art outside the box | the freer | sackler blog

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 | No Comments

Join Us for A Tale of Two Cities: London and DC

Chelsea Shops, James McNeill Whistler, 1880s, F1902.149a-b.

This Sunday, take an imaginative stroll through London’s Chelsea neighborhood and learn about the history of DC’s waterfront. Join Maya Foo, curator of Whistler’s Neighborhood: Impressions of a Changing London, and Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art, at 1 pm in the Freer for a tour of the exhibition followed by a 1.5-mile walking tour of the Southwest Waterfront. The free tour will be conducted by Cultural Tourism DC, rain or shine. Register now!

The tour will shed light on the parallels between the Southwest Waterfront, a neighborhood currently in transition, and nineteenth-century Chelsea, a mixed-income area that was affected by the Thames Embankment project. Both neighborhoods are situated along riverfront property, making the land attractive for real estate development.

The Chelsea Embankment, which was part of the larger Thames Embankment project, was a major public engineering feat that resulted in improving river navigation and the city’s sewage system. It also changed the topography of the waterfront by reclaiming acreage from the river where public gardens and pedestrian walkways were later established. Redevelopment also occurred with the demolition of historic buildings, which created space for expensive mansion blocks—apartments that were intended for the upper classes. The poor were displaced and many were forced to live above storefronts in small, cramped apartments with other families.

Old-clothes Shop, No. 2, James McNeill Whistler, etching on paper, F1903.163.

The diminutive works in the exhibition are coded with social issues, including childhood poverty and overcrowding. Whistler, however, did not intend for these works to promote social change. The etchings were not mass produced and were not meant for a wide audience. While documenting the poorer sections of Chelsea, the artist was attracted to the geometric forms created by architectural elements, such as window panes and doorways.

Register now to join us on Sunday!

Posted by in American Art, Events, From the Collections, Talks and Lectures | No Comments

On Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence

Orhan Pamuk, photographed in the Sackler Gallery by John Tsantes

Head of Scholarly Publications and Programs at Freer|Sackler, Nancy Micklewright is just back from a trip to Istanbul, where she met with leading scholars and colleagues and visited the city’s newest museum.

Istanbul, already a city of great museums, has a new one. Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence (Masumiyet Müzesi in Turkish) opened on April 28. Pamuk, the Nobel Prize laureate, conceived of his museum and his novel of the same name, published in 2008, as two parts of the same project. His novel, set in Istanbul of the 1970s, is a love story. The protagonist, Kemal, is obsessed with Füsun, his beloved, and lives out his obsession by trying to collect everything she has touched or that embodies their lives together so that he will always remember her.

Kemal’s collection, painstakingly assembled by Pamuk, is displayed in the museum, a converted 19th-century house. The 83 vitrines correspond to the 83 chapters in the book and are filled with thousands of objects—snapshots, keys, watches, salt and pepper shakers, matchbooks, restaurant menus. Some pieces have been fabricated, including the collection of 4,213 cigarette butts (every cigarette smoked by Füsun during the years of Kemal and Füsun’s love affair), but most were collected from the junk and antique stores of Istanbul. The museum’s design and installation were a collaborative effort of the author and a team of professional designers, and the result is engaging, even bewitching.

Ticket and postcard from the Museum of Innocence

Presenting fabricated objects together with historic artifacts, all in the service of a narrative that is itself a fiction, disrupts the visitor’s expectations about authenticity and reality. The multiple voices of the wall text, sometime Pamuk reporting on a conversation with Kemal, sometimes Kemal himself speaking, further confuse the visitor.

The museum offers a chance to engage with big questions: What is the relationship between objects and memory? Does a novel need a museum to complete its message? What does it mean when a museum collection is a work of fiction? What is the difference between a museum and the performance of a museum? Is there a difference?

Interested in learning more about contemporary practice in museums? The Freer|Sackler’s lecture series Exhibiting Asia in the 21st Century resumes on September 12 with a look at The Gulshan Album: The Collections of a Young Prince by distinguished scholar Milo Cleveland Beach.

Posted by in Art Elsewhere, Behind the Scenes, Talks and Lectures | 3 Comments

Religion in the Gallery: A First-person Perspective

Newark Museum Tibetan Buddhist Altar, 1991, Altar Painting by Phuntsok Dorje, Commissioned by the Newark Museum, 1990

In an evening lecture on May 24, four scholars—including F|S curators Jim Ulak and Debra Diamond—explored “Religion in the Gallery” as part of our Exhibiting Asia in the 21st Century lecture series. Jenna Vaccaro, assistant in the Scholarly Programs and Publications Department, attended the event and reported her thoughts back to Bento. 

