by Glen R.Brown

From "Ceramics Monthly" December 2001 P40

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  Despite their ostensible crumbling , flaking ,sagging or wilting ,the diminutive ceramic sculptures of Chinese artist Bai Ming are inspired less by fascination with the visual effects of decay than by respect for forms that resist the destructive influences of time .In these minimalist works ,time seems the agent in a process of abstraction that seizes the essence of  endurance ,and compresses  that quality into dense masses of clay scarcely larger than a person’s heart . This vague allusion to the heart ----both as a vital organ and as the symbolic locus of sentiment - provides a key to the integral relationship between time and humanity that Ming’s works are intended to express.

  These simple sculptures, simultaneously melancholic and majestic, are in their ambivalence characteristically human, blending a lamentation over the effects of time with a kind of apologia for it. “I am,” say Ming, “very sensitive to the significance of time for human life .In my work, I strongly emphasize transformation. It is a serious theme ,because time changes people form young to old .However ,I am also acutely aware of the value of time , since it can leave behind an elite body of cultural knowledge.”

  Once a student and now a faculty member at the Central Academy of Art and Design at Tsing-Hua University in Beijing , Ming could hardly have been indoctrinated into a more “elite body of cultural knowledge ” than that of Jingdezhen porcelain production . The utilitarian works through which he established his reputation as a ceramist in the early 1990s clearly the influence of this venerable tradition, not only in terms of materials and techniques but also through incorporation of such distinctive features as the glazed foot, a Jingdezhen innovation once reserved exclusively for wares commissioned by the imperial household.

  Technically flawless and serenely elegant , Ming’s porcelain vessels are all the more impressive for the knowledge that ,over the past decade ,only part of his time has been devoted to his career as a potter .Truly multifaceted ,he has authored three books on contemporary ceramics ,and achieved important stature as a painter whose somber textural compositions recall European postwar abstractionists such as Alberto Burri and Antoni Tapies ,while elaborating a distinctly Chinese perspective on nature.

 Four pieces the "sit in meditation-The Forms and Process" series ,to approximately 8 inches(20 centimeters) in high, porcelain

   Despite the material and stylistic distinctions between his pottery and paintings, he has always maintained a conceptual unity to his creative activity .The long -standing Jingdezhen tradition -into which new forms have been periodically introduced while the porcelain itself and the technology used to produce it have remained remarkably constant over the centuries-is analogous, for Ming, to the eternal essence of nature, which perseveres despite the convolutions of history.

  Perhaps it was inevitable that he would consider bringing his work in clay stylistically more in line with the nature symbolism of his paintings .This would entail a move into the realm of sculpture -where conceptual concerns would be solely responsible for dictating form and content--- without compromising the knowledge of convention gained form his background as a potter.

  Working in Jingdezhen porcelain, Ming decided to develop a series of abstract sculptures that would simultaneously emphasize the characteristics of tradition and transformation, perseverance and natural decay .Although the softness of the clay body initially hindered his efforts, it would ultimately lead to the fortuitous discovery of the simple, compact stele form to which he subsequently adhered for the majority of his sculptures.

 “I frequently failed in my early sculptures,” he recalls, “because the clay was just not stiff enough, and the form that I constructed collapsed. But after one such unsuccessful attempt ,I massed the clay in the traditional Jingdezhen way and was preparing to discard it ,when I realized that its shape was reminiscent of a meditative position in yoga .Form the time I was ten years old ,I have worked while sitting in a similar fashion cross-legged on the floor . I can sit in that position comfortably for five or six hours at a time .Something about the piece that I had made by accident suggested this position .Obviously, it wasn’t literal. It had something to do with the motion, the feeling of being both compact and slightly twisted around.”

  Drawing inspiration from this impression, Ming set about producing a series of unobtrusive 8-inch sculptures intended to suggest contemplative states, Entitled “Sit in Meditation-The Forms and Process,” the series reflects Ming’s general affinity for meditative practices rather than a specifically religious dedication. “I’m not a devout follower of Zen,” he explains, “but I have always been involved in cultural practices that derive from it.

