Design and Shopping: Mugging up for the big one

Ceramicists are firing up for the new era with Chinese hares and nuclear `relics'.

A touching inscription adorns the celadon mug made by Chris Keenan. It reads: "As a young child I became aware that I would be 40 in the year 2000 - here we are." Keenan is one of 61 artists taking part in "Commemorative mugs for the millennium" which opens at Galerie Besson next week.

Anita Besson, whose gallery is the leading London venue for ceramicists from around the world, is exuberant. Originally she had had an idea for a light-hearted Christmas show, but the response from the artists was so enthusiastic the outcome was a ceramics collection of astounding diversity and quality - those who have contributed mug designs include Gordon Baldwin, Alison Britton, Elizabeth Fritsch and Gillian Lownde. Daniel Fisher and Georgina Frankel, two newcomers, also contributed.

Claudia Casanovas, a Catalan artist, presented a perspex box, inscribed "Remembering Naga" (Nagasaki). The box contains a broken Japanese tea bowl along with a photograph of a scene of devastation incorporating a banner marked with the names of people declared missing or dead from the address, Sarugaku-Cho 35. She includes a contact address for the survivors.

Lownde's "Mug with spoon, year 2000" also resembles a relic from a nuclear explosion. It is an extraordinary creation, composed of metal, china and glass fibre, which looks as though it had been welded together at unspeakably high temperatures.

Striking a more, frivolous note was Jochen Brandt with"Homage to Juliane and Jakob Rad, the inventors of the sugar cube, 1840". His Egyptian blue mug has a handle shaped like a sugar cube and it stands on a pedestal resembling the great blocks of sugar that preceded the invention of the cube. The story goes that Juliane Rad cut her hand while trying to slice a piece off a sugar loaf and urged her husband to get busy and find a way of avoiding a recurrence of such an incident.

The exhibition also displayssome fine figurative work. Diana Barraclough's black and white porcelain piece is embossed with a Celtic cross, as well as Norman, Gothic and Romanesque churches, and it has double handles forming an M shape on each side.

Elizabeth Raeburn also used historical symbols and events from the past 2000 years for her mug. Her illustrations range from the Christian nativity story to scenes of 20th century skyscrapers. Halley's comet is there, too, streaking past a column incised with the words "Hope" and "2000". And there are Tennyson's lines, "Ring out the thousand wars of old, ring in the thousand years of peace" engraved on the base of the mug. The exhibition's theme in the end uncovered some rebels against the notion of the Christian millennium. Meri Wells took a symbol from Chinese tradition rather than western culture. Her mug is made in the shape of a hare, the handle formed by its crooked leg. The Christian millennium starts during the Chinese year of the hare, which itself finishes in February 2000.

The Chinese theme is also taken up by Nobuo Okawa in the statement accompanying his work: "The Chinese do not number their years but name them instead." Entitled "Personally I do not care for the millennium", his earthenware mug is decorated with graffito inscriptions of the equivalent date in 14 different cultures and religions. "The idea is to raise awareness of the multicultural markers of the passage of time," he says.

Besson is so excited by the work in this show she is trying to sell it as a collection; she feels it encapsulates a wonderful "snapshot" of the best of contemporary ceramics at the end of the 20th century. For the first run of the show, until Christmas, she will take reserves on the pieces, which will be sold individually in January if no one buys the entire collection. "I think there will be many keen purchasers putting their names down on the list," she says.

`Commemorative Mugs for the Millennium' is at Galerie Besson, 15 Royal Arcade, 28 Old Bond Street, London W1 (020 7491 1706) from Nov 24-Dec 22 and Jan 10-21 2000, Mon-Fri 10am-5.30pm

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