Rediscovering Korean ceramics

Results of a Google image search for Korean Ceramics
Results of a Google image search for Korean Ceramics

An article from the Wall Street Journal in the run-up to the 3rd World Ceramic Bienniale in 2005. Thanks again to Aidan Foster-Carter and his amazing powers of recall.

A Return to Form

South Korea Regains Its Stature In the World of Ceramics
April 15, 2005

Kang Suk Young’s den of creativity looks like an industrial wasteland. Molds in the shape of conical steeples are strewn across the cement floor. Nearby is a cavernous oil-fired kiln that heats up to 1,280 degrees Celsius. In this hideaway workshop nestled inside Ewha Women’s University in Seoul, Mr. Kang, an arts professor, crafts exquisitely hard-to-make ceramics.

It was here that he built a gigantic installation for last year’s Summer Olympics in Greece. A modified version of it is displayed in the Seoul Museum of Art. Deceptively simple in design — it looks a bit like a patch of oversized blades of grass — the piece was hellishly difficult to create, a feat of precision and manual manipulation. Non-glazed funnels, baked to perfection, were twisted slightly to refract light. Aligned in rows, their warped shadows create a rhythmic line that disrupts geometric logic and engages the audience.

The style — asymmetrical and imperfect, minimalist and rough — is pure South Korea . More examples of this style, albeit less grand in scale, will be on display later this month in Icheon City, at the government-organized World Ceramic Biennale. The event, in only its third year, is already one of the top draws in the ceramics world. South Korean ceramists, not surprisingly, are expected to dominate. But it’s not just because their country is hosting the event.

Artists like Mr. Kang are helping South Korean ceramics make a comeback. While remaining steeped in tradition, artists are refining the basics with modern technology and new forms. In the hip galleries of Seoul’s Insa-dong district, the ancient craft has become the favored mode of artistic delivery. Now, galleries and collectors from New York to London, as well as housewares companies, are taking notice.

Hidden Artists

Collectors in other countries view South Korean ceramics as “very virginal, very fresh,” says Kim Wan Kyu, Seoul-based owner of Tong-In Gallery in New York, one of the first U.S. galleries devoted exclusively to Korean ceramics. “Chinese and Japanese porcelain is already well-known in the West,” he notes, but South Korean art is still a bit of a mystery, partly a result of the best ceramists having been hidden away in academies for years. Now, he says, they’re breaking out.

The opening of Mr. Kim’s gallery in 2002 has been followed by a spate of exhibitions featuring South Korean ceramists at prestigious arts centers, including the LongHouse Reserve on Long Island in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Seattle Asian Art Museum. In addition, the traveling exhibition “From the Fire,” which features 54 South Korean contemporary ceramists, will open at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, California in July, and later at the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

The re-emergence of South Korea’s ceramics craft has been fueled largely by the government. For years, the drive for stature in high technology superceded any cultural interests. Now, the government is trying to re-establish an art form that was nearly obliterated after decades of Japanese colonialism, beginning in 1910, and South Korean military rule. In the past four years, the government has spent more than $85 million building three museums dedicated to the craft, and it has organized one of the largest ceramics-focused biennales in the world. This year’s World Ceramic Biennale is expected to draw more than 395 participants from 67 countries — including the U.S., Germany and Japan — and attract four million visitors.

South Koreans “are very competitive with China and Japan and they want the world to know that South Korean ceramics inspired Japan,” says Ron Kuchta, New York-based curator and editor of “American Ceramics” magazine. South Korean porcelain was once so famous that Japanese invaders in the 16th century kidnapped an entire town of potters and shipped them back to the island of Karatsu. Now South Korea wants to reclaim its position as a leader in the field. “They put an enormous amount of work and money into creating these museums and have used their public relations know-how to spread the word around,” says Mr. Kuchta.

Tweaking Tradition

The world has reclaimed South Korean ceramics, in part, because the contemporary style that’s emerging is unlike anything else on the market, says Mr. Kim of Tong-In Gallery. While China’s new creative vanguard has been defined by pop art paintings that mocked Cultural Revolution posters, South Korea’s emerging ceramists have embraced tradition.

