Vulgarity and the sacred: Japan’s ceramic artist Katsuyo Aoki – artist profile

Disparate concepts emerge in contemporary ceramist Katsuyo Aoki’s ethereal masterpieces.

Katsuyo Aoki’s detailed work crafted entirely in porcelain reflects upon the “distinctive nature of Japan itself” with imagery imbued with a sense of romance and reverence.

Katsuyo Aoki, 'Loom', 2013, porcelain, H750 x W650 x D650mm. Photo: Mareo Suemasa. Image courtesy the artist.

Katsuyo Aoki, ‘Loom’, 2013, porcelain, 750 x 650 x 650 mm. Photo: Mareo Suemasa. Image courtesy the artist.

Japanese visual artist Katsuyo Aoki transcends Eastern ceramic traditions by utilising macabre narratives and Rococo-like design elements. Aoki deftly sculpts lushly embellished skulls, crowns and frames with scrolls and “organic swirls” pregnant with movement out of porcelain to arrive at an object that invokes the sacred.

Aoki was born in Tokyo in 1972 and began her artistic career as a painter before transitioning to ceramics. The artist earned her BFA in Painting from Tokyo’s Tama Art University (1998) and successfully completed her MFA in Ceramics from the same institution in 2000.

Katsuyo Aoki. Photo: Robert Cass. Image courtesy Jason Jacques Inc.

Katsuyo Aoki. Photo: Robert Cass. Image courtesy Jason Jacques Inc.

The ceramist’s work has been exhibited worldwide. Aoki participated in the 2015 edition of the Gyeonggi International Ceramics Biennale “Convergence and Transcendence”, “Currents: Japanese Contemporary Art” at Christie’s Hong Kong (2014) and has been displayed at Art Basel and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Aoki’s work has recently been shown in New York City in conjunction with the Museum of Art and Design’s “Japanese Kōgei | Future Forward” exhibition. Currently, Aoki’s work is on display through 28 February 2016 at “My Blue China: The Colors of Globalization” at the Musée Ariana in Switzerland and will take part in the travelling exhibition “CERAMIX: Art and Ceramics from Rodin to Schütte” in France early this spring.

Katsuyo Aoki, 'Predicative Dream #XLVII', 2014, porcelain, H275 x W265 x D365mm. Photo: Marea Suemasa. Image courtesy the artist.

Katsuyo Aoki, ‘Predicative Dream #XLVII’, 2014, porcelain, 275 x 265 x 365 mm. Photo: Marea Suemasa. Image courtesy the artist.

Despite Aoki’s work being “delicately ephemeral”, as was noted on Gow Langsford Gallery‘s website, the techniques she employs stem from a long lineage of national and regional ceramic traditions:

Although her [Aoki’s] jewel-like porcelain presents as momentary and delicately ephemeral, ceramic technique in Japan bears a tradition of over 10,000 years. The Azuchi Momoyama period (1568-1603) witnessed the introduction of porcelain, a remarkably dense ceramic made by firing combinations of clay and feldspar.

Katsuyo Aoki, 'The Void II', 2015, porcelain, H394× W473 × D473mm. Photo: Mareo Suemasa. Image courtesy the artist.

Katsuyo Aoki, ‘The Void II’, 2015, porcelain, 394× 473 × 473 mm. Photo: Mareo Suemasa. Image courtesy the artist.

As Aoki told Art Radar, regardless of the long standing tradition of ceramics in Japan, a synergetic relationship between material and concept guides her creative process:

Materials or techniques do not exist simply as ingredients to express the concept, and it can be said that the concept is mingled with materials and techniques. It is like oil and water to be mixed and become emulsified.

The artist continued by stating that she draws upon Japan’s cultural past by examining the collision of East and West in modern-day Japan. Of particular interest are the Western decorative and narrative elements that have been coopted into “distorted forms” through popular culture, such as anime and computer games:

 My work reflects the distinctive nature of Japan itself, drawing on the great inheritance that is Japan’s pottery culture, and in its hybridization of ancient culture with westernization of modern times.

Katsuyo Aoki, "Art Crafting Towards The Future" installation view at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Katsuyo Aoki, “Art Crafting Towards The Future”, installation view at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

This subtle blend of “historical backgrounds and ideas”, as Aoki’s artist statement reveals, evokes a cascade of emotions and thoughts:

The decorative styles and forms I allude to and incorporate in my works each contain a story based on historical backgrounds and ideas, myths, and allegories. Their existence in the present age makes us feel many things; adoration, some sort of romantic emotions, a sense of unfruitfulness and languor from their excessiveness and vulgarity. And on the other hand, they make us feel tranquility and awe that can almost be described as religious, as well as an image as an object of worship.

Katsuyo Aoki, 'Predictive Dream #LII', 2015, porcelain, H283 x W223 x D650mm. Photo: Mareo Suemasa. Image courtesy the artist.

Katsuyo Aoki, ‘Predictive Dream #LII’, 2015, porcelain, 283 x 223 x 650 mm. Photo: Mareo Suemasa. Image courtesy the artist.

Nowhere is this collision of past and present, East and West more evident than in Aoki’s trademark “Predictive Dream” series, where the object is a human skull and the subject, life and death. Found across cultures and beyond borders, this single image provides Aoki with a powerful, emotionally-charged and “visually provoked” punch, as was revealed in Theo Constantinou’s interview with Aoki for Paradigm Magazine:

Skulls were the icon of death and death was defined by sacredness and functioned as the foundation for people to live. However, skulls are used for fashion designs, animations or comics now after a long time has passed, and they seem to be far from the original image of human death. Despite this situation, they still give people fearfulness and respect toward the dark side of death with various levels and people receive them and feel the empathy. Those sacred images are changing to vulgarity while maintaining a sacred aspect, and I think this is the entity of skulls of our own time.

Katsuyo Aoki, 'Trolldom (aokitaura)', 2015, porcelain, H1830 x W1140 x D215 mm. Photo: Mareo Suemasa. Image courtesy the artist.

Katsuyo Aoki, ‘Trolldom (aokitaura)’, 2015, porcelain, 1830 x 1140 x 215 mm. Photo: Mareo Suemasa. Image courtesy the artist.

Working almost exclusively in white porcelain, Aoki does also add colour to her work on occasion. In the series “Trolldom (aokitaura)”, Aoki frames blue and white tiles reminiscent of Chinese Ming Dynasty or Delft pottery, but with a very contemporary twist. As curator Laurent de Verneuil wrote in the press release for the recent exhibition “My Blue China: The Colors of Globalization” (PDF download), these two colours were inspired by East Asian culture and represent globalisation in its purest guise:

If globalization were to be given a flag, its colors would be blue and white, like that of the United Nations. Before becoming a universal symbol of harmony between peoples, these colors could well have been at the very origin of cultural globalization.

Lisa Pollman

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Related Topics: ceramics, fragile art, Japanese artists, artist profiles, sculpture

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