Between Tradition and Objet


Between Tradition and Objet

Professor Glen R. Brown
Ceramics Review (US), 2008

Home to the revered masters Ninsei and Kenzan, as well as the many generations of nameless potters who developed Kyôyaki into a ware synonymous with courtly elegance, Kyoto has long been a city that ranks among the world's great centers of ceramics production. Its pottery and porcelain, linked seemingly inseparably to the picturesque capital from which Japan's emperors ruled for over a thousand years, is still characterized by what Masahiko Sato has called "a feeling of refinement that seems to grow out of the very environment of Kyoto itself – the natural setting of the city, its history, and its culture."

Kyoto, in other words, pervades and sustains the work of its potters like a mentor guides a disciple, smoothing uncertainty under the weight of experience. Secure Its eminence, the city provides an ideal environment for the potter who bows to tradition and draws daily inspiration from the perfected strains of an ancient craft.

Fukumoto Fuku, a studio ceramist and graduate of Kyoto City University of Arts, is, at best, ambivalent about the pervasiveness of Kyoto's history in the work of its contemporary craftspeople. While she respects her city's cultural legacy and even takes civic pride in the products of its established ceramics finesse, she does not succumb entirely to the sway of the past in her own work.

She has absorbed the influence of a distinctly different energy as well: the modernist impulse to challenge ceramics tradition that has circulated in Japan since a half century ago, when Yagi Kazuo, Yamada Hikaku, and Suzuki Osamu formed the avant-garde group Sodeisha. Inspired by outsider Isamu Noguchi's example of subjecting classic forms to modernist experimentation, Japanese ceramists of the 1950s established the model of the objet, or autonomous aesthetic object, that persists as a lingering authority in Japanese schools of art today.

Encountering this exemplar as a student, Fukumoto sought a path distinct from that of the many consummate potters of Kyoto whose shops still line the steep ascent to Kiyomizu temple.

Although Fukumoto has not surrendered herself to the influence of tradition, her work cannot simply be classified as a species of objet, since she has consciously made utility a consideration of her forms. The utilitarian associations of the vessel are, in fact, a deliberate concession to the conventions of the past and, consequently, an effective symbol of Fukumoto's humility as an artist.

Eschewing the modernist emphasis on the uniqueness of self-expression that is inherent in the doctrine of the objet, Fukumoto has sought instead to diminish the influence of ego, counteracting it through deference to the shared forms of a ceramics tradition. If her works are non-traditional in many important respects, they clearly do not strive for absolute originality. Fukumoto asserts that her works are not intended to advertise her individuality but, on the contrary, to serve as sites for a kind of reconciliation with tradition in which strict precedence is given neither to the paragons of the past nor to the self in the present.

Although Fukumoto works in porcelain, a material that Japanese ceramists carried to heights of perfection in the eighteenth century, her approach to the material is anything but conventional. Recognizing the impossibility of matching the technical facility of the contemporary potters of Kyoto – whose adherence to a distribution of labor has produced masters of throwing, trimming and other skills – she has sought potential in porcelain that has not yet been explored by centuries of local craftsmen.

Her impetus is complementary rather than competitive: her intention is not to rival the work of conventional craftsmen but instead to parallel it by discovering and then raising to perfection some of the properties of porcelain that remain untapped in the work of those masters. In practice, this has sometimes meant encouraging the kinds of results that would in a traditional context be rejected as flaws, but Fukumoto does not turn this disregard of propriety into a willful gesture of rebellion. Instead she marks it with hesitancy, the signs of a tentative testing of possibilities rather than a brash disdain for rules.

Through asymmetrical balance Fukumoto's work overtly departs from the canon, and in the process generates an impression of organic ductility. The thin, imprecise rims of her bowls seem to undulate with the slow fluidity of a viscous liquid, never settling into the static regularity of a horizon. The surfaces of her vessels – expanses of raw and slightly granular white porcelain – reflect the purity and ephemerality of the clouds or moonlight that are frequently invoked through her titles.

Unglazed, they seem soft and tentative in contrast to the hard, glossly self-assurance of traditional vessels in the same medium. Perhaps the most obvious results of Fukumoto's testing of porcelain's potential are the stacked sections of fractured rings that appear in the bodies of some of her vessels. Thrown individually, the thin rings are allowed to dry quickly and, as a consequence, to crack at one or two points.

Following a bisque firing, Fukumoto joins the fragments to one another and to the main body of the vessel with a green or peacock-colored oxide glaze. During the second a firing, the sections of the vessel shift and warp.

The austerity of Fukumoto's vessels – the blank expanses of their walls, sometimes entirely unbroken or only sparsely punctuated by dots and wispy trails of glistening bluish green pigment–suggests a certain reductive impulse. At the same time, Fukumoto cannot be described as a minimalist, since the appearance of reduction is in fact a consequence of the viewer's focus on only a single vessel: in effect a fragment, since her vessels are ordinarily exhibited in groups.

Concerned with filling space, she conceives of each vessel as a facet of a larger arrangement. While this arrangement is not, perhaps, quite the same as an installation in the art-genre sense, it clearly stresses the interrelationship of components. Although the vessels are made individually and are generally acquired separately by collectors who encounters one within the group that, as Fukumoto puts it, specially "calls out" to them, they are not objets. On the contrary, their implicitly communal character links them to the tradition of the functional vessel, paralleling them to the parts of a set dispersed in space through use.

The play between individuality and group identity in Fukumoto's work is not incidental.  It reflects a primary concern that is insinuated in her titles through nuances of text that unfortunately disappear in translation to English. Some of the carefully selected words feel archaic to speakers of Japanese and, in fact, date back to the Heian period, an age in which the importation of Chinese religion, art and even Kanji characters to Japan was subtly transformed into a process of reinvention.

The emergence of Japanese national character, Fukumoto suggests, involved not so much the construction of an identity as the discovery of a unique mode of orienting within a pre-existing and extraneous tradition. It consisted, in other words, of working through an initially alien tradition as a way of discovering what typifies a particularly Japanese cultural perspective.

As a metaphor, the burgeoning sense of national identity of the Heian period sheds light on Fukumoto's relationship to the long tradition of Kyoto craftsmanship. Through her work ,she seeks a fine line between individuality and inherited convention, a personal pathway along the borders of tradition rather than a promontory from which to proclaim the uniqueness of the self.

© Professor Glen R. Brown, 2008


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