Vase translated: a memoir of Korean ceramics
It’s a story about the pinnacle of Korean ceramic art, but also a tragic story of disruption and anxiety.
By Doyun Kim
It all started for me when I met the new translated vase by Yeesookyung. This contemporary work of art consists of shards of celadon and white porcelain that have been stitched together until they form into an organic form that seems to grow, as if each piece has a life of its own.
The top half is made of broken pieces of Korean celadon, the green glazed stoneware that exemplifies the artistic achievement of the Goryeo dynasty (912-1392). Goryeo celadons are characterized by extraordinary jade color and creative figurative shapes. In some cases, they have elegant surface patterns inlaid with clay of a different color, a technical innovation of the Goryeo dynasty called sanggam.
goreyo dynasty works
The lower half of translated vase includes fragments of white porcelain, a type of ceramic from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). They are distinguished by simple shapes, a white color that symbolizes the Confucian virtue of rectitude, and sometimes painterly designs on their surface with a luxurious cobalt blue pigment.
Joseon dynasty works
translated vase in resonance with another contemporary work that I encountered at the same time: the work of Nancy Rubins Our Fluid Metal Friend, to see on the Bluhm Family Terrace of the museum. For his series, Rubins had collected abandoned kiddie rides from playgrounds and amusement parks and reassembled them into a dynamic form. Joined by lines of wire, the resulting shape expands like an atomic structure.
Produced by artists from disparate cultural backgrounds, Our Fluid Metal Friend and translated vase differ in scale, material and technique. However, they are comparable: while the latter works with disused everyday objects, the former turns to the discarded fragments of traditional artifacts that are seen as an embodiment of traditional Korean culture.
More works by Yeesookyung
Yeesookyung (b. 1963) feels a sort of aura of Korean ceramics exhibited in a museum, especially after growing up in Korea, where Goryeo celadons and Joseon white porcelains are prized as quintessential beauties of the country’s artistic heritage. .
When I look at Goryeo celadon items in a museum, it seems that the time and space inside the glass case and outside are completely different…. I feel that the time and space they have traveled have frozen and crystallized. I am mesmerized by the strange and transcendental beauty they exude.
However, she also sees the condensation of extreme stress and anxiety. After being molded and fired at very high temperatures, Korean ceramics must also bear the weight of tradition and the myth of the “masterpiece”. Potters of the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties are said to have destroyed ceramics that did not meet their ideal standards.
The devotion to the idea of a masterpiece intensified during the 20th century. After the violent disruption of Korean cultural heritage during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953), Korean ceramic artists strove to reclaim their heritage by studying abroad in Japan and the United States. United States, where the Korean ceramics tradition had dispersed and practiced during those times. This effort to preserve and succeed Korea’s rich ceramic tradition has reinforced the inherited ideal. In striving for perfection, pieces with even a small, unrecognizable flaw were considered intolerable to potters, something to be cast into oblivion.
I saw a Korean master potter in Icheon, Gyeonggi-do break almost every porcelain he made in a traditional kiln because of tiny flaws. Even today, the master potters leave only a small number of their finest works and destroy the rest without hesitation. I believe such behavior is a way of interpreting Joseon white porcelain in Korean ceramic art today.
From Yeesookyung’s perspective, the Korean ceramic fragments are not remnants of failure but are full of new stories. Removed from their intended form and function, they are freed from the immense stress and anxiety that perfection brings.
The shards of Goryeo-style celadons in imperfect jade-colored tones or imperfectly shaped now form a harmonious unity, a subtle gradation of green shades that chromatically rhythms. The imperfect white moonpot pieces now form the hemispherical base of a unique teardrop shape. New organic shapes are fashioned based on the flaws of each piece. And the artist connects and highlights their fractures with precious gold or gema word in Korean that means both “crack” and “gold”.
Yeesookyung views Korean ceramics as a visual and tactile medium for translation across time and space. Abandoning the pre-modern myth of the masterpiece, the artist fully assumes the vulnerability of beauty and celebrates the journeys of these traditional ceramics, whether due to imperfection or the fragmented cultural memory of a country.
—Doyun Kim, Korea Foundation intern in Asian arts
Yeesookyung. “Fragments transcending time and space.” Magazine of the National Museum of Korea Vol.51, 2020.