Made in China at Yale Center for British Art

Vase to Vase

Every now and then, the Yale Center for British Art artfully challenges your ideas about what’s artful.

When the YCBA reopened in 2016 after more than a year of renovations, I visited with a friend. In the Entrance Court, there was a statue, Samson Slaying a Philistine by 18th-century sculptor John Cheere. We immediately recognized it as capital-A Art, unmistakably important and precious. Made of lead and larger than life, it’s a skillful depiction of two human forms, elegant despite its subject matter: the biblical Samson beating someone to death with the jaw bone of a donkey.

Next to the statue’s plinth was an enormous black trash bag. My friend was mesmerized. “Is this art? It has to be,” he said. Not really so certain, he reached down to touch it, when his question got its answer from a nearby security guard: “Sir, please don’t touch the art.”

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The trash bag was Gavin Turk’s Bin Bag #4, and instead of garbage encased in plastic, it was cunningly molded bronze. The dichotomy was striking; next to the monumental and classical, the banal had been made provocative.

Made in China, opened August 1 in the gallery’s Entrance Court, does it again, in a much subtler way. The brainchild of British artist Clare Twomey, who specializes in both large-scale installations and clay work, Made in China makes a sociopolitical point: mass production can create any number of products in any quantity, and perhaps most jarringly, at least to aesthetes, it can create items not terribly different, in the end, from what is considered capital-A Art.

Unlike Bin Bag #4, at first glance there’s nothing banal about Made in China—part of the upcoming Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery exhibit, opening September 14—whose groves of gleaming, blushing ceramic catch the eye in a big way. Dozens of 5-foot red vases stand in corners and around the statue of still-present Samson, and they’re not just in the lobby. More vases are scattered throughout the museum—next to paintings, at the top of the main stairwell, standing guard in front of roped-off exhibits-to-come. I spotted six on the 2nd floor, one on the 3rd and four on the 4th.

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Numbering 80 vases in total, at first they may seem identical in every way. Bright red and detailed with pink-and-gold peony flowers surrounded by delicate butterflies, a line of Chinese characters marches down each one, translating as follows: “When flowers blossom, prosperity comes.” (Interestingly, the ancient logogram used for “flowers” is these days more often used to refer to China itself.)

But one vase is not like the rest. 79 were decorated in China, using an industrialized process, but the 80th was decorated in England, and its design is different as well. Detailed with 18-karat gold by Royal Crown Derby, which may be Britain’s oldest porcelain maker, it shows pheasants perched on leafy, snaking branches. The pattern is more subtle, and while the decals of the other 79 vases rest lightly on the surface, the gold tracery on the Derby vase is laid more deeply into the glaze.

Naturally, the single vase hand-decorated in England ended up taking longer to make than the 79 that were industrially finished in China. It also ended up costing more than all the others combined.

While juxtaposing craft and industry, the exhibit also quietly blurs the line between them. All 80 vases, not just the 79, were first industrially fabricated in Jingdezhen, a city in Jiangxi Province that’s spent nearly two millennia producing ceramic. The city remains a pottery powerhouse, though it’s been transformed by technology and globalization. As she details on her website, Twomey ordered the vases over email, and they were ready after a mere three weeks. The shipment included a handful of undecorated specimens—the eventual exhibit’s outlier plus some backups.

In an interview with the newspaper China Daily, Twomey says she “acted like a hotel” in ordering a massive number of vases from Jingdezhen, and rather than any single item, it’s the volume, density and placement of the articles on display at the YCBA that creates a visceral feeling of awe, followed perhaps by the kind of cerebral reaction the artist’s intentions can prompt. After all, when aesthetically similar vases are placed at regular intervals in the corridors of hotels and in the foyers of restaurants, they’re seen as decor, not art.

The YCBA’s exhibit, however, is undoubtedly artful. Its objects have insightful things to say, especially together. Beyond a visceral aesthetic response they provoke deeper intellectual ones, about craft and industry; about the ancient and the new; about the unique and the numerous; and about how or whether those differences make a difference when it comes to what’s art.

Made in China at the Yale Center for British Art
1080 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm through Dec 3, 2017
(203) 432-2800…

Written by Anne Ewbank. Photos 1 and 3-7 by Dan Mims. Photo 2 by Anne Ewbank.

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