Research Projects

New Export China: Translations across Time and Place in Contemporary Chinese Porcelain Art (University of California Press, 2023)

Why do so many contemporary Chinese artists use porcelain in their work? In New Export China, Alex Burchmore presents a deep dive into a unique genre of ceramic art to describe a framework for a broader art practice. Focusing on the work of four artists from the 1990s through the 2010s—Liu Jianhua, Ai Weiwei, Ah Xian, and Sin-ying Ho—Burchmore reveals how the materiality of ceramics has been used to highlight China’s role in global trade and to explore the function of this medium as a vessel for the transmission of Chinese art, culture, and ideas.

From its historical pedigree and transcultural relevance to its material allure and anthropomorphic resonance, porcelain offers artists a unique way to move between the global and the intimate, the mass produced and the handmade, and the foreign and the domestic. By dissecting both the legacy of porcelain export and current networks of exchange, Burchmore demonstrates why this ceramic practice is crucial to understanding the development of Chinese contemporary art.

Praise for New Export China:

Professor Jiang Jiehong, author of The Art of Contemporary China (Thames & Hudson, 2021): “In China, from the past to the present, ceramics is not just a material but a language. Alex Burchmore has insightfully translated this language and its variations, or accents, in contemporary Chinese art”

Professor Gao Minglu, author of Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art (MIT Press, 2011): “Rather than simply extracting meanings from the artworks, Alex Burchmore tells us broader stories of China’s history, culture, and contemporary social life associated with the making of contemporary ceramic art. These are not aesthetic objects alone; rather, this is a conceptually oriented collective production full of the ambiguity between traditional symbolism and contemporary deconstruction”

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Material Selves: Entangled Biographies of People and Things (Bloomsbury Press, 2025)

This edited collection will critically expand current models for understanding the dynamic relationship between people and things, tracing the central role of objects in the creation and performance of identity. The crucial innovation of the volume will be its focus on materials and the body, with an emphasis on the potential of ‘object-centred’ agency. Each chapter will present a case-study for this intersection of the objective and subjective in a diverse range of cultural and chronological settings, adopting a transcultural and transhistorical approach. The concept of a ‘material self’ proposed in the volume draws inspiration from the theoretical framework of object biography, developed primarily by scholars of material culture. However, while proponents of this methodology tend to focus on the application of biographic methods to describe the ‘lives’ of certain objects, this volume will seek instead to uncover the complex entanglement of the personal and material.

The central argument is that personhood and thingness are inextricably intertwined and largely defined by their conventional opposition, which also conceals the extent to which our ideas of self are to a great extent derived from our participation in the material world. While race, gender, and culture are assigned at birth, identification with these and other facets of identity can only ever be partial, accomplished over time in ongoing processes of adaptation and combination revealed by the objects with which we adorn and surround ourselves, and which provide a model for the construction of raced, gendered, and cultured subjectivities.

Jiaohua: Past and Present Practices of Educating the People (Palgrave Macmillan, 2025)

Led by Professor Yingjie Guo in collaboration with colleagues from the ‘Chinese Philosophy and Culture‘ research group within the University of Sydney’s China Studies Centre, this project uses the central concept of jiaohua to explore continuity and change in pollical and cultural practices in China from the Han Dynasty to the present, and across a wide range of philosophical, cultural, and political perspectives, most notably Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist. The project is designed, in accordance with the research group’s mission to ‘examine the origin and development of Chinese philosophies and ways of thinking and interpreting the world, as well as their impact on society and culture; the influence of the past on the present; and indeed, how the present is read into the past’.

My own contribution to this project will be an investigation of ‘The Role of Posters in the Education of the People‘, uncovering the extent to which political poster designers of the 1970s and 1980s adopted and adapted two fundamental tenets of Confucian governance: a belief in the need for the people to emulate appropriate role models, and the conviction that appropriate thought (orthodoxy) can be cultivated through performance of appropriate action (orthopraxy). As a case-study for these themes, I identify such Confucian tenets at work in a selection of posters acquired by the National Gallery of Australia between 1975 and 1989.

The ‘Wonders’ that Basham Saw

Led by Associate Professor Chaitanya Sambrani of the Centre for Art History and Art Theory at the Australian National University, and in collaboration with colleagues at the National Gallery of Australia, National University of Singapore, and Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum, this project seeks to uncover and share the significance of an archive of images compiled by the late Professor A. L. Basham (1914-1986) during his tenure as Foundation Professor and Head of the Department of Oriental (later Asian) Civilisations at ANU (1965-1979).

Professor Basham helped set up the Faculty of Oriental (later Asian) Studies and played a pioneering role in teaching and research in this area, in Australia and internationally. His book The Wonder that Was India (1954) became a signal study in the field. Basham undertook extensive fieldwork in South Asia and studied several classical Indian languages. He had a deep interest in art and visual culture as an essential aspect of historical study, and was a keen photographer. His work parallels major scholarly investments made simultaneously by other scholars, including his Oxford contemporaries William Cohn (1880-1961), Douglas Barrett (1917-1992), and J.C. Harle (1920-2004), whose archives reside in the Ashmolean. The project also considers the role of Michael Sullivan (1916-2013), who worked in what was then the University of Malaya before moving to London and Oxford. The project revisits Basham’s visual archive alongside those of his colleagues, analysing them as key ingredients in the historiographical construction of ‘classical’ civilizations in Asia.

The Basham Archive

Chaitanya Sambrani, ‘The Basham Project at the Australian National University,’ The Asian Arts Society of Australia Review 27, no. 4 (December 2018): 24.

Provenancing Southeast Asian Ceramics from the Chau Chak Wing Museum’s Collection

In collaboration with Dr James Flexner, Associate Professor in Historical Archaeology and Heritage; Dr Natali Pearson, Curriculum Coordinator for the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre; Dr Shuxia Chen, Curator of the China Gallery at the Chau Chak Wing Museum; and Dr Elizabeth Carter, Facility Manager of Vibrational Spectroscopy at Sydney Analytical, this interdisciplinary pilot project will bring together researchers from archaeology, heritage studies, art history and analytical chemistry to examine Southeast Asian ceramics in the collection of the Chau Chak Wing Museum. These objects are under-researched, with limited information on where they were produced or how they came to be in the collection.

The project will use innovative methodologies to produce a chemical profile that can provide information about place of origin, among other things, with a broader aim of improving the quality of the Museum’s catalogue data while also contributing to a better understanding of how ceramics produced in Southeast Asia have circulated in global networks. Our preliminary study has identified 28 objects of interest, primarily including stoneware and porcelain from China, Thailand, and Vietnam. Should this pilot project be successful in determining more information on the objects, there is scope to expand within the much larger Chinese and East Asian ceramic collections.

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