Pottery is the story of human civilisation. Made from nothing more than humble fired earth, pottery is one of the earliest human inventions dating back to prehistory. After firing, the durability and permanence of clay is rivalled only by stone, yet in its original state, the malleability of clay responds to even the most nuanced of human touch, making it an ideal medium for creating utilitarian vessels – and for preserving human culture in ways ephemeral materials cannot.
The study of Chinese Neolithic pottery is thus a study of the prehistoric cultures in China, tracing all the way to Yangshao (c. 4800 - 3000 BCE) in the Yellow River Basin, considered to be the cradle of Chinese civilisation. In Form Follows Function: The Story of Chinese Neolithic Pottery, Edie Hu writes an informative article about the origins of prehistoric cultures in China through an examination of the form and function of pieces drawn from the collection of Ronald W. Longsdorf. A designer by trade, Longsdorf documented 100 examples from his Neolithic pottery collection in The Pottery Age: An Appreciation of Neolithic Ceramics from China (2019), bringing a modern eye to the observation of this ancient artistic tradition. Through his words, we learn to admire Neolithic pottery as the fine art of its time.
On the occasion of the third instalment of Ancient Civilisations III – Neolithic Pottery including the Collection of Ronald W. Longsdorf (25-31 May), we ask yet another question: How does Neolithic pottery find relevance today?
To find answers, we visited the studio of Hong Kong-based art and design powerhouse duo Julie & Jesse. With an emphasis on material investigation and context, designer Julie Progin and artist Jesse Mc Lin have produced an exquisite body of work through both their Hong Kong studio and Jingdezhen studio that demonstrate an enduring influence of Chinese ceramic history, inviting contemplations of the presently evolving landscape of contemporary China. Their design brand, Latitude 22N, offers small-batch handmade ceramic and porcelain wares for the contemporary home. Through a juxtaposition of Chinese Neolithic pottery and contemporary pottery, we see how history informs the present and perhaps imagine what the powerful attraction of wet clay in the hands of Neolithic potters may have been like.
The Intrinsic Appeal of Clay
The viscosity of wet clay, it’s responsiveness to the touch of the hands is one of the incredible qualities that makes this medium intrinsically attractive to people of all ages. “With clay there’s a sort of immediacy, and unlike the reduction process of carving wood, stone or jade, with clay you build it up and that to me is very interesting,” says Mc Lin.
For the child, it offers a tactile play that is almost infinite in possibilities. For the artist, it offers an unhinged form of expression. The pleasurable experience of pottery, Progin and Mc Lin explains, is in the process of making, in experimenting and having fun, allowing the unexpected to take them to new places and pushing the limits of the material.
Looking at Neolithic pottery, you can see how it holds a kind of immediate response of expression.
In recent years, a rising global trend in the interest for making pottery as a pastime has been credited to the meditative and therapeutic qualities the craft offers – seen as an antidote to the digitally-led, fast-paced lifestyle of today. As Longsdorf so fittingly writes, “Art has the power to transform the experience of the world around us. It can relieve daily life from the boredom of an endlessly repetitive cycle of working, eating, and sleeping. A cycle which may produce only small pleasures and petty gains.”
This appeal can perhaps be felt when we look at the horizontal boat-shaped vessel pictured above, with its fine pricked design of closely-spaced rows of pricks. One might conjure an image of how the potter took utmost care in shaping the fragile form, ensuring a flat base that just gently balances the vessel but does not impose on its curves, and meticulously executing the dense pattern of pricks. Similarly, the voluptuous curve of this present vessel, with its everted mouth rim and long tapered neck sparks one to imagine the Neolithic potter’s hands shaping the S-curve of the body. In both, what we envision is the tactility of clay in the potter’s hands, and the power of the human touch.
Holding History in Our Hands
“The originality, ingenious engineering, straightforward aesthetics, and at times the profound mystery of Neolithic pottery, whether designed powerfully or delicately, make it one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of art.” – Ronald W. Longsdorf
Longsdorf argued that it took talent on the part of Neolithic potters to recognise what pottery could offer beyond its utilitarian function. “Beautiful objects do not appear magically in the context of an evolved and civilised culture, they are hard won by artists,” he writes. “It takes a clear idea on the part of the artist of what constitutes beauty. When they are successful others will see it too, if not in their lifetime, then later.”
While for archaeologists the study of Chinese Neolithic pottery brings great insight into the cultures of prehistoric China, and how people may have lived and how civilisation evolved, for artists, to see and hold a piece of history in the flesh can reinforce one’s work in context. As Mc Lin says, “It was nice to actually see the Neolithic pottery and really see them next to our pieces. It is something that we were inspired by at some point, only it was a flat image in a catalogue. But when you're seeing it in real life, that's different.”
For Mc Lin, who was born and raised in the US, the study of Chinese ceramics during his graduate and postgraduate years laid the foundation for his own practice. While for Hong Kong-born Progin, she explains, “Anything historical, Chinese or Asian, has always been part of my visual culture and my DNA as a designer.”
“Histories is something we think about all the time. We try to understand what is its history, how it describes itself, and the production,” says Progin. “I think in all of our work and everything we do we’re always kind of putting things in context and in time and place. Looking back and ahead, the histories and the stories, it’s definitely something we think about when we look and pick up something.”
In the above image, the tripod ewer on the left, and the wheel-turned, black pottery cup on the right both demonstrate ingenious Neolithic engineering and design. The resemblance to birds with outstretched necks has earned the tripod ewer a reputation as a masterwork of fine art. The shape was subsequently carried into the Bronze Age and adopted for other use. While the black pottery cup, which has a slightly everted mouth rim, and a semi-circular handle, shows visual similarity to modern-day ceramic cups, suggesting aesthetic simplicity and practicality of its design has lasted a millennia to still be one of the most functional designs we continue to use today.
“Historically, bad practice is the point of evolution of new designs throughout from neolithic to present.” says Progin. “And it’s not just the accident, it’s also the intellectual ability to see the accident as a potential future. Something that can grow into something else. And I think historically that is what the big breaks in creativity and evolution of styles is from.”
Chinese Neolithic pottery serves to tell the great artistic achievements of its potters; that it continues to inspire artists and designers of today solidifies the due credit to which we should give Neolithic potters for their contribution to the canon of art history thousands of years ago.
Special thank you to Julie & Jesse and LATITUDE 22N for the generous support for our themed photoshoot. All photo credits: Wan Photography.