The Ceramic House partnered with the Powell-Cotton Museum to produce No Interdependent Origins, a remote residency for two Hong Kong ceramic artists paired with two UK artists working in sound. The results of their collaborations were displayed in the historic setting of Quex House.
No Interdependent Origins reflects the complexities of working across cultures and disciplines to explore the legacy of a colonial-era collection at the Powell-Cotton Museum through the lens of a remote residency programme, whereby artists from the UK and Hong Kong came together to make collaborative installations in response to both the collection and its setting at the historic Quex House. The ceramic artists from Hong Kong, represented by Karin Weber Gallery, were Annie Wan and Lau Yat Wai, who collaborated with two UK artists local to the museum, both working in sound, Emily Peasgood and Dan Thompson.
Originally scheduled to take place in person, the artists used video chat to communicate and to collaborate, whilst working remotely in their studios. The UK artists gathered reference material, images, and videos to send to their counterparts in Hong Kong as a basis for their joint explorations. The work produced was both site-specific, designed for a particular space in the historic house, and responsive, opening up new ways of reading familiar objects and settings in the museum and the house. This is the first time that the museum has engaged with contemporary artists in this way, a process they are keen to continue in the future.
Quex Park, Birchington, Kent CT7 0BH
Residency: June – July 2021
Exhibition: 24 August – 31 October
Public open days:
Family Experience Day
Artistic Experience Day (schedule here)
Museum Open Days
Heritage Open Day 2021
Annie Wan, Emily Peasgood
Ceramics, sound, film, 2021
Vanished History is a collaboration in parallel by ceramicist Annie Wan and sound artist Emily Peasgood. The artists respond to vanished history at a local and international level.
Annie Wan presents objects and videos witnessing the vanishing of history by coating the pages of history books with clay slip and then burning off the paper. Fragile ceramic history books are presented as a phenomenon of time, reflecting on the lightness or nothingness of history.
“By ways of arranging historical objects, the museum plays an important role in writing and interpreting history. The nature of time is linear, but monumental in history. Coating a book with slip page by page has a similar nature as, after firing, the text vanishes but the book form is retained. Quex House reminds me of the colonial time of Hong Kong. I grew up during this period which is very different from our present time. The video reveals the disappearance of these images. Collaboration long distance is difficult but is a new, virtual experience in this physical world. We try hard to explore possibilities.”
The ceramic artworks were created from the following books:
彩色香港1940s-60s and 彩色香港1970s-80s (published in 2013 by Joint Publishing HK; translated in English as Colourful Hong Kong 1940s-60s & 1970s-80s), collections of historical colour photographs of Hong Kong.
Emily Peasgood presents three sound recordings that explore the ‘missing women’ of Quex House in the twentieth century, namely: Hannah Powell-Cotton (1881-1964) and her daughters Diana (1908-1986), Mary (1910-1998) and Antoinette ‘Tony’ (1913-1997).
“I consider these women ‘missing’ as when I visited the Powell-Cotton Museum their presence was understated. I couldn’t get a sense of who they were as people and what their character and personalities were like. This feeling was emphasised when I noticed the tour-guide books only featured biographies about important men at Quex House. Historically, the women have been under represented, and stories about their lives and character are on the precipice of vanishing forever” Emily Peasgood.
Peasgood has created interactive sound works for the library, the boudoir and Powell room where fragments of the Powell-Cotton womens’ presence within the archive is amplified and set centre-stage to rebalance and re-imagine the importance of their stories in a contemporary context. The sound pieces feature interviews with archivist Hazel Basford and family friends Trevor and Vera Gibbons. Peasgood has also created a biography for Hannah Powell-Cotton and her daughters Tony and Diana.
Annie Wan: The Road We Travelled
Annie Wan: Colourful Hong Kong
The process of fossilization to me is a process of casting when the original remains of the organism dissolves and leaves an empty space, which is gradually filled with other minerals. By this thinking, I put clay slip in every space between pages of a book and then fired it; a fossil of book was formed after burning away its paper and text. Disappearance of the physical body led to the presence of the book in an absent form. The fossil book is a still object, which accumulates numerous times of turning pages but simultaneously free from time. It is not just an evidence of existence but itself is an existence.
Throughout human history, books can change the world. Some books have transformed the way we see the world and, ourselves. Some have inspired love and hatred, justice and unfairness, faith and revolution. Some have enriched lives and damaged them.
History, the study of the past, uses a narrative to examine and analyze a sequence of past events. The patterns of cause and effect of these past events are put on a linear human narrative of time, in which events can be ordered from the past through the present into the future. In “Phenomenon of Times” I quest on the linear relationship with time. Here I refer to Heidegger’s thought: “We do not exist inside time, we are time. Hence, the relationship to the past is a present awareness of having been, which allows the past to exist in the present. The relationship to the future is the human propensity for caring and being concerned, which also allows the future to exist in the present.”
I grew up when Hong Kong was a British colony. After Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997, cultural and political changes have been taking places through these years. Life and value change… 2014, a very critical year that many Hong Kongese fought for democracy. A strong nostalgia was triggered.
