Ceramic work by Kim, Soo-Jeoung
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The development of ceramic art in the Republic of Korea:  A journey

Avi Amesbury March 2001

In Autumn of 2000 I spent a semester as an exchange student at the Hongik University in Seoul, South Korea. Korean ceramics date back to the Neolithic ages and I found myself both intrigued and inspired by their traditions. The following is a short essay I wrote on my return to Australia.

Korean ceramics date back to the Neolithic ages and have been a significant part of Korean culture through the Three Kingdoms; Unified Shilla, Koryo and Choson Periods. Korea was annexed to Japan in 1910 making it a Japanese colony, which was governed according to Japanese laws and customs. During this period, seen as the Dark Ages, cultural genocide took place. The teaching of Korean history was banned, Japanese became the mandatory language in schools and techniques in both painting and ceramics were lost.

Ceramic work by Kim, Soo-Jeoung
Kim, Soo-Jeoung 1999

Nineteen forty-five saw the end of Japanese rule. Yet strife continued in Korea until 1953. Separate states were formed with the United States responsible for the south and the Soviet Union for the North. In 1947 the United Nations called for General elections, which were to include both North and South. The North refused, becoming the Democratic People Republic of Korea. The US military handed over its authority to the Republic of Korea (South Korea) in 1948, withdrawing its troops. In June 1950 the North invaded the South, with the cease-fire taking place in 1953.

The way back has been a long and constant process. With the end of the Korean War came an enthusiasm and the atmosphere for social recovery. Art was seen as an important contribution to the rebuilding of Korean culture. However, not only had the world changed, Korea (through the Japanese invasion) had lost control over its own modernization and had experienced the extinction of traditional potters and artists. To further complicate matters Western thought was spreading through Korea creating conflict with its own traditional ideas. This conflict has existed throughout the history of contemporary art and is still very much evident today.

In the late 1950's ceramic art was acknowledged as an academic subject and admitted into universities, with the Hongik University and Ewha Women's University establishing firm foundations in the sixties. This led to an explosion of people practicing ceramic art, which resulted in numerous ceramic groups and foundations being established. This proved advantageous to the professors who could concentrate on their own particular subjects, becoming more confident and determined as artists

Work by Oh, Eun-Kyo from exhibition Chair
Oh, Eun-Kyo 2000

Also, the rate of development of contemporary ceramic art in Korea since the late 1950's was rapid. This is partly attributed to artists who had studied in other fields becoming increasingly involved in ceramics. Jung Gyu (1923-71) is one such example of many. Educated from the Department of Western painting at the Japanese National Art Institute, he participated in the Korean Plastic Arts Research (being affiliated to the National Museum of Art) and in 1958 studied Ceramic Art at Rochester Institute of Technology. He was awarded a scholarship through the Rockefeller Foundation and studied abroad in the United States.

The establishment of such exchanges with America and these new influences, which returned with the students and artists, is also attributed to the rapid development of ceramic art. It enabled the careful examination of the constant changes in both technical methods and the ceramic world. It opened the way for contemporary thought and the development of new skills and ideas. It also renewed the conflict between traditional beliefs and modern ideology. Students travelling and studying abroad experimented with the old and the new in their works. At first they were strongly criticised, however 'the idea of combining traditional methods with unrestrained expression brought an important and worthy change in contemporary ceramics." 1

Also modern ceramic art in Korea had become diverse. With the availability of foreign information, making it easy to observe trends, automated equipment and the introduction of computers and advanced technology ceramic artists became more active and flexible.

It is seen in Western art theory that ceramic artists 'speaking through clay by means of works is a subject of discussion. They express and reveal their desire through clay." 2 The Western mind is experienced as conscious and calculating, with the desire to conquer nature.

This way is new to the East. Eastern theory espouses ' the artist and their material must become one. The artist feels and enters into a perfect state of spiritual concentration by conversing with the clay." 3 In contrast to the Western mind the Eastern mind is very oblivious and unconscious, imposing emphasis on purity, working with nature by putting themselves as one with it.

What is to be done? Accept these Western ideas and concepts and make them part of their own or take these Western techniques and express themselves with Eastern sensitivities?

Wood-fired bowl by Lee, In Chin
Lee, In Chin 1997

The preservation of uniqueness poses a second conflict in the advancement of contemporary ceramic art in Korea. Just how is it preserved without losing the creative spirit of the Korean culture and still achieve a place in the modern world of ceramics? Koreans strive for a workable balance. This has always existed in progressive stages of Korean ceramics and is no less part of their current phase. During the tenth-century Korea adopted (and adapted) the celadon glazes of China. The Chinese celadon having its own colour is usually semi-transparent or opaque, so the colour of the clay rarely shows through the colour of the glaze, giving it a feeling of coolness and rigidity. The Korean celadon is a mixture of the greyish blue colour of the clay seen through a greenish, translucent glaze. The glaze radiates the colour of the clay underneath and the surface tone is soft and warm. This Korean uniqueness is one of the many techniques lost through brutal Japanese rule.

