Leaving Europe late evening, almost midnight from airport Charles De Gaulle near Paris. Within an hour the airplane is at 10 km height and crossing continents and seas with 1000 km per hour. The plane flies into the morning, the dark helmet of the night is gradually changing from black via dark blue into lighter blue. More colors appear on the horizon when suddenly the sun comes up and its bright warm light is shaping the clouds and the scenery with Siberia’s winding rivers beneath. Wow, flying is so amazing, it changes the small individual perspective of let’s say some 100 meters when walking around into a vista where the curve of mother earth is the horizon.
The aircraft has deployed landing on Tokyo International Airport. Tokyo, expansive and vertical metropole, very warm in August, with shopping malls cooled down to comfortable temperatures for the overheated body and toilet seats warmed up to the right temperature for the butt.
Traveling in Japan is easy, to travel from Tokyo to Arita, about 1100 km distance, the Shinkansen bullet train brings you in 5 hours to Fukuoka. In Fukuoka change the Shinkansen train for the Midori express. Another hour and half omnibus-train traveling from the metropole Fukuoka via Saga to Arita, through a plain scenery that changes in a dense mountainous capricious landscape. The train shakes on the single-track route passing many tunnels. A wheel is a circle. Train wheels are circles from iron. An airplane engine is a turning impeller in a circular sleeve. Sengai Gibon, a Zen Buddhist monk, drew a perfect circle with a calligraphy brush. The sun, the eye and the horizon with the eye as center can be represented by circles. Drawing on circular porcelain plates was the reason to go to Arita.
Arita, in the beginning it is walking like an elephant in a porcelain shop. Such an amount of porcelain, everywhere porcelain tableware, each house has a showcase with porcelain cups, saucers, sake bottles or ramen bowls. Porcelain shops sell man sized vases, dishes and plates decorated with rocks, nebulous streams, trees, flowers, fishes. And Arita Ceramics Wholesalers area is the place to see it altogether, traditional baroque style vases, pure and rigorously contemporary teapots, cheap and expensive sake cups, exclusive and unique dishes next to bowls in an edition of a million.
Here, in this habitat of potters, painters, stackers and packers I am going to study porcelain decoration techniques on circular plates and dishes. Shozaburo-san is the teacher, sensei, a master in drawing flowers and bamboo who teaches cobalt underglaze techniques on biscuit ware. After a week trying to draw straight lines, a stylized pattern of the sea, leaves and flowers it is clear you can’t become a porcelain decoration master in three months of time. To draw these traditional subjects with the hand of a master the hand, body and mind have to be trained for a life time. Hence I start with using my usual tools such as ruler, compasses, tape and templates. Tradition is the norm in Arita College of Ceramics. A trajectory from learning to draw straight lines, curved lines, a pattern representing the sea, the chrysanthemum, the three friends of winter pine, plum and bamboo ensures that the centuries old images survive. The question of what makes sense to draw on a particular object of porcelain arose, like drawing flowers on a vase or the symbol of water on a teacup. On a noodle or ramen bowl there is no depiction of noodles nor ramen. The dish is hardly ever decorated with a fish, a slice of meat or with vegetables like Chinese cabbage, asparagus or bean sprouts. It made me reflect on what you would like to see and what makes sense to see when your bowl, cup or dish is empty after you have nourished yourself. Some experiments followed with cutting tomatoes, peppers, onions and mushrooms in two, dip it in cobalt blue underglaze paint and stamp it on the biscuit ware. It became clear that the results were boring. But to depict rice on a dish that was a challenge. Rice is everywhere in Japan, in Arita it grows on every corner and piece of land. Rice is holy, Shinto religion is about rice, it is the most important ingredient of sushi, sake is made of rice. Rice is a weed; it is a corn. When rice is harvested, and threshed, it is formless. I did some experiments with rice: some hands of rice soaked in underglaze paint shoveled on a dry or wet biscuit ware dish. Single corns of underglaze blue rice were put in a grid on a dish, a thick layer of rice on a dish was sprinkled with watery underglaze paint. It became clear that a single layer of rice corns on a dish sprinkled with thin underglaze paint gave a beautiful result. As if looking into a small universe of drifting corns, floating bacteria in different layers in a circular space. Rice gave a satisfying result. And green tea leaves gave a good result too.