Untitled ,from the "sit in meditation-The Forms and Process" series ,to approximately 8 inches(20 centimeters) in high, porcelain

 “My way of stretching or positioning myself when I work is very much related to Zen .The works themselves reflect upon this kind of motion ,which in turn is a way of ordering the mind .My work is simple and pure ,a reflection of my lifestyle. I’m accustomed to spending time drinking tea, writing and meditating .They’re peaceful activities, and that’s the sense that I want to convey through my work.”

  The early works in the “Sit in Meditation” series ,consisting of porcelain accentuated by sparing applications of blue and white glazes ,are closely linked ,materially and conceptually , to Jingdezhen pottery .Their is enhanced by the balance between incised rectangular forms and more spontaneous punctuate patterns. In addition, a quiet dialogue is established between smoothly glazed surfaces and irregularly dimpled and fissured expanses.

  Often the individual sculptures appear similar to one another in form but are unique in the traces of process on their surfaces, a point that Ming emphasizes in relation to the dynamic between the one and the many in Zen. “The position of meditation is the form,” he explains, “not the content , which is process .This process involves achieving levels of understanding .The sculptures could be compared to a group of people sitting together in the same meditative position ,but each achieving a different state of understanding .”

  In the spring of 2001, his work entered a new and more openly expressive phase when he began a residency at the Clay Studio in Philadelphia .Although he continued to emphasize the serene ,concentrated mass characteristic of his “Sit in Meditation” series , he temporarily abandoned porcelain for stoneware ,and began exploring a slightly brighter and more varied palette.

  “In Philadelphia, I began to exaggerate the color,” he explains. “It was a natural response to my experiences in America. There were so many things that were different in my daily life. I heard a lot of jazz music, for instance, and I was trying a lot of new foods. My new lifestyle began to affect my work in important ways. ”

  Equally significant was the availability of a variety of commercial glazes. Unaccustomed to such a broad selection, Ming enthusiastically explored new and more dynamic color combinations.

  Although the works that Ming produced in Philadelphia, he is quick to assert that their underlying inspiration remained essentially Chinese. For example , in addition to works for the “Sit in Meditation” series , he produced several low ,horizontal sculptures that allude both to the narrow ,rectangular format of traditional Chinese scrolls and to the mountain ranges that are a recurring theme in classical literati painting .

"scenery No.1,"from the "Mountains and Rivers with Time " series,26 inches(66 centimeters) in length ,glazed stoneware

  "scenery No.2,"from the "Mountains and Rivers with Time " series,26 inches(66 centimeters) in length ,glazed stoneware ,by Bai Ming, Beijing, China

The overall form shared by the sculptures of the “Mountains and Rivers with Time” series suggests a literal expanse of peaks, and the rough textures of the pieces are reminiscent of eroded stone. At the same time, the surfaces are articulated in a loose brushwork that emphasizes the nature of the mountains as representations. “I like to develop two principles in my work,” Ming explains. “One is clearly that of the ceramic artist, a three-dimensional orientation toward real space, but there is also the conceptual sensitivity of a painter.”

  The integral relationship between the material and the conceptual in the work of art became particularly significant to Ming several years ago during a visit to the famous Yungang Buddhist caves at the foot of Wuzhou Mountain in China’s Shanxi Province .The 53 chambers of this historic site contain dozens of sculptures hewn from the living rock, but the most imposing feature is the colossal Buddha carved from the face of the mountain itself ,an insinuation of the human body into the immortal substance of nature .While Ming made no attempt to represent the specific attributes of the site in his own sculptures ,the caves and their carving held important implications for him regarding the integration of human art and ingenuity with a form and material that are literally as old as the hills.

  If there is melancholy in the reflection that the cave reliefs are the work of ancient hands that left no other trace of their brief existence in the world, there is something equally inspirational about the perseverance of the sculptures themselves. For Ming, time is the greatest abstracter of all, and what survives its relentless negation is not only awe inspiring, but the purest form of truth.

  “I am interested in the motion of time and the traces of meaning that it leaves behind in things that seem eternal,” he explains. “For that reason ,inorganic objects touch me more than living things .The carvings in the Yungang caves ,for example ,affect me more than grass or birds ,the kind of nature that doesn’t endure for thousands of years .The region where the caves are located is a dry expanse under a vast sky ,but somehow in those conditions a great culture left its traces for the ages . That is what excites me, and that is what inspires my sculpture.”