The Portage exhibition looked spacious and was characteristically set out high as has been usual with New Zealand shows. Guess I’m used to it but I prefer it up closer to my nose than at belly-button level as is more commonly seen off-shore. It’s just that I am recently back from being away so was more conscious than usual of that difference. Takeshi remarked that the general display was ‘high’ but he did not seem to mind that. His own work was somewhat lower and also looked good but was a little tight for space. But after all, he did not know the space and the Gallery did not know how many pieces he’d bring with him. A couple of the bigger scale pieces might have been better hanging on the wall. Large plateaus and serving platters are customarily hung and serve two purposes – they are usually too big to fit comfortably in a cupboard and hanging adds an image to a kitchen or dining room wall. The traditional large serving dishes from Staffordshire are transfer-pattern decorated with bucolic rural scenes on ivory earthenware, but in this case, Takeshi’s slightly wobbly, blobby-wire, textured and cut surfaces, with their depths of Ching-pai glaze, offer a livelier panorama on pristine porcelain and in their task of presenting food – superb.
His greatest love affair is with food, along with the customs that surround it, and he takes interest in how this comments on a society and a culture. He enjoys nothing more than creating new generations of vessels to extract the best of a ceramic tradition and renew our attention to ritual. From the dominance of one of his huge Sansai surfaced plateaus running with pigment, to the delight of wine seen through the translucency of a textured porcelain goblet, he steadily pursues new approaches and generously shares them via work that is a mixture of control and ease – perfect for the contemporary occasion.
For those who attended his demonstrations in Nelson and Auckland, and his talk in Wellington (more than 50 at each demonstration and one hundred plus at the Dowse) there were many philosophical gems that clearly explained his approach to making with clay so that watching one of his swift bursts of action was almost superfluous. The demonstrations he gave this time, and the talk, were different to those of the past. Making notes on what he was trying to impart rather than waiting to record, with camera or poised cellphone, was the way to go. And he mentioned that several times. However, thinking of those talks and workshop demonstrations, some perhaps need to remember that rushing up after a talk, accosting on the street or sitting beside in a bus waving books or cellphones full of images about own work is confronting; a response capsizing experience. It makes me wonder what was expected by way of reply. It’s hard to guess when any thoughtful commentator would need a good discussion and some interval to consider. This is the first time I have taken such a guest around like this to places and it was surprising how entitled a few people think is their due. Most, however, were considerate and welcoming and he took great pleasure in talking again with those he has met on earlier visits – like the Van der Puttens who lent their kiln and workshop some years ago, so that he might make extra smaller works for an exhibition. He took great pleasure also in meeting new artists like the good folk in Nelson who offered some great hospitality and many kindnesses and he finally met Barry Brickell, after many occasions hearing about him. When they eventually did meet they were both a little wary initially. Brickell because he does not approve of competitions and wants nothing to do with them (and also perhaps because of the reputation of ‘Japanese Masters’) where Brickell has always sought to promote our own ways of doing things . Yasuda because he’d heard so much about the Brickell reputation for so many things. However after initial reticence they found much harmony and Brickell so loved what Yasuda had to say in his ‘judge’s comment’ for the catalogue, particularly the bit about not believing ‘in international art since art is a product of a community and a society’, that he offered a residency at his workshops in Coromandel for someone. Takeshi, for his part, swiftly recognised Barry’s singularities and was more than a little impressed by the railway. One would never think of Takeshi Yasuda, supreme hand-maker, as a technology buff but he admired Royce McGlashen’s unique adaptations of industrial machinery and processes for his own production and was in awe of Barry’s dedication to his life’s greatest achievement and what it represents. It was surprising to learn that Takeshi Yasuda is a lover of efficient machines (particularly motor bikes) but not that he also relishes adaptation and invention. After all, he is probably one of ceramics’ most productive transformers of tradition and generator of new manifestations for established form.
