Category Archives: Interviews

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.

Nudes! Guns! Ghosts! Shintoho Films at the Freer

Revenge of the Pearl Queen

Author and film critic Mark Schilling is the curator of our Shintoho retrospective, named “Nudes! Guns! Ghosts!” after the films’ sometimes-scandalous subject matter. Bento had a chance to interview Schilling in advance of his appearance and book signing at the Freer this Friday for the screening of Revenge of the Pearl Queen at 7 pm.

Bento: What first attracted you to chronicle Japanese culture, especially film? Was there an “aha!” moment?

Mark Schilling: I wanted to review films long before I became interested in Japanese culture. I was one of the many Woodstock-era wannabe critics under the spell of Pauline Kael. What made me first want to write about Japanese films in particular was the work of Juzo Itami, including The Funeral (1984) and Tampopo (1985). His social comedies weren’t about samurai and geisha, but rather contemporary Japanese citizens; that is, the sorts of people I saw around me every day. The films were saying something fresh and incisive about the Japan I had been living in for the past decade, and I thought reviewing them and other Japanese films like them would be more fun than being the one thousandth critic to opine on the latest Hollywood blockbuster. I still think so.

Bento: Tell me about movie-making in Japan after WWII, and the establishment of the Shintoho studio in 1947.

Mark Schilling: Shintoho began as a ploy by its corporate parent, the Toho studio, to keep production going during a prolonged period of labor unrest. Though it later became independent, Shintoho was the smallest of the six studios active in the 1950s—the Golden Era of Japanese cinema—and it was constantly struggling against bigger and better-financed rivals. It made quality films with name directors and stars in its early years, but box office hits were few.

When veteran showman Mitsugu Okura took over as president in 1955, he dumped the expensive auteurs and began to give more assignments to assistant directors on the studio payroll, while boosting unknown actors to stardom. He also began targeting young audiences with the same sort of exploitation fare that was filling drive-ins and grindhouses in the United States. His horror films and erotic thrillers didn’t win prizes, but they drew audiences—and enabled Shintoho to survive a few years longer than it probably would have otherwise.

Bento: I can’t remember a more memorable title for a film series than “Nudes! Guns! Ghosts!” What defines a film from Shintoho?

Mark Schilling: During the Okura era, which lasted from 1955 until the studio folded in 1961, Shintoho films were known for their racy, lurid titles and posters—all approved by Okura—that promised forbidden delights to their mostly young, male fans. Okura wasn’t particular about the films’ contents as long as they delivered on the promise of the title. This allowed talented directors such as Teruo Ishii and Nobuo Nakagawa to put their signature on their films and make them stand out over the competition. It’s hard to say that Shintoho had a distinct style, but its best films had a vitality that the staider products of other studios lacked and still makes them watchable today.

Bento: Since you’re coming to introduce Revenge of the Pearl Queen, can you tell us something about this film?

Mark Schilling: It was based on a true story about a Japanese woman who found herself on a small island in the Marianas with several dozen Japanese guys escaping the US invasion of Saipan. The men ended up fighting each other for her favors, while she played off one lover against another—and escaped the island unscathed in 1950. Her story inspired Anatahan (1953), the last film by Josef von Sternberg.

The Shintoho version resembles Sternberg’s in its focus on sex and violence, but the woman played by Michiko Maeda is no hapless victim or wily femme fatale. Instead she begins the story as a young woman who has it all, including a handsome, ambitious fiancé (Ken Usui), but loses it in a murderous corporate coup. She gets her revenge with her wits and by enlisting the aid of her male allies on the island, so she is really a strong figure, and one atypical for the era.
Maeda, however, became notorious for one brief, if striking, scene in the film, in which she was shot unclothed from behind. This was a first for an actress in a Japanese film, and paved the way for hundreds of nude scenes to follow in the 1960s and beyond.

Bento: If I’m not mistaken, you conducted Maeda’s most recent public interview. How did she remember her days at Shintoho?

Mark Schilling: She was very reluctant to speak with me and a Japanese journalist who helped arrange the interview. In fact she had given only one other on-the-record interview about her days at Shintoho. She had been burned badly by the Japanese media and was distrustful of journalists.

