With its diverse array of objects and aesthetics, “Reshaping Tradition” (on view in 2016 at the USC Pacific Asia Museum (www.pacificasiamuseum.org) in Pasadena, California) offered a view of contemporary Asian artists’ works in relation to traditional ceramic practices. As curator Yeonsoo Chee says, artists have been affected by a range of cultural influences that “triggered numerous questions, challenges, and possibilities opening their eyes to view clay with a new perspective.” One of the biggest changes in the East Asian ceramic tradition came in the form of a shifted emphasis from function to artistic form. The fact that these artists are using clay in their work is a prime marker of reshaping tradition.
Along with their ceramic traditions, the seven international artists in the exhibit inherited a rupture from their pasts in the form of political upheavals, war, and the influx of information technologies. Their countries—Korea, Vietnam, China, and Japan—have been sites of tremendous social and political conflict. Events such as the Vietnam War, the division of Korea, and the Cultural Revolution in China deeply affected these artists.
Two installations by the Chinese ceramic artist Liu Jianhua (b. 1962) introduced the exhibition. Born during the Cultural Revolution, Jianhau was part of a generation cut off from his traditional culture; he had to rediscover and adapt it to his own purposes. His recent work draws a parallel between classical Chinese art and Zen thought—it reflects what he calls his “no meaning, no content” approach. His 16-foot-long floor installation, Fallen Leaves, made up of hundreds of small, brown, piled-up porcelain leaves, alludes to Bodhidharma’s crossing of the Yangtze while standing on a leaf. His three-part, jet-black porcelain Trace is part of a series that references calligraphy. It represents an interaction with Chinese tradition through one of its essential elements: ink brush painting. Jianhua refers to his work as an example of “quiet aesthetics.”
Yeesookyung’s (b. 1963, Korea) ceramic exploration of Korean traditions is based on the practice of contemporary Korean potters working in the Joseon manner. These potters destroy imperfect pots to ensure that reverence for the style is preserved. In 2001, Yeesookyung began work on a series of pieces entitled Translated Vases, large assemblages comprised of shards of broken ceramics retrieved from the trash-heaps of master artisans. She says, “I choose to create new forms with them because I don’t completely believe in that kind of perfection.” The fragments are glued together with epoxy and cracks are embellished with 24-carat gold, a technique similar to kintsugi. Her sculptures are freed from specific traditional referents although overlaid by their ghosts—they are translated from the traditional to the contemporary, becoming uncanny, bumpy and sensual evocations of the body.
Ik-Joong Kang (b. 1960, Korea) has been living in New York since the mid 1980s. His large circular installation, Things I Know/ 500 Moon Jars, concerns oppositional concepts such as irregularity and order, singleness and conformity. It’s composed of 500 moon jars (a form that originated in the Joseon dynasty and was named for the milky glaze and full-moon shape) connected by speaker wire and concealing tiny speakers that emanate a nearly inaudible sound. A moon jar is made by joining two semi-spheres; the two halves of the jar serve as a metaphor for Korea, which was forced to divide after WWII. For Ik-Joong, the moon jar stands for his desire for the reunification of his country; the sounds the jars emit represent scattered hopes and memories.
The Vietnamese artist Bui Cong Khanh (b. 1972, Vietnam) has been making art about social issues and community since the late 1990s. Using the traditional 14th-century technique of applying red and cobalt blue underglazes with a brush, Khanh creates images on large-scale porcelain vases that at first glance seem similar to traditional Vietnamese landscape painting. A closer look reveals a sharp and poignant social critique that explores current Asian political tensions; helicopters, pagodas concealing cannons, submarines, tanks, and missiles adorn the vases. Even as he draws on traditional practice, Khanh says what he cares most about is “present life, I don’t want to sponge on the past.”
The iconoclastic Ai Weiwei (b. 1957, China) the most notorious of the group, is a conceptual artist whose work addresses controversial social and political Chinese issues often focusing on the overpowering of history and tradition by China’s consumer culture. For his Colored Vase series, he assembled 22 ceramic vessels (7 of them are on view), ostensibly dating to China’s Neolithic period (5000–3000 BCE). Ai coated them with cheap industrial paint in garish shades of baby blue, pink, apple green, and tomato red, thus erasing the cultural and economic value of the pots. Ai believes that “by changing the meaning of the object, shaking its foundation, we are also changing our own condition. We can question what we are.”
Ceramic sculptor Harumi Nakashima’s (b. 1950, China), spectacular, blue-dotted, free-form porcelain sculptures are both organic and psychedelic. His work is informed by the aesthetics of sodeisha (which translates to “the society of running mud”), a 20th-century Japanese art movement known for its modernizing of traditional aesthetics. His large, biomorphic, porcelain structures are hand-built using the coil method; this allows him to build forms that seem, like Klein bottles, to turn inside-out. Each piece takes three months to construct and then it takes months of sanding to create their flawless surfaces. Although influenced by the traditional blue sometsuke underglaze techniques, Nakashima’s blue decal dots are fired into the white surface of the porcelain with a second firing using the technique of in-glazing, which leads to the sinking of the blue decals into the overglaze. As seen in titles like Forms that Reveal the Absurd, Nakashima’s work is imbued with an existentialist sensibility. He thinks of his work as deeply personal, “a personal recording of myself.”
Ah Xian (b. 1960, China) was forced to leave China in 1989 after the events of Tiananmen Square. A self-taught painter, he received asylum in Australia. He was trained in ceramics at the Sydney College of the Arts and in 1999 received a travel/study grant to go to Jingdezhen, known for its production of fine porcelain. During his stay there he utilized the expertise of ceramics masters to create his series of porcelain figurative busts entitled China, China. A row of seven of these is on display in the exhibition. The heads are made from body casts and decorated with various intricate traditional motifs including the “ten thousand flower design,” “eight treasures,” and “lotus and scroll.” They exhibit a spectacular range of traditional glazes including polychrome enamel overglazes and cobalt-blue underglazes. He is focused on bringing older craftsmanship into a contemporary context and through this, explores notions of identity, diaspora, and cultural history.
While it’s typical of the West to view Asia as a bastion of traditional culture, the reality is that artists throughout the diverse regions of Asia have been continually assimilating, adapting, and resisting a range of their traditions for centuries. Global exchange in the region has been occurring since the 14th century, with the Silk Road providing but one of many sources of cultural cross-pollination. Reshaping Tradition emphasized an involvement with cultural concerns that live on in a continuum of creative entanglements with the present and future. The artists in this exhibition are enmeshed in an ongoing process of negotiation with the past. Some of the artists highlight functionality while others ignore history. All create diverse works that encompass many contemporary issues; for them, reshaping tradition is ancient, new, and radical.
the author Kathleen Whitney is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles, California.