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ESSAYS Mousse 41

Pots On Video

by Nick Currie

 

Shoji Hamada’s ceramicShoji Hamada’s ceramic

 

As orientalist potter Bernard Leach and socialist William Morris pointed out, traditional crafts present a refreshingly unalienated relationship between makers and materials. But, as Nick Currie argues here, there’s more than mere moral and political virtue to images of pot-making on film and video. They portray the creative act itself, but also offer a seductive kind of textural pornography.

 

The ceramics collection on the top floor is my favourite part of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Even when the rest of the building is crowded with tourists, the ceramics galleries stay confidential.

Visiting these rarefied upper floors this summer, I entered a central room lit by skylights and found the Toshiba potter in residence, Keiko Masumoto, at work in a glass-sided room strangely reminiscent of a monkey house. The zoo-like impression was reinforced when I slipped on headphones at a digital viewing station and watched a 1982 film of David Attenborough interviewing Lucie Rie, the dignified and birdlike British potter.

As I watched the film, appreciating not just Rie’s pots but also the texture of the old film stock, I wondered why a famous television naturalist had been sent to interview a potter. Like the adjacent glass-walled studio, the film seemed to be proposing the potter as an exemplary hominid: homo faber, the human being as maker.

What is it about pot-making on film and video that I find so compelling? It might be that to watch a pot taking shape under expert hands is to see a powerful visual metaphor for creativity itself.

In an almost magical process, a wad of sodden clay starts to come to life on the wheel as a pot, attaining both symmetry and utility as it spins, responding with miraculous fluidity to the movements of the maker’s hands.

Something raw is about to become something cooked: the firing, later, will just confirm the decisions made in these few seconds. Something wet and soft will later be hard, but it’s precisely this moment of wetness and softness which makes visible the crucial thing: malleability itself, the quality of a material’s receptiveness to human decision, human manipulation. Later (perhaps for centuries) this object will be used, displayed, admired, ignored. But during these crucial few seconds it is being made.

 

 

Shoji Hamada’s ceramicShoji Hamada’s ceramic

 

Making is, it seems to me, a somewhat hidden and neglected activity in our culture. “History,” said William Morris, “has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created.” Although it relies on both, the capitalist system prioritises exchange and consumption over use and production, and part of this is a hiding of the making of things and the using of things. Dealers are valued above makers, and what’s new and flawless above what’s old and flavourful.

So part of the fascination of pot-making on video or film, for me, is the sense that I’m glimpsing something almost taboo: the non-industrial production of a useful artefact by a maker whose name and opinions I am told and whose face I can see. It’s something that won’t appear in primetime, and the presentation of pot-makers as charismatic craftspeople is itself somewhat iconoclastic. If history is about preserving the names and faces of destroyers, it’s a radical rewriting indeed which favours the creator.

The bulge of a pot gives it a fertile, female look, and its curves (which might later hold wine, or olives, or lentils) can’t help but remind us of pregnancy: a pot is a cultural version, then, of the potential fullness and fruitfulness we recognise in ourselves as sexual mammals. We can contain stuff, and a few seconds of passionate interaction can bring new stuff into being. A film about pottery is, in this sense, a culturally sublimated form of pornography.

The textures of the clay (imagined by some sympathetic sense-memory, like skin in porn) are not the only ones we can enjoy as we watch a film of pots being made. There are also the textures of film and video themselves. I find irresistible this doubling of texture: of matter and medium, pots and the particular historical associations of video glitches and film grain, of colour and lighting.

 

Still from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwFtg8mBW3sStill from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwFtg8mBW3s

 

On YouTube I find two clips from the legendary out-of-print VHS tape Shoji Hamada: A Potter’s Way and Work. Made in the late 1960s, this video has the quality of an early single-channel art video installation. In the spirit of web sabi—that Japanese aesthetic centred on the dignified pleasures of imperfection—Hamada is already drawing attention to the serendipitous anomalies of the pots taking shape onscreen. But, by extension, I’m encouraged to enjoy

the burn-out, blur and grain of the antique video tape itself,

and even interruptions in the playback as the videos stream off YouTube’s servers.

Shoji Hamada’s life exemplifies the metonymic charisma some potters have enjoyed as examples of homo faber, man the maker. Hamada was a Japanese potter who travelled with the great orientalist potter Bernard Leach to England in 1920. He spent three years in St Ives, then returned to Japan where he contributed to the mingei folk art revival. In 1955 the Japanese government designated him a Living National Treasure.