But when we finally met she was incredibly generous and forthcoming, even giving us little drink mats she had crocheted—a first for me as an interviewer! She resented the way she had been treated—she was fired from the studio and banned from the industry for a minor act of insubordination—but she was also proud of what she had achieved in her brief career. Even though she had had a hard life, working for years as a waitress in a noodle shop, she still had the aura of stardom and quality of steely resolve that come across so strongly in Pearl Queen.

Bento: Can we see any evidence of Shintoho’s influence in movie-making or popular culture in Japan today?

Mark Schilling: Shintoho’s strongest impact was in the horror and erotic genres. Every Japanese horror director today owes a debt to Nobuo Nakagawa, who pioneered the mix of modern and traditional kaidan (ghost story) elements that characterizes Japanese horror.

Also, Shintoho films about ama, women pearl divers who worked in figure-revealing attire, may be mild by present standards, but they were considered bold provocations in their day. In their commercial success and pushing of borders, these films laid the groundwork for the huge pinku (erotic) film industry that was to arise in the 1960s and play such a major role in popular culture in the decades to follow.

Remixing the Museum: An Interview with DJ Spooky

DJ Spooky, Novara Jazz Festival 2007; credit: Giancarlo Minelli

In anticipation of Asia After Dark: Asian Soundscape, Bento caught up with acclaimed digital media artist and musician Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky. He will perform at F|S on Friday evening, playing music set against 1940s black-and-white films featuring Asian American pioneer actress Anna May Wong.

Bento: As the first DJ in residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, can you tell me what it’s like to score for a museum, a place that’s known primarily for visual arts?

DJSpooky: Everybody likes to think of museums as places of “permanence”—but it couldn’t be further from reality. Shows change all the time; collections come and go. I like to think the performance I’m doing at the Sackler is essentially about the constantly changing landscape of digital media. It’s also a musical homage to how people perceived one of the principal figures of the beginning of the last century. It’s always cool to play with history. Anna May Wong is super cool!

B: As an artist and musician, what inspires your creativity?

DJS: Fun! Everything serious should be seriously fun!

B: Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming performance here and why you chose to rescore the Lady from Chungking, starring Anna May Wong?

DJS: If you’ve seen Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, if you’ve seen Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, you get the vibe—mysterious, Oriental exotic; yeah! Gangnam style, from the 1920s! That’s why I thought Lady from Chungking would be a cool film to present as a dance party film. Mystery + history … keep it movin’!

Anna May Wong, photographed by Carl Van Vechten; via Wikimedia Commons

B: When did you first become interested in Asian cinema?

DJS: Everybody from Wu-Tang Clan on over to Hendrix’s incredible album covers based on Indian mythology, to even more pop-influenced material like David Bowie’s China Girl: That’s all stuff in my record collection. When I was growing up listening to mix tapes, everyone put clips from Chinese and Japanese films on their mixes. It just made everything sound cool. The dynamics of Kurosawa, the intensity of Bruce Lee, the surrealness of Beat Takeshi, and of course, the wildness of Takashi Miike … plus Lucy Liu … that’s the vibe. I guess I was like an American kid of the last 40 years, immersed in the subtle influences of both pop cinema and arthouse material.

B: As a native Washingtonian, was the Smithsonian an important part of your childhood?

DJS: The Smithsonian museum system was always a portal into a different world, where you could easily drift into the way that they reflected so much history, and so much of the way the world’s complexity is part of the American experience. As a kid, I could imagine them as worlds unto themselves. You could get lost and wander in them for hours, if not entire days. That was the beauty of growing up in DC—you had the entire world at your figertips. It’s experiences like going to Antarctica to write a string ensemble work that made me realize how much the museums of DC gave me the ability to think of the immense horizons DC kids have access to. It’s a great situation.

B: Can you tell us what’s next for DJ Spooky?

DJS: After I do my show at the Sackler, I have concerts in Korea and China mid-October. I’m also finishing my next book with MIT, about apps. It’s called The Imaginary App.

Get your Asia After Dark tickets here.