Interview and Exhibit Photo Tour
From March thru May 2004 at EY-NET
Story and Photos
by Aoyama Wahei at EY-NET
Uraguchi Masayuki's celadon glazes stop the rivers of time. As if poured through crystal prisms, light is captured in that very moment, forever enshrined as evidence of something that flowed, glistened, shined. In his glazes we glimpse the divine.
Uraguchi Masayuki (1964 - ) loves to talk about his work. He relishes every opportunity. You can see the twinkle in his eyes as he mutters jargon with rhythmical verbosity. His hands twitch, point, clench. He is like an evangelical preacher-man on the brink of epiphany. He won't stop.
Sitting in a soba shop on a rainy March afternoon in Mishima City, Uraguchi Masayuki is more than lively. He is animated. I ask a short question; he gives me a hearty 10-minute speech on everything from the beauty of blue to grueling manual labor in the mountains of Tochigi. I sit quietly and nod, noticing that his noodles grow stale. Uraguchi cannot be bothered to pick his chopsticks up to eat. Like his glazes, he has enraptured himself in a trance.
Yet, his words should not be mistaken for mindless banter, cheeky intellectualization or self-aggrandizement. Rather, Uraguchi's lengthy soliloquies are lucid and sincere representations of his deepest convictions. They are riveting and insightful keys to understanding the mysteries behind seiji (celadon). They are passionate odes of love. He worships celadon. He dreams of it. He wakes to it. And so, empathy pours.
"I'm sure you know, but seiji is incredibly difficult. I don't think I'm exaggerating to say that it's probably the most difficult of yakimono to make."
Uraguchi pauses for a moment. "The Chinese toiled so hard to produce just one decent seiji out of hundreds that are damaged, destroyed, or of poor quality. That single, rare, surviving piece would be presented to the emperor. Finding a diamond takes less work. Basically, even when they did succeed, they still couldn't produce seiji like the ones we have today. But you have to give them credit, as they had no such thing as an electric kiln in those days!"
To imagine such abysmal tribulations by the potters of old can make the head spin. But that is not to say that Uraguchi himself doesn't instill painstaking effort in such a risky business.
"Well, I've gotten to the point where the typical seiji glaze is around a 50% success rate-per-kiln. That's pretty decent. Miruji or Kokuyosai, hmm, I will say one or two out of 10 pots will turn out alright."
Yakishime (non-glazed wares often fired in a chambered wood-fueled kiln) potters will often have nearly 70% success rate-per-kiln, sometimes much higher. Compared to celadon potters, who can only achieve 10% to 20%, it is evident that celadon means the risk of great loss for their strenuous efforts. One may spend a great amount of time on a single pot (and celadon does require much time to geometrically calculate where to carve and shave) only to have one survive out of ten or eleven thrown, sculpted and fired. Less supply per kiln thereby necessitates the increase in price.
"You see the Daitei, well, I spent almost two months on it. But even though I've spent two months firing and glazing each part that goes to its construction, I can have it break to pieces within the kiln. A break in the leg means the failure of the Daitei. The celadon glaze might not come out as expected. That means two months lost."
The "tei" was an ancient ceremonial Chinese bronze-ware form, similar to a three-legged bowl, which was the symbol of power and authority for Kings of the Warring States Period (771BC - 221BC). Large bronze-wares have been excavated throughout China, yet in the case of celadon, only small 20cm to 30cm tall tei have been discovered. However, Uraguchi has resurrected the ancient style through the most difficult of mediums. His Seiji Kokusho Daitei is the largest in the world.
"We know the potters in those days dreamed of making large tei to present to their lords. We find shards or parts to a tei at ancient kiln sites. Yet, they failed in that they did not have the technology to accompany their technique. Me, I use an electric gas kiln with a gas burner for burning wood. It smokes the chamber and completes reduction of the kiln, a process that deepens the colors and cracks of the celadon glaze. When inside the kiln, the pot will shrink. If you have three legs, they will recoil and collapse. Yet to solve this problem, I built three wheeled rails, so that the legs will slide smoothly upon shrinking. It effectively prevents the tei from breaking underneath the pressure."
As Uraguchi proves through his actions, innovation is essential.
There are hordes of Bizen potters in Japan, the number close to 600 and rising. Yet when one thinks of celadon ceramists, the digits are in the singular. Living National Treasure Miura Koheiji, Minegishi Seiko, Kawase Shinobu, Kishimoto Kenjin -- big names in celadon are few, not because of a lack of quality potters, but because there are just so very few of them. In essence, the difficulty of celadon turns many potters away from the challenge.
