The only thing that unites the works in the British Ceramics Biennial is that they all explore the possibilities of creating with clay. The decision to refrain from dictating an overarching theme allows the four-venue showcase to express fully the interests and inclinations of the best ceramicists working in Britain. This includes covering a 1969 Ford Zodiac with a rave-inspired mosaic; recreations of whales’ inner ear-bones hung from vibrating red ropes; and a performance artist donning a giant, eyeless clay head while trying to sculpt busts of members of the audience.
Aside from clay, the only other predetermined topic is that of the biennial’s location in Stoke-on-Trent, the once beating heart of the British ceramics industry. Its presence looms large in the minds of the more than 50 selected artists and via the venues, which are all in former pottery towns. The largest exhibition space is All Saints church in Hanley, which was built for and by potters in the early 20th century. Brand new ceramics are cradled within the brickwork to create a space which tells the story of pottery over the years, a story of community and exquisite artistry.
All Saints church hosts Award (10 established artists competing for £10,000) and Fresh (25 early career artists working in the UK and Ireland). Nicola Tassie jigsaws together white jars and misshapen, squidgy forms into a small wall; Rebecca Appleby places on plinths large, degrading balls, dazzling in hues of gold and teal; Dan Kelly creates a London skyline with an array of moulded cylinders. A sizeable white table presents the Fresh artists, with the contrasting textures and colours of Tim Fluck’s winding porcelain shapes; the crisp, spliced forms of Caroline Gray’s figures; and the delicious, liquid sheen of Jihyun Kim’s colourful organisms. Copper Sounds’ installation Sequenced Ceramics provides a soundtrack of chimes, as beaters intermittently hit a selection of vases, pots and bowls, creating a meditative atmosphere.
A short walk away, at AirSpace Gallery, artist William Cobbing explores the physicality of clay in various video works presented within bumpy ceramic structures. Through the eye sockets of a bulbous, pottery head, I watch a film of Cobbing slapping and patting a lump of clay. He slices it with a fine wire and out pours gloopy, rainbow-coloured paint. Slowly, I realise that I’m watching him make the head I am staring into. It is simple but arresting, even addictive.
Later, his videos contain several people, bound together in clay forms, endlessly running their hands over the material. The repetitive rubbing and squelching is sensual, and in isolating all human body parts except hands and arms, the figures become symbols of our desire to reach out and connect with others. One work is screened on a monitor placed in a clay hand, like an iPhone. The dirty clay, in contrast to the clean beauty of the screen, serves as a reminder of the messiness inherent in human relationships.
It is this human connection with ceramics that infuses the biennial with energy. We are not invited to merely tiptoe around delicate ornaments, but to learn something of our own humanity – such as our drive to keep creating as Emilie Taylor demonstrates in That Drop, a series of pots paying homage to the area’s rave culture that blossomed as a result of a declining pottery industry. As the works in this biennial demonstrate – the church might no longer house a community of potters but that desire to keep crafting with clay has never diminished.