The exhibition has an exceptionally long run this year – through to next year and visitors have until February 8th to view it. The curatorial emphasis, by recent judges, was absent this year. Takeshi instead simply chose works he personally felt had merit and made no attempt to categorise, label or group. The exhibition was returned to a straightforward show of selected individual works that bore little particular relationship with any neighbouring work. That may have been due to the fact that he was taken, because of time constraints, down country very swiftly, following his re-selection of works once they were viewed in 3D. There was no time to consider any curatorial approach to display as recent judges have been able, and chosen, to do. Scott Chamberlain wanted to contextualise exhibitors’ work with others from the artists’ oeuvres or series but few had any back-up work – results in part from our fire–at-the-last-minute culture (although, one imagines the wood-firers may have been able to supply numerous similar pieces). Paul Scott grouped works for their relationships with other works. As he stated in the catalogue when writing on the judging process, ‘… outstanding entries were extricated – then the exhibition was built around them’. Amy Gogarty, a curator and writer rather than a maker, aimed to ‘present a coherent narrative’ and interestingly applied adjectives to her selections , that she thought, ‘captured the spirit or intention of the works’ which then ‘coalesced into themes’ that recognised connections for purposes of exhibition. This is a contemporary approach often now found off-shore in both exhibition and catalogue. Does it mean, as suggested in the Portage catalogue that, more than a ‘simple snapshot of current practice’, the Portage exhibition ‘is heading firmly toward becoming an exercise in saying something about the state of ceramics’ here? Surely, since its inception, it does both? It was set up to replace the Fletcher Awards that died in ’98 and the intent was firmly toward a national show rather than international. Competition from off-shore was unwelcome for some, but Fletcher Challenge saw itself positively as an international business and wanted that reflected in the Award, and the award administration was confident that New Zealand could hold its own. And it did, being represented in better proportions than most countries.
As for that recurrent remark on the absence of the ‘useful’ pot, as someone remarked – it’s surely less that the Awards are weighted toward the non-functional but that useful pots are simply not entered because they are not made. The reason for that is that there is nowhere to show them. White cubes, and those aspiring to be, are chary of the functional and those old-style pot-shops with their stacked shelves of useful pieces are long gone. Apart, perhaps from a shelf here and there like in Vessel in Wellington or in the old style, home-based ‘open day’ events that seem to proliferate again at this time of year. Takeshi awarded functional makers this time with Chris Weaver’s Pitched Pourers and Duncan Shearer’s Bottle and Two Cups and included a number of others who offered tableware such as Amanda Shanley, Louise Rive, Elena Renker, Tanya Nola, Simon Leong, Charade Honey and Julie Collis, while there were more that were clearly intended for domestic uses such as holding flowers and altogether these slightly outnumbered the clearly non-functional, mainly intended for contemplation, exhibits. Then there were those indeterminate pieces that fit no easily identified category….
The events were rounded out on the Saturday with a bus tour, called Clay O’Clock, around a number of galleries where the artists/exhibitors talked about their work. Briefly, it was an enjoyable day with the hard work removed by someone else taking responsibility for getting us from place to place. Northart to Te Uru for Takeshi’s walk and talk then into town with exhibitions/displays at galleries where you can expect to find some quality ceramics like Masterworks which held some superbly practised and congruent works by Bronwynne Cornish and Denys Watkins, and John Roy, or Anna Miles Gallery with a show from Richard Stratton, FHE with Emily Siddell’s glass and clay through to new interest sites by galleries such as Whitespace that beside long-term support for artists Madeleine Child and Jim Cooper shows other ceramics now in its side gallery space. There were other offerings from work that rehearsed the styles of American cerami-stars Arlene Shechet and Nicole Cherubini presented as performance in reportage of a sham archaeological dig finding, where we were generously included in the joke by the three protagonists, at Objectspace, through to the final and major event of the day which was the retrospective of Bronwynne Cornish’s work, Mudlark, opening at Gus Fisher, freshly arrived from its beginnings at Hawkes Bay along with what looks like another excellent and comprehensive catalogue, as Cornish fully deserves. I look forward to time to read it in depth. It was a grand and extensive show, dramatically presented in a darkened gallery that ending a grand, if exhausting day. Perhaps it will happen again, further making the events around the opening of the Portage Awards un-missable.