The modern potters upending Japan’s ancient ceramics tradition

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

Contributors Nazu Kikkawa

Artist Takashi Murakami is CNN Style’s latest guest editor. He has commissioned a series of features on identity.

Potters in the Japanese town of Shigaraki have been producing sturdy earthenware for more than 700 years — reddish pots, bowls and vessels made from the high-quality, iron-rich clay found in the region.

Nestled in verdant mountains east of Kyoto, the town is recognized as being home to one of the country’s “Six Ancient Kilns.” With techniques and materials that have remained largely unchanged for centuries, its distinct local style is known for simple, rugged forms and the use of a natural ash glaze.

But Shigeru Otani is putting a distinctly contemporary spin on an ancient tradition.

The 38-year-old artist, who assumed the name Otani Workshop after university, produces larger-than-life ceramic sculptures depicting child-like faces and cartoonish figures. Displaying clear influences from contemporary Japanese arts, including anime and manga, he also produces smaller items like vases, as well as clay figurines depicting everything from skulls and owls, to a middle finger lifted in a typically offensive gesture.

Otani recently moved from Shigaraki to Awaji Island, about 100 kilometers away, to find a larger kiln, but he continues to be influenced by the town, forging a connection between the region’s past and his distinctly modern artistic identity.

“(Shigaraki ware) considers the ‘steel-like’ texture to be important, and it recalls the shapes of pots from medieval times,” he said on the phone from his new studio. “I think that … reflects on my sculpture to an extent. 

“Even though my work is regarded as contemporary, I like old things. I think there are a lot of people, including myself, who like the simplicity of old things and think that contemporary ceramics should incorporate (that) into their works.”

Form over function

Japan’s millennia-old ceramics tradition is firmly rooted in functionality. Pottery towns served people’s daily needs — plates, cups and vessels — or were steeped in the customs of tea ceremonies and sake-drinking rituals.

However, a major shift took place after World War II, according to Robert Yellin, a collector and gallerist based in Japan. The appreciation of Japanese ceramics extended beyond practicality and into the realm of fine art.

“We don’t need utilitarian forms anymore, because our lifestyles have changed,” he said on the phone from Kyoto, where he runs a ceramics gallery. 

“We don’t need storage jars for seeds, but that form is still vital and beautiful — and it still speaks to us, as people living in this day and age. So how does tradition meet contemporary needs?”

Otani with a selection of his sculptures, paintings and ceramic artworks.

Otani with a selection of his sculptures, paintings and ceramic artworks. Credit: Claire Dorn / Perrotin

In answering this question, Japanese potters began producing more abstract and sculptural works, favoring form over function. In particular, Yellin singled out a post-war movement called Sodeisha, which he credits as being “the start of, the basis of, what we see today.”

Founded in Kyoto in 1948, Sodeisha emerged in ideological opposition to the prevailing pre-war philosophy of “mingei,” which emphasized affordable and functional items produced by anonymous craftspeople. The new movement’s followers looked not only to Japan’s craft heritage, but also overseas artists like Paul Klee and Joan Miró, as well as elements of wider Western culture.

Their art assumed unusual shapes and was often functionally useless. Take, for instance, “The Walk of Mr. Samsa,” a seminal 1954 work by one of Sodeisha’s co-founders, Kazuo Yagi. With a name referencing Franz Kafka’s 1915 story, “The Metamorphosis,” about a man who turns into an insect, the circular artwork is almost grotesque, its rough surface punctuated by a number of protruding tubes.

Such radical changes in taste contributed to the decline of areas, like Shigaraki, that built their identity and culture around ceramics, said Yellin. “A lot of traditional potting towns are seeing the number of potters decrease from the height of their popularity,” he added. “If the whole town makes only those (historic) forms, then the tradition stagnates.”

But a shift towards sculptural work may also reflect changes in Japanese education. A years-long apprenticeship under a master craftsman — once gatekeepers to a career in the arts — is no longer a prerequisite for young potters.

A selection of ceramic artworks by Otani's contemporary, Yuji Ueda.

A selection of ceramic artworks by Otani’s contemporary, Yuji Ueda. Credit: Ikki Ogata / Kaikai Kiki Gallery

“With so many arts universities, you don’t have to go through this arduous apprenticeship — you could (train) in a laboratory in a university,” Yellin said. “When you graduate, you might not come out with his traditional way of looking at the work, but instead bring fresh vision of how to interpret (ceramics). You see younger people doing that.”

Otani is a case in point. He studied sculpture, not traditional ceramics — a term he doesn’t even identify with. His work fuses pottery practices with other artistic traditions, while incorporating a range of non-ceramic materials, such as wood, iron and bronze.

“I never call my work ‘pottery’ or ‘ceramics,'” he explained. “I use its techniques, but I wasn’t going to work in the ceramics industry. Ceramics was a genre that welcomed anybody, so when I wanted to create things, it was a good place to start. But … it became clear to me that what I want to create is sculpture.”

Growing appeal

Thanks, perhaps, to his embrace of outside influences, Otani has begun attracting international attention. In 2015, he was one of three Japanese ceramicists spotlighted in a Los Angeles show at Blum & Poe gallery curated by his mentor, the renowned artist Takashi Murakami. Otani’s work was also exhibited at Paris’ highly-regarded Galerie Perrotin earlier this year.

The auction houses of New York and London may still look to historic Japanese ceramics over avant-garde forms, but the international market is showing promise, Yellin said.

Otani's ceramics on display at Frieze art fair in New York.

Otani’s ceramics on display at Frieze art fair in New York. Credit: Dawn Blackman / Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd

“It’s really nice to see how contemporary Japanese ceramic art is being embraced by world collectors, museums and galleries,” he said. “That wasn’t the case 20 or 30 years ago, when there were only (a few) visionary galleries who realized the historical, cultural and monetary value of these artworks.”

And beyond the traditional art world, Japanese ceramics have found an unlikely pop culture champion: Kanye West.

Guiding David Letterman around his California home for the comedian’s Netflix show, “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction,” West revealed a sizable collection of decorative ceramics.

“That’s what this house is — wabi-sabi vibes,” he told Letterman, referring to the hard-to-define Japanese concept of finding beauty in imperfection. 

Included in West’s collection were works by one of Otani’s contemporaries, Yuji Ueda. Like Otani, Ueda is represented by Murakami, a friend of West’s, and was also featured in the artist’s aforementioned LA show.

Unlike Otani, Ueda still lives and works in Shigaraki, where he has built his own wood-fired kiln to experiment with new firing and glazing techniques.

“Traditionally, ceramics artists would obtain clay and glaze, and then treat and apply them separately,” the 44-year-old ceramicist told CNN on the phone. “But in my work I wanted to use them as one thing, and that’s how I make my pieces.

“The changes that occur near completion, during the last phase of firing, are most important,” he added.

Yuji Ueda built his own wood-fired kiln in the historic pottery town of Shigaraki.

Yuji Ueda built his own wood-fired kiln in the historic pottery town of Shigaraki. Credit: Courtesy of Kaikai Kiki Gallery

The results are striking: Irregular, uneven and asymmetric creations that simultaneously appear both delicate and rugged. Ueda’s works often assume familiar forms, such as vases and bowls, but they are unmistakably contemporary, their surfaces riven with deep cracks or appearing to peel at their edges.

“I see strength in those chips, cracks and melts,” he said. “And that’s why I like incorporating them in my work — to intentionally show them, rather than pursuing ‘perfections.'”

This article originally appeared here