Brief Encounters

The British Ceramics Biennial has done much to demonstrate the power of clay as a medium for art as well as everyday delight.

THE BRITISH CERAMICS BIENNIAL (BCB) is celebrating its 8th outing since it launched in 2009. Having been to most of them, I can confirm that it has done a pretty amazing job of articulating the power and potency of ceramics as an artist material, as objects for enhancing our daily life and rituals, as cultural artefacts expressing our history and values, and as a defining feature of its home, Stokeon- Trent, once the absolute heart of the UK’s ceramics industry.

While the UK has become much more appreciative of the skill required in the creative process, thanks to reality TV programmes like The Great Pottery Throwdown (seven series and counting), and ceramic tourism has undoubtedly been boosted as a result, the sense of a oncepowerful, ceramic-producing city now struggling to occupy empty warehouses and factories or even animate its high streets prevails, despite the Biennial’s best efforts. But after all, what can a six week festival achieve?

Quite a lot, it seems. Though venues have come and gone, the key format prevails, offering ample opportunities to celebrate existing and new talent, both home grown and international. The abandoned Spode factory provided the BCB’s home for several outings, but its China Hall has sadly been Quite a lot, it seems. Though venues have come and gone, the key format prevails, offering ample opportunities to celebrate existing and new talent, both home grown and international. The abandoned Spode factory provided the BCB’s home for several outings, but its China Hall has sadly been work, testing their skills and abilities. I’m instantly drawn to Rebecca Appleby’s erupting clay globes. In this series, Gaia, she is playing with the connections between planetary spheres and hemispheres of the brain, ‘reminding us that our lives and the universe are intricately connected’, as the caption says. These perfect spheres, some large, some small, have been delicately unpicked to create a sense of implosion or explosion, eruptions and evolutions, evoking both crystalline beauty and decay in their glazes of green, grey and pink.

Rebecca Appleby’s Gaia presents erupting globes of clay, linking planetary bodies with representations of human brain hemispheres. Image Credit: Veronica Simpson

Rebecca Griffiths’ Outage series gives us fragments of what look like solid metal or concrete infrastructure, although they are all rendered in clay (a challenging technical feat in itself). The pieces have been corroded or embellished with elements of what looks like sea-life and rust – she is imagining a landscape in which remnants of the nuclear industry, which lies down the coast from her Suffolk studio, Sizewell B, have been buried beneath the rising tides.

Mella Shaw’s Sounding Line installation is inspired by fragments of whalebones she found washed up near her Scottish studio, the result of an increasing number of whale beachings, due to the noise pollution from shipping and mining that marine life has to endure, which interferes with their sonar navigation. Shaw has created large, luminous forms inspired by the whale’s ear bones, which she has wrapped in thick red rope. When you hold one of these ropes, you can feel the kinds of vibration that now pollute the sonic landscape of their underwater world.

These are serious works, articulating something important about our worrying times. As does Jasmine Simpson’s installation There are Devils in my House. She has created a huge white, ceramic fireplace which takes the shape of a 16th century hellmouth, framed in a swirling blue landscape on hand-painted tiles. It is accompanied by a cast of small ‘demons’. Conceived during lockdowns, she is articulating the sense that the ‘heart of the home’ – the hearth – can sometimes be far from a place of comfort and tranquility.

There are light-hearted pieces too: Carrie Reichardt’s Mad in Stoke gives us a 1969 Ford Zodiac, parked beside the church, covered in funky, floral mosaic tiles. Reichardt is evoking Stoke’s radical rave culture of the 1990s; smiley-faced plates are also positioned around the vehicle, while a ‘boom box’ in the boot accompanies a documentary with filmed reminiscences from its former happy ravers.

Wood tells us that there were more proposals than ever – 152 – for this year’s precious Award commissions. Back in the church, there is also a feast of new talent to admire in the Fresh presentation, which received a record 311 applicants. This category has been expanded from new and recent graduates of BA and MA ceramics or fine art courses to include talented A-level students and other new makers, some transitioning to clay from other mediums, such as the architecture-student Poppy Pippin. Here she presents some grooved terracotta tiles, designed to grow their own moss – an ecological enhancement to any wall or patio. Meanwhile, in the adjacent Church Hall, three of the last biennial’s Fresh exhibitors get to reveal the evolution of their work over the last two years, having been given artist residencies in the interim.

Also in the Church Hall is the Tactile Project Space, where a live project will be demonstrated during the Biennial’s gestation. The team will be making raw clay tiles from ‘waste earth’ harvested from Stoke construction sites as well as the HS2 West London station. These will be decorated with floral and plant motifs and then laid to form a clay bed for wildflowers on the Staffordshire University campus.

Established artists and makers are also showcased in three other spaces: William Cobbing’s Social Substance at Airspace Gallery is a wonderful, playful and humorous exploration of clay’s sensuality. BCB regular Neil Brownsword gives us moving meditations on the migratory journeys of pattern and inspiration through clay’s history and technologies at the Brampton Museum, and Osman Yousefzada presents Embodiments of Memory, an exploration in clay of his own family’s migratory journey and experiences, in the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

While the regenerative power of the UK’s blossoming 21st century ceramic culture may not have had the desired transformative effect on a city still struggling with huge social care issues, it’s still very much doing its best for the city. Through the BCB, Wood not only managed to secure an increase in Arts Council funding this year, but secured Levelling Up funding to give local primary school children access to classes in ceramics. There are umpteen other outreach and engagement activities, with more opportunities for artists emerging from ongoing collaborations between BCB and ceramic counterparts in India and also Poland. Wood realises that not all Stoke residents understand the festival’s wilder or more experimental offerings, but there is never any shortage of support from local business. Johnson tiles sponsored Simpson’s hand-painted tile surround and, together with Brownsword, has created a limited edition set of seven tiles inspired by his research, which are on sale to support the festival. As Wood says: ‘I do feel we are quite well thought of in the city. We may be regarded as the weird cousin, but I’m completely happy with that.’

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