Korean Gyeonggi Ceramix Biennale 2011–site of a future ceramics renaissance?

'Toya' was mascot to the biennale. This version of the bowl man cradling a bowl was especially poignant.

'Toya' was mascot to the biennale. This version of the bowl man cradling a bowl was especially poignant.

Ceramics seems very important in Korea. Its ancient past is defined by styles of pottery. The ubiquitous onggi pot holds a family’s precious store of kimchee, hopefully enough to see it through the winter. And with the Gyeonggi Ceramix Biennale, Korea has established the key international event in the world of ceramics.

At the core of the biennale are three complexes each containing galleries, sculpture gardens and activity centres. The official centre is at Icheon, which features the international exhibitions, including competition shows and focus on French and Dutch ceramics. As you might expect, the competition was ‘hit and miss.’ There were quite a few ‘good enough’ generic pieces, but still enough remarkable works to make the trip worthwhile.

Over three floors of galleries, the work that particularly took my eye was by a Chinese artist, Meng Fuwei.

Meng Fuwei 2008.5.12 detail

Meng Fuwei 2008.5.12 detail

I’m not normally taken by figurative ceramics, but this work presented an uncanny sympathy between content and materials. The fact that both people and building debris were made of the same clay gave a real emotional depth to this installation. Looking at it, I realised that on hearing news of an earthquake disaster, I unconsciously separate out loss of human life from physical destruction to buildings. This logic helps us deal with the compassion fatigue brought on by 24 hour news cycles: even if a whole building had collapsed, at least the inhabitants might be alive. Meng Fuwei’s work closed off that mental escape. Alongside the rubble were scene of great pathos, as clay people cradled each other and dead bodies lie flat, their hands having been crossed in respect. Work like this deserves broader exposure. It not only tells us of what an earthquake must be like, but also intimates a real pulse beating in the heart of contemporary Chinese ceramics. Fuwei himself was a victim of the 2008 Szechuan earthquake, and has been making work about it ever since. This installation was awarded the Gold Prize.

Despite the odd powerful work, the main exhibition lacked a curatorial hand to guide the visitor. Given that the curator had resigned only three month’s before the opening, the organisers had done wonders to create a credible festival. There was an attempt to give curatorial structure to the international competition with a thematic based on the elements, ‘Journey into Fire’. But this seemed rather after the fact, and served to suggest how much more powerful the spaces could have been with a strong narrative frame.

Yeoju Bandal Art Museum was a more popularist complex containing exhibitions of applied ceramics. Much space was given to an exhibition of ceramic jewellery. I wasn’t particularly convinced by the work on display. I thought it would have been more interesting to see jewellery that made reference to ceramics as an art form, rather than include some brightly coloured glazed pieces. There’s been some interesting jewellery that draws on ceramic traditions, such as recent adornment in terracotta from Bengal.

Other exhibitions about ceramics and glass and digital media were quite strong. But I liked the best the exhibition of tableware settings. These ceramic sets spoke of the social dimension of ceramics as a way of bringing people together – not just the living.

'Thankful feast' table setting by Min Il Kim

'Thankful feast' table setting by Min Il Kim

The ‘Thankful feast’ by Min-il Kim is designed to be used during a ritual meal shared with ancestors. The key element is a plume of words from poem in Korean that are bring sucked into a ‘moon jar’. Porcelain on charcoal was a powerful combination.

The more traditional pieces could be found in the third complex, the Gwangju Gyeonggi Ceramics Museum. The highlight here was a joint exhibition of Korean and Chinese ceramics, including a feast of celadon. In an international event like this, it is especially interesting to see how Korean culture orients itself not just to the global centres of the West, such as France and Netherlands, but also its older neighbours including China. This is a key to its global positioning.

Thinking about the other powerful neighbour to the east, I was left wondering what a show of Korean and Japanese ceramics might be like. There was a touching hint of this dialogue at one of the forums. Over two days, the international visitors presented papers on the ceramic scene. Sadly, there was virtually no dialogue with the local Korean scene during these talks, apart from occasional barbs by the moderator, Jinsang Yoo, an art theorist from Seoul. The discussion became animated around the topic of acknowledging the work that ceramicists contribute in collaboration with contemporary artists. The Taiwanese professor Ching Yuan Chang reflected on the way Asia culture is oriented more to craft than the West, which hampers creativity because work is traditionally left unnamed. During a break, in company with the Japanese curator Akira Tatehata, I asked Jinsang Yoo if he had heard of the Kizaemon tea bowl, the famous work of the ‘anonymous craftsman’ that was ‘discovered’ by Soetsu Yanagi in the early 20th century. Tatehata very gingerly explained this emblem of Japanese-Korean relations – how the most revered piece of ceramics in Japan should come from the most humble of ceramic workshops in Korea.

At the time, I was thinking about the paradox contained in this story: when the value of work is attached to the humility of the maker, how can it be recognised in a way that rewards the producer? You can’t have work made ‘anonymously’ by Joe Potter. Or can you? Could anonymity be branded? 

But after some googling, an alternative possibility suggested itself. On Richard Roth’s blog post about this bowl, he quotes Yanagi’s impression of the response that Koreans had to the elevation of their most humble product:

Emerging from a squalid kitchen, the Ido bowl took its seat on the highest throne of beauty. The Koreans laughed. That was to be expected, but both laughter and praise are right, for had they not laughed they would not have been the people who could have made such bowls… The Koreans made rice bowls; the Japanese masters made them into Tea-bowls. 

In hindsight, Yanagi’s comments beautifully reflect the colonial thinking behind such primitivism. While the Korean work might be celebrated in Japan, it is really a testament to the sophistication of Japanese taste rather than Korean culture. Hmm. Wouldn’t it be interesting to imagine a series of ceramics which explored that Korean laughter a little more…

Some of the pageantry of the Ceramix Biennale, as traditional Korean dancers are interrupted by a team of runners arriving to light a ceremonial porcelain bowl

Some of the pageantry of the Ceramix Biennale, as traditional Korean dancers are interrupted by a team of runners arriving to light a ceremonial porcelain bowl

I was left with the impression that Gyeonggi Ceramics Biennale is a tremendously important event on the international cultural stage. We should be immensely grateful to the Koreans for giving this event their support and vision. I hope it remains a stage for international dialogue about clay. With good planning, it is possible for this event to even extend its reach. It has potential in particular for reaching out to the fragile ceramic traditions that are being revived in collaboration with artists. Korea could be the home of a ceramic renaissance. That would be something to revive the spirits of a flagging world.

The last word at the biennale opening: at the end of a fulsome award ceremony, the audience was presented with a speech of its own to make in conclusion.

The last word at the biennale opening: at the end of a fulsome award ceremony, the audience was presented with a speech of its own to make in conclusion.

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