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Looking back on 10 years of yakimono

by Robert Yellin

In the 10 years since this column started, much has changed in the worldwide perception of yakimono, Japanese ceramic art. I’m talking about in the contemporary realm, not antiques. The deep and wide world of contemporary Japanese ceramic art is as varied as there are stars in a brilliant winter night sky.

Regional styles, up-and-coming or veteran potters, myriads of forms, tea wares, folk wares, values, fakes and exhibitions, all these things were hardly addressed in English-language books and media, and as a young student back in 1988 I was at a loss. I had no choice but to hound museums, markets, galleries, ateliers and bookstores and learn by myself, with little English assistance. I shunned TV for years and poured over books and magazines (Honoho Geijustsu and later Tohjiro, to name the two best) night after night.

That is one of the main reasons I first approached The Japan Times as a former collector who wanted to share basic information, such as where to see good exhibitions. There is nowhere in the world better than in Japan to enjoy an impressive variety of high-level ceramic art. In Tokyo alone each week there must be more ceramic art exhibits than in New York in a half a year!

I hope that this column has enriched the lives of some who might not have otherwise known about a certain exhibition, then went, bought a piece, and realized through use the literal and spiritual nourishment good ceramic art imparts, the profound joy such pieces bring to daily life.

In the Japanese ceramic art world right now, there is an exponential rise in overseas interest from private collectors and institutions. Antiques are harder to find as time passes, and a collector is always looking for the next big thing — but unless there is information for these folks, they are not comfortable in making a purchase. When they have time to digest the “wheres” and “whys,” then they feel empowered to take possession of a piece.

That is exactly what is occurring internationally, as is evidenced by: one, more foreign dealers are offering contemporary pieces in major cities such as New York and London; two, more online purchases are being made by overseas collectors; and three, major exhibitions are being held at overseas museums — I should mention that in the recent past, very few museums ever touched contemporary Japanese ceramic art.

For example, right now at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts ( www.mfa.org ), there is an exhibition entitled “Contemporary Clay: Japanese Ceramics for the New Century” that is showing till July 9, 2006. The majority of the work on display is from the private collection of Alice and Halsey North ( www.northgroup.biz/ceramics/ ), pioneer collectors who have had the yakimono itch for about 20 years now.

They have studied, and often visited kilns and selected works of the highest quality; their collection is as good as it gets for modern forms. The North Collection has been featured in a past issue of Kateigaho International ( int.kateigaho.com ). As noted in this column, this year, other overseas exhibitions of contemporary Japanese ceramic art have been held in Germany, Italy and the U.S. — the latter boasting sold-out exhibitions at private galleries. Even the Gitter-Yelen Art Study Center, a New Orleans-based, private Japanese Art Study Center updated its mostly Edo Period Zen painting collection guided by a new found love of modern clay ( www.gitter-yelen.org ).

My own life has changed greatly these past 10 years as I went from being a university lecturer to running two Web sites on Japanese ceramic art. And that is how I shall continue to spread the word on Japanese ceramic art. If you are interested in receiving updates, you can sign my guest book at www.japanesepottery.com and sometime early next year a new yakimono blog will go online, sharing information on exhibitions and giving a who’s who of the ceramics scene.

I sincerely wish to thank The Japan Times for allowing me to share this passion of mine with all of you loyal readers for this past decade. I will continue to send in special reports on outstanding exhibitions from time to time, yet for now I am stepping back from my regular Ceramic Scene. Writing this column has been a true and blessed honor; kokoro kara kansha shiteorimasu.