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Mei-ling Hom on Contemporary Korean Ceramics

Inside Lee Inchin's studio  (photo by David McClelland)

Inside Lee Inchin’s studio (photo by David McClelland)

Bento had a chance to touch base with artist Mei-ling Hom in advance of the talk on contemporary Korean ceramics that she and independent scholar David McClelland will present this Saturday, February 9, at 2 pm in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium.

Bento: We know you as a sculptor and installation artist, but what is your relationship to ceramics?

Mei-ling Hom: As an undergraduate at Kirkland College my major was ceramic sculpture. After Kirkland I moved to Philadelphia and worked solely in clay for 15 years until I entered the graduate program at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University in 1985. That’s when I started working in installation and exploring the nuanced understanding of spatial perception in varying cultural contexts. After graduate school, I returned to my teaching position in Philadelphia, where I taught ceramics and three-dimensional design for 26 years.

B: What inspired you to focus on contemporary Korean ceramics?

MH: While I was teaching at the community college, the NEH sponsored the Asian Studies Development Program (ASDP) to infuse Asian content into existing curricula, thereby bringing diversity to American educational systems. I knew that Korea had a lively art scene but I knew very little about it, so I applied to ASDP. I was one of twelve teachers accepted into this program nationwide. We were flown to Hawaii, where we had three weeks of academic lectures, and then onto Korea for another three-week lecture program with field trips and official government luncheons. To my dismay, there was nothing addressing contemporary art in the six-week course. So I applied for a Fulbright grant to return to Korea and conducted the research myself.

B: Tell me about the year you and David spent in South Korea on a Fulbright.

MH: To work successfully in Asia it is important to have the right contacts. When we arrived we had two: Lee Inchin, the director of the Ceramic Research Institute at Hongik University, and Cho Chung Hyun, an emerita professor of ceramics at Ewha University. We had studied with her 26 years earlier in Edwardsville, Illinois, when she was a graduate student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Our first line of business was to define a list of candidates to interview. We spent days at the Ceramic Research Institute poring over exhibition catalogs to compile our “artists of interest” list. We also had to prove our credibility to the ceramic community, so we enrolled in intensive Korean language study, attended every weekly gallery opening, and introduced ourselves. As Korean artists learned of our project, they suggested ceramic artists we should contact.

About three months into the Fulbright, we started interviewing artists. Our Korean language skills were very sketchy so we usually traveled with a translator if the artist did not speak English. David would usually photograph the studio and the artist while I conducted the interview. In the beginning we had one interview per day, but as artists learned of our project we sometimes had to schedule five or six per day. We tried to spend a lot of time with each artist so we could really develop a sense of his or her work and process.

The majority of our interviewed artists live in Seoul, where one-fourth of Korea’s population resides. By the end of the summer we were traveling outside of Seoul to visit pottery studios and conduct interviews. For the appointments in the southern tip of the peninsula we took an extended journey and found lodging along the way. The artists were extremely generous. Often they would take us to meet other potters in out-of-the way locales, and of course they shared their delicious local cuisines with us.

An unexpected side benefit to our stay in Korea was learning about Korean classical music and the new compositions being produced for classical instruments. One of the potters we stayed with in Kwangju played the Korean bamboo flute. He would wake us in the mornings with the lilting notes of his flute and in the evenings local musicians would gather at his studio to jam together. For the our CD on Contemporary Korean Ceramic Artists, we used Hwang Byungki‘s music on the kayageum, a zither-like string instrument, in the background.

B: What defines contemporary Korean ceramics? How have time-honored traditions changed in the hands of the artists you met?

MH: Ceramic artists in Korea draw on their thousand-year history of working with high-fire stoneware and porcelain. But porcelain can be used in ways far removed from Chinese prototypes. Yoon Sol has forms and a size range that clearly are influenced by his youthful obsession with putting together plastic fantasy models. Now he has translated his “hand thought” (a delightful West African term for craftwork) into a rather severe, Northern European-influenced precisionist model—which is really Korean, because it echoes a cultural preoccupation with the clarity and beauty of high-fire porcelain (itself an echo of the purity and hardness of jade).

Other artists, such as Lee Kang Hyo, Yoon Kwang Cho, and Cho Chung Hyun, draw directly on the form and surface decoration of historical pots. Their works are not recreations of any specific era but sit comfortably with their predecessors while pointing in a new direction. Shin Sang Ho is sui generis. His work can not be easily inserted into the flow of art history and perhaps we shouldn’t try. I’m sure he would quote Popeye: “I yam what I yam.”

