Ceramic and Installation Artist
Interview on June 7th at Más, Beixinqiao with creative partner, Drew Milligan
KL: I’m on the backfoot here as I have only seen your one piece, so could you introduce yourself and tell us a little about what you do?
JM: My name is Jeffrey Miller and I do most of my art in China. My main thing that I do here is I have a collaboration with another artist, Thomas Schmidt, we founded a design collaborative called Recycled China where we take industrial materials and waste from factories and transform that into tile and design works. So that’s sort of the main thing that I do here. I’ve been doing that for roughly six years . I then took a little bit of a diversion with this neon piece, which is a little bit different to everything that we’ve been doing. Me and Drew, it’s sort of a joke the whole thing, we were hungover one day and we were just thinking about the stages after a heavy night of drinking, the different stages of remembering. We made this flashing neon sign like that.
DM: I mean, it was after a really, really big night, you’d wake up in the morning and the first thing would be oh no what did I do? Hence we have “the fear” and then the shame after someone tells you, obviously that’s horrible. And after you’re sitting there all by yourself after everyone goes home you’re thinking what’s happening in your life. So that was it. The joke was to make them as this big flashing neon sign and, for this show, I guess it happened.
JM: It’s a different piece compared to what I usually do and what Drew does, Drew’s a writer, he recently did a radio drama.
DM: It was last summer.
KL: Just to quickly jump back to the artwork, one of my favourite things about it is the fact that it loops around. I feel that’s definitely, I guess it’s universal but particularly in Beijing, it seems that all of us seem to actually go through that cycle of feelings a little too often.
JM: There's a hidden little secret in there if you pay attention. Each light is flashing on at four-second intervals because it's bad luck. Si is death in Chinese.
DM: So it’s that doomed feeling.
JM: [laughs] So the piece is really a bit of a one-liner, I guess, but that's kind of good…
KL: Because it brings you closer to death.
JM: So it’s a little bit of a joke, I mean, it is a joke. Yeah, it’s totally like a diversion from what we both do, it’s kind of a new thing.
KL: The next obvious question is, six years ago you came and you started making things from recycled materials in China, how does that begin? Does this come from a background of art training? How do you fall into that?
JM: So I studied ceramics sculpture at Alfred University in western New York and so did my partner, Thomas Schmidt, our school has a sister programme with the ceramic design department at CAFA’s City Design School . So I came over as a visiting artist and he came over as a professor and we started this collaboration. He first went to Jingdezhen. Which is the porcelain capital of the world. There’s these mountains of discarded plates and other stuff where something has gone wrong with the firing, like cracks in the glaze or something like that. We didn’t really know what to do with it. Tom bought up 500 of these plates they were just sitting in the studio for a bit and then we got a show at UCCA, sort of a corporate thing with [Viessmann] They make boiler systems, and they hired us to make some artwork about this boiler thing. we had no idea what we were going to do with it because it was so ugly. so we decided to just melt the whole thing down because it was mostly made out of metal. At the same time we also had these plates. For some reason we decided to hire a steamroller and we crushed all these plates into tiny shards. Then we melted the aluminium from the boiler onto the ceramic. it sounds weird but from that we developed a new kind of tile. It looks like a mosaic but instead of the grout on the outside, it's silver. We developed this product and had a show. things kind of just snowballed from there really, we started making different design works, tiles and also sculptural stuff.
KL: What's the mechanics of that as far as getting it down to having the aluminum as just grout in the piece? Is it something easy to do?
JM: It's a little bit tricky because aluminum shrinks when it cools. Ceramics doesn't really do that too much so we had a lot of problems with the tiles bending so we had to cast the bend and compensate for that. The ceramic shards are put into a sand mould first and then we pour the aluminium into the mould. The molten aluminium flows and curls around the shards. It hardens around it when it cools. We use three main materials, one is brick, we scavenge demolished buildings, hutongs and things like that for brick and we use that as an aggregate. we also use glass from auto car accidents and things like that and then discarded ceramic. We take ceramic wares from factories that have some defect with them. Those are the three main surfaces we have.
