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Exhibition visit: Constancy and Change in Korean Traditional Craft

Nothing prepared you for the sight that greeted you when you entered the room containing the Korean crafts at Tent London. As you were wandering past the various stalls in the main part of the exhibition displaying contemporary crafts from around the world on your way to the “Constancy and Change” room, you might have heard the sound of temple bells wafting around the building, and you might have been puzzled.

A publicity image for the Constancy and Change
A publicity image for the Constancy and Change in Korean Traditional Craft exhibition

If you had done your homework as to what to expect to see in the room, maybe you had in your mind a collection of small brass cups that formed the main publicity shot for the exhibition. But as you entered the room you came to realise that they were not cups. They were not even bowls. They were bloody great cauldrons.

Hwang Sam-yong, Lee Bong-ju, Lee Kang-hyo
Brassware artisan Lee Bong-ju (seated), with mother-of-pearl lacquerware artisan Hwang Sam-yong (left) and buncheong ceramic artist Lee Kang-hyo, at Tent London (photo: LKL)

They were made over the lifetime of 88 year old craftsman Lee Bong-ju (이봉주), holder of intangible cultural asset #77 (brassware making), who was present at the exhibition overseeing his collection of 18 huge bowls like proud mother hen. The dimpled bowls seemed to have a golden luminosity of their own.

The bowls are shaped by being hammered while the brass is slightly softened by being heated in flames. Each hammering session can only last 30 to 50 seconds before the bowl is too cool to work in this way, and needs to be returned to the flames. The work requires immense physical effort and discomfort, and obviously the bigger the bowl the more toil is involved putting the object into the furnace and taking it out again. The biggest of them were made at the start of his career, but even the smaller ones made in his later years were pretty large, and in 1994, Lee created what was the world’s largest brass gong, 161cm in diameter and 98 kg in weight.

“When you work, you should concentrate only on this. If you make a mistake, your work might melt away at any moment,” Lee warns his assistants in his forge in Anseong-si, Gyeonggi-do, in a brief documentary video that goes with the exhibition.

The hammer used to ring the meditation bowls
The hammer used to ring the meditation bowls (photo: LKL)

As you brushed the rim of the cauldron with the padded hammer, the cauldron would emit the rich pure note that is so evocative of a Buddhist temple. Strangely, the pitch of the note bore no correlation to the size of the cauldron, with some of the smaller bowls producing a deeper note than their big brothers.

The bowls are meant to be calls to prayer or meditation and are objects of beauty and meditation in their own right.

Curtains of Hansan ramie
Curtains of Hansan ramie (photo: LKL)

On the wall behind the bowls was a luminous wall of patchwork ramie fabric transmitting filtered light into the room. At a lunchtime talk, the curator of the exhibition, Sohn Hye-won, explained how precious ramie fabric is. The ramie plant (Boehmeria nivea) is harvested, the fibrous inner bark is separated from the outer bark and the result is boiled, bleached, dried and de-gummed to get the raw fibres. The individual strands are then softened with saliva before being individually twisted into threads by hand, and then woven. It is the sort of painstaking communal work that needs a team of women to do it.

9 artisans for Hansan Ramie Patchwork
9 artisans for Hansan Ramie Patchwork (photo: KCDF)

The artisans involved in the production of the fabrics on display at Tent London came from Hansan-myeon in Seocheon County, Chungcheongnam-do, where the best ramie fabric is made. In fact, Hansan ramie-weaving is registered as UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. The documentation supporting that submission commented as follows:

Weaving of Hansan ramie was transmitted in the form of women-led family operations and was characterized by the tradition of women passing down their proprietary skills to their daughters or daughters-in-law. However, it was also a community culture in that neighbours gathered and worked together in a designated section of the town. Since weaving of Hansan ramie could be used as a substitute for money during the Joseon Dynasty at a time when women were excluded from many social and economic activities, most women wove ramie cloth as a major source of income.

Curator Sohn Hye-won
Curator Sohn Hye-won describes some of the exhibition wearing an elegant ramie tunic (photo: LKL)

So laborious is it to produce that the fabric used to be used as a unit of exchange in a barter system, and in the middle of the ninth century under Silla King Gyeongmun it used to be exported to Tang dynasty China. The fabric was certainly far too precious to waste, which is why offcuts were never thrown away, instead stitched together in a patchwork to form wrapping cloths.

Bojagi wrapping cloths from patchwork ramie
Bojagi wrapping cloths from patchwork ramie (photo: LKL)

Another of the craftsmen present for the exhibition was ceramic artist Lee Kang-hyo (이강효).

Lee Kang-hyo
Lee Kang-hyo at work in his studio (photo: KCDF)

He produces large pots built up from coils which he decorates with several layers of slip in a twist on the traditional buncheong style.

Large buncheong vases by Lee Kang-hyo
Large buncheong vases by Lee Kang-hyo (photo: KCDF)

The abstract decoration on the side of the vases is inspired by mountains, waterfalls and forests. He decorates the vases with his bare hands, using large, sweeping gestures while listening to pulsating rhythms of Samulnori. He believes that the gi of the music, transmitted through his strong arm movements, gives the pots heir own energy.

Mother-of-pearl covered rocks by Hwang Sam-yong
Mother-of-pearl covered rocks by Hwang Sam-yong (photo: KCDF)

Also present was Hwang Sam-yong, a lacquerware craftsman specialising in mother-of-pearl. He uses conch and abalone shell to cover carefully selected rocks and stones. The mother of pearl is cut into tiny narrow strips – the smaller the pieces, the more sparkling is the effect when light is reflected off the surface, as can be seen from the below close-up of one of his works.

A close-up of the mother-of-pearl strips on one of Hwang Nam-yong's lacquered rocks
A close-up of the mother-of-pearl strips on one of Hwang Nam-yong’s lacquered rocks (photo: KCDF)

The other works on display used hanji in their construction, showing the versatility of traditional Korean paper. Cabinets with a wooden frame constructed by Park Myeong-bae (박명배 – holder of intangible cultural property #55 – Wooden furniture making) had panels made of paper by Han Kyunghwa.

Elegant cabinets made by  Park Myeong-bae and Han Kyung-hwa
Elegant cabinets made by Park Myeong-bae and Han Kyung-hwa (photo: KCDF)

Baskets made by Kim Eun-hye and Kang Seong-hi were made of recycled pieces of paper. Kang’s baskets, simple as they look, contain around 360 man hours of work each. 2cm-wide strips of hanji are twisted into a single-thread string, and then two threads are twisted together to make a double-thread string which is then woven into the desired shape. In the case of Kim Eun-hye’s work, pages from discarded books were twisted into string and woven into the open cone-shaped baskets, the original print still visible on the outside.

Paper string baskets by Kang Seong-hi (r) and Kim Eun-hye
Paper string baskets by Kang Seong-hi (r) and Kim Eun-hye (photo: KCDF)

Each of the exhibits was extremely labour-intensive to produce, and the exhibition as a whole highlighted the devotion and dedication of the artisans in pursuing their craft.

The exhibition was at La Triennale di Milano, Italy, 8-13 April, at Tent London 18-21 September, and will be at China Hangzhou Cultural & Creative Industry Expo 16-20 October and 2014 Craft Trend Fair in Seoul 18-21 December. The exhibition is co-sponsored by the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and by Korea Craft & Design Foundation.


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