It’s an odd—again almost zoolike—title to carry around. Seeing that its national traditions were dying out, in 1950 Japan passed a Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, covering mostly buildings and objects (castles, statues, pottery). In 1954 this was extended to cover people. Dubbed “Living National Treasures” (Ningen Kokuho–) by a 1955 newspaper article, these potters, woodblock printers, textile designers, actors, flautists and swordsmen are more accurately described by their official name: Important Intangible Cultural Properties.

The first individual to be designated an Important Intangible Cultural Property was a woman, Yachiyo IV. Japanese craft masters often use these monarch-like titles, but Yachiyo, a dancer in the ancient Kyoto style, later reverted to her real name, Aiko Inoue.

The “intangibles” aren’t important for who they really are, but for what they know. Each of them has stocked up valuable knowledge of a tradition that will die with them if they don’t find a successor, an apprentice to pass it on to. Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs gives grants to the intangibles, helping them to improve their techniques and foster successors. Seeing the success of the Japanese system, Korea and Taiwan soon followed suit, and UNESCO advocates spreading the system all over the world. If the campaign succeeds, we might one day see elderly tape splicers and mastering engineers designated as cultural treasures.

Bernard Leach is a fascinating figure, full of contradictions. He was a British person highly influenced by his own idiosyncratic take on Japanese culture, an individualist who advocated anonymous craftsmen and collective tradition, an expert who celebrated errors and mistakes. Leach elevated the work of humble craftsmen to a kind of religious philosophy, and honoured his errors as hidden intentions. He cites Zen ideas a lot, but later in life became a Baha’i. His famous tract A Potter’s Book was written during World War II, concocted in bomb-blasted London “like an egg hatched in a thunderstorm.”

Leach’s orientalism was earned (he was born in the East, lived as a child in Japan, came back and studied there, and married a Japanese wife) but also learned. It meshed Zen ideas with William Morris-influenced medievalist beliefs about the value of simplicity and artisanal labour as exemplified in the peasant pottery of Japan and Korea.

“I came to believe,” Leach wrote in A Potter’s Book, “that we can re-learn from the East much that we have lost in our industrial revolution, for the machine leaves out the heart of labour, feeling, imagination and directness of control. The craftsman is the only worker using heart, hand and head in balance.”

There is something reactionary in this medievalism, of course. It’s an attitude Morris admitted when he said: “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilisation.”

This righteous hatred is one reason William Morris is still cited today. Jeremy Deller ventriloquized him at the 2013 Venice Biennale, instructing mural-maker Stuart Sam Hughes to paint a gigantic image of Morris casting the yacht of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich into the lagoon. The resulting image of William Morris as a sort of vindictive Poseidon dominated the British pavilion. “Abramovich’s yacht had obscured the view of the lagoon at the last Biennale,” Hughes explained. “William Morris, at the age I painted him, had become very political and Jeremy thought Abramovich’s money and dealings would have gone against his views.”

While Morris would certainly have disapproved of neo-liberalism, mingei revivalism or arts-and-crafts medievalism are guilty of their own sort of paleo-conservatism. Where tradition is sacrosanct, values which we tend to think of as the opposite of creativity prevail: seniority, collectivity, impersonality, hierarchy, copying, rote, interpretation rather than creation. The laboratory part, the R&D part, is missing from this system, although a kind of collective problem-solving replaces it.

Lucie Rie addressed this in a Credo she gave to Fritz Lampi in 1950: “There seems to the casual onlooker little variety in ceramic shapes and designs. But to the lover of pottery there is an endless variety of the most exciting kind. And there is nothing sensational about it, only a silent grandeur and quietness. If one should ask me whether I believe myself to be a modern potter or a potter of tradition I would answer: I don’t know and I don’t care. Art alive is always modern, no matter how old or young. Art theories have no meaning for me, beauty has. This is all my philosophy. I do not attempt to be original or different.”

There is a place where paleo-conservatives and the avant-garde meet and agree. One of the Zen ideas Bernard Leach embraced was mu, the principle of emptiness, neutrality or non-intentionality, as central to the making of mingei pottery as it is in the music of John Cage.

“There is in Zen belief a quality called mu,” Leach explained, “a quality attached neither to positive or negative. It is a quality we most admire in pots, and it is that rare condition of which we catch glimpses in men and women when the spirit of life blows through an open window. It is the treasure of the humble craftsman and the haven of the greatest artist.”

 

Originally published on Mousse 41 (December 2013-January 2014)

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