Reshaping Tradition: 7 Contemporary Ceramic artists from East Asia

An exhibition at USC Pacific Asia Museum spotlights East Asian artists who are reshaping ceramic practice today.

Soon closing on 31 January 2016, the show highlights the developments and radical changes in the field of ceramic art through the work of 7 internationally recognised artists from Asia.

Harumi Nakashima, 'Forms that Enclose the Absurd-1213', 2012, hand-built porcelain with blue in-glaze. Image courtesy the artist and Yufuku Gallery, Japan. Photograph by Tatsuo Hayashi. © Harumi Nakashima

Harumi Nakashima, ‘Forms that Enclose the Absurd-1213’, 2012, hand-built porcelain with blue in-glaze. Image courtesy the artist and Yufuku Gallery, Japan. Photo: Tatsuo Hayashi. © Harumi Nakashima.

“Reshaping Tradition: Contemporary Ceramics from East Asia” at USC Pacific Asia Museum (PAM) in Pasadena, California presents innovative works in ceramic art by seven artists from East Asia, whose practices have merged tradition and contemporaneity, craft and fine art.

Ceramics have become more than just containers or vessels; they have crossed over into the realm of sculpture, installation and even painting. Artists from Asia have taken inspiration from their traditions as well as from Western art, and as the exhibition brochure writes,

While they inherit rich traditions from the past, the influence of Western practices, wartime destruction of infrastructure and existing values, and the influx of new information and techniques triggered numerous questions, challenges, and possibilities opening up their eyes to view clay with a new perspective. In addition to treating clay as a sculptural medium or a canvas, artists have also added a socio-political dimension to their work, going beyond its form and developing its concept as a critique to contemporary issues.

USC Pacific Asia Museum goes on to write about the exhibited artists:

Their works are individual and distinct, yet they share an important trait in their practice: they build on tradition while innovating outside established manners and aesthetics in the ceramic tradition. […] Juxtaposed with select examples representing significant ceramics tradition of East Asia, the contemporary works in Reshaping Tradition illustrate how artists are employing tradition as a springboard for countless innovations, creating works that speak to contemporary audiences, provoking meaningful discussion, and inviting fresh perspectives on clay.

Art Radar profiles the seven artists and their artworks in the exhibition.

Ai Weiwei, 'Colored Vases', 2011, Neolithic pottery (5000 – 3500 BCE) with industrial house paint. Image courtesy the artist and Chambers Fine Art.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Colored Vases’, 2011, Neolithic pottery (5000 – 3500 BCE) with industrial house paint. Image courtesy the artist and Chambers Fine Art.

1. Ai Weiwei (China)

One of China’s most influential artists and human rights activists, Ai Weiwei questions norms and cultural values through. Ai has often used ceramics in his work, from his early performance in which he smashed Han dynasty urns, to his ceramic crabs addressing issues of censorship and his sunflower seeds installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.

USC PAM presents some pieces from Ai’s series Colored
 Vases (2011), which “challenges concepts of rarity, value, and preciousness” and features earthenware vases from the Neolithic period (5,000–3,000
BCE) dipped in industrial paint and now coloured in contemporary shades. History, as Ai says, is “no longer visible, 
but is still there”: the precious relics have lost their authenticity and historical value, now covered in cheap paint. Through this work, Ai critiques the loss of history and tradition due to a rampant consumer culture, and addresses issues of cultural and historical vandalism prevalent in China and driven by market demand.

Ik-Joong Kang, 'Things I Know/500 Moon Jars', 2010, porcelain with glaze and mixed media. Image courtesy the artist and Sabina Lee Gallery. Photograph by Osceola Refetoff.

Ik-Joong Kang, ‘Things I Know / 500 Moon Jars’, 2010, porcelain with glaze and mixed media. Image courtesy the artist and Sabina Lee Gallery. Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

2. Ik-joong Kang (Korea)

Multimedia artist Ik-joong Kang (b. 1960, Cheong Ju) melded aspects of Korean and American culture in his early work, when he first moved to New York in the 1980s. Later, he shifted from making works about his experience as an immigrant to creating works that engage with globalisation and its impact, or that address Korea’s history and capture his desire for a united Korea.

At USC PAM, Things I Know / 500 Moon Jars (2010) comprises 500 moon jars, arranged in concentric circles. The moon jar, typical of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910 CE), is considered perfect in its imperfection: formed from two semi-spheres, the sphere is never perfect, often revealing its join mark.

