By Billy Renkl
Billy Renkl: Describe your education as a ceramicist in Korea. Was that inflected by your school’s identity as a school of science and technology?
Wansoo Kim: In my undergraduate school I mostly learned about ceramics. I think administrative people named the school in that way to highlight their engineering and science college, which I thought at that time “that name doesn’t work for me” because I was an “art” student. But now I am thinking that as I learned a lot about techniques from that school, that name makes sense. Throughout my four years, I learned all kinds of different techniques such as throwing, slip-casting and hand-building. I was also extensively exposed to the history of Korean ceramics, which governs the ceramic culture in South Korea.
You’ve just described yourself as an art student, but also emphasized your technical training – manual skills that grow out of a craft tradition. That questionable distinction is exactly what I want to talk with you about.
In my undergraduate school’s art college, there were five departments: Ceramic art and design, Metal Art and Design, Graphic Design, Industrial Design, and the Fine Art department. The ceramics department heavily focused on materials and learning techniques, but we also learned to make sculptures and product designs with clay. In spite of many different approaches, I think there was a clear borderline between clay and other media because of the rich history of pottery-making in South Korea.
The practice of pottery is ideally suited to an examination of interior versus exterior experience. That relationship is traditionally understood in terms of functionality. Your current work, though, seems to emphasize it as a poetic relationship.
The notion of inside and out has been my main concept. Whatever vessel forms I build, I naturally create the interior and exterior. I began to pay attention to this when I noticed the significance of plastic in our society as we use it a lot, I mean A LOT. With this thought I made a sculpture, putting replicas of Korean ceramic vessels into plastic milk jugs. This work led me to deeply think about the idea of inside and outside. I also found out that the interiors of many Korean ceramic treasures were not glazed, as if they didn’t care about parts people can’t see. I was inspired by this and wanted to reverse the interior and exterior.
I think this issue is especially pertinent to the idea of functionality. The creation of an interior space drives many craft traditions: pottery, turned-wood vessels, baskets, blown glass, clothing. Initially, perhaps, the thing was inconsequential; it was the space that mattered. You talk about becoming attuned to the interior of vessels, but I want to know about how you think of the interior as meaningful.
In my understanding of functionality, when it comes to a form having the interior space, the action of containing or holding is important to me. A vessel can physically hold food or liquid but, to me, it also metaphorically holds the history of the maker, culture or ideas that I want to talk about. Through investigating vessel forms in this way, I started to understand or, I would say, pay attention to, the interiors around me. My body and my mind function very similarly like vessels. My body is always holding my mind deep inside, invisible, in which it contains my ideas and my self. All the buildings are constructed to create the interiors and exteriors. Everything is governed by this logical sense, and with that, I am interested in questioning my ignorance and awareness around me. Talking about inside and out sounds as simple as it can be, but it is very complex because I don’t exactly know what is “inside.”
We seem to be still having this conversation: do artworks, paintings or etchings for instance, communicate differently than other cultural artifacts, like hair dryers or lug wrenches, and how does something like a wheel-thrown bowl fit into this conversation. Is the question framed differently in Korean ideas about ceramics?
I love the way you frame this question. In my understanding, the hierarchy that humans have developed appears in many forms including in a form of art. An art piece in a gallery, whatever form it is, can be seen as more a sacred thing than someone’s bowl from Target. This may be because our conception prizes “art” over mundane objects. It is funny that a ceramic bowl made 500 years ago can function the same as a bowl from Target, but now belongs to the national museum in Korea, and we see that work as an art piece. To me, I am thinking it is all about intention. Art historians intended that bowl to be an art piece, and a person probably thinks of that Target bowl as “I don’t care about any scratches I make with a fork” in his daily life. A lot of potters have their ideas and intentions behind a well-made thrown bowl. General approaches to ceramics in academia seem the same as teaching painting, and I don’t see much difference when I look at a bowl or a painting in a gallery.
I see this distinction as one of definition as well, but not intention – defined by the user rather than the maker. We can eat cereal out of a 500-year-old ceramic treasure, and we can place a plastic bowl from Target on a pedestal in a gallery (thanks, Duchamp!). The question is whether we are defining the object as art or not. This question collapses in your work.
I agree that the user defines function, however that function is intended by a maker’s decisions and the look of the object. Any form of domestic tableware has been determined by needs of function throughout human history, and we are so used to seeing them as just functional items. Their forms and colors are not something that we see only rarely, like a famous painting at a museum. This is something that could be challenging when understanding a bowl as “a traditional art form” because the function and familiarity of it can come to viewer’s mind first. However, like you said, a Target bowl can be an art piece if the maker choosse to use that bowl as an art form. In this way, I think the maker’s intention is really important as it contextualizes works differently. From a maker’s point of view, I think about functionality in my work, and it’s like me thinking about building a canvas to paint. As long as I make vessel forms, its function naturally follows me. However, the idea and formal qualities that I want to convey through a vessel form are my focal point and they are as important as those made with other media.
Tell me about your relationship to ceramic traditions in Korea, those vessels you saw in museums.
Living abroad has given me an opportunity to think objectively about the culture and social environment I always had growing up. First, I want to say that South Korea has such a unique history and development in the last 100 years. Korea was colonized by Japan from the early to mid 20th century. Through lots of tragedy and rapid development, Korea had lost its own culture and didn’t have much time to maintain it. This might be why Korean history highlights all treasures or remaining architecture that survived throughout that time, which include some ceramic pieces. And this might be why my undergrad program focused so much on the history of Korean ceramics. As a person who grew up more with technologies in a modern system, I sort of felt a disconnection between me and tradition and wanted to study from there to understand why it is important, and why I was led to think about these topics.
Culturally, The European/American tradition emphasizes authorship in the fine arts and anonymity in crafts. Is it the same in the Korean tradition? How do you think this affects the way that we encounter the objects?
I think that the boundary between the fine arts and crafts was created by the purpose of objects and the hierarchy of objects with their owners. In Korea as well, there are fine art galleries and galleries who only deal with “craft” objects. I sort of learned and saw things in that way, and I had to challenge myself with that idea as a maker. This tradition definitely affects our ways of thinking and understanding an object. However, the more I learn about making objects, the more I think it is not about categorizing, but it is about how we value and perceive objects. I think it is great that people have been discussing and questioning about this as it can slowly change people’s perceptions. And I believe that is how we change and transform our tradition.
Your own voice is so clear in these works, Wansoo. I am eager to see how your sensitivity to tradition as a source for an individual voice will be amplified by the students in your studio. Thanks for talking with me!
Billy Renkl teaches at Austin Peay State University.