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Trying to describe contemporary Thai ceramics as a homogeneous entity is impossible. With the rapid development of the last 50 years it is possible to see traditional potters firing with rice straw within sight of potteries producing copious amounts of high end porcelain. The scene in universities is no less diverse with wares relating to traditional works sitting along side contemporary ceramics. More so than some cultures there is no hard and fast line between industrial ceramics and fine art. Because of this Thai pottery is hard to categorize.

Thai village potteries are pressured by the same pressures that indigenous potteries have felt world wide. Ceramic wares are displaced by plastics, metals, city water supplies and refrigerators. The need in Thailand of every house to own many water jars is simply gone. Few houses need any stoneware water jars, and those houses that do also have electric wells and other means of obtaining water. The potteries that made water jars, now produce them almost entirely for decorative or nostalgic reasons.These reasons bring new pressures on design and finish.

The loss of the traditional functions of ceramics has come at the same time as the rise of the middle class in Thailand. The new middle class provides a market for wares to enrich the aesthetic lives of the purchaser and to fulfill a definite nostalgic void created by the almost violent change of an agrarian rural based society to a urban manufacturing based society.

Dankwean Village was never a huge producer of jars, and was only able to compete with the larger Ratchaburi Town potteries because of the cost of transportation. When modern transportation developed and use declined, Dankwean was left without a place to sell. The ability to sell undecorated Dankwean water jars disappeared before the nostalgia market firmly set in. This created a need to develop new products. Fortunately this falling off of demand for water jars was gradual and between 1975 and 1989 a great deal of design, product innovation and related market development took place. By 1989 water jars and other ceramic ware meant for utilitarian purposes made up less than 10 percent of the market in Dankwean Village and the village was thriving.

During roughly the same time period the market for stoneware mortars and earthen flowerpots on Koh Kred and the mainland Kred potteries were being displaced by wares from the provinces made with cheaper labor on cheaper land. Potteries upcountry however were under pressures by displacement by plastic and refrigerators. Kirimaat, and Sathing Maaw (near Songklaa) as well innumerable other villages were experiencing similar declines, many potteries disappeared.

His Majesty the King of Thailand and the royal family and their support of handwork and local products have had significant impacts on traditional wares, as well as more modern ceramics. The King's visit to Pakred and subsequent comments about the pottery made there had an important impact on its survival. The same is true in Kirimat. Prior to the royal visit both potteries villages were in trouble. Comments made by the King were taken to heart by the people of Thailand. Sales of pottery and sculpture from these villages quickly increased. Koh Kred has become a tourist destination bringing both Thai and foreign trade. The royal family has also made copious use of Thai Ceramics in their households.

Similar support can be seen in the inclusion of a hand painted plate by H.R.H. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindom in the National Ceramics Exhibition at the Silpakorn University Art Gallery in 2002. Ceramics in Thailand has an importance to Thai people that is palpable. Mention of Dankwean Village, Chiang Mai, Sii Satchanalai or Ratchaburi all brings up images of clay. Thais recognize the significance of fired earth in their history and its importance in international trade.

Ratchaburi in 1989 was still producing copious numbers of dragon jars, but large cement cisterns, wells, and city plumbing were rapidly displacing most traditional uses of these. Even then it was clear that their days were numbered. Buy this time Dankwean had designers, university trained artists, young entrepreneurs, hippies, engineers, and international trade brokers living or frequently visiting the village and effecting the product design, and manufacturing techniques. Ratchaburi has had similar input but because of a more industrial, large scale size of pottery Ratchaburi's wares have maintained an industrial feel. Large scale factories are slower to change with innovation proceeding from the top down.

High fire whiteware, or Thai Porcelain proceeded earlier into the export and Tourist markets. In many ways this export of Thai whiteware is part of long mostly unbroken tradition. The tableware was never produced in copious quantities meant for the masses in Thailand. But only recently has the production of whiteware from Thailand started to regain the stature it apparently had several hundred years ago.

By 1989 numerous Thais had studied studio art ceramics in schools throughout the world speeding Thailand towards changes in attitudes about the nature of craft and ceramics. Similarly increased tourism and trade brought knowledge of Thai ceramics to the world. Cultural and educational exchange programs with Japan, Australia, European countries, the United States and other countries have brought numerous Thai clayers abroad and similar numbers of foreign clayers to Thailand.