The installation, according to the Museum, “embodies seemingly disparate, even oppositional ideas, such as totality and individuality, irregularity and order, and perfection and imperfection”. The 500 jars become one in Kang’s installation, where concepts of wholeness and separation are pivotal in understanding the meaning of the work – connecting the world and, particularly, the two Koreas. From inside the jars, speakers emanate sounds that link to the artist’s past and present, memories and hopes.

Liu Jianhua, 'Fallen Leaves', 2012, porcelain with glaze Installation at Kuandu Biennale, Taipei, Taiwan. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Beijing. © Liu Jianhua

Liu Jianhua, ‘Fallen Leaves’, 2012, porcelain with glaze, installation at Kuandu Biennale, Taipei, Taiwan. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Beijing. © Liu Jianhua.

3. Liu Jianhua (China)

Liu Jianhua (b. 1962, Ji’an, Jiangxi Province) trained as a sculptor and has been working primarily with ceramics and mixed media. As a young boy, he went to Jingdezhen – China’s porcelain production capital – to train as an industrial designer under his uncle. Learning about western sculptors pushed him to pursue an education in fine art. After graduation, he returned to Jingdezhen, where he started experimenting with ceramics as a sculptural and installation medium.

At USC PAM, Fallen Leaves (2012) is made of 1,500 leaves transformed into individual terracotta-coloured porcelain pieces, which leave one “to reconsider the meaning of mundane objects”, once “freed from their purported function”.

Liu Jianhua, 'Trace', 2011, porcelain with glaze. Installation at Shanghai MoCA, Shanghai, China. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Beijing. © Liu Jianhua

Liu Jianhua, ‘Trace’, 2011, porcelain with glaze, installation at Shanghai MoCA, Shanghai, China. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Beijing. © Liu Jianhua.

Trace (2011) comes from the eponymous series first shown in “Liu Jianhua: Screaming Walls” at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing in 2011. A glistening strand of black porcelain, looking like dripping paint, drizzles down the white gallery wall. The sculptural forms in the series simulate wulouhen (屋漏痕), a type of Chinese calligraphic stroke in which the trailing of ink emulates rainwater trickling through the crevices of dilapidated walls.

Ah Xian, 'China, China-Bust 35', 1999, porcelain in underglaze cobalt-blue with flower and bird design. Image courtesy and collection of the artist. © Ah Xian

Ah Xian, ‘China, China-Bust 35’, 1999, porcelain in underglaze cobalt-blue with flower and bird design. Image courtesy and collection of the artist. © Ah Xian.

4. Ah Xian (China)

Ah Xian (b. 1960, Beijing) takes inspiration from his life experience to create work that merge East and West. He found political asylum in Australia after the Tiananmen Incident of 1989. Since living in his adopted country, Ah Xian has explored the oppositions inherent in his life.

These dichotomies are apparent in his ceramic works from the “China, China”, in which he merges the western artistic tradition of the bust with Chinese traditional designs. The casts of human busts are part of a Western tradition of portraiture dating back to ancient Roman times, while the decorations used by Ah Xian are unique to China’s tradition and in some cases, to the Jingdezhen kilns, where the artist produces his works. According to USC PAM, “China, China delves into the artist’s personal issue— how to negotiate his own identity, living between two cultures.”

Ah Xian, 'China, China-Bust 70', 2002, porcelain carved relief and bitumen stained with landscape design. Image courtesy and collection of the artist. © Ah Xian

Ah Xian, ‘China, China-Bust 70’, 2002, porcelain carved relief and bitumen stained with landscape design. Image courtesy and collection of the artist. © Ah Xian.

Ah Xian makes the designs look like tattoos on his figures’ skin, making a statement about the indelibility of one’s cultural background.

In the exhibition, Bust 35 of a woman dons a traditional pattern of flowers and birds in underglaze blue and white, typical of Yuan to Qing dynasty porcelain, while Bust 70 of a man features a decoration inspired by traditional shanshui or landscape painting.

Harumi Nakashima, 'Forms that Reveal the Absurd-1403', 2014, hand-built porcelain with blue in-glaze. Image courtesy the artist and Yufuku Gallery, Japan. Photograph by Tatsuo Hayashi. © Harumi Nakashima

Harumi Nakashima, ‘Forms that Reveal the Absurd-1403’, 2014, hand-built porcelain with blue in-glaze. Image courtesy the artist and Yufuku Gallery, Japan. Photo: Tatsuo Hayashi. © Harumi Nakashima.

