Exhibition visit: Tradition Transformed – Contemporary Korean Ceramics at the V&A

Tradition, Transformed, Contemporary, Korean, Ceramic – the words used to describe the title of the exhibition as well as the thematic arrangement of this display in the V&A’s Ceramics & Korea Gallery from May until October 2011. Showcasing the innovative art forms produced by 18 Korean contemporary ceramicists aged 40-70 from the South Korean peninsula, the 21 pieces illustrate a combination of new methods and forms of expression with traditional techniques to stimulate questions about the meanings of Korean ceramics and enhance the appreciation of the development and innovations of this artistic tradition.

Contemporary art forms tend to reflect the socio-political and cultural environment of the country from where the artists hail from while being influenced by global trends, in this case, of global ceramic production. The entrance panel provides interesting questions to ponder upon, relating to each theme presented in the exhibition:

‘What distinguishes the tradition from the contemporary and how is it expressed in terms of materials and motifs?’
Tradition may be expressed in contemporary art forms through the use of themes and techniques canonised through the history of artistic traditions as well as collective memory and personal nostalgia.

Han Hyang Lim, Mountain entering spring (2003). Mixed clay body
Han Hyang Lim, Mountain entering spring (2003). Mixed clay body

Han Hyang Lim’s ‘Mountain entering Spring’ harks back to the genre of Chinese and Korean ink painting traditions of mountainous landscapes while Park Nae Heon utilises the paddling technique in ‘Landscape with Hills and Water’, a technique once used to make storage jars, with the surface decoration reminiscent of Korean folk painting traditions. Looking more closely at Park Kyoung Soon’s ‘Bird and Tree’ we can see that this form resembles that of the ‘sotdae’ poles featured at the entrance to Korean villages while referring to traditional Punch’ong ceramic pieces in its decorative devices.

‘Do ceramic techniques and forms reflect notions of contemporaneity?’
While the pioneer of the slip-casting movement, Kang Suk Young approaches ceramics as works of art as opposed to crafts with her aesthetically designed cone sculptures, Lee Eun Mee explores the material limitations of clay with her perforated clay piece. The more futuristic-looking pieces are indeed meant to express Joo Ji Wan’s notion of the future through the creation of geometric forms.

Park Kyoung Soon: Bird and Tree
Park Kyoung Soon: L to R: Bird and Flower (2006), Bird and Tree (2002), Bird (2004). Mixed clay body

‘In what ways do ceramics illuminate the multifaceted nature of Korean identity?’
Kim Jin Kyoung’s sculpture of a female torso ingeniously utilises clay to create rose-like formations reminiscent of traditional Korean paper, ‘hanji’ in order to construct the female form. Whereas Kim Jin Kyoung adopts the gender-based approach to sculpting forms, Lim Moo Keun uses the metaphysical approach with a large stone base symbolising Jesus and the polychromatic pebbles strategically placed on top of this base representing the Christian population found throughout Korea.

‘How is the idea of transformation – both as a process of development from old to new and as a religious concept – expressed in ceramic arts?’
The material of clay itself can be easily transformed until it is fired. Here we can see how the sculptors illustrate the cyclical process from life towards death.

Han Gil Hong uses the traditional ‘raku’ firing technique combined with slab-building to illustrate the Buddhist concept of impermanence and change leading to transmigration. In Won Il-an’s ‘The Sound of Nature’ we can see the undulating forms are synonymous with the emotional ebb and flow of life in terms of trials and tribulations whilst the glazed surface effect of Choi Suk-jin’s ‘Germination’ lends the impression of rusted metal, referring to the manner in which people age. Moreover, the theme of new life is explored in Kwon Shin’s ‘Bird’s Eggs’ with the white egg-shaped pebbles symbolising rebirth.

How do artists mobilise the materiality, form and function of the ceramic medium itself?’
In this section, evidence of the technical skill of the artist is plain to see with Guac Roh Hoon illustrating his technical virtuosity in this ‘Form Series 1’ creating a very large sculptural piece interlaced with refined openwork.

Guac Roh-hoon: Form - Series 1 (2005) Mixed clay body
Guac Roh Hoon: Form - Series 1 (2005) Mixed clay body

It is worth mentioning that this touring exhibition is organised by the International Arts & Artists of Washington DC, supported by the Korea Foundation, Han Hyang Lim Gallery and Jay Lee Collection in Hyeri. Curated by Ms Chung Hyon Cho, emirate Professor of Ceramic Art at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul, this exhibition was adapted for the installation at the V&A by the students from the Royal College of Art and the V&A’s History of Design Programme.

By Jasleen Kandhari, Asian art historian and Art critic.

Tradition Transformed: Contemporary Korean Ceramics runs at the V&A until 3 October. A curator talk by Christine Guth will take place on 28 September at 1:15pm.

All images courtesy of the V&A and the artist

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