The change from the usual rectangular shaped drawing paper to a circular drawing surface of porcelain clay is a small revolutionary change for an artist. The circle has top nor bottom, it is a turning wheel, a running clock, a petrified wave. Hokusai’s famous ‘under the wave of Kanagawa’ is a print of a growing and swallowing wave on a rectangular piece of paper. It fits much better in a circle. The shape of a wave in underglaze blue lines and the counter-mold of the wave, the air in white glaze on a dish of 20 cm intersection. The blue and white intermingle because the white of the counter-mold divides the lines.
Tableware is decorated to distract, to entertain, to wonder and to have a subject to talk about during dinner. In Europe it is quite rare that tableware is decorated, we suffer from modernism which wiped out decoration from houses, furniture and tableware. A no-nonsense protestant sentiment got rid of embellishing daily life with too much adornment. When there is some distraction it is in the form of the plate, cup or vase. In Japan it is the opposite, decoration is part of the tradition. Decoration is in the roofs (complex compositions of hard edge surfaces coated with undulating roof tiles), in kimono’s, Ukiyo-e prints and manga books, in Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. On sliding doors, on a folding screen and on tableware. We like to brighten up life with beauty; art and design play with this beauty, challenge beauty, try to evoke unknown and unseen beauty.
Porcelain is like clothes, clothes made from textiles, clothes are so close, a second skin to cover and protect the first. The same closeness has porcelain, we eat and drink out of porcelain, we shit and piss in porcelain, both sides of the spectrum as in filled – empty Ise-shi Shinto shrine, as the two sides of the plate, as the out- and inside of bowl and vase. Imagine a survival kit: a roof, clothes, a dish and a cup, rice, a toilet pot and a bed. All we need is love, love love.
The rectangle is in its origin an architectural shape, a rectangle is an open shape; the circle is a more anthropomorphic and a closed shape. The circle is a clock, a wheel, the iris of an eye and the horizon, sun- and moon projection, a diaphragm, a spiral, a vortex. The drawings of the first month residency in Arita are fitting in the shape of the circle, accentuate the circle, are turning in the circle. Except for some exercises with tape to provoke a collision of Kolkata street bricks, I tried to live in a circle with compositions of triangles, squares, hexagons and circles drawn on circular tableware. It is evident to draw on both sides of the biscuit ware plate so that the rear side is bearing, reflecting or commenting the front side. The circular plate with its front and rear side, convex and concave, a container of food, decorated to amuse the eye, decorated to reflect on life, on the body which needs to be fed, to reflect on the landscape with the soil where the nutrients comes from, decorated to reflect on time and on death.
A profound influence of the stay in Japan, in Kyushu, in Arita can be deducted from the drawings on my dishes, plates, bowl and vase. Cycling in the morning under different weather conditions to my studio, the ‘kitchen’, in Saga Ceramics Research Laboratory drew details from the landscape into the drawings on the biscuit ware. Visiting Kyushu Ceramic Museum with its magnificent collection of pottery, looking around in the thousand porcelain shops of Arita, a guided tour by Sakaida Kakiemon (fifteenth generation of the Kakiemon Kiln) in his shop, museum, wheel throw- and decoration workshops, nose about the famous porcelain houses like Koransha Co. Ltd, Imaemon and Fukagawa Seiji saturated my walking around with the enormous richness of motives and the notion of how deep patterns are anchored in the particular history of Imari ware. An artistic digestion occurred, mixing, pairing, fragmenting the many visual components into decorated porcelain objects with titles like ‘Arita Rococo Plate’, ‘Arita Baroque’ and ‘Arita Iwa’ = ‘Arita Rock’. ‘Arita Iwa’ is making the step from the relatively two dimensional plates to a three-dimensional vase. This was not foreseen, it happened in the flow of drawing during 5 days a week on the porcelain biscuit ware. The shape of the 37-cm tall vase is simple, slightly convex and producing a surface which is vast and can not be overseen at a glance. In a horizontal – vertical grid a line drawing in underglaze blue is drawn, a vertical and regular zigzag line that starts to derail at the bottom of the vase. The derailment of the lines is trapped in the basic grid, they follow an improvised zigzag movement on the mantle of the vase from a vertical start to a horizontal impact 360 degrees later. The drawing evokes Arita, the craggy mountain Kurokami, evokes the shape and whimsical drawing in stones and rocks, evokes geology, a volcano. A keystone part on the vase is filled in with a regular brick pattern which you see everywhere as a detail in the landscape around Arita. ‘Arita Iwa’ evokes a single rock and it is, conceptually seen, a glazed and fired kaolin clay substance becoming a stylized derivative illusion of a flaky rock with its roots in Arita’s Izumiyama Kaolin Quarry.