The politics surrounding the display of religious content in museum galleries are complicated, to say the least. Opinions differ wildly on the role museums ought to play when putting religious art on view. Some argue that we must provide more context and meaning for religious art than we do for other forms of expression, as meaning dissolves with time, language, and cultural barriers. Others go further, advocating for a display that provides the viewer with a transcendent experience.

During “Religion in the Gallery,” Katherine Anne Paul, curator of the arts of Asia at the Newark Museum, presented several variations of Tibetan Buddhist shrines in American museums and abroad, and waxed philosophically on the way the different displays might make viewers feel. Bold reds and yellows among golden statues, butter sculptures—literally, lamps burning on animal fat and colorful shapes made out of butter—and musical instruments were common elements of each shrine. It appears that the goal of each exhibit was to completely envelop the viewer in color and light, described by Paul as a “more is more” method of display. The panel of speakers considered this similar to the Baroque design period: the more glitz and ornamentation, the better.

Gregory Levine speaks on Zen art at “Religion in the Gallery,” held May 24, 2012.

Paul’s Tibetan shrines were juxtaposed by a presentation on Zen art by Gregory Levine, associate professor of the art and architecture of Japan and Buddhist visual cultures at the University of California, Berkeley. Zen art is much different than a Tibetan shrine, and its elements are harder to define. Generally with Zen, a “less is more” approach is taken when putting objects on display. Traditionally we see minimalism, nature, and stillness as the representative elements of Zen art, though what “Zen” means has changed over time. Meditative and natural design principles have been watered down and usurped by popular culture. Citing scholars from the mid-1900s and beyond, Levine tracked how Zen has been appropriated in America from the museum context to commercial design. Rather than using minimalist motifs for a meditative purpose, Zen styles today are used to sell a product, such as Zen mp3 players or Zen perfume.

As a casual observer, I do feel a stronger, transcendent connection to the Tibetan shrines’ display. The exhibits Paul presented demand attention and never let the unfamiliar viewer forget that this was or could be a religious space. The pieces that Levine showed did not provide the same experience. The questions I was left with after considering my own different reactions to the presentations are personal, but perhaps not uncommon: Has the appropriation of Zen religious art by American marketing and design companies already ruined the transcendent experience for me? Is there any way in which I can see Zen art as sacred when it has been a staple of American secular design for so long?

An audience member asked a question along these lines, wondering whether we must contextualize religious art that is distinctively different than the culture in which it is being displayed. Paul responded by asking if we have the same duty to contextualize a Monet painting. Jim Ulak, F|S curator of Japanese art, followed up by stating that staff at the National Gallery are constantly surprised at how many people today have trouble understanding the Christian art on display, which wasn’t the case a generation or two ago.

In my humble opinion, all religious art, particularly when we are presenting that of another culture, deserves to be given more respect and context than a Monet painting for the sheer fact that the religion and its practitioners still exist. If we appropriate the style of a Monet painting and get it wrong in our gallery, the only harm done is a misunderstanding of a visual style. If we appropriate a religious design we have the potential to misinterpret and erase important cultural meaning—the opposite of what a museum ought to do.

—Jenna Vaccaro

Posted by in A Closer Look, Sackler 25, Talks and Lectures | 3 Comments

Honoring a “Transcendent” Contribution

Mynah birds in a plum tree by Yosa Buson (1716-1783); ink and slight color on silk; F1967.18

We’ve been celebrating the centennial of the gift of cherry blossoms from Tokyo to Washington, DC, with stellar exhibitions of Japanese art. At 6 pm on Thursday, April 12, Japanese art also will take center stage in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium, when John Rosenfield receives the Freer Medal. He will become only the thirteenth recipient of the award since it was first conferred in 1956.

“The Freer Medal honors persons who, over the course of a career, have contributed in a substantial, even transcendant way to the understanding of the arts of Asia,” says Julian Raby, director of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Professor emeritus of East Asian art at Harvard University, Rosenfield has been selected to receive the Freer Medal in recognition of his seminal contributions to the study of Japanese art.  Over a career that has spanned for than fifty years, Professor Rosenfield’s teachings, writings, and lectures have advanced the study of Japanese art in this country and abroad.

“I am amazed to find myself listed among the men and woman who laid the foundation for the history and criticism of Asian art,” Rosenfield writes, “but of course I accept the award of the Freer Medal with utmost gratitude.”

On Thursday evening, Professor Rosenfield will accept the award, discuss his own background and training, and then share a current research project on the Buddhist arts associated with the well-known Shingon monk Hozanji Tankai, who died in 1716.