B: For your 2005 installation at the Sackler, “Floating Mountains, Singing Clouds,” you said that you were drawn to clouds because “they travel everywhere and are perceived by different cultures in different ways.” Can a similar statement be applied to clay?

MH: The cloud is different because you cannot touch and manipulate it—it is an experienced phenomenon we understand through a mental and emotional process. Clay is utterly responsive to every nudge, squeeze, and pull of the hand. So in touching clay, a very personal and direct impulse can be conveyed.

B: How has your time in Korea influenced your own work?

MH: When I returned from Korea I was anxious to touch clay again. At the time I was involved in two large public art commissions, one for the Philadelphia International Airport and the other for the Raleigh Durham International Airport. I was, however, able to work with a country potter in North Carolina for two months. There I produced a body of wood-fired ceramic clouds, which were exhibited at the Fleisher Ollman Gallery in 2010.

Posted by in Contemporary Art, Interviews, Korean Art, Talks and Lectures | 1 Comment

Demons Out! Luck In!

Throwing Beans by Kawanabe Kyosai, Japan, 1889, Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.496

Throwing Beans by Kawanabe Kyosai, Japan, 1889, Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.496

New Year’s resolutions not quite working out for you? Winter sleet and dark skies have you down? I have one word to offer: beans. Yep, beans. February 3 marks the start of Setsubun, the Japanese festival where you drive out bad demons (oni) to bring in good fortune. After the beans are tossed, gather up as many beans as years you are old (but not one bean more!) in order to ensure good luck. So, on Sunday, pick up a handful of beans (any kind will do, though traditionally roasted soybeans are the weapon of choice), and join our Japanese friends in the Setsubun festival.

In Kyosai’s print, the woman on the left holds the tray of beans, but she seems to have the mumps. This full-cheeked woman is an Edo-period rendering of the goddess Otafaku, who, according to legend, performed an erotic dance that lured the sun goddess from a cave in which she had hidden, thus filling the world with light. Without demons hanging around your house, the world is a much brighter place.

Ready. Set. Toss.

Posted by in From the Collections, Japanese Art | 1 Comment

Snow in Japan

Dressed in Japanese kimono, young women who have turned or will turn 20 this year, the traditional age of adulthood in Japan, walk in the snow following a Coming of Age ceremony in Tokyo earlier this month. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

Japan was recently socked by a storm that left a few inches of snow in the capital of Tokyo and more than six feet on the island of Hokkaido. To get my fill of a snowy Japanese landscape, I can travel to Japan, check out photographs of the storm online, or have a look at some of my favorite works of art in the Freer|Sackler collection.

Winter, from Beauty of the Seasons by Isoda Koryusai, late 18th century, color and gold on silk; F1902.39

Artist and designer Isoda Koryusai produced a series of “beauty” prints in the 1770s. Like the Tokyo women in the photograph above, this woman is dressed in traditional kimono and holds an umbrella to protect her from the snow. I love the blue rim of the large, rice paper umbrella and the red that peeks out from the layers of her garments, against the gold background and the white hush of snow.

In 1760 Edo, kabuki producers adapted a famous Noh drama dance routine called The Heron Maiden (Sagi musume). The protagonist was associated with snowfall and possibly inspired an interest in images of courtesans in snow. Koryusai designed woodblock prints precisely referencing the play, but any painting of a maiden in snow suggested a connection to the general theme. This painting forms a pair with Summer, in which a woman holds on to an umbrella twisted by a downpour.

The nearly fifty works by Koryusai—prints, paintings, and printed books—in the Freer|Sackler collections focus on the fashionable, no matter the season.

Posted by in A Closer Look, Japanese Art | No Comments

The Search for Ancient China … Begins in New Jersey?

Paul Singer's apartment in Summit, New Jersey (photo byJohn Tsantes).

Paul Singer’s apartment in Summit, New Jersey (photo by John Tsantes).

Dr. Paul Singer amassed one of the most important Chinese archaeological collections in the United States and kept the more than five thousand objects in his modest apartment. With One Man’s Search for Ancient China: The Paul Singer Collection opening on Saturday, we asked photographer John Tsantes, head of Imaging and Photographic Services at Freer|Sackler, to talk about shooting the collection in situ at Singer’s New Jersey home back in 1998.

