Ceramic artist Stephen Bird uses the term Industrial Sabotage to explain how he has re-interpreted the tradition of mass produced ornament ceramics made in Stoke on Trent in the 1700s and 1800s. Bird talks about his early childhood in Stoke on Trent, and an exhibition, entitled 'Figure This' he presented there in 2007. The article is an abridged version of a presentation given by Bird at the Sydney Ceramic Triennale 2009 for the Industrial Archive panel.
I use the term Industrial Sabotage to explain how I have re-interpreted the tradition of mass produced ornament ceramics made in Stoke on Trent in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today I'm going to talk about my early childhood in Stoke on Trent, and an exhibition, entitled 'Figure This,' I presented there in 2007, and also some significant personal events that have shaped my art between these two points in time. I will start with a potted history of ceramics in Stoke on Trent, and will go on to tell you why I began making ceramics and I will finish off by showing how my travels have influenced my expression as an artist and shaped my political views.
In 2007 I returned to the Potteries area of England to visit the Potteries Museum in Stoke on Trent and the Gladstone Pottery Museum. I studied their collections and archives to present a solo show of my ceramics based on these experiences. I would like to tell you more about Stoke on Trent and my relationship to it. The year 1964 marks the last firing of a coal powered bottle kiln in what was once the most important ceramic centre in the industrial world. It had made most of the plates, bowls, cups, toilets, sinks, water and sewage pipes and porcelain insulators for most of the western world and beyond. My father was a coal miner and was about to change his profession as the clean air acts of 1956 and 1968 were about to dramatically reduce the demand for coal. When I was a child there was 4000 of these bottle kilns in Stoke, now less than ten remain.
Stoke on Trent is situated in the geographical centre of England in an area referred to as the potteries. The early inhabitants of the area found that the soil was no good for agriculture and that it was more economically viable to turn the clay fields into pottery to sell to the peoples of the more arable lands which lay all around. Early potteries resembled farm buildings with bottle kilns attached. Potteries were organized into family run workshops often doubling as thefamily home. The success of these cottage industries led to the area becoming overcrowded and the smoke from the kilns polluted the air. Clay was dug so close to the potteries that some pits became dangerously large and potters would often fall into them on their way home from the pub at night.
Most of you will associate Stoke on Trent with Josiah Wedgwood, one of the founding fathers of the industrial revolution and the inventor of mass production. Josiah was a member of the lunar society which was a group of scientists and engineers who met and planned the industrialization of Great Britain. They met on the night of the full moon so that Josiah could make his way home through the streets of Stoke on Trent without falling into one of the huge clay pits. With his insider knowledge he bought a piece of land very cheaply, built the Etruria factory knowing that the Irish were about to come along and dig the Trent and Mersey canal right outside the front door. These canals meant Wedgwood could import china clay from Devon and Cornwall, flints from Essex, and also export his cream ware pottery via Liverpool, to the high seas, the empire and beyond.
With their fortunes, the Wedgwood family went on to build the most advanced pottery the world had ever known. However, Wedgwood's dream of a better world born of mass production without the use of slavery was a double edged sword since today Wedgwood could also be said to be the worlds first exploitative capitalist. His son employed children and pregnant women to dip bisc ware into lead oxide glazes, and when they finally lost their source of cheap labor in Stoke on Trent they simply out-sourced the production of ceramics to cheaper labor markets in Asia, many of them with less regulated occupational health and safety standards. Wedgwood and Royal Doulton are now owned by the multi national Waterford group.
In January this year the Wedgwood factory's debt became so acute that it went into receivership, but was once again bailed out by American investors. The Barlaston factory still operates with a workforce of about 600 people. But the fortunes are now made at new factories in Indonesia and Thailand. The Stoke I returned to in 2007 looked more like a post industrial ghost town. The wheel has come full circle and once again the most successful art in the region is made by a few individuals such as Phil Eglin and Neil Brownsword whose work is very much about the heritage of Stoke on Trent and its recent decline.
My grand mother's house backed on to the porcelain electric insulator factory called Taylor Tuniclife, and my brother and I would play on the surreal slag heap of undulating plaster moulds. My grandmother also had a modest collection of Staffordshire pottery and these jugs plates and figurines were the only art I ever saw as a child. Although these are not the very pieces my Grandmother owned, in my memory they are very similar. I studied the ceramics in the Stoke on Trent museum to create my show in 2007. I felt that the work I saw was very much a working class art about working class interests, and have little in common with the figurines made by Serves and Meissen which were made for the Royal court.
