This year marks a very special 130 years of Anglo-Korean relations and the London Korean Cultural Centre (KCCUK) has so far marked this momentous anniversary with the K-Music Festival. Now with its latest exhibition, the KCCUK will be celebrating the strong bond between the two countries with an item that has since become a symbol of UK-Korea relations; the Moon Jar (달항아리).
During the latter part of the Joseon Dynasty, Korea was known as the Hermit Kingdom, a country that willfully isolated itself from the rest of the world. But 130 years ago in 1883, the UK became the first European country to form diplomatic relations with this Hermit Kingdom. Early British visitors of South Korea during the 19th century became mesmerised by Korea’s beauty and unique culture. One of the early visitors to Korea was studio potter Bernard Leach, who upon his second visit to South Korea in 1935 purchased the Moon Jar. Leach once said: ‘Korean potters set the noblest standard the world has known‘ and today this Moon Jar is still regarded very highly amongst Britain’s twentieth-century potters, making it the perfect reflection of the admirable friendship between the UK and Korea.
What is a Moon Jar?
“The greatest merit of white porcelain lies in its absolute purity.”
– scholar Yi Kyu-gyong (1788-1856)
The Moon Jar gets its name from its spherical shape and the milky white glaze of the jar which resembles the moon. White became a supremely important colour which is said to signifying integrity and purity due to the Neo-Confucianist ideals of austerity, simplicity and humility during the Joseon era. The original use of the Moon Jar was believed to be for utilitarian purposes, such as storing food and displaying flowers, and were first crafted by unknown craftsmen of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Aesthetically the height of a Moon Jar is almost equal to its diameter, giving it that perfect spherical shape. However, the Moon Jar is actually made by joining two separate bowl shapes so they are not always perfect. The diameter of the base is also smaller than that of the mouth so the Moon Jar appears slightly unstable. But these slight imperfections are considered to be a reflection of nature’s full moon and a man’s uncontrived relationship with nature ; these slight imperfections, in the harmony with the creamy white body, rather highlight the sheer size and the voluptuous curves, lending to a greater dignity in the piece.
Once a vessel with a very practical function the ancient Moon Jar has become a container for an exchange of cultural idea, communication and dialogue. If a pot can be a metaphor for a satellite orbiting space, tracing time and crossing continents, this vessel has inspired unexpected encounters, connections and international collaboration.
For this exhibition, four leading UK potters, along with Korean Artist Yee Sookyung, have been invited to re-contextualise the Moon Jar; to use this very Korean and symbolic form and create something that reflects the long UK-Korea friendship. These pieces will be a way of celebrating the 130 years of Anglo-Korean ties and emphasise the symbolic position that the Moon Jar holds in Britain today.
Marking 130 years of Anglo-Korean relations, the exhibition celebrates these ties through the work of four leading UK potters and a Korean artist: Adam Buick, Jack Doherty, Akiko Hirai, Gareth Mason and Yee Sookyung.
Adam Buick talks about how historically the Moon Jars represent the epitome of the austere Confucian virtues; purity, honest and modesty. But because of their aesthetics form they are also thought to represent the embracing, gentle qualities of woman and fertility. At this exhibition, Buick reflects the serenity and simplicity of the Moon Jars with his displays, including quaint little mini versions of the Moon Jars, each with a minimal yet beautiful design. Buick also presents us with a very interesting time-lapse photography video where a unfired Moon Jar, made of a blend of local clay, is left at the top of Carn Treliwyd to weather away. Buick then captures this disintegration and the Moon Jar’s return to the earth through a video made up of 25,000 images (one snap per 33 secs) shot over 14 days; a very interesting and beautiful piece.
Jack Doherty, Gareth Mason and Akiko Hirai further explore the Moon Jar’s conventional form. The Moon Jar is simple yet confident in its shape and Doherty wanted to make objects which were as complete, assured in the truth of their form, volume and surface, happy to be in the world. Here we see Doherty export the conventional curves of the Moon Jar into his own ceramics, marked with his signature technique that leaves the jar with a beautiful mix of turquoise, russet and smokey grey colours. Mason takes on a very different approach to the Moon Jar as he reinterprets the pot as an expressive canvas. We see holes purposefully punctured into the jar and mended with wiring, giving the Moon Jars a completely different form, almost alien like and transforming the traditional jar with utilitarian purposes into dark works of art.
Hirai was attracted to the Moon Jar’s imperfections, the slight dent between the joint, the fine lines in the porcelain and stains from ageing. The way the Moon Jar has survived yet been marked from its life and environment. Hirai says perfection is a static condition, it leaves no space for imagination and with his recontextualisation of the Moon Jar, he incorporates the environment into the Moon Jars such as layering raw materials found in it’s surroundings like wood ash.
Yee Sookyung was featured at the Saatchi gallery last year during Korean Eye with her very recognisable technique, joining discarded pieces of white porcelain with gold lacquer.
Contemporary Ceramic Masters destroy almost 70% of the porcelain deemed to be under-qualified according to their own standards. I created The Moon by piercing together the shattered vases that were once rendered trash. I attached the broken bits and pieces of ceramic trash, one by one, as if I was putting together a jigsaw puzzle. And I covered the seams with 24 karat gold leaf
– Yee Sookyung
Yee Sookyung’s pieces are elegant and often loaded with meaning. The fact that this Moon was made from so-called pieces of “imperfect” porcelain turned into such a beautiful work of art breaks the idealistic conventional forms of what is perceived as perfect. In fact, the most beautiful parts of this piece are the “wounds” which are covered and mended with gold, almost highlighting and celebrating these “wounds”, which makes this piece so beautiful. A very symbolic piece of the exhibition and possibly our favourite!
If this exhibition has given you a thirst for more knowledge on ceramics and pottery, make sure you step into the multi-purpose hall at the KCCUK to watch a very interesting video on the production of the pieces on display. The video shows the careful and delicate process of creating and assembling the Moon Jars, a very fascinating watch! And if the KCCUK hasn’t spoilt you enough, they have also planned a weekly program of events to compliment the Moon Jar exhibition. They have some very special family events which will be perfect for kids during the summer holidays! You can find out more information on the full programme via the KCCUK Website. So make sure you check out the Moon Jar Exhibition when you get the chance! It’s a huge honour and a beautiful gesture from the British Museum to lend the Korean Cultural Centre the Moon Jar and further marks the great friendship between the two countries. The Exhibition will be on until August 17th 2013!