.Question: What's wrong with contemporary Korean pottery?
.Chung: In reply, I think I would have to dwell briefly on history.
.Experts around the world know one thing for sure. The glories of pottery in Korea during the Choson period (1392-1910) exceed all imagination.
.It's not only the quality that was unparalleled but also the variety of pieces turned out by the best kilns back then. They ranged all the way from ritual paraphernalia to kitchenware and those incomparable items for the desk of the literati, like water droppers and paper holders.
.These artisans in yesterday's Korea could do anything and did it with the kind of artistry and skill never since equaled in this country.
.And yes, they established a great tradition. Unfortunately that tradition proved somewhat fragile and began to crumble once the Japanese started pouring into Korea around the turn of the century.
.Why? The reasons are many, and among them is one that concerns technology. By then, you see, the Japanese had already mechanized, among other things, the potter's wheel. Here the wheel was still a manual affair: the potters kicked it to operate it. The outcome was inevitable.
.Ceramic wares produced in Japan all but outdistanced their Korean counterparts in price. Sometimes the price level of manually produced domestic wares was ten times as high as that of mechanically produced imports.
.In no time, Japanese imports nearly completely wiped out their Korean counterparts. Of course, the Japanese after "annexing" our country never tried to discourage this trend but did everything instead to hasten the demise of our great tradition.
.And so began a period of corpuscle forced upon our great heritage in pottery. It lasted nearly half a century until Korea was liberated from Japanese rule at the close of World War II in 1945.
.Q: What ensued?
.C: An ironic case of ignorance. Few in Korea, outside the exceedingly limited circle of collectors and antique dealers, were aware of the magnificence of our ceramic past. As a matter of fact, some university professors who had studied in Japan ended up sharing the Japanese sense of admiration for old Korean pottery. Trouble Is, they also shared the altogether unfounded Japanese idee fixe that Korea's ceramic excellence was an accident, that happened in the process of carrying out an unsuccessful attempt at copying Chinese masterpieces.
.When I joined the staff of this museum almost 30 years ago, Korean ceramic artists were still going all out imitating established contemporary American and European masters.
.The prevailing state of affairs was astonishing. While there were many scholars and artists abroad who deeply admired our tradition, it was the other way around back in Korea: our own artists and scholars shunned it.
.Even so, there existed a handful of Korean artists who seriously studied our tradition in pottery in the interest of solidifying the base of their own creativity, like Professor Kim Yikyung (see this issue's color section-Ed.). The ridiculous fact is, such artists were frowned upon as mere copycats by many of their fellow artists and critics in Korea.
.Mind you, I'm not against abstractionism in art. I must also say that some avant-garde ceramic sculptures deserve deep respect. But their styles by no means are everything in modern ceramic art. Instead, there is much in the past of our ceramic art that's serene, magnanimous and endlessly modern. Sad to say, this aspect of our tradition is admired far more deeply overseas than at home.
.Q: And what do you have to say about the works of today's traditionalist potters?
.A: In Korea after liberation, potters in this category really suffered a great deal from their attempt at emulating the styles and skills of their ancestors, These craftsmen used precisely the same kinds of kilns and materials as did potters in Korea centuries ago. They did everything to restore the old glories of pottery in Korea. And they suffered for the simple reason that few Koreans would buy their stuff,
.It all changed after the normalization of diplomatic relations with Japan (in 1965). Now tourists from Japan began skyrocketing in number. And they began snapping up copies of Choson-period porcelains and earthenwares.
.Not surprisingly, some of these potters have become fabulously wealthy. I have no objection to good copies. But a number of them have now taken a faux pas. They have been asked time and again by Japanese dealers to come out with what particularly satisfies Japanese taste. They have often obliged,
.The resulting wares are a curiosity, something that is not at all Korean in characteristics. Neither are they Japanese nor Chinese. You could all them only "Japanized" or even "stateless," And you see now a flood of this kind of pottery waiting for Japanese customers in Seoul and elsewhere around Korea. This stuff has no soul or heart in it.
.Q: What do you think should be done?
.A: I don't blame these Korean artists and potters for failing to know the splendors of our past. Their ignorance is but one result of the thorough Japanese colonial effort to eradicate Korea's cultural heritage, Consider: the Japanese even punished us for speaking our mother tongue at grade school.
.But their rule over our country ended 46 long years ago. That is to say, it's time for us to do away, once and for all, with this cultural twilight.
.You ask me what to do? We should begin by asking those able officials at our Ministry of Education to do some feasibility studies on how to expose our youths more extensively to the significance of what our ancestors achieved so magnificently in ceramics. Their accomplishments amount, after all, to the most dazzling of apexes in our cultural heritage.
.My hope is that a greater sense of pride will be taken by Korean youths in our cultural history .
.By the same token, my fondest hope is for some of our universities to create a chair in our ceramic past. And why not? It would be nice too to have a full-scale ceramic museum dedicated to showing, among other things, that what our nameless potters did centuries ago is, in some respects, far more event-grade than the most dedicated of today's avant-garde artists.