Skip to main content

Don't handle with care

A cast porcelain with hand-painted underglaze decoration

Elizabeth Pearce

Posted on Monday 17 April 2017

Share on

There are two things that stand out in my memory of my interview with this artist, Ah Xian, at his home in Sydney in 2012. Firstly, the tension between art and craft. Ah Xian makes his porcelain busts in collaboration with highly specialised artisans in workshops and factories in China. First, he chooses his subject from among family and friends, ‘whoever is willing to be a model,’ and then makes ‘many shell-like, hollow moulds’. These are sent to China, where positive casts are produced, and returned to him ‘to make them ideal’. This process is repeated. When he is happy, he takes the positive casts to Jingdezhen, Jiang Xi Province, where the workers are ‘highly and narrowly trained’: the mould-makers only ever make moulds, he explains. You paint under-glaze or over-, never both.

Someone who is good at blue-pattern landscape, like the piece in your museum, cannot do figurative. They learn this from a very young age. Through their whole lives they keep doing the same thing, and that’s why they do it very well, very fluent. Pretty much I couldn’t.

Working that way has its downsides, of course.

It’s good and bad [for the workers]. It will grind off your artistic side but always adding up your craftsman side. It purifies your skill. But on the other hand, if someone has artistic, creative ability, the ability will be ruined, because you always do the same thing and your master or factory owner always asks you to do it better and better in that very narrow area.

I wondered at that time whether he could really call himself the true creator of the sculpture. What is the difference between Ah Xian, the named artist, and the person employed to bring to life his creative vision?

That doesn’t seem so interesting to me now. I accept that artists use all manner of tools at their disposal, including the expertise of others. There’s a line, of course, between ‘using the best tools at their disposal’ and simply ‘cheating.’ This, incidentally, is the subject of an exhibition-experiment that’s taking place on the middle floor of Mona at the moment, called Hound in the Hunt (/{localLink:2590}), designed to establish whether it is at least possible that the likes of Vermeer, Caravaggio and others might have been using a secret technology to aid them in the creation of their masterworks.

So the issue of authenticity and authorship in art does matter. But I can confidently say that employing the expertise of a craftsperson in the process of producing a porcelain bust (and being quite open about doing so) does not call for a prolonged investigation of the subject. There are more interesting things to note. Like: Ah Xian also told me—and now I’m getting to the second thing that struck me—that he uses a particular technique for working out whether an idea he had was a good one or not. He simply allowed himself to forget it. Or not. If he forgot, it wasn’t good enough. The good ones can’t be forgotten. Throw away your little notepads for writing down your ideas.

Once I get an idea and I feel excited about it, the next step is not to act yet. I try to work against the idea. I try to push it down, to get rid of it. If, after all, it survives, it must be something good.

I found this simple notion quirky and delightful when I first heard it, but only recently have I developed a deeper appreciation.

So, there’s this book called Antifragile, by Nassim Taleb. The book is many things, including a kind of handbook for life, using grandmother wisdom backed up by complex mathematical formulae. I’m trying to distill what is meaningful in the book to me. I think: go where the energy is, as a hippy friend of mine would say. Or, in the words of the grandmother from Moana (I have a three year-old, we watch a lot of Disney): ‘Listen to the voice inside.’

One outcome (and engine) of modernity has been the use of reason and rational thought to shape and tame our instincts. That is more than a good thing; it is the triumph of humanity (in the words of David Deutsch, the ‘beginning of infinity’.) The Enlightenment gave birth to the modern notion of the individual, freeing him— and even her— from the oppressions of tribe and tradition, superstition and stasis. Historical circumstances have collaborated, as Steven Pinker has shown, with the ‘better angels of our nature’—tolerance, empathy, mercy and crucially, the understanding that the interests of one’s own group (familial, racial and so forth) are not automatically privileged above another —to put an end to the retributive violence and might-is-right tyranny that plagued pre-state societies. But in the process, we’ve lost some good stuff (as any of your hippy friends will tell you). For Nassim Taleb, the loss of what he calls ‘antifragility’ is the greatest loss of all.

Antifragility is the quality wherein a system (such as a person, a business, an economy—anything complex) actually improves when it is shaken up (exposed to volatility, stress and uncertainty). It is literally the opposite of fragile: it’s not about just surviving the ‘shake’, but actually thriving on it. This golden quality comes about as a result of a central asymmetry: the system, whatever it may be, has more to gain by volatility than to lose, so even if things go wrong, on average, over time, these losses will be more than cancelled out by the wins. This sounds kind of mathematical, and it is. However, it is only our ‘domain dependency’ (our tendency to segregate knowledge into little categories) that prevents us from seeing the relevance of antifragility to our entire lives. Think of your bones, getting denser in response to periodic stress, or political rebellions that get stronger the more they are oppressed, or an inappropriate crush that gets more intense the more it is denied. Hardship and mistakes make you wiser over time—what your granny calls life experience. ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.’

Antifragility abounds in natural systems, especially our bodies; but we denounce it intellectually, increasingly since the advent of modernity. The same forces of civilisation I listed above can engender the misbelief that humans are essential for making things work. Of course in many cases this is true, but far less often than we think. Left alone, most complex systems will thrive, unless ‘fragilised’ by our fiddling —and if they are ‘fragile’, the ‘shake up’ is irreversible; there is no compensating growth. (The best example he gives of this, from my point of view, is the way modern parenting can deprive our kids of the chance to make their own mistakes.) Knowledge is good, and science, used correctly, is the best form of knowledge we have; but we go too far when we indulge the delusion that everything is explainable, everything amenable to analysis and control. Our innate antifragility (embodied by the grotty genius of children) is a gift given by evolution—the grand, the ultimate natural system. Perhaps the next stage of our cultural evolution is to learn to truly honour it. (It is, incidentally, precisely this balance between tradition and innovation that is at the heart of Moana, a film I like so much I hardly mind that I have seen it twelve times.)

What has this to do with Ah Xian? The lesson I am taking from Taleb is that there are times humans should listen to their ancient instincts, and there are times we should suppress that instinct in the name of our noble modern ideals. I don’t know yet how to tell the difference—and if I ever do, I’ll most likely be a granny. I think Ah Xian knows, though, as do many other artists whose creations we admire, even if they only know it in their hands and not their minds and words. (That’s a polite way of saying that some artists talk a bit of bollocks given half the chance—but not Ah Xian.) The attempt to kill the good idea, to test and bolster its strength, is a beautifully pragmatic antifragile tactic. I love it.

More so, in the light of this dialectic: the fragility of the bust itself. Even this he understands, I realise some years later. That understanding resides in his resolution of the art-craft problem that troubled me originally. I asked him about it. How do you know you are an artist? What makes you so? ‘A craftsman,’ he explained, ‘is someone who is very good at hand skills, very good at dealing with materials.’ When you’re an artist, on the other hand,

the most important thing is to create some ideas. That’s something a craftsman wouldn’t be able to handle in that way. To get a creative and conceptual idea of art, that’s very important. We use an idea to express a human feeling.

As for the physical art-object itself: ‘After all, I would say that it is useless. It’s halfway as a joke. It has no physical value.’ It’s function is only as a carrier of some wordless emotion or idea, ‘something about people’s soul, about your heart. Something you cannot name.’ Nor break.