KL: Are the tiles supposed to have a practical purpose or are they purely just art.
JM: Well we have two different ways we are doing it, some of the stuff we've been doing is just for art, where we're making more of these paintings with them, it's a little bit of a different process where we drip molten aluminium onto a bed of shards. sort of like a Jackson Pollock painting. and then the other part is for a design intention. so decorative tile and things like that. To make them functional as tiles for interior or exterior use those tiles are cast in a closed sand mould. It’s all recycled material, the aluminum is also recycled from aluminum cans and things like that.
KL: So the interest in it, is it largely a local Chinese inspiration?
JM: Our idea is to glean certain things from factories around China and different manufacturing processes and use that as a material that artists can be creative with. That’s the way that we’re trying to approach it. This excess from factories can then get crushed down into a creative material. So that’s kind of what our thinking is about this.
KL: You come from a ceramics background so I assume that usually, you'd be building something up whereas this process is about crushing something down and turning it into something else.
JM: Ceramics is a very material sensitive medium and it deals a lot with the mixing of materials, you know mixing clay and glaze, like building things up from elemental parts with a little bit of alchemy thrown in, so there is a kind of a parallel thinking when it comes to this. I think when we first got to China we were a bit taken aback by the amount of production and the amount of waste that comes here and we just felt like we wanted to do something with it.
KL: Definitely in Beijing now, when you've got all the hutongs being torn down, it's like a scavenger's paradise. I wish I had a truck.
JM: We did an exhibition for Beijing Design Week a few years ago where we were just in hutong houses that were half demolished, I guess, and we just installed tiles in the space in there and didn’t really change anything. It was actually quite interesting. There were all these great pigeon coops up top and stuff. It was pretty cool.
AL: I have a question about the neon piece that I wanted to ask, how does that relate to the other existentialist moments in your life? I guess it's kind of universal in a way..?
KL: That drinking is the number one route to existentialism.
JM: I’m not sure, I mean, we were in another show called Hypertext before that and we made this piece for it and that was more about using text in art and we just kind of drunkenly, actually here [at Más] proposed it to Cruz [Garcia of Intelligentsia Gallery]. And he was like yeah, yeah, yeah. And so we thought, it’s gonna be in the show so we might as well make it. We always talked about that as a thing for being drunk and just kind of the feeling that sets in after you wake up and you’ve done something horrible but you don’t really know what it is.
DM: Like vague shadowy recollections of terrible things.
AL: At that point does the sign work as a reminder?
DM: Absolutely. I should put it in the living room at my house.
JM: My original intention for this sign was to go above his bed.
KL: I honestly think it should go above the door at Temple as a warning.
DM: Does it apply to other moments in your life? I think, mostly you have these moments when you are wondering what’s really happening when something bad happens. You have those intense emotions like fear or shame or something like that. For me, anyways but I don’t really wonder too much about the world other than when something bad happens. I don’t know.
JM: I think in terms of it leading to a broader existential question and I think maybe in the show that we had the Existential Crisis, it works well with other pieces. Maybe it’s a bit more humorous take on what they’re doing, in some sense of what’s going on in that show. So it kind of works as a piece but not really solving the whole question.
KL: As an artist where materials are so important, actually shifting materials, how much does that change your outlook?
JM: I’ve never worked with neon before.
DM: It’s pretty difficult to get everything ready to go. You start taking neon signs for granted when you see them they're just flashing lights but when you see what goes into them, the craft and everything it's pretty intense.
JM: And China actually has a bit of a history with neon. Before all the LED signs there were a lot of people that were using it and it’s kind of a dying art, I guess. And it is a craft. It’s really hard to bend. I didn’t personally make it, I had someone make it for me because I don’t know how to use neon, it’s so hard. I just thought this was a nice thing to do. I guess it comes maybe from a craft sense. Kind of using a bit more of an older technique comes from ceramics a little bit. Neon is an interesting thing because it’s fading out. It’s coming back a little bit with more people liking retro stuff but everything is being replaced with LED.