What interested me most was the various works that monumentalized the working class man's interests of the period. These works in the form of tobacco jars, jugs and figure groups show scenes of bear baiting where bears were chained up in front of the local pubs and made to fight with the locals dogs whilst wagers were laid on. In another a young man enjoys the fashionable sport of shooting the newly imported pheasants from the Indian Himalayas. In the piece Bull Baiter, modeled by Obadiah Sherratt in1835, you can see the purpose for which Staffordshire Bull terriers were first bred. But why were these ceramics made at this time? Well these ancient pastimes were under threat of becoming illegal and in 1838 the anti blood sports act was passed in the house of commons but was then amended in the house of lords to exclude the sport of fox hunting, which was enjoyed by the land owning gentry, and would remain legal until a law was finally passed only a month before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Another vice enjoyed by some Stokies was drinking ale. And the Toby jugs modeled by Ralph Wood in the 1770s were based on the print of the inebriated Toby Philpot which was displayed in local taverns. But the majority of the inhabitants of Stoke were Methodist, a Christian group that were tee- totalers. So in some works we see a morality play with the domestic bliss of the tee totalers and the alcoholic brawl of the drunkards.
Another variety of the figure groups which interested me was the boccage groups. The boccage is this leaf motif around the figures. In one lovers from a Jane Austin novel sit very stiffly on a park bench whist the man proposes to the woman. It's a very implicit kind of sexuality and the small dog on the right had been used for centuries in western art to symbolize sexual desire. Finally, I studied the pairs of boxing figures which were mass produced and whisked down to London to be sold as souvenirs at the ring side of the new emerging sport which would entertain both gentlemen and the lower classes. In the works I made for the show, 'Figure This', I tried to respond to the emotional or sexually charged elements in these works, and to present these themes in a more polarized way so as to make some kind of impact on our image saturated lives by re-monumentalizing their narrative in a modern context. In my reinterpretation of a boccage group I present an explicit kind of love where a lady and a monkey fornicate on a park bench under a leafy bush. It's become an antique norm to always begin the title with the word boccage as it is the intact intricate leaf work which gives the work its value, no matter what is going on under the foliage.
To continue the theme of morality monumentalized I began making an ongoing series of surreal adventures of a plastic model of the Christian messiah made in China. This character would appear in a variety of tableaux portraying different moral issues. In these works I began a kind of transference where scenes of violence, mainly from the news of the war on terror, were enacted using my plastic action figure in much the same way that children use toys to play out the tabooed activities they constantly witness in their lives. Through these works I try to implicate myself in these acts, as Jesus, the aspirant moralist, and icon of our tribe is drawn into the depraved acts of all mankind.
The Toby jugs I looked at in the Stoke on Trent museum for me represent the demise of man through alcohol. Because he drinks ale he is an empty barrel, or we are what we eat. In my first attempt at subverting a Toby Jug I simply took the idea of prohibition one step further. So, as well as his mug of ale in hand, he also has illegal drugs at his feet. And in my version of the boxing figures I presented two Toby jug like figures smashing each other with their ceramic boxing gloves made of dolls heads. A modern type of prohibition passed by the Scottish parliament in 2006 was the no smoking in public places act. I realized that pub ash trays would soon be collector's items and made my own souvenir of Scotland, in which we see Jesus enjoying a last cigarette in a heavenly ashtray.
What had led me to depict my own moral views in tribute to an antique tradition in ceramics? After I completed my degree in painting1988 I accepted a Post Graduate study at Cyprus College of Art at Paphos and continued to work in the sun at Fuente studios near Malaga. Andalusia, Spain. When I returned from sunny Spain, for me Britain had fallen into the dark ages. Margaret Thatcher, having won the war against the Argentineans over the Falkland Islands had now gone to war with the people of the industrial north of Britain. There were 3 million people unemployed and although there was free housing and dole money on offer this was not enough to buy expensive art materials, so I set about making art out of rubbish. The work 'View from George Street' shows the scene from my window made from cereal packets and loo rolls. These bleak but creative times continued for 6 years until the New Labour government decided that it would invest in the education system and pay the unemployed to retrain in more practical skill based subjects like brick laying, catering and pottery. The work 'Man with Cup' is one of the first pieces of ceramic I made. After a day learning to make cups I decided to stay behind and turn my cup into this figure which I now realize looks like the Toby jugs I had grown up with. After all those years of not having enough materials, being let loose in a newly stocked ceramic department felt like a move in the right direction and I studied there for two years.
