Matthew Martin and Ewan McEoin discuss SO–IL: Viewing China, a presentation of more than thirty white porcelain items within a vibrant architectural display by US/China architecture practice SO-IL, currently on show at the NGV in Melbourne.

In 2011 Robbert Roos, Director of the Kunsthal KAdE in Amersfoort, The Netherlands, commissioned Dutch architect Florian Idenburg and Chinese architect Jing Liu of New York—based practice SO – IL (Solid Objects – Idenburg Liu) to design the display for an exhibition of Meissen porcelain. Roos’s objective was to pair the modernist architectural language of SO – IL, one of the world’s most watched young architectural practices, with the baroque language of historical porcelain. As Roos describes, ‘The job was to get people to focus on the work in the display cases’. His rationale for the exhibition was simple: Roos felt the exuberant shapes, rich decoration and narrative subjects, which dominate the visual experience of porcelain figurines, bowls, plates and vases had rendered them as ‘uberkitsch’ – in extreme poor taste due to excessive garishness – for a lot of people. ‘The aura is so strong, that people don’t seem to look at the sculptures and decorations anymore and dismiss it automatically’, says Roos. 1

Today, the mainstream interpretation of porcelain has not changed: in Australia it is common for the ornament, visual language and perception of porcelain to relegate it as outdated or uninteresting. In a world of pared back clean lines, who has time for ornament? Further, have we completely overlooked the material properties of porcelain because of its prevalence?

Porcelain is a ubiquitous material in our lives: we eat off it; we drink from it; we incorporate it into our bodies in forms such as dental fillings and prostheses; it is used to fabricate electrical, electronic and machine components. Porcelain has become a material appreciated for its astonishing physical properties and functionality, though this universality can render it virtually invisible. How often do we reflect on the materials from which the practical objects we use in our day-to-day lives are fabricated?

The discovery of a kaolinic porcelain in Dresden in the Electorate of Saxony in 1708 was one of the major technological achievements of the eighteenth century in Europe and a cultural tour de force. Porcelain had been manufactured in China since at least the tenth century CE, and small quantities had reached Europe via the Silk Road trade from the Late Medieval Period onwards. It was exported to the West in increasing volume with the establishment of maritime trade routes between Europe and Asia in the fifteenth century. However, the secret of porcelain’s manufacture had eluded European ceramicists for more than three hundred years. It was a mysterious material whose precise origins were not understood and it remained a costly, exotic treasure collected by kings and princes.

The Saxon discovery of a method for fabricating porcelain was achieved not by ceramicists, but by natural philosophers and alchemists working in court laboratories supported by Augustus the Strong, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony. The successful mastery of porcelain technology was not only a triumph of Saxon material science; it was, in contemporary thinking, a major endorsement of Augustus’s status as an anointed absolute prince. He commanded the transformation of worthless Saxon earth into a miraculous, costly treasure: porcelain. From the beginning, European porcelain was a metaphor for power. Rulers across Europe scrambled to establish porcelain factories as the means to manufacture the material; it had become an essential element in the symbolic arsenal of absolutism. Eighteenth-century European porcelain was anything but ubiquitous and the works fashioned from this new medium – sculptures, extensive dining services, equipment for partaking of exotic imported beverages like tea, coffee and chocolate – were never merely decorative: this material was a physical manifestation of a prince’s divinely ordained right to rule.

In museums and galleries across the world, exhibition design and architecture is increasingly embraced as a framing device to mediate or present historical subject matter, draw objects and artefacts into focus, or recontextualise the subject, so that audiences can engage with works in different ways. In this vein, Viewing China presents more than fifty white porcelain works from the NGV Collection within the vibrant architectural display designed by SO – IL. The audience is invited to view the china – and consider it afresh.

Through their display SO – IL sought to design, in their words: ‘an ideal contemporary three-dimensional setting in which to present porcelain such that it would challenge this prejudice (‘uberkitsch-ness’) and focus attention on the great sculptural, artistic and technical strengths’. According the architects, ‘Our exhibition design unravels assumptions of gallery objectivity, and instead suggests new ways of looking at the delicate artefacts. Rather than interfering with views of the objects, the coloured acrylic panels serve as filters. Each multi-faceted case offers multiple unique views of each object’. 2

These numerous views transform the way the viewer encounters a selection of Chinese and European porcelain works from the NGV’s rich collections. The decision only to display works in unadorned white porcelain immediately draws attention to the medium itself. Formal similarities between Chinese and European works speak to a genealogy of design and technological inspiration. The multiple viewpoints of each work created by the cases invite the observer to contemplate the fact that how porcelain objects are understood today may not be how such objects were understood when they were created three hundred years ago.

This display strategy takes porcelain out of its normal display context, formally shown in locked glass cases, in out-of-the-way locations within the Gallery. By locating this work at the heart of the institution, flooded by daylight in the NGV’s central atrium, this exhibition seeks to prompt the visitor to literally ‘revisit’ their initial understanding of the objects. SO – IL’s vitrines do not merely display, but actually ‘dissect the conventional viewing of the object, [so that] visitors are forced to redefine their relationship to the work’.

In the words of the architects, ‘Through the organisation of colour, form and material, we seek to reduce the ‘object-ness’ of the individual pieces … It is about a transition from object to experience, and the power of architecture to act as a mediator in that process’.3

This article was originally published on the NGV website. Text by Matthew Martin and Ewan McEoin
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1 Robbert Roos, Showing Meissen Porcelain, in Meissen x SO –IL, Kunsthal KAdE, Amersfoort, The Netherlands, 2011.
2 ibid.
3 ibid. 

Images: Installation view of SO – IL: Viewing China at NGV International © SO – IL