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  • Postcard, Mella Shaw, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist

Cementing its place in the Potteries

The British Ceramics Biennial is returning with its fourth edition

Stoke-on-Trent is once again home to a bundle of exhibitions and installations as the British Ceramics Biennial, now in its fourth edition, takes up residence this September in the evocative space of the former Spode factory.

Set against the backdrop of the Stoke’s industrial past, the Biennial has been part of a city undergoing change, as the festival’s director Barney Hare-Duke explains: ‘We set up in 2009. Spode had closed. Aynsley had closed. Wedgwood was closing. It was a bad moment in terms of the public understanding of the industry. I think the general public believe that manufacturing has died but it hasn’t. There has been a 19 per cent growth in Stoke’s economy since 2010, compared to a UK average of 3 per cent. There are the big names here such as Steelite, Emma Bridgwater, Johnsons, Portmeirion and, of course, Wedgwood’s new visitor centre. But underneath that, there’s an ecology being fed by designer-makers and independent designers who are commissioning their work to be made here. There’s a buoyancy here now’.

For 2015, the Biennial is experiencing a change too, holding the majority of its activity within the walls of the former Spode factory. In previous incarnations, the centrepiece exhibition AWARD, a showcase of shortlisted artists all vying for the £5,000 prize, has been housed at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, but for 2015 AWARD comes to the Spode site and will sit alongside the other regular show of emerging makers, FRESH.‘ We weren’t able to use the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery as the venue for AWARD this year,’ Hare-Duke explains. Initially that was a blow but we took the opportunity to shift what AWARD is. It’s a smaller show now but in a lot more space and it’ll feel very different. It’s going to be our centrepiece – it’s now in a physical association with the emerging makers and the commissioned projects around it. It’s a fuller story that we’re telling.’

Ceramists on the AWARD shortlist include James Rigler, Mella Shaw, Andrea Walsh, and Amy Hughes among others while Nao Matsunaga, the winner of the last AWARD, will be presenting work from the past two years.

Long Bench, Bin, Screen, James Rigler, 2015. Installation view at Tramway, Glasgow. Image courtesy of the artist

Beyond the FRESH and AWARD outings, visitors will find a satisfying bundle of installations and commissions. Ceramic artist Stephen Dixon and film-maker Johnny Magee are collaborating on a World War One commemorative piece. Honouring the fallen men of the North Staffordshire Regiment, they will produce 194000, an installation of a filmed seascape and a blanket of 5,608 handcrafted forget-me-nots (bone china flowers being a particular industrial practice in Stoke’s history).

Lawrence Epps has become somewhat of a Biennial regular having made interactive pieces comprising his signature masses of extruded commuters and office blocks in 2011 and 2013. This year, Epps continues his interactive ambitions with AGAIN, his version of a fairground ‘coin pusher’ machine in which visitors can gamble a handmade ceramic coin they’re given for the chance of winning more, or just pocket the token and walk away.

Michael Eden will act as resident artist for the BCB, bringing ceramic rapid-prototyping machines, creating test pieces and providing demonstrations under the title Press Print to Make?

One of the most intriguing projects is bound to be Neil Brownsword’s Re-Apprenticed. Brownsword was apprenticed to Wedgwood at the age of 16, and now he re-apprentices himself to three former masters of the industry, namely Rita Floyd, Tony Challinor and Paul Holdway. Film, photography and objects will be on show to document his experience of three now largely redundant industrial practices, with Floyd, Challinor and Holdway collaborating with him on work. Though the BCB celebrates studio work, Stoke’s industrial identity has run like a thread through many projects and with Brownsword and Dixon on board this year promises to continue that relationship.

The British Ceramics Biennial is at the Original Spode Factory site, Kingsway, and various other locations in Stoke-on-Trent, 26 September to 8 November. www.britishceramicsbiennial.com

Imagination dead imagine, Sam Bakewell, 2009. Image courtesy of artist