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Dusting off the good china

Six artists examine the surprisingly complicated history of crockery in craft-council exhibition

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/8/2015 (682 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

You might not think twice about a broken plate or coffee mug, but pottery like it has shaped 20,000 years of human history. More durable than other artifacts, ceramics first appear millennia before writing or even farming. Mediterranean amphorae were the industrial shipping containers of their day; later, the European drive to acquire and knock off Chinese porcelain spurred centuries of global trade and key developments in mass-production.

Curated by Sigrid Dahle for the Manitoba Craft Council, Play, Precarity and Survival opened late last month at Aceartinc. Its six artists examine our enduring and surprisingly complicated relationship with crockery, exploring intersections between fine craft, mass production and contemporary art. Most address the legacy of Chinese ceramics in some way, pointedly and playfully shattering widely held North American ideas about cultural and economic exchange.

Born in Dublin to Trinidadian parents, Vancouver-based artist Brendan Tang finds his own less-than-straightforward "Asian-Canadian" identity reflected in the meandering pedigree of blue and white porcelain. Invented in China, the style was modified in Persia, imitated in Europe and shipped to the Americas in a 600-year game of telephone. In Tang's digital drawings, porcelain dishes become the surfaces of swimming pools, their patterns distorted by ripples and perspective but still instantly familiar. Children splash around, oblivious to the unlikely melting pot.

Regina-born Jeannie Mah retraces similar routes, using Photoshop to insert herself into the Royal Crown Derby Porcelain Company's "Blue Mikado" pattern. Designed in England 120 years ago, the Orientalist pastiche was especially popular in Canada and remains in production. A simple vase bearing the edited image sits on a high shelf, while digital projections and a rather sloppy wall drawing supply the background.

Seema Goel tries to keep a few too many plates in the air with her installation Blood Sugar (C12H22O11). Gold-rimmed Limoges dishes decorated with crudely drawn blue sugar spoons hang from red embroidery floss in a configuration that, we're told, approximates a glucose molecule. Gently stirred by an electric fan, the mobile casts interesting shadows, but the convoluted blend of childhood memory, colonial history and body chemistry comes through more persuasively in Goel's poetic statement for the work.

Rachael Kroeker presents a teetering column of porcelain vessels -- replicas of a bowl made in China and purchased at a dollar store. The piece asks us to consider how a Canadian artisan's labour "stacks up" against that of an anonymous factory worker, implying the precariousness of that distinction.

In a slick, illuminated vitrine near the entrance, Marcel Dzama's tragi-goofy family of melting-snowman cookie jars (produced in a Chinese factory and displayed with their packaging) raises similar questions. In the context of the show, they bring to mind the environmental impact of mass production and global trade while also interjecting a bit of weary humour.

Monica Mercedes Martinez's following the line/caught stands out as the show's largest, most abstract and most evocative work. The massive grid of ropes covered in hand-shaped terra cotta cuts a swath across the gallery, a crumbling safety net or rope ladder (possibly a trap) that visually and conceptually draws together the exhibition's wide-ranging works.

Dahle is an adventurous and unconventional curator who blurs the line between making art and organizing exhibitions. She's explored the themes of play, precarity and survival as they relate to ceramics in her own artistic research, and while some of that work would have been a welcome addition here, the exhibition is a fine example of the Manitoba Craft Council's reliably thoughtful, engaging and well-produced programming. It closes Aug. 22, but that broken mug will outlast us all.

Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.

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