During the “Umbrella Movement”, I came across two books, 彩色香港1940s-60s and 彩色香港1970s-80s (published in 2013 by Joint Publishing HK; English translated as Colourful Hong Kong 1940s-60s & 1970s-80s) in bookstore, which were collections of historical colour photographs of Hong Kong. Confronting these photographs, I was overwhelmed and full of nostalgia… I missed Hong Kong at that time.
I hand-coated every page of these two volumes of “彩色香港1940s-60s” & “彩色香港1970s-80s” with clay slip and videos were taken from top view all through the process. Audience would become witness for the disappearing of these photographic images one by one. But every picture was buried away under clay slip before the audience could view clearly the history from it. Eventually, the histories of our days were “fossilized” in unreadable ceramic relics.
Another book 香港走過的道路 (published in 2011 by Joint Publishing HK; English translated as The Road Hong Kong Travelled) collects historical photographs (mainly black and white) recalling the history of Hong Kong from a small fish island to colony to HKSAR. It was concealed by repetitive brushstrokes of black clay slip covering every page. Unlike “Colourful Hong Kong”, a video documented the making of “The Road We Travelled” was projected on the wall. When audience view the disappearing of every piece of our history, very complicated layers of times and realities exist in the same space at the same time.
Excerpts from Emily Peasgood’s multi-room installation investigating the vanished histories of the women of the Powell-Cotton archive:
What is the inspiration behind the piece?
The piece is inspired by sharing stories from people whose stories might otherwise be lost. I am fascinated by living memory and when I feel a story needs to be told it becomes a personal mission to tell it. I don’t like the idea that intriguing histories can be so easily lost and forgotten.
How did Quex House influence this?
On visiting Quex I noticed the stories of men were told very clearly while those of the women who contributed to the collection were largely overlooked. I was particularly motivated when I realised that the tour guide contained biographies of the men at Quex but not the women.
What has it been like collaborating with an artist from a different discipline especially during the pandemic?
It has been a very interesting and challenging process. I have a great respect for Annie’s work; she is a phenomenal artist who expresses herself in a subtle way that creeps under your skin. I have many “ah!” moments when I look at her work. It is powerful. It has also been challenging because we could not meet. We decided to work parallel in response to the theme of vanished history as a way of navigating our physical distance and have checked in with each other throughout the process.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about the completed work?
It is a subtle work that responds to the family home and adds an additional layer to the physicality of each room in the house. I hope people enjoy it and spend some time to listen to the sound work and contemplate the stories they hear.
MUTE TUMULT OF MEMORIES / ANCIENT WATER
Lau Yat Wai, Dan Thompson
Ceramics, sound, film, 2021
Hong Kong ceramicist Lau Yat Wai in remote conversation with artist Dan Thompson.
Taking their cue from the permanent collection at the Powell Cotton Museum, the artists worked in parallel to produce complimentary installations which sit alongside each other in the opulent setting of the Oriental Room.
Lau Yat Wai has produced exact replicas of a selection of historical buildings and objects in Hong Kong which relate to the British colonial administration – the Court of Final Appeal, the Cenotaph, a postbox and the Star ferry to create ‘Mute Tumult of Memories’.
The characteristics and variations in the clay and glaze possess for him a metaphorical significance, representing his memory of those places and objects and his views on the changes that have taken place in Hong Kong since that time.
“My works of art subtly disclose evasive individual internal life and certain recollections. I want to gently manipulate the roles between public and private to reveal a personal will to hide but desire to be found out.” Lau Yat Wai
There are two parts to the work. The first consists of four ceramic sculptures covered in a thick lava glaze to obscure the detail of the objects. The second part is a series of short films which show the disintegration of unfired versions of the same sculptures dissolving in a tank of water. Both speak of erasure and dissolution.
Dan Thompson’s audio and text piece ‘Ancient Water’, inspired by Lau Yat Wai’s work and the Powell Cotton Museum’s location on a lost island, explores the history of water, touching on NASA’s ‘earthrise’ photo, Kentish placebnames, the British Empire, and stories of migration along the way.
Lau Yat Wai: Mute Tumult of Memories – The Court of Final Appeal
Lau Yat Wai: Mute Tumult of Memories – Cenotaph
Lau Yat Wai: Mute Tumult of Memories – Star Ferry
Lau Yat Wai: Mute Tumult of Memories – Postbox
Dan Thompson: Ancient Water
There are many stories collected here, in the museum. The library is one collection of stories, of course:
the ceramics gallery another: the dioramas tell other stories:
the archives are collections of the stories of the story-collectors and hold their own untold stories:
and behind all of these are corridors and passageways and half-forgotten staircases leading to other floors of the building, the 21st century museum wrapped around the 1930s displays in the Victorian spaces that hide the Georgian house that itself erased the earlier Manor House.
This is not one building at all, really, but a loose collection of buildings held together only by the stories within them. It has been a home, a collector’s wunderkammer, a First World War hospital – the nurses of the Voluntary Aid Detachment stood here, washed away mud from the Somme – and now this is a museum.