Yet, Uraguchi Masayuki has not contented himself with simply tackling typical celadon. Rather, he has pushed the boundaries of celadon to new heights by making seiji of a kind the world has not seen before. Two vivid examples are his "Miruji Kokuyosai Chawan" and his "Seiji Kokusho Daitei" (see above photo)
Miruji and Kokuyosai are names for celadon glazes invented by Uraguchi. "I coined the phrase Miruji, as the glaze reminded me of the faint, almost-holy light that just barely reaches the deepest depths of the sea. Kokuyosai I named after how the tiny prisms within the glaze reminded me of light being shattered like ice."
Indeed, the names do the glazes justice. Seiji is often associated with pale blues and greens, along with jagged, sporadic cracks in the glaze. Uraguchi has turned seiji on its head by making darker, enigmatic glazes that not only crack, but glitter. Like a bee perpetually entrapped in amber, he has captured the beauty of light and fragmented it with an ice pick. What he has encased are prisms, thousands, or even millions of them, that lie underneath the most nebulous emerald-blue ever found in seiji.
The late, great Okabe Mineo (1919-1990) had darker glazes on his later-period celadon work, and it is clear that Uraguchi's Miruji Kokuyosai and Kokusho glazes are influenced by Okabe's glazes. Yet, it is without doubt a tremendous feat of Uraguchi's to have made a full-bodied and deeper glaze that is, even from a short glance, authentically his. It captivates. I have seen a young woman stare into the kodai (foot) of his Miruji Kokuyosai for 15 minutes amidst the natural light of early Spring, trying to take in the myriad colors locked within Uraguchi's glazing. I followed in suit.
Another Uraguchi original is the way he lets the celadon glaze drip in mid-air, reminiscent of millennium-old stalactites. While much of today's celadon is about control and perfection (a case in point is Minegishi's celadon, which is quite static), Uraguchi allows for serendipity to reign freely within the kiln. This produces effects that are very much fluid and alive, a characteristic oft lacking in other seiji. The "feel" of a "fired thing," thus, is captured.
As mentioned earlier, his Daitei is a first for mankind. I do not know of any other potter living today who has attempted a "tei" in celadon. Not only this, he has applied his unique Seiji Kokusho glaze, rather than ordinary seiji glaze, to authenticate the piece as trademark Uraguchi. Kokusho contains a dazzling array of kannyu, or cracks and fissures within the glaze. Other potters may get a single layer of kannyu; Uraguchi's Kokusho, however, is an absolute symphony of crackling. A feat of the utmost virtuosity, the Daitei is the manifestation of Uraguchi's uncanny technique and diligence.
ABOUT URAGUCHI MASAYUKI
Uraguchi was born and raised in Tokyo at the height of its pollution.
"I grew up in Tokyo when toxic smog hovered the skies on a daily basis. My 5th grade elementary class took a field trip to Tokyo Bay. We went right next to the Sumida River, and I have to say, the river was absolutely black -- so black, in fact, that I thought the name 'Sumida' came from the word 'sumi' (charcoal ink). And well, the stench I will never forget!"
I listened to Uraguchi while trying to foresee where this story would lead. I hadn't a clue, as his soliloquy continued.
"My image of natural flowing water, both ocean and river, was that of murky, muddied waters. But shortly after the Sumida incident, my family took a drive down to Nishi-Izu (which is, coincidentally, very close to our office in Mishima). The scenery there numbed me; for it was the most beautiful blue I'd ever seen. The sky and the ocean, which stretched across kilometers, had no divide. They were one. On that day, I could not get blue out of my head. That's one reason for my infatuation with seiji. Nishi-Izu."
With this childhood memory serving as the foundation for his seiji worship, Uraguchi enrolled at the Tokyo National University of Fine Art and Music; yet, he was hardly certain as to what kind of art he desired to create.
"At my school, the students did not specialize in a particular field until their 3rd year. So first, everyone had to take general studies in painting, crafts, sculpture, etc. When we got to pottery, I found something in it that I could not find in any other form of art."
Uraguchi's voice begins to rise again, as his hand gestures gain momentum. He points rapidly with his middle finger while he darts a sentence.
"Pottery is different from all other art forms because the process of creation isn't finished at the wheel. Man only does half the job, while the rest is up to flame's will. I thought that was very different from any other art form -- that element of luck, of being unable to control all the processes that go into making art. I thought it fantastic."
He gradually dabbled with porcelain wares, in particular hakuji (white porcelain) and seihakuji (blue porcelain). Yet, he quickly grew bored with hakuji.
"Hakuji is actually rather easy to shape. I could make sleek forms, I could make it thin, but at the end of the day, it didn't excite me. Seihakuji was the same, but I liked the glaze better. Did you know that if you continue to apply the seihakuji glaze, the work becomes seiji? Essentially they are the same thing, albeit seiji cannot be as thin due to its layered glaze. Also, seihakuji is porcelain. I was interested in stoneware, and I thought seiji was in the same vein, as the base clay is exactly that: stoneware. The fact is that seiji glaze combines with the iron content of the base clay, and that middle ground that is formed creates the glow of seiji. It was the natural blue of the sea and sky."
