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Exhibition visit: Contemporary Korean Ceramics at the V+A

Contemporary Korean Ceramics - installation view

This year-long exhibition as part of the Korea/UK 2017-18 cultural collaboration brings together a range of approaches and responses to Korean ceramics. From work that is purely functional to work that is purely decorative, via work that seeks to critique contemporary Korean society, the unifying element is the quality of the craftsmanship and execution.

Yoon Sol (b. 1976), whom we last saw at the KCC nine years ago, has developed and branched out from his Infinity series, in which white concentric bowls resemble the layers of petals of a peony, with the centre coloured a brilliant turquoise produced by a copper carbonate – the colour symbolising “water and the origins of life”. His later work, entitled Variation of Space explores what happens if the building blocks of his Infinity series – the segments of “thin-walled spheres of slip-cast porcelain” that so much resemble petals – spin off in crazy and unpredictable directions. The resulting sculptures are abstract sculptures full of energy and movement: the sort of thing that a ceramist from the Italian Futurist movement might have created, like a multiple freeze-frame photograph of a bowl exploding in space.

Next to Yoon’s work was that of another artist exploring changes over time. The image that advertises this exhibition shows one of Kim Juree‘s (b. 1980) works as it gradually collapses and returns to the mud from which it was made. “Kim makes models of 1980s-1990s houses being demolished in her naighbourhood. The houses are characterised by a unique combination of western and Korean architectural features.” The works, which are incredibly detailed, are made of unfired clay and ultimately are placed in shallow trays of water so that they slowly soften, sag and dissolve into earth. What is so surprising to a westerner is that a house built less than 20 years ago is demolished so quickly – though it has to be said that the architecture looks surprisingly backward-looking for its time. Kim’s work comments on “the constant cycle of urban development in modern Seoul and the disappearance of its architectural legacy.”

Two other artists in the exhibition also had a sculptural approach to their ceramics, using as their raw material thin blocks made up of countless layers of slip.

Cho Shinhyun‘s (b 1970) layers are in different colours, built up until he has enough depth to carve a three-dimensional object; the result is an object with a surface that looks like the isobars on a weather map. He also creates relief paintings by scraping through the layers of slip.

Lee Seunghee: Tao series (2016). Porcelain, underglaze iron brown
Lee Seunghee: Tao series (2016). Porcelain, underglaze iron brown

Lee Seunghee (b 1958) too shaves off the layers of slip that he has laid onto a flat sheet of porcelain to create relief versions of classic Joseon dynasty vases which he decorates in an appropriate style.

Ju Sekyun (b 1980) is another artist who explicitly references Joseon (and indeed Goryeo) dynasty ceramics in his work. He recreates famous vases designated as National Treasures – but instead of using the traditional decorative techniques Ju starts with a plain white stoneware vessel which he decorates from memory or from photographs using pencil applied directly onto the surface of the pot. The results are disorienting, particularly the Goryeo dynasty celadon maebyeong vase where the drawing does not quite match the shape of the vase.

Returning to ceramics as objects to adorn one’s wall, two artist presented work using very different approaches. Lee Kanghyo (b 1961), who in previous years has exhibited large buncheong vases which he decorates with sweeping hand gestures while listening to loud samulnori music, used his buncheong techniques to decorate sizeable disks of porcelain with abstract designs in natural earth colours. Park Sohyoung‘s (b 1975) work, by contrast, is so fragile it needs to be mounted and protected behind a glass frame. She creates tiny cityscapes by manipulating and folding porcelain-impregnated paper. “When fired, the paper burns away to leave delicate sheets of coloured porcelain.”

This being a Korean exhibition, it would not be surprising to find some digital technology being used somewhere. Ahn Seongman (b 1974) designs his onggi vases on a computer and then prints them using a 3D printer that has been modified to accommodate iron-rich clay as its printer ink. Yu Sangduk (b 1973) uses digital technology to make the moulds used to create his ceramic wall tiles.

Two artists eschewed clay entirely in their response to Korean ceramics: Kang Ikjoong‘s (b 1960) larger than life paintings of Moon Jars are in part his response to a divided Korea – such jars are made by creating the two halves separately and joining them together – while Shin Meekyoung‘s (b 1967) soap sculptures pose “the question of how objects are perceived when dislocated from their original cultural contexts.”

Yoo Euijeong (b 1981) “uses ceramics as a commentary on the impact of pop-culture, mass-consumerism and hyper-connectivity on contemporary Korea.” The images one of his vases juxtapose traditional-looking decorative motifs with more modern, mass-market icons. In one piece the base of the vase is decorated with a traditional Buddhist lotus design, while on the main body are images of Batman and Superman in portrayed as Buddhas.  In the other piece, a vase decorated with flowers and geometric designs is topped by a cartoon cat in the white and blue colours of late Joseon pottery, enhanced with gold detailing.

Finally, two ceramists use their art to produce works which are purely decorative in function but with painstakingly executed detail. Yun Jucheol‘s (b 1972) works, which look like sea urchins, are covered with tiny gilded spikes formed from layers of slip brushed onto the body of the main body. Seo Daekyun‘s (b 1980) work looks so fragile it could be made out of icing sugar. Incredibly detailed sculptures of fantastic creatures or intricate corals that look as if they could have emerged from a Miyazaki movie are made “by slip casting porcelain in moulds taken from natural objects such as twigs, berries and acorns, and from man-made bric-a-brac including random parts from plastic models of cars, aeroplanes and robots.” The results look eminently collectible, but you would want to store them in a dust-proof cabinet because they promise to be a nightmare to keep clean.

Text in quotes is taken from the descriptive labels alongside the works in the exhibition. The exhibition, which lasts until Sunday, 11 February 2018, was originated by the Fondation d’entreprise Bernaudaud and their guest curator Hyeyoung Cho. It was organised and curated for the V&A by Dr Rosalie Kim, Samsung Curator of Korean Art, and supported by the Korea Foundation with additional support from Samsung.


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