Breaking old conventions to find the new

by Matthew Larking

Ryota Aoki (b.1978) says that he wants to see things that never before existed in ceramics. Personally, too, he is the exemplification of that ethos. We do not usually expect a celebrated ceramicist to be wearing a turban, have both ears pierced and be listening to hip-hop in the background as he sits behind the potter’s wheel.

In his studio, he displays the Japanese flag on the wall, in the hope that he will one day become Japan’s representative ceramic artist. He has also been called the modern Oribe, a reference to his use of the varied forms and patterns on wares favored by the revered 16th-century tea master.

While steeped in the tradition of ceramics, Aoki does not perpetuate the past. Rather, he puts it to use in the service of the present to arrive at something contemporary. An amusing example can be found displayed at the Tomio Koyama Gallery, which is running an Aoki exhibition concurrent with another at eN arts in Kyoto. Aoki crafted a traditional furidashi (a small-scale sweets container), something that is conventionally part of the apparatus of the tea ceremony. In it, though, he keeps his Frisk mints.

Aoki’s penchant is for the experimental, and he claims that he has done more research on this than any other ceramic artist of his generation. Indeed, the 20,000 or so test pieces he creates for glaze experiments each year makes his atelier seem more like a laboratory than an art space. For his test pieces, minuscule changes in ingredients are made, objects are fired, the results scrutinized and the process refined.

His white-dish series, which can be seen at the Tomio Koyama Gallery, took two years experimenting with kneading glazes into the porcelain clay instead of applying them after firing, resulting in a mat surface texture that is as fine and smooth as a baby’s skin. Unlike at most exhibitions, visitors are encouraged to handle individual objects to get a feel for such distinctive nonvisual qualities.

A superlative example of Aoki’s unusual approach is found in a bowl on show at eN arts. With silver mixed into the clay and the piece fired in a way so that the silver emerges texturally in little bubbles on the surface, the bowl is a pleasure to caress in the hand.

The Tomio Koyama Gallery is showing Aoki’s recent, less practical ceramics in “The Kings Room: Never Ever Die, Forever Beautiful” in which four lifesize skulls are set beside four crowns in a darkened room. The theme pursues the perceived ultimate desires of two kings and their queens wanting eternal life. These desires are embodied by the ceramic material, which is symbolic of great swathes of time, a reference to Jomon Period (14,000-300 BCE) wares that continue to be excavated in the present. The queens desired eternal beauty, and so “forever beautiful” is inscribed within their pristine crowns.

Downstairs at TKG Editions are more of Aoki’s works — less dark, more practical and in glazes that are almost contemplative. It is almost impossible to make elegant ceramic wine glasses, as the vessel walls need to be thin and their structures are delicate. Aoki, however, has somehow achieved this, though he is not one to reveal his techniques. Other works include assortments of tableware, and a few of his more sculptural pieces resembling clawlike scepters inspired by mikkyo hogu, the mysterious tools used for rituals of Esoteric Buddhism.

EN arts traces two established practices of tea and intersperses Aoki’s pottery within those traditions. The first is inspired by a Western pastime of tea, imagining Japan with a king and the kind of formal tea he might take with silverware, a couple of champagne flutes and European-style antiques. The works include a ceramic bowl in softened hues, with rainbow streaks whose brilliant colors are suppressed so that the object is not over-conspicuous and distracting attention from the others.

The second is in the style of a Japanese tea ceremony, where Aoki’s works are carefully arranged in a tatami room. Among the tea bowls displayed here, we see a penchant for making ceramic wares that look as if forged from metal. One even has a matte aluminum finish that would complement a MacBook. This playful offering of objects that appear to be heavy, only to have the expectation betrayed when actually held, is yet another element of Aoki breaking with conventions in the ceramics world.

“The King’s Room: Never Ever Die, Forever Beautiful” at Tomio Koyama Gallery, Kyoto, and TKG Editions, Kyoto, runs till Oct. 30; admission free; open daily 11 a.m.-7 p.m., closed Sun., Mon., and national holidays. For more information, visit “Ryota Aoki Exhibition” at eN arts runs till Oct. 30; admission free; open Fri., Sat. and Sun. 12 p.m.-6 p.m. and by appointment. For more information, visit