Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Forest of Symbols in the Pottery Jungle

Dragon Kiln, just after cooling started.

Dragon Kiln; we could still see heat rising from end.
   The spousal unit and I had ambitious plans for our Sunday.  Two busses and the MRT took us to the western, less built area of Singapore, north of Boon Lay.  I wanted very much to see the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln, the oldest surviving wood burning, brick built kiln in Singapore. Dragon kilns are so-called because their design resembles a dragon's long body rising up a slope. Fuel is burnt at the lower end, and the heat and gasses are channeled through the body.  Additional stoke holes allow for controlling the heat in each chamber.
     Thow Kwang was built in 1940 to manufacture functional wares, the wood firing producing variegated glazes.  Now it is fired two or three times a year to keep alive the tradition of pottery in Singapore. It was packed and lit on Saturday morning, reached 1400+ degrees, and by noon Sunday was cooling down.
    Pottery Jungle refers to the open air warehouse adjoining the dragon kiln building. To give you some idea of the profusion of styles and symbols with hidden meanings:
Blue and White in endless variety of motifs
for good fortune.

More blue and white.

Gibbons and peaches in homage to Journey to the West and Chen Wen Hsi,
pioneering Singapore painter of gibbons.
Modern versions of Nonya ware.
     So many pots! So many thoughts! I remembered the sketches I made to accompany my musings on Gourmet's forays into Hong Kong in the 1980s:

Lucey Bowen

Lucey Bowen
     I thought about the pottery shards found at Chinatown sites in California, and the shards found at excavations at Fort Canning and elsewhere on the island.
Plate from Marysville Chinese Museum.
     I thought about all the variety of ceramics in the museums of Singapore: Peranakan, the Tang Shipwreck at the Asian Civilizations Museums.  Ceramics have marked Southeast Asia's global commerce since forever!
     Seeing these thousands of pots, a virtual jungle of them, is so different from their display in museums, where each one is individually spotlighted to emphasise its status as a masterwork. I think that may miss the point of the technical challenges of mass production conquered by the potters of China. Seeing them in all their profusion is humbling.
Peaches of Immortality, in open air storage.
To wit, a version of the Imperial peach vase, like the one at the Asian Art Museum, displayed in open air, a green layer of mold was growing around the shoulder.


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