Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Manic about ceramics

A national conference will bring 6,000 devotees to Philadelphia, and a chance to assess the state of the art.

A vase decorated with a red swirl of Coca-Cola script, is part of the Ai Weiwei show at the Arcadia University gallery.
A vase decorated with a red swirl of Coca-Cola script, is part of the Ai Weiwei show at the Arcadia University gallery.Read moreCourtesy Tsai Collection

Ceramics is about to bump Philagrafika 2010 out of the spotlight. The celebration of graphic arts that began in late January will share its final days (it closes April 11) with a festival of creativity in clay that accompanies the 44th annual conference of NCECA, the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts.

The conference - the third to be held in Philadelphia - begins Wednesday and runs through Saturday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. More than 6,000 artists, teachers, scholars, curators, and collectors from the United States and abroad are expected to participate.

The convention center will be the central venue for lectures, panel discussions, demonstrations, and informal shoptalk. The nonspecialist public is more likely to be attracted to the 90-plus exhibitions in the city and suburbs that have been coordinated by the Clay Studio, the conference host.

These shows - at museums, art centers, galleries, nonprofit alternative spaces, and art schools - offer opportunities to assess the state of ceramic art, particularly its impressive variety.

Some exhibitions are open now, others begin Wednesday. Most will run into or through April. The Clay Studio has arranged for bus tours to cover clusters of shows by districts.

Ceramic exhibitions are common here. But for NCECA, the art community makes a special effort, just as it did for Philagrafika. The result is more exhibitions than anyone could possibly see in a brief period.

How to choose? Most shows involve groups of artists; some are organized around a theme. Look at the master schedule, available at, to narrow your search, but generally you'll be taking potluck.

Consider being guided by proximity. A lot can be seen in an afternoon in Old City and Center City, mostly by walking. Philadelphia's art schools are another way to gorge on ceramics - the University of the Arts has five shows and Temple University's Tyler School of Art has two. The centerpiece show, "Earth Matters," the NCECA Invitational, is at the Moore College of Art and Design.

Quality doesn't fall off in the suburbs. Wayne Art Center, Main Line Art Center, Community Art Center in Wallingford, and Perkins Center for the Arts in Moorestown all have exhibitions worth sampling.

What you won't find as part of this conference is a major production by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. As in 1992, the last time the ceramic arts group gathered here, the Art Museum is putting forth a modest effort as part of a theme called "Ceramic Interactions" (also at Eastern State Penitentiary and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology).

At the PMA, artist Betty Woodman is creating work that interacts with the museum's Landsdowne period room. Woodman is a marquee name, so expect her intervention to be imaginative. But for an international ceramics festival of this magnitude, one also would expect the museum to offer a comprehensive survey of regional ceramics, past and present.

Such a show could be invitational or juried, and draw on the Art Museum's extensive collection. Most of all, it would illuminate the city's ceramic tradition for the largest possible audience. Yet once again, ceramic artists and fans are disappointed, even though the PMA has more exhibition space now than 18 years ago and has, in the interim, hired a crafts curator.

You can extract some of what such a museum exhibition would provide from the conference menu - you'll just have to work harder and trust to chance. The NCECA invitational at Moore is a logical place to begin, or, if you prefer a conceptual prologue, consider Arcadia University in Glenside.

Arcadia has organized a piquant and provocative show for a Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, who exhibits ceramics but doesn't make them. Rather, he breaks and desecrates them to challenge the shibboleths of authenticity, originality, and rarity on which Western connoisseurial and market values are based.

Through his art, Ai questions the subversion of traditional Chinese cultural values by Western ones. This is why, for example, he created his Coca-Cola series - "Neolithic" earthenware pots emblazoned with the cherry red Coca-Cola logo.

At least we are to presume that the pots so altered, and another group he dipped in gaudy industrial pigments, are genuine 7,000-year-old artifacts. The ultimate transformation: grinding a pot to dust and displaying it as soil in a jar.

Ai reportedly acquires the "Neolithic" pots at urban bazaars and flea markets. They're unglazed earthenware, with faint painted decoration; they could be ancient or modern tourist tat. It's our uncertainty over what they are that gives these works the frisson of illegitimacy and scandal.

Replication is another of Ai's tactics. One exhibit is a blue-and-white "moonflask" jug commissioned by him from potters at China's "porcelain city," Jingdezhen, where artisans have made such ware for centuries. Ai asks that viewers consider what distinguishes this piece from identical examples made centuries ago.

This is an old argument in art discourse, usually posed as, why is a replica considered inferior to an original? To carry the comparison one step further, does the concept of original have any validity in a culture like China's that venerates tradition?

Ai seems to decry the corruption of Chinese cultural values, so eloquently expressed in its ceramics for centuries, by Western commercialism. Yet with the paint-dipped "Neolithic" pots in particular he insists he hasn't destroyed the originals, merely overlaid them with new creativity.

In one notorious case, he did destroy a valuable original, a Han Dynasty stoneware vase that shattered when he dropped it onto a stone floor. The iconoclastic gesture is dramatically documented in a sequence of three large photographs that give his exhibition its title.

But what is he saying with a mound of ceramic sunflower seeds? This conical pile of handmade porcelain seeds, roughly seven feet in diameter, weighs exactly one ton, which means there must be tens of thousands of individual seeds, each about three-fourths of an inch long.

Imagine the prodigious amount of labor (not Ai's) required to make this mound. Perhaps the seeds stand as a metaphor for China's recent history, all those citizen sunflowers following the sun represented by Chairman Mao.

All that individual potential submerged in an undistinguished mass. To produce what? A culture that today is rapidly becoming a mirror image of everything the revered Mao preached against.

Art: Shock of the New

"Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn" continues in the gallery at Arcadia University, 450 S. Easton Rd., Glenside, through April 18. Hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, to 8 p.m. Thursdays, and noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Free. Information: 215-572-2133/2131 or