London Korean Links

Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

Exhibition Visit: Traditional yet Contemporary

Air Gallery, London, May 29 – June 3 2006

As Stephanie Seung-min Kim says in her article introducing the exhibition, “…culture can only be seen in a clear light when compared with other cultures. I believe that is why Korean ceramic works have to be judged more in an international setting.” The exhibition demonstrated the truth of this statement, but not, I think, in the way she intended.

Park Yong-sook: Moon Jar
Park Yong-sook: Moon Jar

The show was on two floors, with mainly modern British work downstairs, and the majority of the contemporary Korean work upstairs. Park Young-sook’s moon jar had pride of place in the window. Some of the British work looked very comfortable alongside the Korean stuff, particularly the homages to the oriental tradition by Leach and Rie. Edmund de Waal had on display a pair of beautifully coloured plain tall celadon vases, deliberately made slightly wonky to add a human touch. But some of the British work was, frankly, out of place in this show. And, inexplicably, a white porcelain object resembling an inexpertly baked deep-pan pizza base was on display. Visitors who stayed upstairs, while missing some Korean work downstairs at least avoided those (non-Korean) pieces which were less pleasing to the eye.

Park Byung-ho celadon vase
Park Byung-ho celadon vase,

Of the Korean work, my favourites were the pieces of celadon. Some, like those of Yoo Kwang-yul, were quite traditional in style, while others by Park Byung-ho and Bang Chul-ju had a definitely modern twist while still grounded in tradition. Some of the work had the traditional tiny cracks in the glaze while others experimented with a completely pure uncracked glaze. Next on my list was the slightly rough-looking stoneware works by Roe Kyung-jo: irregular and inventive in shape, enticing to explore and bang up-to-date.

Roe Kyung-jo: Marbling Vase
Roe Kyung-jo: Marbling Vase

The simple, understated lines of the white porcelain works provided a strong contrast with the other works. Probably my favourites from this genre were the works of Lee Young-ho, particularly the pieces with edges as well as curves. His porcelain bottle would look very nice on a shelf at home. Park Young-sook, when not labouring to produce moon vases, produces stylish white porcelain tableware. Some of her work, on display at the London show, is in collaboration with minimalist artist Lee U-hwan (also transcribed as Lee Ufan)1, who provides the small blobs of paint which are the sole deviation from the pure white in Park’s work. Park has a gallery in Insadong in downtown Seoul. Go visit when you’re next in the area, like the Queen did.

Compared to the aristocratic elegance of Koryo celadon or the austerity of Choson white porcelain, punch’ong embodies the underlying, traits and sentiments of commoners. It is notably dynamic and richly humorous, while exuding a freedom and naturalness that blurs the line between art work and frivolity.

I quote from a useful article in Acta Koreana. However, I found the reinventions of the (to me) slightly coarse Buncheong tradition, and some of other stoneware & earthenware works, the least interesting part of the exhibition. (Judge for yourself on the festival website – click on any of the artist’s names) Maybe I’m not a man of the people. I could however see how I might get to appreciate them more, given time. Before the show, I couldn’t confess to being in to pots at all. I went to the exhibition out of polite academic interest. I left converted, with a passion to possess. Thanks to Stephanie for pulling this show together.

  1. Thanks to Dr Soyang Park for additional information on Park Young-sook, including the Lee U-hwan connection. []

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