“Dr. Singer’s house, in a nondescript garden apartment complex in New Jersey, was not what I had expected. When you walked in the front door you had to be careful where you stepped. If you weren’t looking, you could bump into an object. In those days before digital, we shot with film. I had a camera mounted on a tripod and had trouble finding any space that would let me stand behind the three legs of the tripod. Every chair, every sofa, indeed every surface in every room—that includes the bathroom—was filled with objects, but everything was very well packaged and organized. One closet was filled with small boxes wrapped in brocade from floor to ceiling, and in each was an important object. When you opened a kitchen cabinet, you’d discover a work of art. Our registrars, who were cataloguing the collection, never thought that they’d be able to leave.”

Posted by in Behind the Scenes, Chinese Art, Exhibitions | No Comments

Freer @ 90: Early Acquisitions

Satsuma ware bottle by Kano Tangen from the Edo period, acquired by Charles Lang Freer in 1892.

This year, we celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Freer Gallery of Art. When it opened in 1923, the Freer became the first fine art museum on the Smithsonian campus. But the story is older than that: In 1906, Freer offered his collections of Asian and American art to the nation, a gift he had proposed to President Theodore Roosevelt the year before.

In the late 1880s, Freer began collecting American works of art, most notably paintings and works on paper by James McNeill Whistler. It was Whistler who turned his patron’s attention to the East. In 1887, Freer purchased his first Asian art object: a Japanese fan, which he bought from Takayanagi Tozo, an importer of “high class Japanese art objects and a choice collector of bric-a-brac” with a storefront in New York City. From the same dealer, in 1892, Freer acquired his first Japanese ceramic: an 18th-century Satsuma ware jar with an underglaze blue decoration (pictured above) that reminded Freer of Whistler’s landscapes. In 1893, Freer again made a purchase from Takayanagi: his first Chinese painting, a small Ming dynasty scroll of herons.

Freer’s interest in Asia led him to take multiple tours of the continent, his first in 1894 and his last in 1911. By the end of that final visit to Asia, Freer was an internationally recognized collector and connoisseur of Asian art.

Throughout this anniversary year, we’ll take a look at some of the highlights from the more than 24,000 objects in the Freer Gallery’s renowned collection.

Posted by in A Closer Look, From the Collections, Japanese Art | 1 Comment

Something Fishy at the Freer House

Freer’s bill for fish, dated January 1, 1906

Freer’s fish bill, part two

Maya Foo is a curatorial assistant at Freer|Sackler, and curator of the exhibition Whistler’s Neighborhood: Impressions of a Changing London.

You can learn a lot about a person from their grocery bills.

Charles Lang Freer kept nearly every piece of paper that entered his house—including bills from the dairy and cheesemonger, the dry goods store, and other merchants—which shed fascinating light on his day-to-day living expenses, eating habits, and activities. For example, I came across a bill for 27 pounds of butter from August 1906. That’s a lot of butter for one man! What on earth was he eating?

This 1906 bill from George H. Giddey’s Headquarters for Oysters, Fish and Game, which is included in the Charles Lang Freer papers and is housed in the Freer|Sackler Archives, shows all of the seafood ordered by Freer’s in-house cook in December 1905. One can imagine what Freer ate for Christmas and New Year’s Eve dinners. Cioppino (Italian seafood stew), perhaps? Or maybe he combined his love for butter and fish and went with sole meuniere?

December 23:
3 ½ [pounds] Salmon
2 Lobsters
2 [pounds] White [fish]

December 26:
9 [pounds] Long Neck Clams
2 [pounds] White [fish]

Hopefully, he had company to help him eat so much seafood!

Best fishes for a happy holiday from Freer|Sackler.

Posted by in American Art, From the Archives | No Comments

Cai Guo-Qiang: Sky’s the Limit

Black ink-like smoke rises from the tree, mimicking the flow of traditional Chinese brush painting.

At 3 pm today, Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang created an “explosion event” in honor of two birthdays: the Sackler Gallery’s 25th and the State Department’s Art in Embassies Program’s 50th. Both institutions will join forces in the future, enabling artworks to be displayed at the Sackler before they are shipped off to embassies abroad.

In a series of three timed explosions, Cai Guo-Qiang created the illusion of a second tree of smoke drifting from the original pine tree, mimicking the flow of Chinese brush drawings. From prose, poetry. The archived event will be live soon.

Tomorrow, the celebrations continue with a conversation with artist Xu Bing, an Asian art and culture book fair, classical Arabian music, birthday cupcakes, and the much-anticipated opening of the Pure Land digital cave. Learn more on the Sackler at 25 page.

