Traditional Yet Contemporary exhibition Review

Korean Ceramics – Traditional Yet Contemporary
Curated by STEPHANIE SEUNGMIN KIM on 27 MAY, 2006

Participating Artists

PARK YOUNG-SOOK | ROE KYUNG-JO | BANG CHUL JU | YOO KWANG-YUL
LEE YOUNG HO |  PARK BYUNG-HO |

with special exhibition with works by Edmund de Waal, Emmnauel Cooper, Gareth Mason with collection of works by Bernard Leach, Dame Lucie Rie

One of the highlights of this year’s Korean festival is likely to be the exhibition at Air Gallery in Dover Street — juxtaposing the work of contemporary British potters with the work of modern Korean ceramic artists. Stephanie Seungmin Kim, curator of the show, explains.

There’s something rather comforting about traditional Korean ceramics. And this long and authentic tradition of Korean ceramic techniques is revitalized by modern ceramic artists to reveal the very best of the Modern Korean ceramics. These creations are now on show in London for a week, ensconced in the world of British contemporary arts. A week away from the land where its very own earth clay shaped them developed into a mission for me as some sort of a quest: reinventing the tradition. These art works are more than just objects in an exhibition. They are the representations of the Korean culture, enabling the British public to see something they have not yet discovered but will be fascinated to explore. Here’s why.

Firstly, as artifacts and heirlooms they will become as extraordinarily beautiful as their predecessors are. The vogue for the black lacquer wares, the Bernard Leach tradition of pottery, and the arts and crafts movement are all evidence that the British know the significance of supreme quality in handcrafted craft. For centuries, people have adapted the Oriental arts to sublimate an inventive technology into art. Earlier in the 18th century, in Britain, we saw the vogue for Chinoiserie, followed by Japonism in the later part of the century. Something foreign had inspired artists and arts in Europe and modernism was shaped by the arts from the Far East. Something the majority of the British public has not discovered yet is that Korean ceramics history was regarded by Chinese and Japanese as something unique, beautiful and extraordinary. Since this exhibition is a rare opportunity to convey how this tradition has influenced and is now represented by Contemporary artists in Korea, the exhibits, I believe, have a lot to offer.

Secondly, these techniques are amazingly diverse and unique. Josiah Wedgwood was a potter who went into inventing various new techniques after his leg was injured and was no longer able to throw using the potter’s wheel. His effort to convey the beauty of the Roman Cameo technique resulted in the first successful invention of his house with the celebrated Wedgwood porcelain production line. I believe that British ceramics history stands out from the ceramics industries elsewhere in Europe such as Sevres and Royal Copenhagen, which benefited from Royal patronage. Korean potters, too, possessed individualism and various regional kilns that resulted in superb techniques. When the vogue in Europe was to collect Chinese porcelain, potters were under severe pressure to produce “white porcelain”, and those who were successful were regarded as alchemists. In the Far East, the situation was similar: when Japan laid waste to Korea in the Imjin War (1592-98), the plunderers were careful to take home with them hundreds of Korean ceramists, who became foundations for the Arita kiln, the first porcelain production site in Japan. In this exhibition, the secrets of jade-coloured celadon, the Confucian essence of white porcelain and various other techniques will enable the public to follow how the techniques evolved and developed. Their history has roots that can be discovered in some of the national collections in U.K. The current exhibition offers their counterpart in the present, and demonstrates how the tradition continues.

Thirdly, the exhibition is an attempt to cross-fertilize an exchange between British and Korean artistic traditions. British crafts shows such as Collect and Chelsea Craft Show displayed curatorial endeavours that have placed London at the centre of artistic diversity and at the forefront of the design and arts industry. Similar efforts are happening in Korea with World Ceramics Biennales and competitions sponsored by the World Ceramics Exposition Foundation. The Foundation has achieved a remarkable amount since its creation in 2001 through enormous investment in engaging international artists and scholars. Nevertheless, despite the high quality of the exhibits and exhibitors, events put on by the World Ceramics Foundation brought criticism that they could only be viewed by a limited audience due to the geographical limitations. One could therefore recognize the need to establish on-going events in London. My role is to link two countries whose love for the crafts and celebrating talents continues till today.

A controversial book by Eric Hobsbawm called Inventing Tradition argues that many of the traditions which we think of as very ancient in their origins were not in fact sanctioned by long usage over the centuries, but were invented comparatively recently. This book led me to think that the opposite is true of Korean culture. The tradition of Korean ceramics has been recognized only by relatively few scholars. However, the culture can only be seen in a clear light when compared with other cultures. I believe that is why Korean ceramic works have to be judged more in an international setting. Works exhibited here will be auctioned in the Contemporary Ceramics auction in November. The highlights of this sale are always works by Bernard Leach and Dame Lucie Rie. International auction catalogues provide opportunities for collectors to see work an international context, and I believe the inclusion of Korean ceramic works among them is important for self-criticism and development. Without going into details about why this is important, I will tell you a story: a potter was window-shopping in a Korean market in the late 18th century. He happened to spot the most exquisite piece of porcelain to bring back to Britain. This white moon jar was given to Dame Lucie Rie, whose descendant donated it to the British Museum. Currently a Chosun dynasty moon jar can fetch $1 million at auction, and other ceramics can achieve six figure sums. The price fetched by a simple moon jar is not just a reflection of general inflationary times: it reflects a peak of technical supremacy that modern technology is unable to recapture.

The Air Gallery exhibition demonstrates the efforts by contemporary Korean ceramists to revive the spirit of the past: a moon jar by Park Young-sook was achieved only after 10 years of trial and error. Come to the gallery to discover the finest pieces of Korean ceramics to have made the journey to London in recent years. Then go to see the antiques which inspired them at the V&A and British Museum.