Vessels: Ceramicists from Korea & UK


–    12. 08. 2008 ~ 25. 09. 2008

–    Location:  Korean Cultural Centre UK

–    Curating

–    Organised by Korean Cultural Centre UK

–     Participating Artists:  Eun-bum Lee, Chun Soo Lee, Jeong Yong Han, Chris Keenan, Sun Kim, Hyejeong Kim, Rupert Spira, Felicity Aylieff, Sena Gu, Yong Phill Lee, Heesook Ko, Sol Yoon


This exhibition presents unparalleled aesthetics and craftsmanship of the 21st century through the brilliant work of twelve artists. Curated by Stephanie Seungmin Kim whose earlier Traditional yet Contemporary exhibition featured the works by Bernard Lecah, Vessels continue the wonders that are not only breaking new ground but which also incorporate the uniquely congruent language of artistic ‘craft’, ‘design’, ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’.

Bernard Leach (1887-1979), regarded as the father of British studio pottery, stressed that ceramists of the 21st century ought to learn the techniques of the Joseon Dynasty masters to truly proceed. Admiring the “naked and unaffected freedom” of Joseon Buncheong wares he added that “it is the desire for the wholeness which draws us to the Korean pots.” Renowned British art historian William Honey stated that “the best Korean wares are not only original; they were the most gracious and unaffected pottery ever made. They have every virtue that pottery can have.”

This event marks the first occasion for an overview of cross-generational inspirations, often aligning masterpieces of active artists alongside those of their masters, colleagues or fully established apprentices. Such a genealogical flow, that transcends stylistic or geographical boundaries more than any other art form, makes ceramic arts a truly exhilarating heritage. For example, three Korean participants who have nothing in common besides their nationality (and their interest) all studied at different leading ceramics art schools in Korea, Japan and the US and now jointly collaborate with UK artists in London to broaden their horizons. Such diverse backgrounds, apprenticeships, techniques and philosophies are melted into vessels that breathe out centuries of traditional yet contemporary grace. Similar initiatives vastly improved access for Western counterparts, such as ceramists in the UK, who until now encountered ancient Asian techniques mainly in museums. Both Korea and the UK boast proud ceramic legacies that are still evolving, an intriguing process showcased by this exhibition.



Sun Kim’s ‘Ewer’ fuses Western and Eastern shapes and textures. Kim perfected her skills under renowned English scholar and potter Edmund de Waal, integrating his poetic undertone into her vessels. But Kim, who with Chris Keenan shares the same influence from de Waal, graduated from the leading Alfred Ceramics College of New York University and thus shows a stronger attachment to form compared to Keenan. Yet, conversely, Keenan’s jade-toned and rhythmic composition echoes de Waal’s Orientalism.

Rupert Spira was an apprentice of Michael Cardew, a leading pioneer of modern British ceramics alongside Bernard Leach, who in return has taught and inspired Hyejeong Kim. The dramatically curved mouth of Spira’s bowl is further accentuated by a body that tapers downwards culminating in a sculptural image. The delicate inscription harks back to ancient earthenware that evokes religious traditions endowing it with a ceremonial aura. Kim, who after her doctorate at Tokyo University took residency under Spira, resonates his attention to bowls and subtle sheens, yet accentuates a more approachable style with astonishing handicraft that upholds practicality, often in café-latte-sized shapes.

The internationalism of the studios equally applies to academic spheres. Felicity Aylieff, another renowned potter and senior tutor at the Royal College of Art, has relentlessly studied Jindezhen celadon wares whilst teaching her MA students, who come from all over the world. Sena Gu, after graduating from Korea’s leading art institution HongIk University, also studied under Aylieff at the RCA, and exhibits her design-oriented yet animating vases.

All of the abovementioned six artists are UK-based and actively participate in international art and design exhibitions. Korea and the UK both possess rich historical assets and a highly talented pool of ceramists that provides a vital foundation for further globalization, academic research and public promotions.

A Joseun white porcelain once purchased by Bernard Leach is permanently exhibited at the British Museum. But how are modern Korean ceramists currently faring in the global centre stage of ceramics art? Korea’s proud history of ceramic art entered the Dark Ages in the early 20th Century, for fifty years dimmed by Japanese colonization and the Korean War. Efforts to revive the tradition sprung up in the 1960s but faced an uphill battle against a flood of design-oriented industrialisation and mass production. The second part of the exhibition is centered on 1) traditionally crafted and designed vessels that borrowed foreign inspirations (Korean and Western motifs), and 2) reinvented ceramic concepts skillfully articulated through contemporary designs.

Seung-Bum Lee, Jeongyong Han and Chun-Soo Lee base the core of their contemporary artworks on Korea’s most magnificent ceramic legacies: the Goryeo blue-celadon, the Joseon white-porcelain and Buncheong. Lee converts blue celadon, once only commissioned as fine art for the King’s court, into practical table wares. Ceramic craft – often underrated for its apparent practicality – thus transcends the division with the ‘aimless aim’ of fine art. Han imported the unparalleled pureness of Joseon white porcelain into his cubic vessels. The Buncheong techniques applied in the faceting process artfully contradict the wheel utilized for the interior. Lee’s artworks strike one with their rough, earthy texture and the liberating sense of free-flowing Buncheong, highlighted by the mixture of stoneware and porcelain.

Heesook Ko also displays the elegant features of Korean white porcelain but maximizes its streamlined flow by adhering to geometric principles. The precise facets evoke industrial designs for mass production but actually champion the fine art aesthetics of the late 19th Century’s Arts & Craft Movement. Sol Yoon and Yong-Phill Lee represent contrasting perspectives: Yoon expresses images inspired by nature while Lee makes cubist statements by destroying and reconstructing his vessels.