Project Description

PAST EXHIBITION

BerkshireNow: Daniel Bellow

Ceramic rockets by Daniel Bellow.

On view March 3 through May 22, 2017

The BerkshireNow gallery space at the Berkshire Museum will feature hand-thrown porcelain by Berkshire-based artisan Daniel Bellow, an accomplished potter whose work is remarkable for its exquisite glazes and intriguing textured surfaces.

For this solo exhibition, Bellow has created sculptural forms in porcelain and imagined a detailed scenario about their origin. According to Bellow’s backstory, scale models of rocket ships, supposedly created during the Song Dynasty in China at the command of Emperor Gaozong, had recently been discovered by archaeologists.

The unique sculptural “rocket ships” in the exhibition echo the work of the Song dynasty potters, whose smooth, dense porcelain ware was praised for its simplicity of shape and understated decoration.

Daniel Bellow

After a career as a newspaper reporter, Bellow established the Daniel Bellow Pottery in Great Barrington in 2002. Much of his work is porcelain, and each piece is handmade. For more information about Daniel Bellow and his work, visit www.danielbellow.com.

 

Song Dynasty Rocketry, The Untold Story

Emperor Gaozong of Song ruled over southeast China during a period of great prosperity and technological advancement. During the Song Dynasty, the Chinese invented movable type printing, paper money, gunpowder, restaurants, and the compass and made huge advances in mathematics, astronomy, and the efficient administration of the state.

Despite the manifest superiority of their culture, the Song were not very good at warfare, and it was Gaozong who moved the capital south of the Huai River to Linan, modern day Hangzhou in 1127, after his brother the feckless Emperor Qinzong was killed by the rival Jin Dynasty and the old imperial capital at Kaifeng was destroyed. Even in its reduced state, the Southern Song Dynasty still ruled the best parts of China and possessed a powerful navy equipped with gunpowder bomb launching trebuchets to protect its far-flung trading empire

Ceramic rockets by Daniel Bellow.

During excavation for a gas station in Hangzhou last year, archaeologists discovered a porcelain jar full of model rockets and a scroll explaining their purpose. The wise Gaozong, it appears, recognizing that gunpowder was all that stood between him and defeat by his more aggressive neighbors the Jin and the even less civilized Mongols who would destroy both Jin and Song Dynasties by 1279, ordered the development of rockets for use against his barbarian enemies.

The black powder-fueled rockets were made of porcelain clay, which would shatter into thousands of razor-sharp shards upon impact, a potent weapon against both cavalry and infantry. Song potters were the most advanced China had ever seen, making wares out of smooth, dense porcelain that were praised for their simplicity of shape and their understated decoration, consistent with the Confucian esthetic of simplicity and purity. Gaozong put his best engineers and potters to work on the project, and they developed a ceramic nozzle to accelerate the combustion gases inside the rockets, anticipating Gustave de Laval and Robert Goddard by nine hundred years. 

The emperor’s generals were thrilled with these new “fire arrows,” which allowed them to secure the reduced borders of the empire against the numerically superior Jin. They also proved a boon to the developing pottery industry, as new kilns were built to supply the needs of the imperial armies.  

Ceramic rocket and vase by Daniel Bellow.

The biggest of these kilns was “down the hill from the imperial palace,” where the emperor ordered an audacious experiment in manned space flight to support the researches of the cartographer Shen Kuo, who had already mapped Western China all the way to India with startling precision. Because a rocket big enough to carry Shen Kuo and his 19 assistants was far too big to be made in one piece, the potters threw the body in sections and assembled them in a giant saggar inside the enormous kiln, attaching them with celadon glaze that held it all together when fired.

The rocket was beautiful, says the author of the scroll, a potter identifying himself only as “Chang.” It had an enormous silken parachute to return it gently to earth, but sadly this part of the plan was never tested as the giant machine exploded in its kiln-silo, killing Shen Kuo, all his assistants, the best potters in the empire, and 37 members of the imperial retinue. People rushed out into the streets, thinking there had been an earthquake.

The loss of the rocketry program, for the kiln and workshops were destroyed in the blast as well, was an enormous loss of face for Emperor Gauzong, and the disaster had to be hushed up lest it give comfort to his enemies. “Chang,” who was home with a fever that day, says he collected the scale models of prototypes for the rocket ship from the home of a deceased colleague. “I buried the jar in the cave by the spring, hoping someone would dig it up some day and see what was done by the potters of Song.”