DM: It kind of lacks that thing because the type of piece, we came up with the idea that with a neon sign it’s like a bar.
KL: Is there a standard typography or were those the sorts of decisions you had to make as well?
JM: You can pretty much make it in pretty much any font. I decided to make it in all caps because it seemed like a warning; red in all caps. That was the idea of that.
KL: In comparison to the other work you’ve been doing lately, this is less geographically focussed on China.
JM: I think, and we are talking about larger things than this sign, but what I think is great about Beijing and is happening in Beijing is that there is a lot of foreigners that are coming over, not because they want to make work about China, but because it’s becoming an art hub and a place that you can produce art. I think that there’s a shift that’s happening and it’s a really good shift. Beijing is becoming more of an arts centre in itself. Personally, with my design collaborative we are inspired by manufacturing processes within China. I am just glad to see the arts community here being able to open up to things beyond that.
KL: Are you offered many opportunities where you can put your art out in a much more down-to-earth community way rather than a gallery?
JM: The thing in Beijing Design Week we did was kind of collaborative with the community. That was in a hutong area not in a gallery. It made it more accessible because it wasn't so daunting as the white box of the gallery so you got people coming in that might not have wanted to visit a traditional gallery before. and also we were using these crushed ceramics baijiu bottles in the tiles that people were familiar with so there was kind of a connection there. People got really excited that they were baijiu bottles. Once people got to know what it was and what the process was,, people got really excited about it.
KL: You talked about the benefits of working in China, that the materials are cheaper, how do you think Beijing works as a collaborative environment? Obviously, you came in with a collaborator but then you've formed other teams as well. Do you think that's an environmental factor?
JM: I came over separately. I didn’t start my collaboration with Tom when I first got here. Part of it was that I was really new to China. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t really know very much, I was supposed to only be here for two months. Our collaboration started out of necessity to make work. It was quite hard for us to get into the art scene or being able to function in Beijing so we worked together to help fuel each other and give each other confidence. That just continued and build, so I think there is a lot of opportunity for collaboration with different people. China can be really amazing. There are certain things that you can do here that you can never do anywhere else but there are certain things where you will run into brick walls and collaboration helps to get over that. I never really thought I was going to collaborate before I came to China. Here I have more access to industry and manufacturing methods that I would never ever have access to or be able to afford. I work with an aluminum foundry. They use recycled aluminum and they cast our tiles. They’d never worked with artists before. It’s just been a developing relationship. When I first started working with them I didn’t speak any Chinese so it was all hand signals and things like that to get a product done. That language barrier created a really cool and interesting collaboration. Now we’re friends and the boss is actually making artwork of his own. It’s a cool experience and I don't think I'd ever get that outside of China. And the access I got to his facility, just showing up one day to an aluminum foundry and saying, can we poor metal on this? and him saying, yeah, sure, sure!
KL: It would be an OH&S nightmare.
JM: There are definite occupational health and safety issues but the workers at that factory are so skilled and seeing what they can do is really special. We were pouring too like they just handed me a bucket of some molten metal and we were pouring it. I had no idea what I was doing.
Jeffrey Stephen Miller is an artist and designer living and working in Beijing, China. He received his BFA from The New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. He and partner Thomas Schmidt co-founded the design team “Recycled China” whose work uses industrial waste within China to create architectural tile and sculptural objects. Recently they exhibited at 8th Gyeonggi International Ceramic Biennale in South Korea where his design collaborative was awarded the the Bronze Prize.
Miller has given lectures at the New York School of Ceramics at Alfred University, The Central Academy of Fine Art, Tsing Hua University, Capital Normal University, The Art Academy of Latvia, and at the College of Arts and Architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Notable exhibitions include The Zanesville Museum of Art, the Arizona State University Art Museum Ceramics Research Center, the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, Beijing Design Week 2013, Lacoste Gallery, Mathias Kueper Gallery and the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. He has work in the collections ofThe Victoria and Albert Museum, The Korea Ceramic Foundation, The Arizona State University Ceramics Research Center, The Viessmann Corporation and M Capital Group.