Ceramic Biennale leaves no style, method behindICHEON, Gyeonggi province ― Humans return to the earth after they die, which is why many artists and enthusiasts are drawn to ceramics, earthly creations that follow the same cycle.
The World Ceramic Biennale 2005, held in three suburban cities of Seoul, is the right place to be to appreciate the beauty of the millennia-old art form. Since it opened April 23, the festival has welcomed more than 2 million visitors and expects more until it closes on June 19.
The main display site is the city of Icheon, reachable from Seoul after a one-hour bus ride with 3,500 won ($3.50) ticket. In front of Icheon’s exposition site, shuttle buses operate between the two other venues in Gwangju and Yeoju. Admission to all three sites is 8,000 won ($8).
At Icheon, a variety of ceramic art spanning traditional, contemporary, Eastern and Western styles are shown along with displays of winners from the international competition. Following are interviews with two acclaimed artists, both of whom have their works on display.
Artist says awareness counts most in ceramics
Ceramist Lee Jung-suk is not quite sure if he deserves to be interviewed. That skepticism, however, does not deny the fact that this 35-year-old artist had enough talent to win the Juror’s Choice award during competition at this year’s World Ceramic Biennale.
But to attribute his success to sheer luck as Mr. Lee does, however, leaves many riddles unsolved.
Mr. Lee has received acclaim in Japan with a “raku” ceramic style, taking a special prize at the 1995 Seoul Contemporary Ceramic Competition before graduating from college. Before the biennale ends, Mr. Lee will fly to Japan next month to take part in the International Ceramics Competition in Mino.
The ceramist does not describe his job as a lifelong passion.
“When I was young, I wanted to pursue fine art simply because it looked cool,” Mr. Lee says with a shrug. “I envied the students who carried easels and brushes for their style.”
But it did not look cool to his father, to whom fine art was not useful in the real world. The young Mr. Lee’s compromise was ceramics after watching his friend create pieces.
“Late at night in the middle of making pottery, I sometimes call him up to say, ‘Hey dude, you’re responsible for making me a ceramist,’” Mr. Lee says laughing.
He was not sure whether he wanted to be a ceramist until he was a junior at college, where he took dulls courses that consisted of nothing but baking pottery. Then, he happened to hear about raku style, which captured his passion.
Raku is one type of ceramic making using a low heat, around 800 degrees Centigrade, rather than the usual 1,300 degrees. It only takes few hours for raku pottery to cure in a kiln, and after that, it rests in rice straw for hours, accruing black soot on its surface.
“There’s a certain beauty in the raku process,” he says. “The difference between raku and traditional ceramic ware is like the same meat tasting different when you barbecue it yourself and when you have it at a fancy restaurant.”
After graduating, he flew to Japan, where he was accepted at Aichi Prefectural University as a ceramics major. He did not speak a word of Japanese back then, but he just “quit everything I was doing at home and left for Japan to pursue what I really want.”
Starting from scratch, there’s nothing Mr. Lee did not do to make money, including working at construction sites, where he was called “baka,” meaning “a fool.” He learned the language by hanging out in Japanese society, and he intentionally made no Korean friends.
He met his mentor at college, whose philosophy was also “having fun.”
“My mentor, Koie Ryoji, still tells me I should pursue something else than ceramics because I’m simply not talented,” Mr. Lee says with a smile. Mr. Ryoji still pays a visit to every one of Mr. Lee’s ceramics events.
“I believe that I’m still young,” Mr. Lee says, “and I also think that dexterity of skill is nothing in ceramic ware. What really counts is your awareness.”
Art of celadon preserved by ‘master hand’
To ceramist Kim Se-yong, celadon is a true product of the universe.
“The five elements that form the universe are earth, water, fire, wind and air,” said Mr. Kim, 58, explaining his philosophy. “And those five elements are also what it takes to create a piece of celadon.”
The moment he first saw a piece of celadon as a 19-year-old at a Seoul museum in 1966, Mr. Kim decided he would devote his life to creating it. After more than three decades, Mr. Lee has become a designated “master hand of Korea” in the world of celadon.
In 1978, Mr. Kim established his house and studio in Icheon.
“I sometimes think that I was a celadon maker in the Goryeo Dynasty in my former life,” Mr. Kim says at his underground studio. “I didn’t have any teachers or books to learn the art of celadon making, yet I had this drive coming from deep within myself that I have to create celadon. When I’m seated before my spinning wheel, I get this overwhelming inspiration.”
After trial and error, Mr. Kim established his own style, color and shape of celadon.
His trademark craft is “double sculpture,” ― two-layered celadon with an outer layer with orderly engraving patterns. It takes double the time and effort for this style, yet Mr. Kim says he enjoys the slow, disciplined process.
“‘Easy, fast and many’ are the three things most young ceramic artists have on their mind these days,” Mr. Kim says, touching his gray beard. “ I don’t think they’re necessarily wrong. Yet, they need to learn the beauty of patience in traditional celadon making which can take months, sometimes years.”
Mr. Kim’s hard work has been recognized over the years, and his celadon ware has been presented by Korean government to guests of the nation, including Queen Elizabeth II of England and many former presidents and high-ranking government officials.
The Dalai Lama, the most famous Tibetan Buddhist monk, also has a piece of Mr. Kim’s celadon in his meditation room, which means a lot to Mr. Kim. He is a devoted Buddhist even though he was a Christian before he became a ceramic artist.
“The Goryeo Dynasty was when the celadon of Korea was at its peak, and back then the religion of the country was Buddhism,” Mr. Kim says, “And there’s a certain close connection between the art of ceramics and Buddhism. It was all too natural for me to be a Buddhist.”
Mr. Kim’s philosophy in making celadon using traditional craftsmanship.
From the mixture of earth to modeling on a spinning wheel to engraving and firing in a kiln, Mr. Kim adheres to the traditional processes, which means more time and effort, but he has never compromised on the methods.
“Over the past few decades I have developed an original recipe of my own in earth and glaze composition,” Mr. Kim says. “Ceramics are like precious stones that are alive with their own body and soul.”
by Chun Su-jin