At exhibitions, ancient ceramics tend not to be the draw card that contemporary photography can be. With this in mind, The Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, has combined the two together. The museum’s collection features the Ataka Collection, a wealth of Korean ceramics donated in 1982, and a number of other objects given by the 21 Sumitomo companies. Of 965 cataloged items, 144 are Chinese in origin and 793 Korean (28 items are “miscellaneous”), making it one of the world’s best Asian collections.

The theme of this latest exhibition is the lotus flower, and 64 ceramics from the collection have been chosen using 50 photographs by Tomohiro Muda as inspiration. Muda’s conceptual approach of his present oeuvre is “spaces for prayer, forms of prayer.”

Apparently the earliest lotus motifs can be found in ancient Egyptian art in sun-like configurations, but then there came the Indian, and with the eastward expansion of Buddhism, the Chinese variations. Just think of what is commonly known as the “lotus position” for the ubiquity of the flower’s ostensible power to “train the body and the mind,” positioning it into a seated upright configuration. Long ago in China, Buddhist patriarchs following their death, were eviscerated, set in the lotus position, lacquered and venerated as spiritual decoration.

The flower’s connection with Buddhism is extensive and auspicious. The seated Rushana-butsu sat upon a lotus pedestal, radiating light through the cosmos as the manifestation of the sun. The Bodhisattva Fugen sat atop a similar pedestal, an elephant beneath carrying him along while his hands were clasped in prayer. The lotus subsequently became a symbol of love between men and women, and the Chinese philosopher Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073) praised it as a symbol of the gentleman. The flower’s meanings, however, tied to elegance and sincerity, are varied. While beautiful, the lotus tends to grow in shallow, muddy ponds — an elegance emerging from the sordid, beauty from ugliness.

The ceramic works have weathered well. “Basin,” the 11th- to 12th-century Chinese vessel, has a fascinating lotus design carved into it. The 12th-century Korean “Meiping Vase” of the Goryeo Dynasty is similarly beautiful.

Muda’s mostly color photography, with occasional forays into monochrome, seem somewhat ancillary to the extensive lives of such revered and exceedingly expensive vessels — some are designated Important Cultural Properties. However, while the Robert Mapplethorpe aesthetic is almost unavoidably comparative, the cultural associations are minimally sexual, quietly spiritual and entirely enmeshed within a long cultural tradition of veneration for particular kinds of refined nature.

At his best, Muda makes his subjects appear more beautiful than what would be botanically expected. Elsewhere he pictures the foliage shriveling like two-week old cabbages. The ceramic and photographic combinations are intriguing, and the contemporary brings new life to the old.

“As Pure as the Lotus: East Asian Ceramics and the Eyes of the Photographer Muda Tomohiro” at The Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, runs till July 27; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥600. Closed Mon. www.moco.or.jp/en/exhibition/2011/19.html

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