Ceramics: Art or Craft?

The results of a Google image search for Korean contemporary ceramics
The results of a Google image search for Korean contemporary ceramics

Here’s an interesting article from the Wall Street Journal from June 8 2005 by Karen Mazurkewich on the 3rd Ceramic Bienniale in Icheon, South Korea. Thanks to Aidan Foster-Carter for the link.

Swiss ceramicist Philippe Barde wanted to make a statement about asymmetry of the face. By fusing together similar, but distinctly different porcelain bowls, he wanted to show that the duality of human nature lies in the fact that right and left profiles are not simply mirror images. The jurors of the 3rd World Ceramic Biennale 2005 Korea, which runs through June 19, were unanimous in their decision to award his installation the Grand Prize; however, by doing so, they inadvertently reignited a debate that has long obsessed ceramicists: Is it art or is it craft?

The world of ceramics is being reshaped — literally. Countries with little tradition in the craft — Switzerland, Norway, Belgium and Finland — are moving into territory once dominated by Japan, Germany and the U.S. Nowhere is this more evident than in Icheon, where the world’s largest ceramic exposition is now being held. But this globalization trend is also polarizing the ceramic world as traditionalists move away from functional ware — such as teapots and bowls — and embrace sculpture. By entering his expressionist piece into the functional ware category in the biennale, Mr. Barde was taunting jurors and visitors alike to question whether conceptual ceramicists should be lumped together with potters.

At the 3rd World Ceramic Biennale 2005 Shida Kuo’s untitled work shows that traditionalists are turning from functional ware and using the medium to produce sculpture.

The level of debate here did not surprise British artist and curator Edmund de Waal. “Ceramicists have a massive insecurity complex,” he says. “The anxiety comes because they want to be taken seriously by fine-art critics.”

Gallery owner Garth Clark blames founders of the contemporary movement in the West — people like Bernard Leach, who priced his ceramics so low they were competing with industrial dinnerware. While artists with the stature of Pablo Picasso and Joan Mir created sculptural works in clay during the 1940s and 1950s, the best works by American masters Ken Price and Peter Voulkos, who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, sell for just $180,000 — a fraction of the prices achieved by contemporary painters like Jeff Koons. Even art institutes seem embarrassed by the medium. Take the American Craft Museum in New York. Three years ago, it changed its name to the Museum of Arts and Design — a signal that it wanted to distance itself from a label that’s often associated with hippies.

But the story is different in South Korea. Instead of shedding its past, the nation is bent on reclaiming its place as the epicenter of ceramic production — a position it lost after years of Japanese colonization and military dictatorships. Over six years, the government has invested $85 million to build three new museums and injected millions more — including $12 million in 2005 — to host this biennale. This year, the competitive portion of the exposition features 190 artists from 32 countries and offers total cash prizes of $216,000. But its influence is not only due to its size; it’s the scope that matters.

When the biennale was launched six years ago, visitors were shocked at the inclusion of abstract sculpture, says curator Kang Jae Young. “They asked: ‘Ceramics is not just about vessels?'” But now they’ve come to expect more difficult expressionist work, she says.

Given its druthers, the South Korean government would have probably focused on promoting its traditionalists — artists like Huh Sang Wook, who is devoted to tweaking the 500-year-old white glazing tradition known as Puchong ware. But to their credit, Ms. Kang and others pushed the envelope this year by showcasing innovative works from countries with no history in the ceramics field — only a great tradition of design. Take Finnish artist Kim Simonsson. He’s not looking to the Ming dynasty for inspiration. Instead, his bone-white sculptures are heavily influenced by comics and animation — the characters look like they’ve stepped out of an anime action series from Japan. Also featured is Denmark’s Claus Domine Hansen with an eerie installation titled “Fossils.” The piece shows how everyday objects, such as a key ring and computer mouse, can look like fossilized remains when recreated in porcelain. It’s a spooky insight into how an archaeologist might view our culture 1,000 years from now.

“The fact that [Norway] has no tradition in ceramics is a great starting point,” says Norwegian ceramicist Ole Lislerud, who was giving a lecture at the biennale. “I think ceramic art will blossom this century, but it will be large outdoor sculptures and architecture that will make the breakthrough,” he says. Definitely not pots.

Mr. Lislerud became a local celebrity of sorts for a sculpture that now graces the Supreme Court in Oslo — the Norwegian and old Norse law codes and the constitution etched into tall columns — and his controversial “God Is a Woman” installation now decorating the entrance of the Faculty of Divinity at Oslo University. He thinks curators need to be more courageous when selecting art for prestigious shows: “There should be no discussion at all that the pot is art.”

Mr. Lislerud has found an unlikely ally in South Korea, where artists steeped in tradition are starting to shrug off the past. Shin Sangho spent years crafting beautiful celadon ware before switching to making totemic sculptures. Now he’s trying to create a form of durable “fired painting” tile that will be used to encase the exterior of a new ceramics museum under construction in the South Korean city of Gimhae — a project that will “help bring architecture and ceramics together,” he says. Mr. Shin also believes the future is in buildings, not bowls.

“Now architects are trying to find new building materials to work with,” says Mr. Shin. “This is our chance to find an avenue where ceramics can grow.”

But the salvation for this craft may simply fall to market forces. Contemporary painting is now so prohibitively expensive that collectors are turning to more-affordable art forms. “If you look back 30-40 years, photographers were in the same jam as ceramics is now,” says Mr. de Waal. “It was a world based on insider knowledge and technique. But now photography is part of the fine-art world…and if we work hard there’s no reason we can’t be in the same place.”

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