For more information on Professor Rosenfield and the Freer Medal, check out the article on Art Daily.

Posted by in Japan Spring, Japanese Art, Talks and Lectures | No Comments

Grass and Honey: An Interview with Heejin Kim

 

Sangdon Kim, Garden of Discord, 2010- , permanent outdoor garden made of recycled flowerpots, adopted plants, and donated seeds at Art Space Pool, Seoul. Copyright Art Space Pool, Seoul

In advance of her talk at the Freer on Thursday night (April 5 at 7 pm), Heejin Kim chatted with Bento about art, Seoul, and her work as director of Art Space Pool, an alternative art space.

Bento: How would you describe the contemporary art landscape in South Korea?
Heejin Kim: The current contemporary art scene of Korea, whether be it in Seoul or in other cities, seems active and dynamic. Compared to the time of liberal government 4 years ago, the current climate of the cultural scene of Korea is relatively depressed and exhausted. But seen from the average pace in other regions, the Korean cultural scene is still super fast and prolific.

What I am concerned about is this disparity between the quantity and quality, and psycho-political depression heavily looming over creative workers. Among the art people, there is to be sure a general disappointment at the populist cultural policy of the conservative government that cared only for the number and spectacle, and drastically cuts down the budget for an infrastructure and long-term, immaterial, not-market-friendly cultural production. However, the reason is not just a bad cultural policy or a subsequent poor art market situation. It’s coming from many other comprehensive social concerns, about labor, social welfare, economic polarization, unemployment rate, education, environment, and recurring corruptions, censorship, and surveillance. No wonder there emerges an undeniable number of off-the-road informal pursuits among cultural producers as a way to sustain themselves while detouring smartly around pitfalls.

This complex strategy makes tired cultural producers. At this point, the Korean contemporary society is exhausted, yet excited about two [upcoming] elections, one of which is on April 11. We don’t expect an absolute ideal, but at least here comes a chance for reformation and change, hopefully in a better way.

Bento: What was it like growing up in the 1980s in one of the headiest times in Korea for artists and politics?
Heejin Kim: It would be a lie if I say I knew what was going on in society as a teenager. When I was in high school, students stayed at school from 6 am to 11 pm [to prepare] for college entrance examinations, repeating drills and memorizing tons of textbooks, especially English. Generally youngsters shared this sense of suffocation. I felt like there’s a huge hand oppressing and binding so hard from nowhere. And unconsciously we all knew if we shake ourselves from the grip, it will choke you in a minute.

There came some sporadic shocks right into your face, like flyers strewn at the school playground by college students’ guerilla actions. They were mostly on the Gwangju massacre of May 18, 1980, with vivid journalistic images. The shock used to last for some months, making you physically sick and full of guilt. Simply the fact that we were alive while not knowing the recent history that had occurred in our country made us sick.

Meanwhile, we heard about serial suicide protests ongoing among college students and factory workers, sometimes four times in one month. I felt sorry to be alive, in a way, and intimidated by what might come in my near future. I was mad at the reality that trapped me in the time of paradox. I entered college in 1989 and I saw the last chapter of democratization struggle getting on a sad, anti-climatic path.

Bento: As director of Art Space Pool since 2010, what do you envision as the collective’s aims for the near future?
Heejin Kim: I used to have a long-term master plan for Art Space Pool, but who can guarantee what will happen in a year? At this point, I can only tell what I’ve done so far. [There are three] very challenging goals: 1) sustaining the value of integrity and productivity without being institutionalized, 2) balancing between the artist-run space quality and realistic, efficient professionalism, and 3) balancing between regional criticism and internationalization. Practically? I wish Pool could get away from the annual nightmare of in-between fiscal year hardships at a minimum survival level.

Bento: Can you give us a little preview of your talk on April 5?
Heejin Kim: I will convey some stories on the art practices by local fellow artists around my two spaces, Pool (meaning “Grass”) and Ccuull (meaning “Honey”). Since my spaces, compared to museums, are situated almost at the forefront of artists keeping intimate and everyday relationships, I think it is my role as a curator to portray what’s going on, instead of analyze. I hope my talk could be useful for those who want to complement the Korean film and video screenings currently ongoing at Freer|Sackler, and to explore more information on contemporary art practices, art resources, art spaces, and the art system in Seoul.

Bento: For you, what is the role of the artist in society?
Heejin Kim: Helping you see, sense, recognize, remember, think, and dream better in reality by means of imaginary languages.

Posted by in Behind the Scenes, Contemporary Art, Talks and Lectures | No Comments