Another problem facing contemporary ceramic artists in Korea is the reproduction of the popular and fascinating Koryo celadon, Punch'ong ware and white porcelain ware, which are becoming known and respected world-wide. It has been absolutely necessary for these lost methods to be reawakened, to understand the importance of traditional techniques, which has restored the spirit of traditional pottery and culture in Korea. However, to stay at this point with no further investigation is to merely imitate. As Cho so clearly puts it, 'äfurther development of past methods must happen to express the modern era, with its own distinct feel and style – its specific own quality, giving a better understanding of the past and themselves. Simply copying the past is not the way to have today and yesterday connected." 4

The direction of contemporary ceramic art in Korea is in flux. It is argued that the research into traditional pottery has been partial and isolated from reality and that the real aesthetic value of traditional pottery and its formative possibilities has not been fully grasped. The active intent to recreate (or create) pottery satisfying to the modernistic sensitivity is needed. To examine the aesthetic qualities of Korean ceramics from a broader perspective with honesty and objectiveness to suggest its future, and that this should include historical elements of earlier ages – not just Japanese colonialism and the Korean War.

Although during the 1960's Korean ceramic art moved toward Western art, a meeting of traditional pottery and modern design did take place. Professors and students, who were unable to afford their own kilns, would visit and participate at traditional ceramic potteries. This recognition of the potter's usefulness and the prevailing popularity of the potter in society instilled a sense of pride in their vocation. However any backup of scientific knowledge, historical analysis and creative expression remained at a low.

The Japanese-Korean Treaty of 1965 was a boost to traditional Korean ceramic art. Japanese interest in Korean ceramic art can be traced throughout Korean history. During the 1592 Japanese invasion of Korea Yi, Sam-Pyong one of many prisoners taken to Japan, was instrumental in the beginning of Japanese white porcelain. These Korean prisoners are largely responsible for the flourish of ceramics in Japan today. After the treaty Japanese tourists and agents flocked to Korea for traditional pottery, causing an increase in imitations and tea ceremony potteries. Although this was lucrative for Korean potteries it worsened the situation of an already distorted history and inhibited the process of experimental development of modern ceramic art.

Work by Lee, Jae Jun
Lee, Jae Jun 2000

By the 1980's contemporary ceramic art was enjoying an improvement in quality, an increase in production and the use of high technology. Numerous experts had appeared, many specializing in specific techniques such as white slipware and celadon. Scientific experimentation with materials and experienced skills had solved the technical problems of techniques previously lost and the use of various other techniques and decorations were being practiced. University educated ceramic artists were establishing potteries, producing wares for daily use and distributing them nationally. It was understood pottery had to permeate the daily lives of the general public in order to make progress. By now institutions had developed plans that would inherit, investigate, research and develop the cultural legacies of ceramic art and acknowledge the necessity of modern analysis on traditional heritage.

The eighties also saw a serious crisis in the Korean ceramic industry. The Government had lifted control on the import of daily necessities and foreign industrial pottery was imported en-masse. This situation was worsened by the downturn of the Japanese economy. Korea had targeted only Japan as its traditional pottery market.

During the following twenty years there was an awakened cultural pride in Korea resulting in the introduction of Korean Culture to the West and a growing presence of Korean Art and ceramic art in the American gallery scene and art magazines. Korea's international debut can be linked to both its political liberalisation, bringing it more into line with Western democracies and the 1988 Olympics, which contributed largely to the overthrow of the long-standing military dictatorship.

Lee, Yong Woo's efforts played a major part in bringing together Korea and the West. In 1990 he founded the First International Seoul Art Festival, an invitational exhibition of works by sixty western artists, organised Symposium 20/21, a conference on the future of art, and organised the art program for the Taejon Expo, an international fair looking at the problems of industrialisation and the environment. However, as Heartney points out: these programs are often marked by a tendency to equate the modern with the Western, leading even sophisticated Koreans to downplay the unique characteristic of their own art and culture. 5

Arriving at the end of the twentieth century it is necessary to give a brief overview of the Korean art scene. A deep respect for art and culture, a protectionist currency policy (placing heavy taxes on funds leaving the country) and the current tax structures (making donations to private museums deductible) have created a thriving art market. Corporations use this tax structure consistently and museums have become a normal adjunct to most successful Korean corporations.

Ceramic work by Kang, Kyoung-youn.
Kang, Kyoung-youn

Although many use this tax structure for their own benefit some museums have been founded in sincerity. The Ho-Am Museum, established by Lee Byung –Chull, founder and past chairman of the Samsung Electronic Corporation is one such museum. Its aim in creating a world-class museum, showing Korean art in an international art context and has remained firm in its commitment, being responsible for two International Seoul Art Festivals involving an extensive exhibition of contemporary Korean and international artists.