Arita, hidden between steep mountains, some with a reservoir of the purest kaolin rock to make porcelain clay, 400 years ago found by the Korean Ri Sam Pei. Steep mountains where climbing kilns were built to fire the big amount of strong and beautiful porcelain tableware. Sailors from the Dutch Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC, exploring East Asia set foot on Kyushu almost at the same time when porcelain production started in Arita. Through the harbor of Imari the porcelain was shipped to Deshima where the Dutch traders had permission to build a trading post. From Deshima the VOC shipped the high quality Imari-ware to Europe. There is still a Dutch Touch present on Kyushu. During the residency I made a visit back in time to the 17th century to the reconstruction of Deshima Island in Nagasaki. And a visit to a one to one copy of a Dutch town with typical buildings from Holland, like windmills, fishermen houses, canal houses and the Dom tower of Utrecht. The name of this Dutch Village is Huis Ten Bosch, a theme park build near Sasebo. I went there for a pilgrimage, to see the 1200 square meters’ mural ‘Après nous le déluge’ painted by Dutch artist Rob Scholte. On a hot September Sunday afternoon I went there, walking through a Dutch town in the mountains, searching for the mural of golden age sea battles, Apollo 14 rocket fire and a green traffic light in the clouds. The overall painting is a collage of precisely put together images with historical, financial and funny references to art, politics, glory and defeat. It is a visual spectacle like a James Bond movie with explosions and collapses. I watched this spectacle for some hours, fluctuating between ‘wow yes’ and ‘ooh no’. In a copy of the royal palace Huis Ten Bosch a postmodern painting has been executed depicting a copy in a copy in a copy, playing with the past, present and the future, in Japan. It was quite a complex experience.
Porcelain is telling stories. Porcelain plates are fired frozen stories. Porcelain plates narrate old stories about the sea, the land, the weather, the people. The language of the stories is a drawn language, a language of patterns, a language of calligraphy. A porcelain vase or porcelain plate made in Arita is a book. Arita, hidden between steep mountains, with memorable stories of porcelain dynasties four centuries old. The stories are difficult to discover, the inhabitants of Arita, of Japan, are cautious and introvert. Having lived and slept there for three months and despite the lack of a common language, but by looking around inquisitively and with some guesswork it becomes clear that there could be written thick and interesting novels about this city. About the families of potters, their names, relations, quarrels and feuds, the history of Arita-ware in 15 generations of kiln firing, slip casting and under- over- in-glaze painting, about the rise and fall – about bloom and decline. About the splitting of the family Fukagawa in about 1870 in two potteries of great fame Fukagawa Seiji and Koransha Co. Ltd. About Sakaida Kakiemon 15th generation – not yet living national treasury and the former and next succession. Imaemon kiln, Yamatoku kiln from Yamaguchi San the Mayor of Arita town. An essay about this mayor of Arita with his specialized and seemingly successful pottery in sanitary porcelain, or a novel about the museum director with his secret collection. The trading house Momota Tuen with its origin in Korea. Dostoyevsky- or Pynchon- like novels could be written about the clans, the forcefield between potters and traders with 400 years’ of successes and struggles, competition and innovation readable back in time on porcelain plates, bowls, vases. But now, today, what is the reason for the recent decline of the porcelain industry? Changing food patterns, changing family life, competition from cheap porcelain from China, Korea and Taiwan? Could it be lack of openness, the trepidation to communicate in foreign languages, lack of innovation and hold on to 400 years of tradition, lack of creativity, not daring to take risks? Complacency and self-regard? Lack of cooperation between the actors, lack of willingness to leave the well-known route and venture into risky misty paths? The story of Arita nowadays where traders and potters try to turn the tide, working intensively and passionately together. A writer in residence, an anthropologist or a filmmaker in residence could make particular discoveries and pay tribute to amazing, shocking, interesting and secret stories. In general, it is the story of mankind struggling with fear and desire, dealing with full and empty, longing for reason and beauty.
