This exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art (Honoulu, January 31-April 27, 2014) by Diane KW (Diane Chen) had its genesis on December 18, 1751 when The Geldermalsen, a Dutch East India Company ship, left the port of Canton, China, for the Netherlands. On board was a crew of 112 men, 700,000 pounds of tea and 203 chests holding 240,000 pieces of Chinese blue and white porcelain, as well as silk cloth, exotic woods, lacquer and gold bars.
As the museum explains in its contextual material:
“While passing through the Bangka Strait, which separates the islands of Sumatra and Bangka in the Java Sea, the Geldermalsen struck a reef on the evening of January 3, 1752, capsized and sank with 80 men, including the captain, Jan Diederik Morel, and the entire cargo. The tea and the gold were the most valuable goods; the porcelains, although headed for market, functioned mainly as ballast to stabilize the ship. An investigation was conducted, with many of the survivors being questioned.”
The documents relating the story of the Geldermalsen’s fate would remain untouched in the Dutch East India Company’s archives for almost 235 years but for Michael Hatcher, a marine salvager:
“In 1985 [he] located the wreck and from 1985 to 1986 his operation retrieved 150,000 undamaged porcelains that he shipped to Christie’s in Amsterdam for auction. Seeing the porcelains in Christie’s warehouse, Christiaan Jörg, then curator of the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, was able to verify that the pieces came from the Geldermalsen, intensifying media coverage of what Christie’s had dubbed the ‘Nanking Cargo.’ The auction brought more than 40 million Dutch guilders (approximately $20 million), creating a sensation in the art and auction world and also sparking outrage from the Indonesian government, which claimed the wreck was in its territorial waters, as well as from maritime historians and archaeologists, who deplored that the wreck had not been studied more thoroughly and unique data had been destroyed.”
Jörg requested and received all the shards and damaged works shards for the Groninger Museum. Jörg heard about Diane KW working with porcelain shards and gave her pieces to create “new” works of art, applying digital ceramic transfers of original texts, engravings and modern auction photographs that trace the story of the Geldermalsen.
The result is At World’s End—The Story of a Shipwreck: Works by Diane KW first shown at the Groninger and now in Honolulu. Shard art is a crowded genre in ceramics but KW’s work sets a new standard for beauty, concept, context and history. She blends it all into a distinctly contemporary installation. What gives particular grace to these works is the ordered but hypnotic penmanship, calligraphic art in its own right, which is evident in the documents she copied and applied form the Dutch East India Company’s archives.
As KW explains:
“While the Groninger Museum is a contemporary art museum, it also has a large excellent historical collection of antique ceramics from the 18th and 19th centuries,” says Diane KW. “The Geldermalsen shipwreck shards the museum had were clearly a part of the history of China, the Netherlands, and Europe. It seemed to me that the shards should move forward in time to become contemporary art, but without loss of their historical context. So I decided to tell their story in a contemporary way.”
The setting could not have been more perfect. When the new Groninger was built Philippe Starck was tapped to completely reinvent the way in which a blue and white porcelain gallery could be shown. His signature diaphanous curtains symboled the purity of porcelain, certain works could be viewed through a ship’s telescope and in the floor was a pool covered in glass with the shards from the Nanking cargo wreck scattered amongst rocks and coral with with live fish!
KW’s statement for the exhibition touches on the mystery and poetics that inspired her.
“Most of us try to stay near the ocean’s surface where water, air, and light meet, but there are the brave ones who would dive deep to discover hidden secrets below. There are so many secrets at the bottom – strange-looking sea creatures, shipwrecks, sunken treasure.
“I am a ceramic artist, and for me the sunken treasure is not gold or jewels, but rather ancient ceramics salvaged from the ocean’s depths. These vessels have become shards, their asymmetric individualities hinting at their histories. I help ceramic shards tell their stories, stories about the history of man, his accomplishments and his failures.
There is another genesis to this body of work:
“At a dinner party I met Bill Sargent, former Curator of Asian Export Art at the Peabody Essex Museum. I told him of my idea to combine ancient pottery shards with spam emails. Bill said he had a shard collection that he would give me for experimentation. The first shard he gave me was a Ming Dynasty stemmed cup shard. The end result was wonderful—we both loved it and Bill took it back to China, to donate it to the Nanchang Ceramic Museum for their permanent collection.”
You can see the cup illustrated in the interview between Leza Griffith and KW that is also part of this issue of CFile. KW is working with extant material for the greater part but she adds contemporary contributions. For instance The Price of Doing Business (above) is a comment on Modern-day China’s old world methods of doing business and giving luxury items to government officials. According to a recent Reuters News Agency account the Chinese government’s attempts to halt this are having little success. KW sees this as “a continuum over time, this shard and the news report link the past and the present trade practices, questioning the likelihood of government officials policing themselves.”
Her gift for collage is quite magical and the work’s language and imagery against the original cobalt decoration by China’s gifted artisans from centuries ago raise complex, myriad issues: mercantile history, East-West politics, power, wealth, ceramic history and even deep pathos that is stated with mournful simplicity in the work, They Were only Boys..
Exhibitions of this quality and content define the notion of a ceramic art, an independent genre that has relevance by the richness of this material’s culture. Not all ceramics seek this place in art but when they do the payoff for ceramophiles is substantial.
Garth Clark is Chief Editor of CFile.
Above: Diane KW, The Price of Doing Business, 2013. Collection of the Groninger Museum. Photograph courtesy of the artist.