Contemporary ceramics update the tea ceremony

There's aesthetic drama in Musee Tomo's underground tea stage

by Robert Yellin

The Way of Tea has for centuries been a cornerstone of Japanese culture and aesthetic beauty. An old Japanese proverb states: “If a man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty.”

Within the tea world there are stunning gardens, contemplative tea rooms, seasonal flowers, delicious foods, and varied tea vessels made of bamboo, lacquer, glass and most often clay. It’s the latter material that is the most varied and used in the Way of Tea throughout its long history. How contemporary ceramic artists are adapting their tea wares to the present day is the theme of a most remarkable exhibition now showing at the Musee Tomo, Tokyo, and titled “The Musee Tomo Prize, Contemporary Ceramics for the Tea Ceremony: Free Creativity and Atypical Usage.”

Since 2006, the Musee Tomo has held this exhibition biennially and invites selected artists to create works built around the chosen theme. This year 29 artists are showing — an impressive group of some of Japan’s most celebrated and important ceramic artists, including two Living National Treasures (Sekisui Ito, designated for his Mumyoi [red-ocher clay] work, and Osamu Suzuki for Shino [glaze] work) and one 15th-generation potter from Kyoto (Raku Kichizaemon). As always, the dramatic staging of any Musee Tomoo exhibition brings the works to life as if each one were an actor on a stage.

Lead roles in the exhibition were given to five artists who each received a Merit Prize. As one descends the steps into the cavelike exhibition space, one is met by two award-winners, a rich burned orange Shino chawan (tea bowl) by Suzuki and a gleaming greenish-blue swordlike sculpture by the clay maestro Sueharu Fukami.

Even from the limited view of Suzuki’s chawan, one can assess it as a masterpiece for its confident form and understated glazing that would perfectly harmonize with the emerald hues of whipped matcha tea.

Chawan, however, are meant to be held, and it’s a shame, though understandably so, that one cannot examine them more intimately.

Fukami’s blade defines and creates space, and his brilliant original slip- casting technique has allowed him to make unique forms that have won him countless awards within Japan and around the world.

The stage has been set; One rounds the corner and is met by a dazzling curling catwalk of clay vessels, mostly chawan. Here we find a trio by Takahiro Kato that consists of three examples of different glazes — Shino, Black-Oribe and Yellow Seto. Kato’s grandfather was the legendary and controversial 20th-century master potter Tokuro Kato (1898-1985).

Also in this second act of the tea drama are serene, white porcelain chawan by Akihiro Maeta; the work of eighth generation Hagi potter Yu Okada; gorgeous emerald glazes from veteran Seto potter Kiyoyuki Kato; a breathtaking duo by Raku; and two works by the wild man of the Japanese ceramic world, 72-year-young Ryoji Koie. Again, as with all Musee Tomo exhibitions, the lighting is excellent and each vessel almost steals the spotlight from its most worthy neighbors.

Act three appears along the back wall with a bold Bizen portable stove by revolutionary Bizen artist Ryuichi Kakurezaki, three small celadon “traveler’s chawan” by Shinobu Kawase and some deliciously glazed pieces by merit-award-winner Moritoshi Tokusawa. Perched alone on a neighboring wall is the exhibition catalog’s cover piece, a grayish-blue glazed chawan that is pure and ageless, made by exhibition merit-prize recipient, and one of only three female artists in the show, Machiko Ogawa. The other two women are Shoko Koike and Junko Kitamura, the latter’s husband Yo Akiyama’s work earning him a merit award.

The exhibition continues on with larger works, each more stunning then the last, and each sure to bring the cosmos world of a tea room into a magical orbit. The creative vision of every artist in this truly magnificent exhibition is worth a long-lasting standing ovation.

Robert Yellin will be voluntarily organizing in-gallery talks for this exhibition and has five free pairs of tickets to give away. Anyone interested in attending talks or the ticket giveaway, e-mail Robert via his website at www.japanesepottery.com.
“The Musee Tomo Prize, Contemporary Ceramics for the Tea Ceremony: Free Creativity and Atypical Usage,” at The Musee Tomo, runs till Nov. 7; admission ¥1,000; open daily from 11 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Mon. Musee Tomo is next to the Hotel Okura; nearest station: Kamiyacho (Hibiya Line). For more information, call (03) 5733-5131, or visit www.musee-tomo.jp