Porcelain can be hard to engage with. It's inert, functional, cold. That's why English artist Claire Partington's site-specific "intervention" in the Porcelain Room at Seattle Art Museum, titled Taking Tea, is so thrilling.
Her installation tells the violent and fraught history behind these shiny, valuable objects that drastically shaped British culture, fashion, and economics. Porcelain use in England was "fueled by this craze for tea," Partington explains, and the wares would have to endure long and dangerous sea voyages from China—trips that many sailors died on, whether because of storms or enemy ships.
This precariousness only made porcelain more highly prized, and expensive. In Taking Tea, Partington is riffing off of figures in 17th-century paintings who use porcelain as a way of showing off their immense wealth. The installation is composed of six porcelain figures all "taking tea" in the middle of the room on a golden table. Each figure is meant to represent a stage of the introduction of porcelain to Europe, from red stoneware that came with the first ships of tea to expensive and decorative Wanli porcelain.
There's a slave boy, a gentleman and a lady, a maid, and two drowned sailors. "I wanted to get a tea table and have these people embody the tea set," Partington says, by way of explaining why the maid's hand is on her waist, her hand wanly held in the air like the teapot from the children's rhyme.
Likewise, the lady in her decadent dress (look closely and you'll see modern luxury brand symbols hidden in the striped pattern) holds her pinky finger upright, the epitome of refinement. And the gentleman clumsily holds the teapot in the wrong way.
But the most interesting figures on the table are the sailors whose skin is painted the color of water-bloated flesh. One lies facedown in front of the tea-takers, dead. On his back: a depiction of a giant kraken destroying a ship. Behind the standing figures is the other sailor, seemingly trying to scramble up onto the table, with a verse from Lord Byron's poem "Don Juan" inscribed on his back. These two men are representative of the human toll of the porcelain frenzy.
The opulent scene on the table is contrasted by the thousand or so pieces of porcelain from Europe and Asia in SAM's collection. It's also contrasted by another element Partington brought into the room: porcelain wares that did not make it to their destination, found in shipwrecks across the world. (Partington sourced most of them on eBay.) These can be found in a drawer of the table and in a niche opposite from the table. Some of these pieces of porcelain are covered in crustaceans. The artist points out: "If you get up really close to them, you can still smell the sea."
This installation will be up for two years. SAM and guest curator Erika Dalya Massaquoi plan to continue to activate the space in different ways, bringing in period-appropriate scents (incense, tea, ocean smells, the odor of firing earthenware) and music (17th and 18th century) to make the experience immersive.
Porcelain "is way more robust than you initially think it is," the artist said the other day at the museum. "You can drop it and it bounces." That elicited nervous laughter from the staff. But Partington's genuine appreciation for the material is clear. Taking Tea activates the space in a way never done before.