On Pottery

I’ve just bought two sake cups from a potter in South Korea.

It feels to me worth letting that statement stand by itself a little. Not because I want to show how cool I am, although I must admit that I am rather proud of my purchase, but because the art itself belongs to an ancient tradition and my purchase was made in the most modern way possible, and the very idea that such a confluence is possible does seem to me extremely cool. So let’s start with the modern bit and then work back. The chain of events leading to my fortunate transaction was as follows:

December 18th 2014, my great friend Michael Croton emailed me with a suggestion that I check out a BBC story on a nightingale and a cellist, dating back to 1924. I won’t go into the back story of this suggestion for now at least, but suffice it to say that I did check out the story from BBC online, and you can too if you like, here. I particularly liked the song “The Tan Yard Side”, so I went on to Youtube and found a recording by Sam Lee and Friends (the same performer as on the BBC story).

I noticed, as I was listening, that the video was hosted by Goldmark Gallery, an art gallery in the UK, and because I am generally in favour of art I decided to click on the Gallery page. I immediately saw a documentary about a South Korean potter called Lee Kang-hyo and decided to watch it.

That particular decision dates back nearly 40 years ago, to a period when I was a regular at my high school’s pottery studio. Mostly I went because I enjoyed the work, but my intention was not entirely pure. I developed a good sized crush on my pottery teacher, a very attractive American woman who encouraged my creative efforts while good naturedly ignoring or at least enduring my schoolboy infatuation. I only stopped doing pottery when a nude that I was trying to sculpt had her bust blown off in the kiln. My crush and the older students found this hilarious (which of course it was), my humiliation was complete, and my pottery career came to a sudden and gloomy end.

Still, watching Lee Kang-hyo was an inspiration. I admired his intentionality, his practice, his quest to live a beautiful life, heck I even admired the way he drank his tea. It made me want to connect with him somehow. So over the next three weeks or so I visited the Goldmark website from time to time, watched videos of other potters, and looked at pieces of his and their work. And in the end I chose two sake cups that I especially liked and could afford.

So here’s the odd thing about pottery. Lee Kang-hyo is one of Korea’s most important living potters, an artist who is represented in major museum collections and by respected galleries worldwide, and I paid less for his cups – even going through one of those galleries - than I would for a painting by a local art student at a street fair. Sure, they’re only 6cm tall, and I don’t mean to disrespect art students, but hopefully you get the point. And it’s nothing to do with ethnicity. Contemporary British and European pottery commands similarly modest prices, even for the larger and more important pieces. But why is that the case? Why is pottery so under-appreciated and undervalued as an art form? I’m sure there are many theories among potters and ceramicists, but I’m going to hazard my own explanation.

I want to suggest that the reason lies in the very heart of pottery, namely the pots. Pots are functional items and are associated with everyday work, work done in the kitchen and work done by women. They are a type of technology, container technology, and it is striking that in all the literature on technology and the history of technology there is not one book, not one, whose primary topic is containers (except “The Box” which is about the phenomenon of the sea container specifically, not about the general category). Lewis Mumford suggested that containers are ignored by historians of technology precisely because of their “female” nature, arising from the womb-as-container concept and from their primary use in domestic situations. And by virtue of being female they are also passive, merely holding their contents, unlike the hammering, drilling and cutting tools that are the prime focus of technology studies. And so it goes; pottery is the production of pots, and pots are about women, and women are undervalued and underrepresented in technology, and undervalued and underrepresented in art except when they’re naked. So whereas I could never hope to acquire even a minor piece by a painter of international standing, I am now, or soon will be, the proud owner of not one but two beautiful pieces of container technology which I can not only admire but also use, most likely in the company of my friend Michael whenever he comes to visit in person, to toast pots of all kind and potters everywhere, and in particular Lee Kang-hyo.

But I digress. This morning I decided to buy “my” sake cups. I emailed Goldmark to make sure they could ship overseas and within 30 minutes or so they replied in the affirmative. A couple of email exchanges later I had found out the total cost, so I went online, made my purchase, received another email thanking me and letting me know that they would send me the LKH catalogue with my cups, went back onto the site and had the undeniable pleasure of seeing “sold” against my two pieces.

Nowadays it seems hardly worth pointing out that such and such a thing would have been impossible even 20 years ago. Life without the internet is so unthinkable to most of us now that we tend to take its powers very much for granted. But in this case I have felt them strongly. It really does seem remarkable to me that a friend in London can alert me in Chicago to a BBC radio program that might interest me, I can listen to it after it has already aired, search for the music that was featured in it, watch a video of the musicians playing said music, visit the UK-based gallery at which they played it, peruse their collection of art, watch a video about a potter in South Korea, take a look at pieces of his work for sale by the Gallery and find two pieces that I’m interested in, ask the Gallery for shipping information and receive an exact quote 5 minutes later, order my pieces, and receive a very nice thank you note from the same person who took my initial emails. His name is Christian, incidentally, and I’m grateful to him for his excellent customer service.

I have achieved my goal. I feel connected to Lee Kang-hyo and I haven’t even got my pieces yet. I’ve watched him work and dance and drink tea and smoke. I know that his wife and daughter are the most important things in his life, the beauty that he was looking for. I know that my sake cups extend that beautiful life into my own. And this connectedness has come in equal parts through the physical medium of the clay and the transmission medium of the internet. I have long imagined, and still expect, a future return to the handmade, the artisanal, the crafted, the unique as a measure of value, perhaps even as the new currency of an age when machines are able to make anything from anything. But I made a mistake in lumping all the new technologies together. It turns out that the internet does not belong in the same camp as the future tools of production; the handmade renaissance is not a revolt against the web but an unexpected product of it. While we assume technology is persistently and doggedly forward looking the internet has actually reached back in time to make old ways of life available to us as well. I never expected that I’d be transported back to post WWI England and the cultural phenomenon of the nightingale and cello, a phenomenon that first trended and then went viral across the country. I never expected that my virtual exploration would end with my connection to an artist on the other side of the world, about the same age as me, engaged in an ancient practice with elemental materials, the clay from which we come and to which we return. I never expected that the web could breathe new life into old traditions and old skills and make them relevant and important again. And maybe this is one of the reasons why it seems so much older than the 21 year old it really is. As we march bravely into the future so the further back and the deeper in the web seems to penetrate. There is a limit of course, but I don’t think we’ve nearly reached it, and in the meantime I’ll be grateful to the silicon for helping me re-appreciate the clay, and to the clay for helping me re-appreciate the silicon, and to both for allowing me to be connected with people near and far, dead and alive, who I admire, respect and love, and from now on I’ll try to take none of these things for granted.