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new english-japanese ceramic book

updated tue 2 dec 97


Robert Yellin on mon 1 dec 97

Greetings all from Japan-
The article below is an edited version that appeared in the Japan Times.
If anyone would
like to obtain the books or have questions, please contact me directly

"Towards a 21st Century Renaissance in Ceramics" is a deluxe 642-page
two-volume set, containing both English and Japanese. It is set up with
Volume 1 focusing on ten potters who use a makigama or wood-fired kiln
and fire traditional shapes while Volume 2 concentrates on eleven
potters who are not so much concerned with the firing end as they are
with zokei or forms- all are non-functional, sculptural works.
As we approach the 21st century numerous references to that magical
number will be found on all sorts of products and it seems that the
planner of this book, Mr. Michio Katami, has taken the lead in
exploiting the usage of it. Yet in a land, where as Katami put it, by
conservative estimates there are about 32,000 potters $BC (Jhow can any one
person, in this case Katami, hope to choose only 21 that will represent
the great diversity that can be found in Japan. It is indeed an
impossible task, yet Katami has managed to gather quite an illustrious
group together(at least 14 out of 21) to give a glimpse, biased by his
tastes as it may be, of some wonderfully timeless, and unfortunately
soon to be forgotten, ceramic art.
Volume 1 starts out with an essay entitled Makigama- The Incarnation of
Fire $BC (J by Rupert Faulkner who is Deputy Curator at Victoria and Albert
museum in London. "Machoism, mysticism or madness?" is the question he
poses in considering the use of makigama. Modern technology has given
the potter gas and electric kilns to choose from that are easily
controlled and far less troublesome to work with- so why the fuss over
an anagama (tunnel kiln) or a noborigama(climbing kiln). Well it's quite
simple- the range of surface effects that cover pieces pulled from a
gas or electric kiln pale in comparison with those fired in a makigama.
Also, some say there is divine interplay between the potters and the
power of nature that dwells in a wood-fired kiln. Make no mistake about
it though, the truly great potters who fire makigama do not just throw
in their works in a haphazard fashion and hope for some celestial kiln
god or goddess to do the rest. As the essayist Sasayama Hiroshi put it
"While it is common to talk about "accidental beauty" or "leaving it up
to the fire" or "transcending human action," such mystification reeks of
fakery. $BC (JThese kiln masters have garnered years of trials and errors
before they were able to control what some refer to as a living entity-
their makigama. Some have even staked their souls as Karatsu potter
Tanaka Sajiro said "risking my honor, to live or die, on the secret
skills of the flame"- to push their art to the limit. The fabulous
Shiagraki potter and anagama guru Michio Furutani says that "loading the
kiln is the key to firing $BC (Jand that will determine how the flames flow
and play on the surfaces of each piece. A piece put in one part of the
kiln will yield a certain effect such as red tsuchi-aji or 'clay flavor
$BC (Jwhereas another piece fired in the same kiln yet positioned
differently will show a very contrasting character, for example a
build-up of ash that fuses and melts on the body and is referred to as
shizen-yu. Eighty-five to ninety percent of a firing is indeed under the
skilful command of these potters which then leaves a small percentage
for the kiln gods to get in their share of benevolence. All of the
potters in Vol. 1 are masters of their respective kilns with the
standouts being Bizen's Abe Anjin and Harada Shuroku, the ever popular
Tsujimura Shiro, the rare celadon makigama artist Shimada Koichi, and
Furutani and Tanaka mentioned above. Others in Vol. 1 are Shima Takemi
from Okinawa, Okazaki Takao from Yamagata, Suzuki Goro from Aichi, and
Raku Kichizaemon XV.
Volume 2 has me wondering what ceramic art is and points to the wide gap
between the styles and philosophies of those in volume one and volume
two. Some of the sculptural pieces shown in volume 2 have a grace and
presence like that of Tanaka's stunning Karatsu teabowls or Abe's to-
die for $BC (Jmisuzashi in Volume one. Ohira Kazumasa's large geometric
shapes that have spaces for water are powerful essays in clay that would
add character and nobility to any landscaped garden. Nakamura Kohei
makes all his forms using slip casting that allows him to make the
pieces, often up to 100 for a finished piece, that he describes as
'decorative objet. $BC (JHis 'Resurrection $BC (Jseries is an engaging theme t
shows gilded colored stands with various shaped arrows, chains, jewels,
and other knickknacks piled atop one another suggesting opulence in a
very Baroque inspired mood. He has a great sense of style and flair.
As does Akiyama Yo and his immense black fissured pieces and the
spectacular celadon sculptural artist Fukami Sueharu- these four men
will see their art survive as each offers a dramatic space for the human
spirit to confront itself. A 500 year old teabowl still does that- for
even though times and societies change, the human condition trying to
understand itself in this mystery of life, doesn't.
The other ceramic artists in Vol. 2 are creating work, like a bad poem,
that only the creator can fathom. Take for instance Miwa Katsuhiko, he
does do some thought-provoking and beautiful work such as his 'White
Dream $BC (Jseries, unfortunately it wasn't shown. Instead we see him
pictured driving a forklift carrying 25 tons of dirt into a gallery
where he dumps it and puts a guard-rail and tractor tires on top. Okay
the act of creating is sometimes just as important as the finished
product- but not in this case. And then the essayist tries to read some
deep subconscious meaning here- sorry, there is none.
Others in Volume two include Miwa Ryosaku, Kato Kiyoyuki, Koie
Ryoji,Hoshino Satoru, Mori Tadashi, and Saito Toshiju.
To finish off about 'Towards a 21th Century Renaissance in Ceramics, $BC (Jit
is a very ambitious work with excellent essays and sharp photography by
Tanaka Gakuji. It offers insights into a world that has been written
little about in English. Unfortunately, the numerous typos are
inexcusable in such an ambitious project and the selection of some of
the artists works could have been better. Don't let that deter you
though from enjoying and learning from these two volumes of contemporary
Japanese ceramics. Published by Dohosha.