Breaking all the rules in ceramics

Kosho Ito takes contemporary clay to new realms of appreciation

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For many people, the term “ceramic art” conjures up the image of functional ware on a dinner table: cups and bowls filled with food and drink, or perhaps ornate European platters or wabi-sabi Japanese teapots. To others, it may mean terra-cotta figurines or simply sculpture that uses clay as its primary material. But for veteran clay-artist Kosho Ito, “ceramic art” is both a calling to which he has dedicated his entire life and a restrictive label that he refuses to embrace.

“Once people create a system, it’s impossible to destroy,” said Ito, sitting in front of his sprawling white installation “Eros of Alumina,” now on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo as part of his retrospective, “Kosho Ito Works 1974-2009, Order and Chaos.” “When the system is being created, becoming a part of it is easy, but once you are in, it’s hard to get out.”

The system Ito is describing is that of classification within the arts world, in particular the rigid confines of ceramic art, which in Japan shoulders a long history and a largely conservative community hard-wired to maintain the status quo. Even the contemporary ceramics movement in Japan, though it began as a revolutionary force designed to challenge the borders of traditional craft, has now constructed its own set of rules and criteria for classification.

With a body of work that eloquently speaks about the material yet clearly takes its cues from the larger sphere of contemporary art, Ito belongs to a genre that defies categorization, one that leaves him neither here nor there in the systematic world of Japanese art.

“I am best known and most active in the world of contemporary art, and I have friends in this field, but I have an inkling that some people are saying, ‘that guy is a ceramic artist,’ ” explains Ito. “On the other hand, in the world of ceramic art, even in the world of contemporary ceramic art, I feel like a bit of an outsider. I don’t feel that these people understand me.”

Regardless of how the powers that be classify Ito’s oeuvre, one thing is clear: His work is of and about clay, and his relationship with the material is profound. From the colossal installations made up of hundreds upon hundreds of ceramic parts, to a paper installation that documents the process of clay drying, the 35 years of work represented in “Order and Chaos” pay homage to a relentless exploration and subsequent mastery of the material.

For potters in Japan who work through the winter months, keeping their studios warm so that their clay doesn’t freeze is a little-known challenge of the trade. Once frozen, the composition of clay changes and it becomes essentially useless for shaping. Ito found this property fascinating, and did what any curious artist might do; he started sticking large clay blocks in the freezer and then fired them to high temperatures. The resulting earthen chunks with cracked, fissured surfaces make for superb organic eye candy and form the gritty building blocks of the colossal installation, “Fired Frozen Clay Dancing.” Similar unconventional techniques find a voice in “Blue Freeze,” a wall-mounted installation that features previously fired stoneware platters brushed with a turquoise slip (liquid clay) and then frozen. The frozen slip reveals intricate crystalline patterns when fired, and the surface of each plate yields a unique imprint.

Ito’s combination of meticulous craftsmanship and humble surrender to natural processes may seem at odds, but it is part of a sensibility that Japanese ceramicists have long embraced, and one that was instilled in Ito early in his career.

Born the son of a metal smith in rural Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, Ito was apprenticed to a Kutani-ware potter upon his father’s death at 45 years old. His mother knew the hardships of an artist’s life all too well, and was determined not to subject her son to the same fate. She thought that sending Ito to study under an established artisan would secure her son’s future as a craftsman, but fate had other plans for the budding young artist.

“When I graduated from high school, I didn’t go to college, I went to apprentice with a potter who had been a colleague of my father’s.” says Ito. “I learned a lot about clay; I did a lot of tests and spent a lot of time getting to know the material. But there was something missing for me in the world of craft. I wanted to try to make things outside of the realm of function, things made just to look at.”

While Ito’s passion for clay is evident in the folds and fissures of the ceramic parts he creates, his thirst for the new and influence from genres outside ceramics become clear when he puts these pieces together. Ito is extremely conscious of the space in which the pieces are installed and the finished installations are different each time they are assembled, thus making them “site-specific” installations in the truest sense of the word.

But no matter how far his work may seem to stray from world of ceramics, even the pieces that don’t use a single bit of clay are somehow derived from the material’s processes. A prime example of this is the installation, “Whitefolds,” which is constructed entirely of paper upon which clay was set to dry, leaving behind organic folds as the clay body shrank and moved in the drying process. Normally this paper would be discarded once it has served its purpose, but Ito found the unintentional results of this process to be aesthetically pleasing.

“The paper plays an important role in making sure a vessel doesn’t break as it shrinks, but the traces it leaves behind are also beautiful,” he explains. “No one noticed this before, but I wonder if they had, would laying clay to dry on top of paper have become a traditional technique for creating the folds?”

“Order and Chaos” opened only weeks after a similar retrospective closed at the Ibaraki Ceramic Art Museum, and these back-to-back shows gave Ito the rare opportunity to gauge reactions to the same work from two very different audiences.

“I think it’s wonderful that I could hold a retrospective at both a contemporary art museum and a ceramic art museum,” says Ito. “What I found interesting [at the Ibaraki Ceramics Museum] were the responses from people who were perhaps weary of seeing the same ceramics over and over. In a place that usually shows the work of Living National Treasures, the audience found my work really refreshing.

“Now I wonder how my exploration of the material will be viewed in a contemporary-art context, in a place where some of the most discriminating eyes in art gather. I feel like I’ll be on the chopping block for the next two months. I’m really looking forward to it.”

“Kosho Ito Works 1974-2009, Order and Chaos” is showing now through Oct. 4 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT). Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; closed on Mondays (except for Aug. 10, Aug. 17, Sept 21 and Sept 28). Special programs available in Japanese only, see the MOT Web site for further details. www.mot-art-museum.jp