5. Harumi Nakashima (Japan)

Harumi Nakashima is renowned for hand-building biomorphic, bulbous ceramic sculptures decorated with blue dots of varying dimensions that lend a psychedelic appearance to his works. Nakashima tackles diverse issues, from cross-cultural interchange to
the aesthetics and functionality of
ceramics.

The artist is deeply influenced by the Sōdeisha movement formed in 1948, which resisted any conventional ceramics tradition and was dedicated to the creation of pure, non-functional, sculptural forms. The movement set a revolutionary course for ceramics as fine art in Japan. His shaping process, which is free hand and does not make use of a potter’s wheel, is in his words a “battle with clay”.

For his decoration, Nakashima takes inspiration from the blue sometsuke underglaze motifs of traditional Japanese porcelain. He also uses cobalt blue, but with an overglaze technique. He places circular patches of glaze – the blue dots –over the body of a work after the main firing, then he fires them into the white glaze of the porcelain with a second firing using the technique of ‘in-glazing’. This process leads to the sinking of the dots upon the white over-glaze.

Nakashima thus creates dynamic movement, with forms that seem to turn inside out and pulsate from within the porcelain sculpture.

Bui Cong Khanh, 'The Story of Blue, White and Red (No. 2)', 2013, porcelain, hand-painted. Image courtesy the artist and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery. © Bui Cong Khanh

Bui Cong Khanh, ‘The Story of Blue, White and Red (No. 2)’, 2013, porcelain, hand-painted. Image courtesy the artist and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery. © Bui Cong Khanh.

6. Bui Cong Khanh (Vietnam)

Trained as a painter, Bui Cong Khanh (b. 1971, Hoi An) uses ceramics as a canvas as well as a sculptural medium. At USC PAM, Bui presents a series of traditional vases with blue and white decoration.

The images painted onto the surface of the works address the impact of political and military struggles on Vietnamese society. With delicate painterly skills, the artist reminds us of what is being lost through his choice of medium, technique and composition, which reference traditional culture.

Playing with optical illusions, Bui presents a beautiful rural landscape that upon closer inspection reveals a mesh of menacing machines and weapons taking over traditional pagodas and temples. Vietnam’s recent tumultuous history is revealed through flowing landscapes of mountains and rivers.

The delicate brushstrokes and ceramic shapes contrast deeply with the skilfully concealed content of the decorations, revealing narratives that uncover 20th century Anglo-Vietnamese relations. As the Museum writes, Bui offers a “sharp commentary on a society where violence, technology, and machinery have eroded the history of modern Vietnam”.

Yeesookyung, 'Translated Vase (TVW2)', 2013, ceramic shards, epoxy, 24 karat gold leaf, 51 x 37 ½ x 35 ½ in. Image courtesy Locks Gallery, Philadelphia. Photograph by Joseph Hu.

Yeesookyung, ‘Translated Vase (TVW2)’, 2013, ceramic shards, epoxy, 24 karat gold leaf, 51 x 37 ½ x 35 ½ in. Image courtesy Locks Gallery, Philadelphia. Photo: Joseph Hu.

7. Yeesookyung (Korea)

Yeesookyung (b. 1963) also trained as a painter. The only woman artist in the exhibition, she creates a wide variety of work, from ceramic sculptures, scroll paintings and cinnabar drawings on Korean paper, to video and multimedia installations. Her most well-known sculptural works are the Translated Vases, of which some pieces are on show at USC PAM.

Korean ceramic masters today who follow and preserve the techniques of the Goryeo (918–1392 CE) and Joseon (1392–1910 CE) dynasties destroy the ceramics that do not meet their standards. The artists collects the discarded fragments and shards of ceramic waste from ceramic villages around Korea and then re-assembles them by joining and gilding them with fine 24 carat gold leaf. In doing so, Yeesookyung imbues the unwanted ceramics with new life and purpose, mending their “wounds”. This “translation” process leads to the creation of bulbous, precarious forms that are freed from specific historical referents, genres or conventions. Highly suggestive, the ceramic shapes recall the curvy body of a woman or the contorted abstraction of pain.

Yesookyng radically departs from the original ceramic vessel, both in form and meaning, creating organic and lyrical work that represents a “translation” into the experimental and the contemporary.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: Chinese artists, Japanese artists, Korean artists, Vietnamese artists, ceramics, Classic/contemporary, museum shows, events in the US

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