The toilet bowl and the tea bowl.
In 1980 the potter Koie Ryoji (b. 1938) created a work in the city of Tenjiku that consisted of "firing" the ground with a blowtorch, a gesture that can be said to constitute the zero degree of pottery: while in English the word pottery denotes the vessel-like form of the object, in Japanese yakimono (fired thing) stresses the passage of the object through fire. In 1968, Koie produced another work that would call into question centuries of received opinion. Scheduled to exhibit in the Nagoya art museum, he found the show cancelled due to a demonstration by the radical Zero Dimension art group. He nevertheless created a work on the site, Return to Earth: a series of small mounds made of pulverized white ceramic toilet bowls, upon each of which he set a powder impression of his face molded by a mask, the images becoming successively less and less distinct, the last indistinguishable from the mound of powder. While the work is superficially related to the Western avant-garde serialism and minimalism central to the period, this radical gesture more pointedly highlights the tensions and contradictions of the contemporary world of Japanese pottery:
Mass-produced/handmade. For centuries Japanese art had been centered on the tea ceremony, which defined the major aesthetic codes and hierarchies. With the tea bowl (chawan) at the summit of the arts, no greater audacity could be imagined than creating a work made of toilet bowls, if not the gesture of pulverizing them--a spoof of the sacrosanct nature of the handmade--to create a new sort of raw material that remains, after all, within the category of ceramics.
Damage/perfection. The Japanese pottery aesthetic cherishes accidental surface effects such as ash deposits, firing cracks, heat blisters, scratch marks, glaze crackling, scorch marks, glaze drips, and so forth. Indeed, imperfection is so highly valued that broken pottery objects are often repaired with gold-filled lacquer, so as to accentuate the break. Thus the choice of imperfect toilet bowls (discarded because of high Japanese industrial quality standards) is doubly ironic: the imperfections constitute a fatal flaw rather than an attractive detail, and the transformation into powder eradicates, rather than accentuates, the flaw.
Found object/created work. Nearly every account of Return to Earth alludes to Marcel Duchamp's Fountain and the tradition of the readymade, which brought the industrialized object into the field of art as a critique of individualist handmade creativity. Yet the significance of Koie's gesture is quite different, since the found object had existed in Japan for centuries in the form of mitate-mono, which literally means "select" or "appraise," specifically referring to the use of unnoticed or discarded objects in art, decor and architecture, such as the recuperation of decorated roof tiles to be used in the construction of walls, or foundation stones and millstones recycled as garden ornaments. While the aesthetic of the readymade achieved the ultimate voiding of self-expression, Return to Earth proffers the iconic presence of the artist and its gradual absorption into the prime matter of the work, a veritable allegory of the newfound role of self-reflection in contemporary Japanese pottery.
Materiality/expression. Duchamp's toilet was chosen despite its material qualities, Koie's because of them. Given that the regionally specific quality or "flavor" of the clay (tsuchi-aji) is a key element in Japanese pottery, the choice of standardized or "flavorless" industrial porcelain is a provocative statement, and the transformation of such waste matter into a self-portrait that itself dissolves back into that matter is a conundrum worthy of a Zen master.
Tradition/innovation. In the Japanese pottery world, one enters into the traditional order (both aesthetic and sociological) by a long period of apprenticeship so as to learn about materiality and technique, with the goal of reworking elements, processes and forms within the traditional and regional context. Innovation is founded on tradition, and self-expression subsumed by the exigencies of matter. Agency exists as much in extra-human kiln effects and in the connoisseurship of tea masters as it does in the craft of the artist, so that, for example, anonymous utilitarian works, like those Korean rice bowls beloved by early Japanese tea masters, could be raised to the level of absolute masterpieces by the sheer act of choice. (1) This system was challenged in the post-WWII years, when the values of the pottery world began to approximate those of the art world, where the artist is considered the prime agent of production.