The Thai government by organizing and helping to finance Thai participation in trade shows brought people other than academics to other countries. These efforts helped to increase knowledge of potential export markets, and expose ceramic business people to new ways of working and new types of products.

In looking at Thai studio ("fine art") ceramics from my American eye it is easy to be drawn to the similarities between Thai and United States ceramics. Certainly every genre of American ceramics has its counterparts in Thailand, but the important content of Thai Ceramics lies in the differences not the similarities. The ones most notable to me are, the firm connection in some wares to Thai history, a lyric nature to much of the Thai figurative ware, and a more three dimensional appreciation for texture. There is also a homegrown version of the Zen (Ch├ín 禪/禅) aesthetic principle of transitory impermanence, incompleteness and imperfection known as wabi-sabi in Japanese 侘寂 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabi-sabi). It is hard to get a handle on this as an outsider, but it is reflected in the rough hewn ceramic mortars, and water jars in use throughout the country, and in the Thai's appreciation for the wares of Dankwean Village, Ratchaburi, the earthenware villages and other traditional wares and the acceptance of unglazed surfaces in contemporary studio ceramics.

Earth is everywhere in Thailand and Thai ceramics. Watching buyers of highly varied stoneware mortars in Dankwean, you can see buyers balancing the look of durability with beauty. These buyers might tell you that they are buying strictly for utility but you could watch these often poor purchasers looking for beauty at the same time. It is an earthy beauty they seem to look for. I think of this appreciation in Thai as a love of earth.

Texture in Thailand often merges with form. It seems more frequently to not be something applied to the surface but is integral to the form and skin. In the works of Suebpong Powthai สืบพงศ์ เผ่าไทย you can see a continuum of surface merging into form, from works like DSC02327?.jpg whose form is textural through work like <a href=http://ceramicart.multiply.com/photos/album/25/Suebpong_Powthai#5>Suebpong Powthai</a> which has a textural skin to work like DSC02651?.jpg (I call it the Jackfruit Teapotกาน้ำชาขนุน). The carved murals of Dankwean, which are low relief and related to historic wood carving and the stone murals of Angkor Wat, use strong texture to define form and space. In these carvings even form becomes an element of texture rather than the other way around.

His Majesty the King of Thailand has stressed the need for the Thai people to be self reliant and to be satisfied with a simple life. The encroachment of the city on the countryside, and rapid increase in the pace of life in Thailand continues to power a back-to-the-earth, "Small is Beautiful", kind of movement that meshes well with the Kings charge to the people. This movement has spawned a growing small-workshop utilitarian tableware trade, and a continuing movement of arts to the country to try to regain some of the qualities of life from before industrialization. I believe that The Kings appreciation of Thai skills and aesthetics will prove instrumental in the preservation of Thai heritage.

In contrast, industrialization has brought about a growing middle class that is able to and wants to purchase higher priced artworks for their homes and businesses. As the number of people with walls and spaces to fill grows, the number of artists, and galleries grows with it. This supports not only individual artists working alone but small workshops and handicraft factories. It is notable that Ratchaburi water jars, Dankwean ware, Kirimaat sculpture are frequent home decorations and give a country feel to the residences. Studio Ceramics, and other more academic ware are often intermingled with these more nostalgic items.

Still in looking at the ceramic works of Suwanee Natewong you see the historic roots of the carving tradition of Dankwean melded with more contemporary subject matter. Her surfaces even when made with bright color reflect a strong sense of earth. The subject matter does reference Thai, Asian and Western roots, but it makes more sense to look at the work in the context of South and Southeast Asia.

Similarly although สุโรจนา เศรษฐบุตร / Sujojana Sethabutra studied at Kansas State University in the United States, the large scale nature of these installations reminds me more of contemporary Asian ceramics than the ceramics of the United States (Image)

Like everywhere there is a blurring of the borders of nationality and dulling of the distinction of regionalism. Geographic factors are becoming less important than market, class distinctions, and than other divisions. Thai Ceramics are increasingly influenced by the ceramics of other nations. Similarly through publications, the web, and exhibitions like this knowledge of Thai Ceramics is spreading worldwide.

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Page last modified on September 23, 2011, at 12:20 AM