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Past Tense: Contemporary Korean Ceramics

Ceramics by:

Soyul Baek, Myungseung Cha, Sinhyun Cho, Kiho Kang, Jiyeon Kang, Soojong Ree, Youkyung Sin, Hogyu Son

For many Korean ceramists, Yung-Jae Lee’s 2006 exhibition ‘1111 Schalen’ at the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich stands as a defining moment in contemporary craft. The monumental installation, consisting of 1,111 handmade earthenware bowls placed directly on the floor of the museum, was based on a study of the Maksabal - the most common bowl in Korean cuisine, and a highly symbolic (and evocative) everyday object. Ranging in shape and size, texture and colour, each of Lee’s vessels reimagined the traditional Maksabal slightly differently, probing its social and aesthetic significance via a multiplicity of forms - inverting centuries of ceramic practice focused on the pursuit of aesthetic ideals, while thrilling audiences and critics alike.


Foto: Werner J. Hannappel


Sixteen years on, and it is clear Lee’s work has influenced a generation of ceramic artists, who likewise address the weight of tradition head-on, as something to be negotiated critically and creatively. To some extent, this is the result of cultural pressures. As the art historian Paul Greenhalgh has observed, contemporary ceramics grapples with the memories of the history of pottery as they exist today. For East Asian ceramicists who contend with a long and varied ceramic tradition, this is especially true, since the enduring popularity of traditional forms makes it practically impossible to work without the repetition of existing aesthetic elements.


The freedom to disrupt this status quo, and find new ways forward from within a system still fixated on the past, comes from the legacy of post-modernism, which sought to dismantle the boundaries between art object and craft object through a critique of hierarchy and binarism, while questioning the very notion of genre in the craft tradition itself. Although the impact of such discourse on established markets is still open to debate, it is undeniable that traditional crafts like ceramics have gained exposure and attention in fine art contexts in light of their post-modern reconsideration, and today ceramicists move fluidly between the fine art and design worlds, while their works blur the lines between aesthetics and utility via ever more sophisticated conceptual strategies.


The works in this exhibition are representative of just such complex production - evidence of the diverse ways in which a rich cultural heritage can be rewired to create something new: engaging with traditional materials, techniques, forms and patterns to explore questions of national cultural identity and expression as they exist today, while also moving beyond this into dialogue with global ceramic cultures.

Curated by Yujin Kim

Yujin Kim is an art historian who focuses on Asian art history as well as transcultural issues in art historical methodology and artistic research, she has completed her doctoral dissertation entitled “Remake in the tension between the global and local art scene. Strategies of artistic imitation in the works of Yeondoo Jung, Ming Wong and Pierre Huyghe (Remake im Spannungsfeld zwischen globaler und lokaler Kunstszene. Künstlerische Imitationsverfahren bei Yeondoo Jung, Ming Wong und Pierre Huyghe)”, which examines the genre of the filmic remake as an artistic strategy within contemporary art since 1990 from a transcultural perspective, positioning the work of selected artists between the local and global tensions that surface in relation to their international exhibition making. Alongside her academic research, she works as a curator and art writer, contributing articles on contemporary art, institutions, and exhibitions, to Public Art Magazine. Her current project “Past Tense: Contemporary Korean Ceramics (2022)” focuses on modern Korean ceramics in fine art contexts.

Installation design by Sung Eun Vicky Kim (1978, Korea)


Sung Eun ‘Vicky’ Kim received a B.A. (Hons.) in Fine Art and Critical Studies from Goldsmiths College, University of London in 2002, and an MFA in Visual Arts from Columbia University, New York in 2006. Based in London, she has recently completed a PhD in Fine Art Research at the Royal College of Art, with a thesis entitled ‘The Production of Subjectivity through Space, Architecture and Image’. Solo exhibitions include ‘2.7 / 4.8 / 7.4 / 9.4 / 12.1 / 15.2 / 18.5 / 22’, Chosun Gallery, Seoul, 2019; ‘Under the Coral-like Blue Concrete’, Gallery Factory, Seoul, 2010; and ‘A Room in House X’, Gallery Hinterberg, Zurich, Switzerland, 2008. In 2009, Kim was awarded a residency fellowship as part of the International Artist’s Studio Program at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, South Korea, and in 2018, a production residency for the 4th Kunming Biennale at the Yunnan Art Museum, Kunming, China. 

She is a Korean artist based in South-East London working with sculptural installation, drawing, and printmaking.  She is interested in the design and construction of the material world, the histories and ideologies that haunt the built environment.  The recent printmaking - an ongoing series of finger “paintings”, titled ‘Finger Bowl Thumb Nail’, is made with ink on drafting film, has thus far been realised as silkscreens on thin 90 gsm “Five Seasons” recycled paper, but are intended to be dramatically enlarged, shown either on their own, or within multi-part sculptures and installations. Reminiscent of both ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultural forms (children’s paintings, naive or primitivist art, abstract expressionism), as well as various types of bodily residue, these play with the cliche of the gesture, at once distancing the viewer from the original ‘event’ or ‘expression’ by means of print reproduction and degradation, while challenging us to consider what is being communicated - a greeting, or perhaps something more vulgar? Solemn or absurd? Embracing or confrontational? Although the instinctive response may be to search for an image - for comprehension and meaning amongst the marks - or to try to gauge the attitude with which they were first made, the gestures themselves are ultimately resistant to decoding.

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