Ten ceramic artists have been selected to create new work for the British Ceramics Biennial’s (BCB) AWARD, the leading platform for contemporary ceramic art practice in the UK. The list includes five a-n members: Alison Cooke, Christie Brown, Cleo Mussi, Ho Lai and Tamsin van Essen. Completing the lineup are Helen Beard, Jin Eui Kim, Mawuena Kattah, Stephen Dixon and Connor Coulston.

Their work ranges from an installation made using clay taken from below the North Sea to life size mosaic figures created from historic pottery and forms the focal point of the BCB festival, taking place in Stoke-on-Trent this month.

Taking place at The Goods Yard, a 19th century former warehouse in the heart of Stoke Town, many of the participating artists have taken inspiration from the city’s industrial heritage, transforming tradition in a contemporary way. For the first time BCB will also curate an online programme of films, tours and events for those unable to visit in person.

One of the BCB AWARD artists will be awarded a £5,000 prize for ‘excellence, innovation and creative ambition’. Here we take a look at the work of the five a-n members who are in the running for the prize.

Tamsin van Essen, Ayurvedic Surgical Tools. Photo: Tamsin van Essen

Tamsin van Essen’s work is primarily concept driven, exploring notions of beauty and impermanence through examining scientific, medical and social historic themes. Following a recent residency in India, for AWARD she has created a series of abstracted Ayurvedic surgical tools using porcelain and fine red earthenware, the resulting ambiguous, eroded forms exploring notions of function and value.

She comments: “I have developed a series of tool-like sculptures, using fine porcelain and terracotta to create abstract interpretations of knives, ancient cutting tools and surgical instruments.

“Drawing on research I carried out during a recent residency in India, I am looking at the cultural significance of hand tools and cutting implements, their materiality and changing value. I am exploring how objects with shapes that hint at an earlier practical function evolve into tokens of value, as decorative or symbolic items, denoting status or skill. In particular, I am interested in how loss of function and context affects the way the forms might be perceived.

“Using traditional making techniques such as hand-carving, etching and burnishing, as well as incorporating metals into the clay, I erode and break down the ceramic forms so they become more ambiguous in appearance and evoke feelings of mysterious archaeological finds – precious artefacts with unclear provenance.”

Five rows of circular sculptural forms.
Ho Lai, Fluxing Red, bone China installation, 2021

Ho Lai explores the contemporary nature of ceramics in her work, experimenting with the materials and processes involved in its creation. Her work for AWARD, Fluxing Red, is a series of 50 red-stained bone china wall objects capturing the map outline of Hong Kong. It is a response to the government’s decision to allow British National Overseas passport holders from Hong Kong to become British citizens and the resulting identity crisis felt by many contemporary migrants.

Commenting on the piece, Lai offers the following personal text:

“It was an eerily quiet day, a few days away from the start of the second national lockdown. I was wandering around on the Great Map at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, carrying out my usual duty as entry-level staff at the museum. To me, this place perhaps celebrates the colonial past of Great Britain. As I walked around and gazed at the Great Map, I saw different markings of the capital cities across the continents under my feet…London…New York…Beijing…Guagzhou…

“Wait, where’s Hong Kong? The place where I was born and raised, and the small islands that used to be the colony of Great Britain, I thought that place was once important to this place? I was perplexed and disheartened that I did not see this familiar name on the map, and since I left a lot has happened back at home, shaking and altering the place.

“Indeed one day, I shall not see this familiar name anymore, just like this Great Map. And I shall witness this place slowly submerged and engulfed in red.”

Three life size ceramic figures, with the artist stood to the right of them.
Cleo Mussi, Theophrastus, Demeter and Rhea, 2019, reclaimed ceramic. Courtesy: Article Studio

Cleo Mussi‘s proposal was a series of life-size 2D figures to create a timeline exploring the interaction of human life with the natural world. The resulting work explores how the British landscape has changed and evolved with the movement of people, whether because of Brexit, Covid-19, health, economics or climate change.

Mussi’s self portraits are created from appropriated, recycled tableware; the inherent qualities, forms, glazes and text gleaned from two hundred years of British ceramic industry. Life size figures immerse you in an evolutionary historical timeline: from the common human ancestor Mitochondrial Eve to the non binary Ceramic Manufactory Machine.

She comments: “These figures explore how the British landscape has evolved since pre-history with migration and the conscious and unconscious introduction of knowledge and plants from Europe and further afield. Plants were introduced for culinary and medicinal purposes or as weeds along migratory paths and are now established as part of our diverse culture.

“Plants and clay have evolved together, being carried in, stored within, and consumed from clay vessels. Contemporary tableware is predominantly decorated with floral motifs and shows the passion for botanical imagery first observed by Theophrastus in ‘Histoirium Planetarium’ and with the naming of names in Carl Linnaeus’s ‘Systema Naturae’.

Sculpted lumps of clay presented on sand.
Alison Cooke, Bridge Under Troubled Waters (detail), 2021, photogaph Jenny Harper for British Ceramics Biennial

Alison Cooke works with clay dug from interventions such as mining, engineering or scientific research, which she fires at extreme temperatures. For AWARD she has created an installation made from clay taken from below the North Sea.

She comments: “This project started from a fragment of sediment core from below the North Sea bed, excavated by scientific team Europe’s Lost Frontiers. Being given this lump of clay blew my mind. The work I’ve made uses parts of the core and coastal clays once held in a vast glaciers along with the frozen sea.

“The work refers to the crossing of Doggerland by our ancestors, our attempts to hold back the rising tide, and serves as a reminder of the connection between the UK and Europe, now submerged.”

Three sculptural human figures.
Christie Brown, Tableau (detail), 2021, photograph Jenny Harper for British Ceramics Biennial

Finally, Christie Brown’s figurative practice is informed by an interest in our relationship with objects and the significance and relevance of museum collections and archaic artefacts to contemporary art. Archaeology presents a fragmented narrative of past lives and holds parallels with the practice of psychoanalysis where layers are carefully stripped away to reveal hidden information. Her work references these archaic traces as well as the mythology, narrative and symbolism associated with clay and its relationship with other materials such as wax, bronze and plaster. She often presents her work through site or theme-specificity and her making method of press-moulding allows her to explore the nature of repetition though installation and series.

For AWARD she has created Tableau, which explores the connection between life drawings and 3D ceramics, through a tableau of clay figures against a frieze backdrop of life drawing.

British Ceramics Biennial festival takes places from 11 September to 17 October 2021. Explore its programme of events and exhibitions here

Top image: Christie Brown, Tableau, 2021. Photo: Jenny Harper for British Ceramics Biennial