Alexandra Seno presents five artists who have embraced ceramic traditions as part of their art practice
Fresh reminders of Asia's ceramic traditions through the millennia sometimes emerge from a hole in the ground, other times from random kitchen cupboards. Pots bring layers of histories, cultures, and skills into the thoroughly modern and into contemporary art practices. Pots and their crafts evoke royal courts, lost tribes, encounters between civilisations, and technical achievement. We know what country lent its name to porcelain being commonly known as "china."
Pottery is part-art (the vision of what that lump of clay can be) and part-science (get the recipe or the kiln temperature wrong and the result can be a collapsed mess). Yet, there is something so fundamentally magical about pottery: how a paste of mud and crushed rock in the hands of a master becomes a shape that when fired at high heat and cooled in the right condition emerges as a thing of unique beauty. Potters have their own rituals, codes, and cliques, just like contemporary artists.
As the debate about the place of art versus craft continues—and continues to be exceedingly boring—it is rare when the twain can meet on common ground. As artists in Asia search for materials and languages to express themselves, it’s a curious moment when the worlds collide and they reach into ceramic artisanship that is so profoundly rooted in this part of the world to produce art.
A cursory look through the AAA Collection yields a number of examples showing how ceramic traditions infuse the work of some artists who define the contemporary.
Lee Ufan (b. 1936, South Korea)
Although he is best known for his spare monochromatic paintings with repeating simple brushstrokes, Lee has a deep interest in the vibrant arts of the Joseon Dynasty (1392 AD–1897 AD). From his personal collection he donated more than one hundred paintings and twenty-seven screens from the period to Paris’ Musée Guimet. France's foremost museum of Asian antiquities has a gallery named in his honour. As an important connoisseur of objects from the Joseon, an apex of Korean culture famed for its celadons, it seems natural that now and then Lee has made art with ceramics.
Read more about Lee Ufan's practice in Joan Kee's book Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method.
Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929, Japan)
She has fabricated her trademark pumpkins in steel, fiberglass, and other materials; she has made paintings and prints depicting them (as well as keychains, T-shirts, and handbags). But as hand-painted ceramic objects presented in a small box that fit in the palm of a hand, there is a fragility and vulnerability. Kusama famously resides in a psychiatric hospital and makes art as part of a healing process. Her small ceramic pumpkins appear to allude to the delicate nature of life.
Ai Weiwei (b. 1957, China)
In a way, he was "made" with his "unmaking" of a two-thousand-year-old pot. Researchers looking at his practice often cite Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, a 1995 work that survives as photographic documentation (an edition of eight), as an important junction in his career. "The action imposed upon the antique Han pot represents the destruction of conventional or established values, creating a work that is in turn both iconoclastic and regenerative, while also recognising that the significance of a cultural object is always subject to change," notes a 2016 Sotheby’s auction house catalogue entry.
Check out Ai Weiwei: So Sorry.
Montien Boonma (1953–2000, Thailand)
The late Montien Boonma sought connections between the material and the spiritual, Thailand’s agrarian past with its industrialised future. "The lives of sentient beings are like clay pots destined to break sooner or later," goes the Buddhist saying. His most recognisable works include those made from everyday bowls stacked in the shape of a stupa.
Chu Teh-Chun (1920–2014, China)
After a lifetime and a career in France as a calligrapher and abstract painter, one of the late artist’s final works was a series of blue, white, and gold porcelain vases made in the former royal workshops in Sèvres. In a book on the project, curator Jean-Paul Desroches wrote: "The subtle relationship between art and nature is fully explored here, in ways similar to traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy.… Thus each vase urges the beholder to make a circular journey—one with neither beginning nor end—through a land of plenty, rich in intersecting paths that encourage everyone to find his or her own way."
Alexandra Seno is AAA Head of Development.
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- Collection Spotlight
- Mon, 17 Jul 2017
- Cite as
- Alexandra A. SENO, Archive Five | Artists Doing Pot: Ceramics and the Contemporary in East Asia, Mon, 17 Jul 2017