With these new skills I was able to undertake several public art commissions for local councils. The piece 'Mr. White' was to mark the regeneration of a shopping centre and community centre in Dundee, and remembering Thatcher's; 'there is no such thing as society' speech; I was determined to give this community a permanent symbol of that regeneration at street level. Something children could climb on and grow up with. Last month this community held a festival to commemorate 10 years of the strange sculpture that they nick named 'Phallic Alec'. Feeling proud of having completed my civic duty and with a large cheque in my pocket I said goodbye to Scotland and flew to Australia, arriving in Brisbane in 1999 and spending 6 months backpacking and camping my way up the coast to Cape Tribulation. Here I met another backpacker who later became my partner who was on a respite from helping at a children's home north of Calcutta. And so between 1999 and 2005 we visited Australia four times, and each trip we would stop off in India to do various projects at the children's home and more importantly present them with money which we raised in Scotland through highland Ceilidhs and curry nights.
I traveled extensively and studied Australia's unique flora and fauna, and painted post cards to send to Scotland to let my friends know how fantastic it was here. On my return I would make souvenirs of my trips around Australia in my Ford Falcon. The piece 'Long Live Cruel Utopias' commemorates my 10000km drive from Brisbane to Darwin via Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and Alice. In the piece called kali I drew on associations with the nuclear bomb. This was established when Robert Openhiemer recited the words from the Bhagavad-Gita after the first successful detonation at Los Alamos, "With the power of a thousand suns I have become death the destroyer of worlds". On one of our Indian trips I read in the paper that after the Indian military had tested an atomic bomb, Hindu nationalists had rushed onto the site to erect a temple to Kali Ma.
In 2005 I returned to Australia but this time to make ceramics here for the first time and present a show at the Ray Hughes Gallery. Once again we had traveled through India and tried to keep up to date with the war through reading Indian news papers. On arrival in Sydney I bought a copy of the Australian news paper and was instantly aware of how polarized the propaganda aspect of different countries press agendas had become. Many of the works in that show were derived from the words from the news paper I read that first day. Ironically a review of my show was published in the Australian news Paper later the same year.
In my plate, 'Irony Makes a Country Strong', I make reference to German Artist, John Heartfield's 1930s black and white photomontage, 'Iron Makes a Country Strong', a response to a slogan of Hitler's Nationalist Socialist party. Heartfield's poster shows a typical German family sitting down to share a meal of bicycle parts and metal tools. The caption underneath reads, "Hurrah, the butter is finished". In my version we see Adam and Eve relaxing in the Garden of Eden with several jet fighters approaching on the horizon, by subverting a poster that was made to mock the Nazi war machine I point out the folly and illegality of the approaching war with Iraq. The irony that I refer to is both the common held belief that there is no justification for such a war, and also that the coalition of mainly Christian armies would be bombing Babylon, the probable site of the Garden of Eden. John Heartfield's work had a great influence on my ceramics at his time and led me on to a whole series of slogan plates which has become an ongoing theme in my work. The same themes recur in my work but each time I try to jolt my audience into the realization that they are seeing the story told in a different way. These tricks I attribute to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone in which the morality play of the American western is updated with the introduction of an amoral character in the lead role. I borrow the Post Modernist activities of visual cliches, trompe l'oeil, surprise and the feeling you've seen it all before.
I would like to conclude by saying that through my ceramic works I am monumentalizing events in my life, and the lives which are going on around me. I make commerative objects out of my sense of injustice.
Stephen Bird born 1964 in Stoke on Trent. Lives and works Sydney (AUS) and Dundee (UK). Bird studied Fine art at Duncan and Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee. Originally trained as a painter he has also made ceramics for the past 13 years. Bird has exhibited throughout the United Kingdom, Australia and the USA. His work is held in public collections internationally and he lectures part-time at the National Art School.