Posted by in Chinese Art, Contemporary Art, Sackler 25 | 1 Comment

Diwali: The Festival of Lights

Celebrating Diwali in Mumbai.

F|S photographer Neil Greentree is in India and captured this photo of Diwali festivities in the Juhu section of Mumbai. Diwali, the festival of lights, is a five-day celebration; its name is derived from Deepavali, meaning “row of lamps.” The festival celebrates the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. During the celebration, lamps are lit and houses are cleaned in honor of the goddess Lakshmi. Marigold flowers are woven into garlands. It’s a time to wear new clothes and share sweets with friends and families. Firecrackers are also part of the celebration, helping to drive away evil spirits. As Neil has reported, given how loud it was until 3 am in Mumbai the other night, the score must remain firecrackers 1, evil spirits 0.

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Posted by in Events, South Asian and Himalayan Art | 1 Comment

Nomads and Networks: Iron and Bronze

Michael Frachetti, associate professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, is the co-director of ongoing international field research on the archaeology of the Bronze and Iron Ages in the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Over the past 12 years of directing fieldwork in the mountains of Kazakhstan, it has rained—and rained hard—on the start day of nearly every project. It would seem that this sometimes harsh, though always beautiful, environment takes the first day of fieldwork as an opportunity to remind the whole team who is in charge. This year, I feel we have come to an understanding with old Mother Nature, and she shined upon us, just a few clouds and wind gusts as a passing indication of our tentative arrangement.

The Dzhungar Mountains Archaeology Project (DMAP) began in the field in 1999, and since those days has grown into one of the largest collaborative American/Kazakh archaeology projects conducted (the other one is directed by my friend and colleague, Dr. Claudia Chang, whose posts can be followed here). The DMAP is led by myself and my Kazakhstani codirector, Dr. Alexei Mar’yashev, and generally supports research for seven PhD students. We also operate the only undergraduate field school in the country, taking up to ten undergraduates out to the field for the time of their life (at least that is how we sell it!). Add to this five to ten staff and support team members, local colleagues, and visitors, and we have about 30 people in our mountain research camp at any given time. The goal is to carry out technologically advanced, methodologically rigorous, and internationally leading field research of upland archaeological sites related to the earliest nomadic pastoralists to have occupied Kazakhstan, and, possibly, Inner Asia all together.

It is important that we transform our popular and academic impressions of Bronze Age nomads, since it is becoming clear that these small-scale societies played a major role in shaping an expansive way of life across the Eurasian continent. They were also highly influential in communicating and transforming the institutions of better-known regional civilizations, such as those of ancient China, the Indus Valley, and more. Of course, Bronze Age Eurasian nomads are important in their own right, and they set the foundations of interaction and economy that later exploded into a market for golden commodities during the Iron Age (such as those on display now at the Sackler). In fact, nomads of the Bronze Age were instrumental in establishing enduring traditions and economic adaptations that would be used by regional pastoralists such as the Turks, the Mongols, and even those who live in the mountains today.

So that is why were are here. Given our lofty goals, our research design is necessarily rooted in a slow-moving, long-term excavation program. We are satisfied with incremental, steady progress in terms of new discoveries and their ability to radically change the world’s understanding of Eurasian nomadic societies. But what are we really doing, and what are these discoveries? Stay tuned to this blog and I will guide you through a tour of some of the important findings that define Nomads and Networkson the ground, from the ground, and through the eyes of an excavator.

The exhibition remains on view at the Sackler through December 2, 2012.

Posted by in Ancient Near East, Exhibitions | 1 Comment

Who Ya Gonna Call? (Ghost Edition)

The House of Broken Plates from One Hundred Ghost Tales,
Katsushika Hokusai, (1760–1849); woodblock print; color on paper; S2004.3.210

The five ghosts from the published designs of a series titled One Hundred Ghost Tales (Hyaku monogatari) reflect an Edo custom of telling ghost tales in the dark. The ghosts are among the eeriest of Hokusai’s commercially published prints, and they express Hokusai’s interest in imagining the supernatural world, which began in his youth with a print of a haunted house.

Here, a woman’s head with a serpentine neck made up of a stack of dishes represents the ghost of Okiku, whose master threw her into a well because she had broken his favorite dish. At night the sound of smashing porcelain and a voice counting “one, two, three…” emanated from the well.

Happy Halloween from Freer|Sackler. And try not to break any dishes…

Posted by in From the Collections, Japanese Art | 1 Comment