The 30,000 cornflower-blue porcelain butterflies clustered on Caroline Cheng’s robe symbolise China for the British-born artist. From a distance, all the tiny butterflies look the same: the same blue, the same shape, roughly the same size: a flock of identical ornaments sewn on to the burlap backing. Yet Cheng says a close inspection reveals that each intricately-fashioned butterfly is a handmade individual, crafted from ten parts.
Her ‘Prosperity’ series butterfly dresses, she says, are symbolic of China on many levels. “Every single butterfly is different if you look carefully, if you spend the time to look at it, as if I’m living in China and looking at China.” From a distance, she adds, many observers see China as a single entity, but up close it becomes obvious the mass is made of many exhilaratingly different provinces.
Cheng is both from China and not from China. “I try to incorporate what China means to me, as a person who did not really grow up in China, who would know nothing about China. But I am a Chinese. I’ve been travelling like mad in China; it’s so different everywhere.”
With exhibitions in Britain, Germany and the US, Cheng’s ceramics have been collected by institutions including the British Museum in London, the Hong Kong Museum of Art and the National Museum in Beijing. She now divides her time between Shanghai and Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, a town known for ceramics for 1700 years.
Visiting Hong Kong, where Sotheby’s will hold a selling exhibition of her work this month (subs October 24), Cheng laughs as she explains the semantic origins of her butterfly robe. “Fu”, she says, has a treble meaning in Chinese: “bat”, which reminded her of butterflies, “clothing” and “prosperity”.
“My work is about humour,” she says, “it’s about colour, it’s about satire. I play with words.”
Fluent in Mandarin, Hokkien, Shanghainese and Cantonese, Cheng commissioned the butterflies for her robe from a craftswoman in Jingdezhen, where the manufacture of ceramics has been a way of life for centuries, and where rigid traditions divide those who work in the industry. She notes there are traditionally 72 different skills in the world of Chinese ceramics, and no overlap. A clay preparer in Jingdezhen, for instance, would never cross the line and work as a firing expert.
So Cheng’s butterfly art reflects the traditions of Jingdezhen as well: multiple skills, or multiple elements, combining to make a single piece of work. “There’s a German guy who wrote a book called “Ten Thousand Things (Lothar Ledderose, ‘Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art”) and I read that book and thought, well, this is how I’m going to make my dress.”
She commissioned the mass of butterflies from the craftswoman who had made a small plate decorated with a crush of dragonflies, butterflies, roses and chrysanthemums. The plate was for sale for 15 RMB or about HK$19, a tiny amount for the labour involved in its production.
“But it was crappy, cheap and ugly and rococo,” Cheng says. She asked the craftswoman whether she could make butterflies with attached hooks for her prototype garment. “I need about 10,000,” she told her.
The selling exhibition of Cheng’s work will feature a total of 17 pieces, ranging in price from HKD$70,000 to $700,000. She particularly likes two sets of tea-ware she made herself using a porcelain slip, or surface finish, on stoneware and she says they add a unique flavour to tea.
“I’ve recently discovered that using wood-fired ash buildup cups to drink ‘puer’ tea is one of the most orgasmic things,” she says, referring to the dark, fermented tea from Yunnan province. “The tea is so delicious, so good, when you drink out of these cups.”
Cheng juggles her time between her art and her position as the executive director of Pottery Workshop, a ceramics education and communication centre with branches in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing and Jingdezhen. She has noticed a few western artists arriving in Jingdezhen and she hopes there will be continuing cross-cultural inspiration and understanding, not just in ceramics but in all the arts.
“In China there’s a lot of hardware, no software,” she says. “But Jingdezhen is all software, no hardware. So it’s very attractive. We’ve seen musicians come, fashion designers, movie stars; I mean they love the place.”