Yet the logic of Return to Earth depends profoundly upon the distinction between pottery and sculpture, as this dichotomy operates both in international modernism and in traditional Japanese art. While the West maintains a strong hierarchical sense of the difference between art (non-utilitarian) and craft (utilitarian)--hence a teacup would be near the bottom of the aesthetic hierarchy--in Japan, where pottery is as highly regarded as painting and calligraphy, for centuries the distinction obtains elsewhere, if at all. It is generally agreed that the first instance of a non-functional object in the context of Japanese pottery was Yagi Kazuo's Mr. Samsa's Walk (1954), a sort of abstract wheel to which numerous pipes have been added. Despite the allusion to Kafka and the formal influence of the clay sculptures of Isamu Noguchi, Yagi self-consciously and polemically wished to remain within the tradition of Japanese pottery, which had no means of categorizing such objects. Whence the creation of the term obuje-yaki, fired object, in distinction to the traditional word yakimono. Mr. Samsa's Walk stemmed from a double tension--the threat of industrial production to the Japanese handcraft tradition, and the threat of the international art world to the primacy of pottery in Japan--from which ensued a contradiction that would inform and transform the future of Japanese pottery. To counter industrialization, both traditional and avant-garde potters would celebrate the ancient artisanal qualities of Japanese pottery (clay types, kiln effects, regional styles), all the while wary of the reactionary use this folkloric discourse had served in the hands of wartime imperialist nationalism. To respond to the pressures of international modernism, the avant-garde would need to adopt the Western distinction between pottery (yakimono and obuje-yaki) and art, in order to maintain the prestige of the field of pottery, and so that the radical novelty of their creations would not be diluted by being misplaced in and subsumed by the international domain of sculpture.
The crux of the matter is that Japanese pottery had always been utilitarian, whence the primacy of the sense of touch. The postwar influx of Western museum practices--whether in the context of exhibitions or of juried salons--brought the opposite phenomenon, an art that is primarily viewed, and where touching is forbidden. The diminution of use value consequently motivated the creation of non-utilitarian forms. Furthermore, as Bert Winther-Tamaki explains, "While the privileged hand-clay contact of the user of a ceramic vessel was threatened by the modern exhibition culture, a compensatory increase of concern arose for the hand-clay contact of the potter in the act of making the clay object." (2) This contradiction yielded a shift in artistic agency, from the connoisseur whose traditional aesthetic intuition determines value to the potter whose individual craft creates new forms, and a shift of emphasis from the fire that creates the aleatory kiln effects (yohen) of traditional pottery--objects too hot to touch--to a more controlled application of technique. It is for this reason that in 1963 Yagi began to work in kokuto, a black glaze-less ceramic with minimal aleatory effects due to the low firing temperature, which afforded more control over the results of firing. This expanded the domain of pottery from the utilitarian to the "artistic," shifting emphasis from technique to expression, from forms of matter to forms of consciousness.
