BONE CHINA AND THE IDEA OF SUSTAINABILITY
By Ieva Bertašiūtė Grosbaha
Sustainability is increasingly heard as the theme of different cultural events, such as exhibitions, residencies or symposia. It is often a way to attract participants and spectators, to raise public interest or simply to appeal to the masses. However, there is an ideological side to this choice of terminology, one which includes concerns about modern – commercial, consumer lifestyles and global processes – overuse of resources, the problem of global pollution, substantial differences in life quality around the globe and much more. Independently of the choice of subject, I would like to share some insights associated with the bone china symposium in general, and with this year’s event process and the results of those efforts- conducted between the two shows in Kaunas.
I feel that before further sharing my thoughts, it is appropriate to introduce myself briefly – I am an artist/ceramicist, currently a doctoral student in Vilnius Art Academy, delving into the topics of materiality, skills and tactility in my artistic research. Since 2018, I have been one of the organizers of the International Bone China Symposium. For these reasons, this text is a look from within – subjective, sensitive, less critical, perhaps more artistic.
ABOUT THE MATTERIAL
Bone china is a material that originated in England in the 18th century – it is the result of a long search for a Chinese porcelain equivalent. While searching for the components of this, the British discovered that calcinated bovine bone ash gives special strength to porcelain mass. In the 19th century, many of Britain’s larger pottery factories already used this newly discovered material called bone china in their production. Until the middle of the twentieth century, this material was used exclusively in England, and only from the middle of the twentieth century was bone china starting to be produced elsewhere – in the former Soviet Union, as well as in China and Japan. In another of those countries – Lithuania, there was the ceramic factory “Jiesia” where local bone china porcelain started being produced.
Bone china contains 30 to 60 percent bone ash. At least historically, in eighteenth-century England, these ashes were used from slaughterhouse waste. It turns out that due to the animal bones in the material, some vegetarians and vegans avoid buying and using bone china products. Only recently, in this millennium, Islamic bone china was introduced – in its production, exclusively halal cattle bone ash is used.
INTERNATIONAL BONE PORCELAIN SYMPOSIUM
The origins of the symposium go back to the times of the “Jiesia” ceramics factory. During the Soviet period, in Lithuania, as in other countries of the former USSR, the tradition of organizing symposia for artists during the factory workers summer holidays emerged. This is also what happened in Kaunas, where giant industrial facilities requiring an impressive technical base, and very skillful workers, were used for bone china symposia. Their participants were both local artists and well-known ceramicists from different foreign countries.
Unfortunately, the “Jiesia” factory has already been forgotten, not to mention the small factory that bears this resounding name. It was one of a technical base, professionally driven, with locally resourced material – all of this lost long ago. But six years ago, Remigijus Sederevičius resurrected the bone china symposium tradition and began to organize it in the Vilnius Art Academy Kaunas Faculty (VAA KF) Ceramics workshop. It also took place there this summer, marked by the Pandemic.
This year, the symposium was attended by Lithuanian artists ceramicists – Audrius Janušonis, Eglė Einikytė – Narkevičienė, Uršulė Baužaitė and Rokas Dovydėnas. Latvian colleagues – Elina Titane and Verners Lazdāns joined them, as well as artists – Birgitte Christens from Denmark and Wen Hsi Harman with Martin Harman from England. Alison Safford, an artist from United States, joined the group remotely. Later in this text, I will discuss some of the International Bone China Symposium participants works specifically, those created during the three summer weeks in Kaunas.
I will start with the artist from Latvia – Verners Lazdans. He is a painter, typically working in two dimensions, but during the symposium, he combined his usual planar creations with three-dimensional objects. It is important to mention here that in the symposium, we are trying to include artists who do not usually use ceramic materials in their artistic practice. The aim of it is to expand the boundaries of the discipline of ceramics, to introduce a new, different approach, and to encourage experimentation and research.
Verners was a very curious participant of the Symposium – he tried different techniques of working with bone china though he had no previous experience working with it. Some of the objects created by him were firewood castings, others were objects molded from porcelain sheets which the author refers to as models. Later, they “pose” for the paintings, which then fills these models with colors and breathes life into them. In their scale, Verners’ paintings visually dwarf the porcelain objects. One of them – a three-meter-high and two-meter-wide canvas – becomes a kind of axis of the exhibition, attracting glances and introspection. One of the realities of ceramics, especially bone china, is revealed here – a small format, which is by no means a bad thing, but when installing the exhibition in to a larger space, the volume and dominance of the objects seems to be lacking. As strange as it may sound, in this case, the Symposium exhibition is in a way, saved by the painting.
At the end of the event, the artist himself marveled at his creative productivity, considering the change in environment and circumstances giving creativity wings and encouraging productivity. Observing the process and interacting with Verners, I would consider that different forms and materials of expression have a major impact on the creative process itself. The act of building the volumetric form, in the case of Verners porcelain models, affects one area of the brain and painting on canvas, the other. The materials themselves – odorless, liquid and cold porcelain engages with the acrylic paint, possessing strong smells and vivid colors. In this contradiction, new ideas emerged, providing different approaches and unconventional solutions.
