Moon jars old and new

There were moon jars a-plenty at the British Museum on Saturday: old and new, whole and smashed, real and fake and, as is the nature of these objects, none of them perfectly spherical.

Moon Jar 1

Koo Bohn-changIn pride of place in Room 3, just as you enter the museum, is one of the prized items in the British Museum’s Korean collection, the Chosun dynasty vase – around 300 years old – picked up by Bernard Leach in Seoul in the 1930s. Surrounding the vase are other objects and displays to give it context:

  • a reproduction of Lord Snowdon’s photograph of the moon vase with Lucie Rie, taken in her studio.
  • images of many of the surviving moon jars from the Chosun dynasty – photographed by artist Koo Bohn-chang (right), who has covered 70,000 kilometres in tracking them all down. Koo was there to talk about his work, which has recently been collected together in a book (“Vessel” – for sale in the BM’s shop). Twelve of his moon jars images are arranged side by side, like phases of the moon, while larger-scale versions of these images are projected onto a screen above the main exhibit.
  • an image of a work by Kim Whanki inspired by the moon jar.
  • other ceramics, roughly contemporary with the main exhibit.
  • a modern moon jar made by Park Young-sook, recently acquired by the BM.

Moon Jar 2

Gina Ha-GorlinMoon Jar performanceGina Ha-Gorlin (left), who curated the display and masterminded the whole Chuseok day at the BM, gave a gallery talk explaining all these connections, also explaining why the making of a moon jar is so difficult – and why the majority of them end up being smashed. A video in display on the side wall demonstrated a modern moon jar being made (and destroyed).

Earlier in the day, we had seen a pristine moon jar being smashed by its “maker”, a soil-besmirched member of the experimental performing arts group KOPAS, who together with percussion group Dulsori had drawn a large crowd outside the museum with a creative performance (right) centred on the making of a moon jar.

Moon Jar 3

Moon Jar in the Great CourtWe had also seen a brief performance centred around a moon jar, inside in the BM’s great court, accompanied by a gayageum (right).

What I had missed earlier on was an unusual exhibit in the Korean gallery itself, upstairs. Taking advantage of the absence of the real thing, artist Shin Mee-kyung had created a replacement moon vase out of soap. The work, entitled “Translation – Moon Vase” was well-disguised in the gallery, and continues Shin’s playful theme of “translating” valuable museum pieces.

Of the three moon jars featured in the main pictures in this post, one is the “genuine” Chosun dynasty article, one was made in the last couple of years by Park Young-sook, and one was made this year out of soap by Shin Mee-kyoung. Which is which?

Answers soon.

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