Two significant encounters with national treasures further sparked Uraguchi's passion for seiji -- a Japanese National Treasure (designated as the "Sung Dynasty Seiji Vase" at the Tokyo National Museum) and the Living National Treasure Miura Koheiji. For more on Japan's Living National Treasures, please click here.
"Honestly, I only vaguely remember holding the vase in my hands. I was still a student, and I did not yet know much about pottery. Hayashiya Seizo, the famous art critic, was teaching at my university at the time, and he took us to see these treasures kept at the museum. I held a Chojiro Kuro-Raku in my hands. I held an Oku-Korai chawan designated an important cultural property. And then, I held the seiji vase. Several months later, we were told to write about one piece that caught our eye during the course of the semester. I didn't really know why, but I chose the seiji vase. Subconsciously, that piece left a huge impression on how I see yakimono. And it is after that experience that I chose Miura-sensei as my graduate advisor."
Miura Koheiji (1932- ) is the sole Important Intangible Cultural Property holder for the art of seiji. His seiji is soft, gentle, and heavily influenced by the ethnic traditions of the Silk Road. Uraguchi, however, is the only celadon artist working today who can claim to be the direct pupil of Miura. Miura's advice is cherished by Uraguchi. And along with ancient Chinese Bronze wares, Miura's influence on Uraguchi is profound, albeit more in spirit than what is seen within his actual works.
Ping. In the cool silence of Uraguchi Masayuki exhibition gallery, his glazes come to life. Listen closely. Like chirping crickets on a midsummer night, one can hear the slight cracking of his seiji, long after being taken out from the kiln. Uraguchi's kannyu continue to crack, both through the fusion of clay and glaze, as well as through use. (This sensation can last for months, or even up to a year.)
It is but one of the many joys of using Uraguchi's celadon. Its sound is music to the ears. "Please don't be startled if you hear something crack," Uraguchi says, a bright grin on his face. "It's only the glaze."
Ever the innovator, Uraguchi is quickly gaining momentum for breathing new life into ancient celadon. His works are, without doubt, the look of celadon's future today. Welcome, then, to Uraguchi Masayuki's "New Celadon World."
by Aoyama Wahei
Uraguchi Masayuki Profile
- 1964 - Born in Ogikubo, Tokyo
- 1987 - Graduates Ceramic Art Department of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music
- 1989 - Graduates Miura Koheiji (Living National Treasure) Institute, Tokyo University of Art (post-graduate); receives Prize for Traditional Arts and Crafts New Works Exhibition
- 1990 - Prize, International Ceramic Art Exhibition; Prize, Nitten
- 1991 - Builds Independent Kiln in Hogacho, Tochigi Prefecture
- 1992 - Prize, Asahi Ceramic Art Exhibition (first of many)
- 1993 - Awarded New Ceramist Award, Asahi Ceramic Art Exhibition
- 1995 - Prize, Japan Ceramic Art Exhibition
- 1995 - First Exhibition at Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi, Tokyo
- 1996 - Travels to China to study the old kilns of Southern Sung.
- 1997 - Prize, Japan Traditional Arts and Crafts Exhibition (first of many)
- 1998 - Exhibits Work at the Great Works by Masters in Contemporary Ceramics Exhibition, Fukui Prefecture (work purchased by The Japan Foundation)
- Exhibits Work at "Japanese Pottery - The Rising Generation from Traditional Japanese Kilns" Exhibition, works shown in Argentina, Columbia, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Peru, Brazil, etc.
- 1999 - Exhibits Work at the Future of Ceramic Art in Contemporary Japan, Osaka
- 2001 - Moves Kiln to Hachigocho, Ibaraki Prefecture
- 2002 - Receives Ibaraki Prefecture Art Festival Award of Merit
Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi, Sapporo Mitsukoshi, Niigata Mitsukoshi, Shinjuku Keio, Osaka Takashimaya, Kyoto Takashimaya, Gifu Takashimya, Okayama Takashimaya, Yonago Takashimaya, Nagoya Maruei, Shimonoseki Daimaru, Imaharu Daimaru, Yamagata Matsuzakaya, Toyama Daiwa, Nagaoka Daiwa, Takamatsuy Tenmanya, Hiroshima Tenmanya, Kurashiki Tenmanya, Utsunomiya Tobu, Utsunomiya Ueno, Nagano Tokyu, Oita Tokiwa, Kumamoto Tsuruya, Sano Contemporary Crafts at Fujinoya, Kanda Tsuboyoshi, Utsunomiya Gallery Mei, etc.
LEARN MORE ABOUT URAGUCHI MASAYUKI AND CELADON