Although even that shifts: what does a museum from 1930 – ‘Largest known collection shot by one man – many rare curios’ – have in common with a museum of 2021? To paraphrase Orwell, who was talking about English identity – very little except that it is exactly the same place.
Each story can be told many ways: each character can tell the story, and we can choose which character’s telling we will listen to. We can switch between characters, mid-story. What did you think happened to the character in the chapter that focused on someone else? They don’t cease to exist, but carry on living independently.
So each character can start the story where they like, or stray into another story altogether. Not all characters who wander are lost. Beckett showed us that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have their own lives, after all, and Moore and Gebbie have explored the lives of Alice, Wendy and Dorothy as they grow older. Our characters have agency. There is no neat beginning, this story does not arc tidily from the first page to the last.
You, the listener, may choose when to start listening, too. Somebody else’s beginning may not be where you start. You, perhaps, have only just started listening to this narrative.
To get here, to where you are listening, you walked by the small tea-bowl in the room of ceramics. We may tell the story of the potter’s hands that threw this perfect piece. Or the story of the shopkeeper who sold it or the person who bought it. We can tell many stories of the people who drank tea from it, over so many years. In many stories it is just a prop, and doesn’t even get a passing mention.
“Mrs Bird pressed the Inspector to join her. He accepted for the pleasure of staying a little longer, managed two cups of tea, then when there no longer seemed any reasonable excuse for delaying his departure another moment he reluctantly said good-bye.” Tell us about the crockery, Mr Wheatley!
Have you ever taken tea with a bottom-turner? To this day, people from Stoke – with pride in the Potteries of their city – will raise their tea-cup with one hand and flip their saucer with the other to read the maker’s mark. To some people, the story of the person who made the pottery matters.
But in that cabinet, we choose to tell the story of the rich collector who acquired it later. Even then – we neglect to tell the story of the agent who brokered the deal, of the people who packed it for shipment to Great Britain, of the stevedores and dockworkers, the ship’s crew, or – eventually – the curator who chose this object, this example, this single cup, while a hundred similar pieces stay packed in tissue paper in the store room.
Gallery of images taken during the site visit with the sound artists and the Hong Kong artists attending via video.
Ways of Being
By Andre Hess
‘No Interdependent Origins’ was installed at Quex House at Birchington in Kent and was continuous with the Powell-Cotton Museum which houses the natural history and ethnography collection of the hunter-explorer Major Percy Powell-Cotton.
The exhibition consisted of a sound and text installation by Dan Thompson entitled ‘Ancient Water’, which shared the room with the ceramic sculptures of Lau Yat Wai. Deeper inside the house, in the library, were the sculptures of Annie Lai Kuen-Wan accompanied by films and the sound installations of Emily Peasgood.
The curators of ‘Interbeing’ were Kay Aplin and Joseph Young. The work was intended to be site specific and in response to the historic house. This was the first time that the museum and house had participated in a contemporary art exhibition. It came in the midst of the museum’s project to ‘decolonise’ the collection, which it started several years ago, prior to the Black Lives Matter movement.
By Dr Inbal Livne
Head of Collections, Powell-Cotton Museum
Percy Powell-Cotton was born into a family with both financial and aesthetic interests in China.1
Growing up in London, not only was the family home filled with collections of Chinese furniture and decorative arts made by previous generations during their services to the East India Company, but the house’s position in South Kensington, in such proximity to what would become known as the Victoria and Albert Museum, was almost certainly a key influence on the young Percy Cotton.2
When Percy was 17 the family moved to Quex Park, Kent, where they set about making improvements to the existing Georgian house. In 1883 a grand drawing room was added, but when Percy inherited the estate in 1894, he began to make more extensive changes. This included the redesign of the drawing room, which would become known as the ‘Oriental Room’. Inspired by visits to porcelain and furniture workshops in China and Japan during his world travels (1889-1891) the room included inherited furniture from China and India, with some new pieces from Japan (bought later at auction). The intricate wooden panelling had been commissioned from woodcarvers in Srinagar during his 1895 trip there, and the ornate metalwork of the wall lights and floor lamps from Benares. The ceiling, reminiscent of north African tiles, was in fact created in plaster by Italian craftsmen in 1907, and the embroidered wall panels on silk backing were cut from Chinese robes and reused (also in 1907). Over approximately a decade Percy created the pastiche of ‘the Orient’ still visible at Quex Park today, which is almost unique within the UK as a remaining example of eastern-inspired decorative experiments in a modest country house during this time.
Inter-being is a Buddhist concept that comes from the Heart Sutra and, in the context of INTERBEING, explores the cultural connections between two seemingly very different cultures, the UK and China. By starting from a point of similarity rather than distance, the project aims to foster and encourage a deeper understanding between countries.
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No Interdependent Origins is part of the Interbeing project – an exploration of collaborative ceramic and sound art practice in Britain and China. Throughout 2021 at The Ceramic House.