at the British Ceramics Biennial© Sarah Jackson
Stoke-on-Trent may not be the most glamorous location, but the British Ceramics Biennial is working hard to put the city on the contemporary arts map and remind us that there is in fact a world of art beyond London.

It's an easy thing to forget when so much attention and funding is concentrated in the south-east. Arts Council funding per head can be up to three times as much in London as it is elsewhere. However, ignoring what the rest of the country has to offer does us all a great disservice.

Like many in post-industrial cities, Stoke's city council is working hard to regenerate the area by promoting what had once been its lifeblood: ceramics manufacture. Although still a centre for pottery, the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s hit Stoke hard.

In 2008, the Spode factory was finally closed after years of decline. Bought by the council to prevent developers razing an important piece of industrial heritage to the ground, it began to almost immediately decay.

That deterioration has now become the source of inspiration for so many artists - both literally and philosophically.

Among the old computer terminals, mugs of tea and family photos left by the factory workers were hundreds of moulds, decals and discarded pieces of bisque - these have now been incorporated into many artists’ works.

Clare Twomey, Made in China.
Clare Twomey, Made in China© Sarah Jackson
One of those using cast-offs and moulds is Corinne Felgate. Her work, Totem: Trajectories in Tragedy and Triumph, at AirSpace Gallery, is formed from about 1,000 ceramic pieces made from original Spode bisque pieces reclaimed from the factory itself, or newly cast by Corrine from Spode moulds.

Unglazed and stacked into floor to ceiling structures, they seem precarious, but I am assured that they remain fully compatible with modern health and safety remits.

Just across the road from Airspace is The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, home to Award, a major survey of current UK ceramic practice. Works on display range from tableware by Katy West and Louisa Taylor to figurative pieces by Edith Garcia and Christie Brown.

But the crown jewel of the Biennial has to be the former Spode factory itself. Inside the cavernous and gorgeously lit space lies a wealth of treasures. Fresh showcases the talents of young up-and-coming graduates and, like Award, reveals the versatility of clay as a medium, for everything from the abstract to tableware.

Lawrence Epps, Take Stock (2013), Ibstock Brick Pavilion, British Ceramics Biennial.
Lawrence Epps, Take Stock (2013), Ibstock Brick Pavilion, British Ceramics Biennial© Joel Fildes
For the first time, the Biennial has also created four Pavilions to showcase Artist into Industry residencies where the public can view the result of Lawrence Epps, Simeon Featherstone, Corinne Felgate and Peter Jones time spent within the ceramic industry.

Other highlights include Made in China by Clare Twomey, in which visitors are invited to discover which of the 80 vases made in Jingdezhen, China, were gilded at Royal Crown Derby (making them more valuable than the rest of the vases combined), and After the Death of the Bear by Phoebe Cummings, a response to the eponymous tableware pattern.

Inspiring work has also been done by and with young people in the Craft Council's Firing Up project, which furnished schools with new or refurbished kilns and taught teachers how to teach ceramics.

Work with recovering addicts and women suffering from depression have also created bold and interesting pieces in Typecast and Rebuild respectively.

Topographies of the Obsolete: Vociferous Void leads visitors on a trip through the factory, including some areas that have up untill now been closed to the public. Created by more than 40 artists during residences at the factory, the ghosts of the past hang heavy in the air.

Inside the former union room, playing cards lie abandoned in the dust, while a boardroom that has been newly refurbished still contains the empty cabinets that once displayed the pride of Stoke’s ceramics industry. They have been sealed, locking inside the rings of dust that outline where the vessels once stood.

Amidst this desolation, there is hope. There is a wealth of talent and many inspiring and interesting projects going on in this Biennial demonstrates a number of very good and inspiring things; that there is artistic life outside of London; that art can be a positive force for regeneration of cities and individuals; and that collaboration between people can lead to great things. It’s an inspiring and exciting place to be.

More Pictures:

Christie Brown, The Uncanny Playroom (2010). Part of Award at BCB.
Christie Brown, The Uncanny Playroom (2010). Part of Award at BCB© Sarah Jackson
Jonathan Keep, Iceberg Field, 2012
Jonathan Keep, Iceberg Field (2012). Part of Award at BCB© Sarah Jackson
Claudia Clare, (from L to R) Pageant (2012), St Mark of the Farm (2012), There's Nothing Like a Kiss (2013), Remembering Afeteh (2011), Travelling West (2011). Part of Award at BCB.
Claudia Clare, (from L to R) Pageant (2012), St Mark of the Farm (2012), There's Nothing Like a Kiss (2013), Remembering Afeteh (2011), Travelling West (2011). Part of Award at BCB© Sarah Jackson
Select works from Typecast.
Select works from Typecast© Sarah Jackson
Select works from Rebuild.
Select works from Rebuild.© Sarah Jackson
What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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Follow Sarah Jackson on Twitter @SazzyJackson.
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