There are only two public government supported museums. The National Museum of Art which focuses on national treasures and historical artefacts and the National Museum of Contemporary Art which contains a permanent collection of mostly Korean contemporary art and whose policies include; one person retrospectives of leading older generation Korean artists; exhibitions put together by foreign consulates; and memorable shows. These shows are quite spectacular and cost little to see. One of the many exhibitions we visited at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul was 'Louise Bourgeois : The Space of Memory'. It was a comprehensive retrospective of the artist's life over the past sixty years and contained sixty-two works. It reflected feminism, Body Art and Installation Art. The brochure states: 'the exhibition of Bourgeois is anticipated to have significant relevance and impact to the Korean art audience'. I would add that the intensity and breadth of the exhibition would have significant relevance and impact on any audience.

Korean contemporary art is linked to the fathers of Korean modernism' who travelled to Paris during the 1950's, returning to Korea to develop a distinctive style, mixing Western abstraction with traditional Korean with an emphasis on materials, calligraphic gesture and repetition. These artists, such as Park Seo Bo and Yunn Hyong Keun, who are now in their sixties, are both the top sellers in the Korean art market and hold higher positions at leading art schools and institutions.

This has encouraged inflexibility in the art system with innovation and new trends being downplayed. The younger artists (and once students) have travelled widely, developing broad interests in and an understanding of international art. With this has come a greater interest in their own cultural heritage, moving them beyond the aesthetic and technical approaches of their mentors and professors. These new and innovative approaches are rarely reflected in official policies of the schools and museums. A retrospective of Korean born video artist Nam June Paik was held at the Hom-Am Art Gallery and the Rodin Gallery, two private galleries from July to October 2000. Paik was one such artist who was forced to leave Korea to continue his investigations into the innovative medium of video art. His work was not introduced to Korea until the late 1980's and yet it is his name first cited by art historians when discussing video art.

Work by Oh, Eun-Kyo from exhibition Chair
Oh, Eun-Kyo 2000

The two philosophical approaches to modern Korean art are portrayed in the rivalry between two of the most influential art schools in Seoul. Policies of Hongik University stress the western and universal quality of their art, whereas Seoul National University stress its links to the Chinese influence and traditional Korean art. These western and universal influences can be seen in Ji, Seok-Cheol's work, Time, Memory and Existence, a graduate and lecturer of Hongik University, whose exhibition we visited at Gallery Rho. The more traditional influences of Seoul National University can be seen in the work of Pak Dorn.

As a result of policy and inflexibility most of the action revolves around Korea's private galleries and museums- whose numbers are in the hundreds. We visited so many that we eventually lost track of names and places and had collected so much material we had to leave it behind due to weight.

The rebuilding of ceramic culture in Korea has been affected by forty years of modernisation and the national plan for industrial development. It has moved from an agricultural society to an industrial society. It has experienced conflicts of ideologies, from both Japanese and Western countries, and had to re-evaluate Korean art theory in terms of aesthetic, uniqueness and its analytical process.

European influences have also played a role in the development of ceramic art in Korea. Through the industrial revolution European countries monopolised industrial resources and technologies, resulting in an industrialised ceramics and plastics culture. Movement away from ceramic art of the East Asian regions, the once centre of world porcelain, resulted in the level of skills and the pride of potters diminishing with a predominance of European Fine Art across East Asia.

Although no real solutions have been found to the problems facing contemporary Korean ceramic art, progress is being made. Many intellectuals and artists now acknowledge that the present age needs scientific rational research and analysis of the past. That ceramic art holds Korean history and experiences, handed down over a thousand years, and its neglect in art critique will prevent further development and improvement in modern ceramic art.

There is a greater understanding of the Korean aesthetic. The beauty of 'naturalness', those characteristics unique to clay as a material and the clays essence as part of nature; and the beauty of aliveliness' that passes from the potters to the viewer. Using these qualities of clay without exaggeration or over-extension. The Korean's people understanding of their own art is emotional. The Western approach to the world is logical, bringing about a trend in ceramics aimed at perfection of structure, meticulous decorativeness and a high concern for function. This is seen as incomplete as an artistic goal and with the preservation of Korea's own sense of beauty, the Korean artist gains an aesthetic advantage of freshness over rigid impersonality raised by modern rationalism.

Also, the misunderstanding of Korean art caused by Japanese Imperialism has been dispelled. 'The Korean Art Exhibition of 5000-Year History" was held in Kyoto, Fukuoka and Tokyo in 1976. Through a well organised display of Korean culture and heritage it clearly established that the cultural origins of Japan were Korean and reaffirmed the general awareness that the origin of pottery is also Korea. The same exhibition continued for two years from 1979 to 1981 in the United States and 'it was widely understood through this exhibition that Korean art is extremely comprehensive and original, quite contrary to the existing suspicion that Korean culture was contingent on the foreign influence". 6

I experienced Korea making efforts to position itself "culturally" in the world. Seoul was selected as the venue for the 58th Federation Internationale des Archived du Film (FIAF), has entered the international film industry holding their fifth Pusan International Film Festival (Piff) involving 55 countries, winning top ballet prizes in the Paris International Dance competition and acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the contemporary performance "Nanta", hosting major international exhibitions from France, Russia and America, and co-hosting the World Soccer and the World Ceramic Expo in 2001. Korea is constantly exploring ways for tradition to converse with the present.




References to Works of Art