Rokas Dovydėnas also chose painting as a means of expression however, he did not paint on canvas but rather, on the material of bone china itself – on the casted cylinders. The vessel is the dominant object in ceramics, both in the applied arts direction as well as in the visual arts. The cylindrical containers made by Rokas are impressive in size though they are not very relevant to applied ceramics. In the days when the symposium was held in the “Jiesia” factory, it was much easier to create large-scale objects physically. Factory workers and equipment, greatly facilitated and shortened this process. Unfortunately, or perhaps luckily, the current format of the Symposium is completely different, and its participants have to go through the whole production process themselves – from the model of form to the decoration of object, of course with the help of the organizers and other participants. In ceramics, the creative process is closely related to physical work. Performing each process – from the preparation of the material, to the loading of the finished object into the kiln – requires not only technical knowledge and skills, but also physical strength and endurance not to mention the psychological impact of common failures which accompanies the processes of working with ceramics. Looking at Rokas Dovydėnas’ containers, the group titled “In the forest by the lake”, I was able to read the story painted on porcelain. What is left behind is a lot of hours of hard, physical work – turning models, casting molds, and then casting porcelain into them. Painting with cobalt on these dishes is the last straw, running out of power. However, the painting is also the main transmitter of information and ideas. And yet the containers, created and made by the artist himself, carry a completely different message than an order fulfilled by professionals working in a factory. They are a bit unobtrusive, uneven, but it also saves them – providing them with a different status and enabling the viewer to feel its inaccuracy, the author’s sweat, emotions, successes and failures.
Another piece of Rokas’ – is the work partly demonstrated in video format, one where we see shooting arrows pierce and deform thrown porcelain dishes. This process is displayed in digital format and is complemented by physical objects. The moment of impact of the hard, sharp arrowhead and the soft, deformable porcelain surface, leaves a huge impact on me. In this work, the porcelain is not translucent and not white, it is not burnt – it has not undergone the transition of fire. It is soft, malleable and grayish in color. The material is alive – capable of changing shapes and forms, not yet losing the opportunity to become something else.
In the works of the Latvian artist Elina Titane, the change of forms and the states of the material are revealed by different principles. She takes the process of making very intuitively – by observing Elina at work, I feel the intimate space between her and the porcelain, the kind of relationship established between the two. I have heard it being called madness, but both myself and many other artists working with a specific, chosen material, feel this togetherness and cooperation with the material of clay, glass or porcelain. From this communion, an art piece is born – influenced not only by a human being/the artist, but also by the material – embracing its properties and transformations. While many try to understand the new material through the technological side of the latter – listening to the lessons, delving into the subtleties of the craft, Elina goes in another direction. She sits in the workshop until midnight, dripping porcelain drop by drop, making vibrant, animate, free-form sculptures.
Elina, like Verners, supplemented her work with drawings on large-format paper sheets. They respond to the shapes of porcelain objects and are like magnified shadows of the latter, making the overall composition look like a world of sandcastles. These sandcastles perfectly reflect today’s time, one where everything we believe in can be washed out by higher waves. It’s not possible to avoid mentioning here this year’s Pandemic, which is washing our sandcastles. We are all forced to overestimate our own priorities and adjusts to unavoidable circumstances.
The duo of artists Uršulė Baužaitė and Alison Safford also talk about the reality around us in their installation. The birth of this collaboration was caused by the same Pandemic mentioned prior. American artist Alison was selected to participate in the Symposium, but due to the situation, she did not have the opportunity to come to Lithuania. Her interest in Kaunas was the ceramic 3D printer, and it coincided with the local artist Ursula’s vein of work. The couple, in tandem with modern technology, created an inspiring installation called “Wound Topography”.
Alison and Ursula creative work is accompanied by an extensive textual explanation, presenting their idea and allowing the viewer to be more aware of the artist’s work. I often find that artists working in the field of ceramics lack the desire, energy or determination to present the ideas of their work in text. Often it is justified that the work speaks for itself, or that the author does not want to press their opinion on viewers, thus allowing the spectator to discover their point of view. However, the text still greatly complements the physical work, and the viewer always has a choice of whether to read it or not.
According to Uršula and Alison’s text, their work is a mirror of human made wounds to our planet. Shapes created with a 3D ceramic printer are reminiscent of mountains of rubbish or mining landscapes. The artists talk about how we, humanity, take it out of the earth without sparing it. Meanwhile the inverse – giving back action, we perform by overloading our planet by consumer society waste. The black and white porcelain landscape, created by the artists, looks gloomy, and reading the text raises existential thoughts about the future of the Earth, and with it our own. When our planet becomes too wounded, and that wound is clogged with waste, the end begins to be seen.
This text is also coming to an end, touching on several aspects of the Symposium held in the summer of 2020. I want to believe that this type of event brings benefits not only to its participants, giving them the opportunity to communicate, share ideas and work together, but also to the visitors of the exhibitions that culminate it – inspiring new reflections or activities.
 Exhibitions were organized in Kaunas Picture Gallery and Vilnius Art Academy Kaunas Faculty newly opened gallery. Further exhibitions are planned in Panevėžys and Kėdainiai.
 Calcinate – to remove volatile substances by heating.