Art and architecture fused in a single kiln
For years, Gimhae, the cradle of the ancient state of Gaya (42 to 532 AD), was famed for its rustic tea bowls that have won the hearts of Japanese art collectors since the Joseon Dynasty.
Today, the city stands for something else: A posh modern art museum that focuses on “architectural ceramics,” artwork that uses both ceramic and architectural techniques.
Indeed, Clayarch Gimhae Museum, which opened last weekend in the township of Jinlae in Gimhae City, South Gyeongsang province, is an unusual outlet of creative production in the region.
It’s right in the center of a vast stretch of rice paddies, about 30 minutes away from the city airport. From afar, the museum’s dome, which springs out of the rural landscape like a spaceship landing on a vast plain, dominates the surrounding view.
In fact, the museum is probably the most unusual building in the entire city of Gimhae. It comprises three buildings. The outer walls of the main complex are decorated with small fragments of 4,300 tiles of “fire paintings.”
The ceilings on a central hall are unusually high . At the top of the spiral stairway in the lobby, visitors can look down on monumental installations.
On the other side of the compound on a hill, there are two separate buildings: one for use by the museum’s artists-in-residence and the other a studio for public workshops. The two annexes are connected to the main building through a sky bridge.
For the visiting artists, it has 13 guestrooms, several studios and three kilns. Overall, the museum occupies over 8,320 square meters (9,100 square yards) of space, and so far has cost the city more than 22.6 billion ($23 million) won since 2001.
“There is an increasing demand for new ideas in the global art scene,” says Sin Sang-ho, a ceramic artist and the museum’s director. “We found there’s great potential in mixing ceramics and architecture, both artistically and commercially.”
The idea of architectural ceramics is hardly new. Some of the earlier forms of European art have used ceramics as central tools of sculpture, from clay and bricks to tiles and terracotta. Clay has also been used as a functional material for architecture in China and Middle Eastern states since proto-history.
Think of the Great Wall of China, one of the largest man-made monuments in history. There’s Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, the Chinese roof tiles of the Forbidden City of Beijing, the Roman frescoes and Villa de Casole in Sicily, Italy. Et cetera, et cetera.
Today, ceramics are often used as a common alternative to metal for wall slabs, floor paving, rooftops and drainage pipes.
For those dubious of the potential of clay as a material for functional architecture, the opening exhibit presents samples of ceramic works by artists who are already involved in a number of urban building projects.
Cho Han-kee displays his design for stoneware tiles for the hallway walls of Severance Hospital, in central Seoul. Bjorn Norgaard exhibits miniatures of a huge tower made out of ceramic tiles he did for a work of public art in Denmark.
Ole Lislerud presents porcelain panels, in which he combines digital graphics through silkscreen printing, symbols and graffiti as a public art project. As a notable case, he collaborated with architect Sverre Fehn to produce two curving walls that rise nine floors in the Supreme Court Building in Oslo, Norway. For the work, he marked hundreds of rectangular ceramic tiles covering both sides of the walls with blocks of text written in the old-fashioned cursive he learned as a schoolboy in South Africa. The tiles are both black and white, a different color each floor, but also form the shape of a large gate.
But aside from samples that explore the practical uses for ceramics, the exhibit examines works by contemporary artists who use clay in an architectural style in modern genres such as site-specific works or installation art.
One such artist is Satoru Hoshino, who uses clay made from earth near his hometown and dyed black to explore notions of nature and chaos ― his studio was destroyed in a massive landslide.
One notable work is Tony Hepburn’s “Korean Gate,” one of the artist’s ongoing series of gates and columns made out of ceramic vases that appear similar to blue celadon ware. In the central hall is “Stage”, an installation by Anton Reijnders made of fired clay to look like fruit and tree branches on a wooden pedestal.
For the museum’s upcoming exhibit in October, the curators are putting together a show on the history of ceramics as sanitary ware, in which the works will examine decorative tiles, toilets and sinks used in modern restrooms.
The museum’s aim is mighty, perhaps too ambitious. Its management says it hopes to do nothing less than redefine clay as a contemporary medium of art. In a city that made a name with traditional ceramics for years, it’s a laudable attempt to continue with their heritage.
The history of ceramics in Gimhae dates back prior to the Three Kingdoms period, when Gaya became known as a major trader and producer of earthenware.
One famous tale that illustrates the value of ceramics from the region involves the rise of maksabal, special bowls that were used to contain rice wines or tea. Originally, some of the earlier pieces of these bowls were used for religious rituals in Confucian temples in the region. During the Japanese invasion of Korea in the 16th century, however, the bowls (called dawan in Japanese) were reportedly offered as a bribe to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the most powerful feudal lords in Japanese history. The invasion continued, but he was no doubt seriously tempted.
Today, the bowls are treasured across Japan. About 12 bowls by a Joseon-era potter from the region are located in major museums across Japan. Recently, the Korean government has been pressuring the collectors to return the works. Yet some Japanese reportedly joke that dawan collectors would sooner exchange Osaka Castle than a single ceramic bowl.
The ceramics tradition in Gimhae, however, stagnated in the years following the Korean War. Then in 1975, a studio opened by two ceramicists from Japan ― one Japanese, the other Korean-Japanese ― led the revival of the tradition by producing stylized buncheong earthenware, a type of pottery that uses a bluish-green glaze. By the mid-1980s, the number of craft shops and ceramic studios in the region had greatly increased. Today, there are about 100 studios of traditional ceramics in the city. Gimhae is also in the process of creating a Ceramic Village, where artists from the region can showcase their works in one place.
by Park Soo-mee
The ceramic workshops are held at the museum throughout the year. The artist-in-residence programs take place twice a year, for three-month terms. To get to Clayarch Gimhae Museum from Seoul, take a train to Jinyoung Station. From the station, take bus No. 44 to the museum. You can also fly to Gimhae Airport; flights leave almost every hour. From the airport, take bus No. 307 to Gupo Station. Get off at the station, and take a village bus to Jinae Township. You can also take a taxi for the 40-minute ride from the airport. Admission is 2,000 won. The museum is closed on Mondays. For more information call (055) 340-7016.