The red vases that currently populate spaces within the Yale Center for British Art make up the installation Made in China, by the artist Clare Twomey. The work includes eighty vases, identical in shape and size. All were created using the same multipart molds and fired in the same kiln. This work was done in the Chinese ceramic production center of Jingdezhen, one of the few places on earth where the skills and capabilities exist for such an undertaking.
There is one unique piece in the group, which will take some time to find as you walk among the vessels. Seventy-nine of the vases are decorated with identical flowers, achieved in the Chinese factory using decals. One vase, however, has hand-applied decoration in eighteen-karat gold. This was executed by skilled artisans at Royal Crown Derby in Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire—for centuries the industrial heartland of British ceramic production. So expensive is the gilding that this solitary object cost more than the making and decorating of all the other vases put together.
Twomey’s installation is a portrait of the international ceramic industry. Chinese manufacture is dominated by efficient assembly processes. These may be executed by hand or by machine, but either way, they offer few opportunities for individual creativity. British manufacture, by contrast, is increasingly oriented to the luxury sector, which demands high skill but supports only a small workforce. The 79:1 ratio of Made in China is both a symbol and a tangible manifestation of this imbalance. It speaks not only to economic reality but also to cultural stereotypes concerning originality and craft.
Made in China will be part of the exhibition “Things of Beauty Growing:” British Studio Pottery, on view at the Center from September 14 through December 3, 2017, and at The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, from March 20 through June 18, 2018.