The new wave is taking ancestor worship to new heights by injecting modern technological know-how and ideas into an almost lost art form. Ancient inlay and firing techniques have been incorporated into abstract sculptures. Whereas Chinese porcelain is usually very colorful and Japanese contemporary artists still strive for perfection and purity, South Korean ceramics are often asymmetrical and imperfect. It’s more Zen-like, and better suits today’s home interiors, says Mr. Kim.

What fascinates Western curators is how South Korean artists have so diligently refined the basics by modifying old techniques to fit new forms, says Mr. Kuchta. Mr. Kang’s Olympics installation is a case in point. He married traditional Korean white porcelain with a European slip-cast technique to mold its shape, before finally reshaping each individual cone to create an asymmetrical effect.

Others are sticking to tradition while playing with color, shape and hand-painted flourishes. Potter Shin Sangho makes figurative pieces that play on totemic images of pre-Buddhism Korean art. His work has been particularly popular in the U.S., where it sells for between $7,500 and $35,000.

Ongii, black earthenware used to store kimchi and soy sauce, has been reinterpreted by Lee Kang Hyo, who paints symbolic figures of fish and birds using a traditional white-slip glaze. His work is now fetching upwards of $5,000.

Roe Kyung Joe creates white-washed, ferric and porcelain clay sculptures that incorporate the Punch’ong surface-decorating techniques (applied using the fingertips) of the Chosun period (1392-1910). His works have been collected by major museums, including the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Joo Ji Wan, meanwhile, uses the Koryo period (935-1392) inlaying technique to create modern cubist sculptures and has exhibited in competitions such as the International Ceramics Festival in Mino, Japan.

A decade ago, young Korean artists could never imagine such international interest in the lowly craft. When ceramist Lee Hun Chung, 38 years old, left to study in the U.S., he focused on installation work. It seemed to be the wave of the future. Fellow students concentrated on mixed media, but something kept drawing Mr. Lee back to clay. “I felt different from the other artists in the U.S.,” he says. Perhaps the meditative effect derived from the repetitive business of throwing pots appeals to him, he says.

Hearts of Clay

Earlier in his career, Mr. Lee chafed at the limitations of clay. Now he thrives on it. “Clay cannot be conquered,” he says. “It requires a long period of time to understand, to (incorporate) your thoughts into it.” Perhaps, he adds, this is an analogy to the Korean spirit.

Mr. Lee is also bridging the gap between contemporary art and traditional housewares. As South Korean art pushes new boundaries, the housewares market is rushing to catch up, and conceptual artists such as Mr. Lee are producing earthy tea bowls on sale in hip ceramics stores in central Seoul.

In an odd twist, Mr. Kang, noted for his large installations, is frequently approached to develop innovative tableware. When a posh new Italian restaurant in Seoul approached Mr. Kang about designing its tableware, one of the items he devised was a tall spiral white-glazed glass with a sandy-rough interior to extend the life of a beer’s foam head.

As an unrelated side project, he also “discovered” a clay with a dense grain and metallic-green hue, which he has crafted into traditional tea teapots that sell from about $100 at the Ewha Women’s University ceramics lab. He’s hoping the clay, with its interesting texture and shade, will offer an alternative to potters who want to make naturalistic dinnerware.

Mass Appeal

Even high-end ceramics company KwangJuYo Co. Ltd., known for its pricey celadon and Punch’ong wares, has developed an affordable line under the Aolda brand name of handmade dinnerware for everyday use. Items, which range in color from moss green to champagne, sell at South Korean department stores such as Lotte and Galleria for about $10 a plate.

For ceramist Cho Chung Hyun, who curated the “From the Fire” exhibition touring the U.S., the industry has come full circle. Back in the 1960s, when artists started making ceramics again, “no one thought the Korean traditions were important,” says Ms. Cho. Instead, artists were looking at innovations abroad.

“Only much later did we realize that our ceramics were good…we had to rediscover them,” she says.

World Ceramic Biennale, April 23 to June 19. Main exhibitions at Icheon World Ceramic Center; Gwangju Joseon Royal Kiln Museum; and Yeoju World Ceramic Livingware Gallery.

KwangJuYo, Seoul;

Tong-In Gallery, New York;

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.