Keeping an eye on new ceramics

by D.H. Rosen

Places of worship take many forms, but they all share a common atmosphere. There’s a certain quietude that puts visitors at ease and a sense of other-worldliness achieved, in part, through the careful placement of precious objects on raised platforms. Kim Riyoo’s ceramic installation, “Ceramics as New Exoticism,” now on display at Ginza’s INAX Galleria Ceramica, has these attributes, but the subject matter is one that many would consider less than holy.

Upon entering the gallery, visitors find themselves in a templelike space with a decidedly Japanese ambience. Shoji screens and wooden panels, borrowed directly from a Japanese folk house, hang from the ceiling to set off the interior, and tatami mats on the floor complete the room. The carved vessel at the very front of the installation calls to mind an offering box found at the entrance of Japanese shrines and, much like a shrine, the subject of reverence lies behind the coffers raised on tatami mats.

There in the middle of the room stands a monumental pillar with two globes floating in a mound of black sand to form a not-so-subtle symbol of male virility. A closer look reveals an eye peering out of each orb as if to guard the exalted phallus.

If this work were on display in the West, it would no doubt be interpreted as a glorification of the male sex organ, or perhaps even a juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane. But in Japan, where artwork is often much less reliant on message and more on aesthetics, it seemed less likely that the artist had such a lofty agenda.

“I don’t really even consider this an installation,” explains Kim. “I was simply looking for interesting ways to display my artwork and I decided to use the (tables and tatami) as pedestals. I wasn’t thinking about the meaning behind this piece as a whole — it was simply an intuitive arrangement. I felt a sense of sexuality in that room, and that’s how I arrived at that particular shape.”

Intentional or not, Kim’s work does have a sense of reverence for the erotic. The eerily human eyes that peer out from many of his pieces also compound the sense of voyeurism inherent in the installation and make viewers feel as if they are being watched just as they are watching. Like the Mona Lisa, the distinctive eyes of Kim’s artwork follow you around the room, and in this setting, it is as if they are scolding you for looking so closely at illicit material.

Beyond the conceptual content, Kim’s work is also particularly pleasing for its craftsmanship. For ceramic artists struggling to find their identities in the high-tech 21st century, which has all but left the handmade object behind, there is a great temptation for young artists to pursue expressions that forgo material for concept, ending up with work that could have, and often should have, been made with another material.

With this in mind, Kim’s work is the best kind of ceramic installation — one that not only works as a whole, but also one in which each handmade element is, in its own right, a fine work of ceramic art. Each painstakingly carved piece reveals a love for the clay and a mastery of the material rare in young artists. The finish of his metallic green and black glazes are not only stunning, they also show a dedication to process that is pivotal and particular to the ceramic arts. Likewise, his reference to the vessel pays homage to the history of the craft, even if unintentional. In short, Kim’s work summarily answers the question “why clay?,” a perennial challenge posed to all contemporary ceramic artists, and one seldom so effectively met.

It is also nice to see the INAX Galleria Ceramica, whose curation has a tendency to be somewhat conservative, taking some risks with work that does not fit the proverbial mold. With two major Tokyo solo shows now under his belt, the Osaka-born Kim is certain to have all eyes on him as he moves forward. And if this exhibit is any indication, his works are likely to keep an eye on us as well.

“Kim Riyoo: Ceramics as New Exoticism” at the INAX Galleria Ceramic, Ginza, runs till July 6; free admission; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Sun. and hol. For more information, call (03) 5250-6530 or visit