Another story, an Arita story, is the story of a designer and an artist living together for three months in a traditional Japanese house in Arita. Each one with a project, a designer’s project and an artistic project. They talk, compare, find differences, they envy the other or preach to the congregation, denying and trumpeting, trying to draw conclusions. Both residents have a vague idea what to do, they both have a practice behind them. The clichés of the difference between art and design must be put on the table to reach somewhere beyond the cliché. Therefore, to make a start, design has practical use and art is in principle useless. Practical use from design products could be seen as attributes necessary to serve and comfort the human existence. The uselessness of art is a liberating idea or big nonsense, in one mind an art work explodes, in the other mind it doesn’t make any sense and the viewer remains indifferent. The artist works more on unique pieces and handcraft is sometimes important and sometimes of no importance. The designer thinks in editions from the beginning and about how to make it in such a way that it is reproducible. Handcraft, technology, material properties and preciseness is important. An artist can make shit into art, a designer can make snot into design. As young dogs we discussed the field related operations to gain success, to enforce fame, to earn money as water. Do you keep the client in mind by having a fata morgana about the desires of her or him? Or don’t they exist, clients, so that you are free and without any strange responsibility towards them? When art is somehow dealing with freedom and liberating itself from preconceptions, is design the opposite, imprisoned and living up to expectations? No, it is not so literal. We understood each other? Yes, perhaps. No, not at all. Each of us was living on a self-made island, sometimes the water between the islands was low, sometimes it was high with stormy weather. But in some practices there was hundred percent resemblance. A drive to make, the dedication to create something new. A residency of three months is a pressure cooker the moment a vague idea falls into fertile soil. At that moment the designer tries to force the cold and calm materiality of porcelain under the pressure of time in forms it won’t, it can’t and it doesn’t want to take. The artist is also shifting gear, a seven days’ workweek is too short. Both A and D understand that it was a beginning: three months is too short to elevate that grain fallen on fertile soil into a bonsai pine tree, a bamboo forest or a fruitfully Kaki tree. Or a philosophical stone in a Japanese Zen garden. They go home, leaving the common ground of Arita in Saga Prefecture on the island Kyushu. The designer is taking home three slip-cast molds and a chemical recipe for dripping and solidifying porcelain to continue the research in his studio in Holland. The artist goes home amputated, a radical cut off from the porcelain decoration in the ‘kitchen’, the moment that the ceramic virus attacks. Without a kiln, turntable and a lump of clay you’re not a potter. What rests is a cold turkey from the underglaze-blue-drawing-on-porcelain addiction.
Henri Jacobs - AIR Arita / 1 September - 30 November 2016
Arita – Kyushu - Japan
on the occasion of '1616 - 2016, 400 years Arita porcelain'
acknowledgements: Arita College of Ceramics, Saga Ceramics Research Laboratory, Saga Prefectural Government and the Embassy of the Netherlands in Tokyo
thanks to Mirjam Rickert, Yoriko Ishizawa, Shozaburo-san, Shinohara family, Makoto Terasaki, Nakajima Tomohiro, Keisuke Mori, Koki Shirahama, Yuko-san and Koransha Co. Ltd, Hideki Baba, Ichinose Hiromichi, Bas Valckx, Stefan Scholten and Floris Wubben
generously supported by Mondriaan Fund Amsterdam