Yagi's oft-reiterated claims that, "I am a tea bowl maker" and "A tea bowl is also an art object," must not be understood as false modesty, but rather as a means of contextualizing his work at the intersection of a Japanese pottery tradition pushed beyond its limits and an international modernist art world destined to include pottery within its domain. Following upon Yagi's breakthrough, Koie too began to practice in the same mode, and it is most probable that in creating the hyperbolically white Return to Earth, Koie--who was to become a member of the Sodeisha group founded by Yagi--was reacting to Yagi's black works. Yet while the two artists posed the question "What is ceramics?" rather than "What is art?," their answers differed radically: Yagi remained within the context of traditional ceramics, opting for low temperatures that increase artistic control, while Koie sought the outer limits of pottery by reformulating the question more specifically as, "At what firing temperature does something become ceramic?" and "Need something be fired to be ceramic?". The answer to these questions resulted in the production of such formally provocative works as Return to Matter (where the prime matter, the ceramic toilets, was indeed fired, though not by the artist's hand, while the artwork itself was not) as well as the more recent monument in Hokkaido that consists of a long ten-centimeter-wide groove filled with aluminum in which is set an aluminum column. When questioned as to whether this is yakimono, Koie responded: "Well, it is yakimono. The aluminum was about 700 degrees centigrade, so the ground got burned. Therefore, it is yakimono. It is just a standing column, but it left a scorch mark on the ground. That's like 'Scar Art'." (3) The ultimate extrapolation of this expanded notion of yakimono is his series of antiwar, anti-nuclear works such as Testimonies (1973, a trapezoid made of pulverized ceramics into which a watch reading 8:15, the time of the nuclear explosion over Hiroshima, was set before the piece was fired; No More Hiroshima, Nagasaki (1987); Chernobyl (198990/92/2008), pulverized Seto tea bowls on a brick base into which was placed a glass bottle that melted during firing); Mizaru, Iwazaru, Kikazaru (See, Speak, Hear No Evil, 2002), a series of vertical structures resembling the towers of the World Trade Center)--works where the most extreme, horrific, deadly effects of fire are evoked. Yagi worked to transform pottery by extending the limits of tradition; Koie rethought it in relation to the ontological limits of fire.
As a schoolboy, Koie worked for a time in a hometown Tokoname factory that made ceramic toilet bowls and clay sewage pipes, which suggests at least one of the sources of his iconoclasm. He went so far as to suggest that a sewage pipe is more interesting than a Tokuro Kato tea bowl priced at ten million yen. (4) Yet despite his creative acts based on the extreme transformative violence of fire, he is also a potter capable of creating the sake cup (guinomi) from an Autumn 2008 firing depicted here. Characterized by the dealer that handled it simply as "snow"--the sort of metaphoric correspondence essential to Japanese culture, where those seasonal markers common to all artworks indicate appropriate forms of appreciation and privileged moments of contemplation--this work evinces the most classic shibui aesthetic (understatement, restraint, refined simplicity, noble austerity), with its elegant and subtly irregular form, pure white Shino glaze, and even an uncharacteristic lack of those slash marks that have become Koie's signature in recent years. Looking at this piece, it is difficult not to think of the even purer whiteness of the pulverized toilet bowls of Return to Earth, difficult not to imagine that tactility of one is informed by the conceptuality of the other, that the beautiful, joyful utilitarianism of the cup conceals the bleak underside of modernity, ravaged by unthinkable forms of fire (a new manifestation of the sublime), making of it the oxymoron of a joyful memento mori. Koie has interiorized the extremes of fired things, from the most classically beautiful objects to the most horrendous results of modern inhumanity. From the ritualized formality of tea to the quotidian joie de vivre of sake, from pottery to sculpture, he has created objects that cross aesthetic, formal, and international boundaries.
(1.) For a theorization of agency in art, see Allen S. Weiss, "The Trench and the Dump," Existed: Leonardo Drew, exh. cat. (The Blaffer Gallery of the Art Museum of the University of Houston, 2009), 19-25.
(2.) Bert Winther-Tamaki, "Yagi Kazuo: The Admission of the Nonfunctional Object into the Japanese Pottery World," Journal of Design History 12/2 (1999), 129. 8 2
(3.) Yokoya Hideko, "Interview with Koie Ryoji" (2002), published on Robert Yellin's site www.e-yakimono.net; republished on www.ceramicstoday.com.
(4). See Kenji Kaneko, "The Work of Ryoji Koie--A Proud Return to Earth," in The Works of Ryoji Koie (Tokyo, Kodansha, 1994), 18 & 21.
ALLEN S. WEISS most recently published his first novel, Le Livre Bouffon (Seuil, 2009), and created three Danses Macabres (theater, installation, performance) for the IN TRANSIT festival at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. He is currently working on the second volume of his culinary autobiography.
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|Title Annotation:||Japanese art and Japanese pottery|
|Author:||Weiss, Allen S.|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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