Ceramic Arts & Perception — Ceramics Technical
Ceramics Art & Perception

Won Seok Kim's Australian Punch'ong Ware -
Article by Gayl Leake

A love of metaphor abounds in the work of Won Seok Kim ­ metaphors for change, for a contest between the two opposing forces of movement and stasis, or for states of transformation ­ these are the themes in Kim's work seen in his latest exhibition shown at Gallery Sp Sydney earlier in 2003. Kim's installations to date have marked a progression of thought on the issue of the opposing forces of tradition and innovation, regional culture versus Westernisation and the freedoms of the individual versus the constraints of society.

This recent exhibition continues a body of work that established Kim as a conceptual artist who uses the traditional form of the vessel to explore wider themes of society and change. Here he uses the idea of a chess game to explore these themes. The floor area is occupied by a large grid representing a playing board on which vessels have been placed at each end, representing chess pieces such as kings, chariots and pawns. However each piece, in fact, is a symbol of a traditional Korean ceramic genre, such as the Full Moon Jar or the Peach Blossom Vase. Mirrored in the chess game, change in this conservative world can be achieved only through a slow process of strategic attack and counter attack. The battle here is being fought on a metaphysical plane.

The formal placement of his pieces within a strict grid is a recurring idea in Kim's work, recalling his exhibition at the Cell Block Gallery in Sydney in 1994, entitled Ch'i Concepts, in which 1000 bowls, laid out over a large floor area, were seen to overcome the confines of the grid concept to form an individual and fluidly spiralling impression of a human thumbprint. A contest of opposing forces can be seen at work in both these installations. (See Ceramics: Art and Perception, No. 18).

His recent exhibition, titled Unchanging Change, carries the same persistent signature of monochrome tones, suggestive of so much that is indigenous to Korean cultural history yet which is also strongly attuned to the Australian palette of natural colouring. The homogeneous colourtone allows one to focus clearly on the conceptual basis of the work, unifying each of the vessels in a thematic grouping to make a strong collective statement of purpose. Each piece works in isolation but in combination each piece assumes a new and separate importance.

In conversation with Kim it becomes apparent that an understanding of Korean ceramic history is fundamental to understanding his work. It provides the keys to its meaning. He has chosen, using a modern context, to draw upon his cultural traditions, rich with historical resonance, to provide the meaning in his own work and to build up artifacts that function on many levels. Won Seok Kim uses the dark claybody and celadon glazes that characterised Korean wares of the 15th century and, in particular, his work makes its strongest reference to the style of work called punch'ong. In doing this he has taken the turning point in Korea's history, a crossroad between two dynasties, two religions and two approaches to the potters' art as his starting point. The celadon glaze and punch'ong techniques Kim uses attained their greatest refinement in the 12th century during the Koryo dynasty and was seen as a clear evocation of Buddhist faith. In The Art of the Potter, W. B. Honey writes: 'The forms of Koryo seem to be the quintessence of refined, courtly, even feminine elegance.' These were essentially aristocratic wares made for the enjoyment of the nobility at court, a court that reflected the taste of a dominating Song China. However, by the mid 15th century, Confucianism became the dominant force of the Yi dynasty and with it the craftsman reacted against tradition and the monopoly of court taste. Although many of the same materials and techniques were employed, their use was inspired by a new spirit of freedom. Whereas patronage had been indispensable to the production of Koryo celadon, a new vernacular arose to fill its absence. This work was characterised by a vigour and boldness that embraced new virtues. Simplicity, sobriety and a paring-back to essentials were the hallmarks of a new art that was now seen as an indigenous art of the people. Honey continues: 'The taste embodied might well be described as that of the craftsman himself as opposed to that of the wealthy, leisured patron. After Koryo, Korea was never again to be dominated by an aristocracy or a religion to which a high degree of refinement was a goal. The true reputation of Yi was the Confucianist gentleman-scholar, whose needs were simple.' Neo-Confucianism advocated a practical approach to life where the ideals of sagehood came from self cultivation and the practice of sincerity, no longer achieved through the religious observances of Buddhist transcendentalism but through daily tasks.

The new freedom achieved in ceramic art by the potters is described by Honey as 'a freedom carried to the point of wildness, at times almost of frenzy. All refinement of finish disappears, decoration is reduced to a few suggestive brushstrokes... The ware is reduced to the roughest bare essentials of body and glaze... The swift brushwork of the decorative designs has all the merits of a sketch, representing the immediacy of the artist's vision.' This rugged pottery left undisguised the asymmetry and imperfections that were the evidence of the potter at work and the processes of making. 'A white slip covers all in which uneven brush markings are clearly evident. Where slip has fallen from the brush in drips, no attempt has been made to remove them.' This looseness was particularly evident in the brushwork. 'The designs drawn from nature have been unselfconsciously executed in the manner of drawings by untutored children, the total effect is naïve, without pretence or affectation.'

Punch'ong-style went into a decline in 1592 with the Japanese occupation. Many Korean potters were kidnapped and sent to work at kiln sites in Japan where punch'ong ware was prized by Japanese potters. Through the Mingei movement and the work of potters Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach in the 20th century, these wares continued to have a strong influence on modern international studio ceramics. It is in Leach's writings that the idea of a spontaneity derived from the unconscious artistry of instinctive craftsman became influential upon artists in the West. Bernard Leach, in A Potter in Japan, says that after seeing a collection of Yi period pots on a tour in 1951 that he 'realised more fully their particular kind of rightness and beauty and their particular importance to the modern studio potter'. He writes of 'a naked and unaffected freedom of treatment of material, of form and pattern. These Korean pots grow like wildflowers. Their naïve abstractions and formalisations spring from quite another approach to living, a complete antithesis to our self-consciousness and calculations. The Koreans and their pots are childlike, spontaneous and trusting. We had something akin to this in Europe up to about the 13th century when religion and life were one, and the people who lived and worked in that modality were whole. It is the desire for wholeness which draws us to the Korean pots.' Certainly punch'ong met the commercial requirements of the masses by manufacturing utilitarian wares for everyday use, making it a true expression of folk art. Pottery of the Yi period was seen as an unsophisticated peasant ware. However it is the impact of this period that has been greatest on modern ceramic artists. In the end, punch'ong emerges as a period of creative freedom from both Buddhist dogma and the later Confucian doctrines, making it a period concordant with our own era, a time that is also a crossroads of diverse, often opposing influences. For Kim, the punch'ong style offered the greatest flexibility, evocative perhaps because of its timelessness. He notes that punch'ong can look modern because of its naïve decoration and simple forms or, on the contrary, appear ancient for the same reasons. But by using punch'ong today, Kim is able to make his viewers focus on an art that challenged and changed the ceramic parameters of its time, and which achieved integrity through a philosophy of truth to the materials and the processes of art ­ a return to essentials.

The wholeness of approach described by Leach is one of the preoccupations of Won Seok Kim. In particular, the pursuit of a free-form spontaneity has influenced him in all aspects of his own process of making. Much of Kim's approach to ceramics is concerned with the process of creation in which the artist is able to 'understand and impart the element of Ch'i', explained as the unifying life-force connecting all things.

Kim describes throwing a pot as a process of harnessing shared energy, enabling him to experience the concept of Ch'i. He also talks of the single line that conveys the idea of the Œone-stroke', a device used in Oriental painting and calligraphy. This economy of line represents the force of Ch'i. The universal is portrayed in miniature, nature reduced to its quintessential essence, conveyed in the simple gestural brushstroke signifying a tree or a mountain ridge. Direct and free-flowing, the one-stroke could liberate the artist from the intellectual to intuitive knowledge. Kim writes that 'puch'ong ware, through its naturalness and non-deliberate manner captured the spirit of the one-stroke'.

The brushwork that is the hallmark of punch'ong is applied by Kim using brushes made of natural straw such as used in Korea for horses, or else with a simple bundle of bark. In some work he uses fluid spiralling strokes that must begin and end without interruption. Others show strong opposing diagonals in contrast. Direct finger-point decoration that cuts through the white surface slip, and the final altering of a wet pot on the wheel, which must be performed in a single action, all contribute to an artform in which spontaneity and immediacy are the overriding goals.

Within his chosen style of punch'ong, Kim is able to make cross-cultural references to both his Australian home and his Korean heritage. On some vessels he uses areas of densely stamped decoration against a plain background to mimic the shedding bark of Australian eucalypts and he paddles the surface of his pots into facets resembling the surface of the exposed sandstone rock cliffs that visitors pass on their way to his workshop at Mangrove Mountain, north of Sydney. Here also, Kim can call on his Korean repertoire of meaning. Some of the minute geometric stamps show the symbols of Yin and Yang, and his three-legged objects call up the shamanistic trio of earth, sky and humanity. A respect for the natural processes of the firing is paramount. Colour must come from inherent properties of the clay materials used and from the effects of oxidation and reduction . 'I don't apply any make-up,' he declares. For Kim the transition to being an Australian artist, attuned to the conditions of his new environment, must not be hurried if it is to be comprehensive and complete.

Throughout Kim's work, meaning is augmented by historical references, but more important than the overt use of the punch'ong method of decoration is the way he has taken traditional forms and submitted them to the iconoclastic deconstruction of the modern artist, using history, but often turning it (irreverently) upon its head. The finely executed vessels ­ chess pieces ­ confront the conservatism of Korean art that is perpetuated in the traditional shapes of its vases and jars. Its reverence for tradition, its opposition to fundamental change is invoked, but subverted. Some of the shapes Kim uses are the traditional Œnight-water' vessels, but in this case he has turned the shape on its end, adding necks, some with openings that function, some closed. The pot's function is no longer what it was. Other vessels show similar irreverent transmutations. Kim holds up a symmetrical spherical vessel ­ the full moon vessel that is thrown in two parts ­ saying 'this form has tension, but I want to break the tension, make it loose, break the formality, free the form'.

If the contest/confrontation between opposing forces and the quest for their resolution is the over-riding theme of Won Seok Kim's work, it is a philosophical journey towards enlightenment. His enthusiasm remains irrepressible.

Gayl Leake has a BA (Fine Arts), Sydney University, and a Diploma of Art from ANU, Canberra. The exhibition by Won Soek Kim at Gallery Sp Sydney was held January/February, 2003.

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