From Echizen to Cismar: New Works by Jan Kollwitz

Pucker Gallery
Aug 13, 2016 4:58PM

Kyozutsu (Sutra scroll container)

Jan Kollwitz began his ceramic studies as an apprentice to the potter Horst Kerstan, in Kandern, Germany. For many years, Kerstan kept in contact with Japanese colleagues and employed some of their techniques. In 1977, he experimented with an Anagama kiln, a type of wood-fueled, climbing kiln used since the Middle Ages for firing Japanese ceramics and known for its characteristic fly ash glazing. However, Kerstan ultimately remained committed to the German tradition of craftsmanship, while his young apprentice was inspired by Japanese ceramics. Having completed his German apprenticeship in 1986, Jan decided to travel to Japan in order to gain a more intimate understanding of the techniques and spirit of Japanese ceramics.

Equipped with an understanding of the Japanese language, Jan traveled to Tokyo in search of a master who was willing to both take on an apprentice as well as teach a Westerner the fundamentals of Japanese artistic traditions. Many highly-educated Japanese people still believe it is impossible for a Westerner to overcome the great cultural divide. After months of searching with the help of numerous intermediaries, references, and contacts, Jan finally found Nakamura Yutaka, a master-craftsman from Echizen, who conquered the traditional forms and objects as well as their production processes. Yukata fulfills his own vision of sculptural ceramics, finding inspiration in Western art as well as through witnessing the excavations of historic workshops in his own region. In a sense, his work balances on a cultural and national margin similar to that of Horst Kerstan. After many careful, modest initiations and Kollwitz’s persistence, Nakamura agreed to take him on as a personal student.

The relationship between master and student in Japan is identical to the artistic practice: permeated by Buddhist theory. Taking on a student does not simply involve the teaching of technical skills. More poignantly, it is rooted in the acceptance of a somewhat spiritual companionship, involving a life-long and alternating engagement. The holistic teaching method can include measures that are humbling or even disconcerting, at least from a Western perspective. For example, the master’s authority is indisputable. The student can neither question methodologies nor doubt any of his decisions. One possesses knowledge while the other seeks it. These are fundamentally different “aggregate phases” of mankind where there is no middle ground. Both master and student must adhere to the behavioral codes they are assigned, even if they conflict with individual needs or their perceptions of justice. Equipped with the power to issue orders that students must follow unconditionally, the master is similar to an abbot in a Zen monastery. This obedience does not end at the workshop’s door. It permeates every aspect of the student’s life: leisure time, lifestyle habits, or any other attempts to obtain knowledge.

In Western countries, this form of teaching is commonly referred to as “dark pedagogy.” The manner in which an art form develops over the centuries is imbued in a master’s every move, independent of personal characteristics or teaching methods. Consequently, the teaching method is characterized by observation and imitation rather than by lectures or consideration for the student’s personal preferences. Naturally, the most important component of learning is relentless practice. Just as a word loses its meaning and sounds empty after a hundred repetitions, the making of bowl after bowl and vase after vase, at some point, also becomes devoid of everything but the process of creation. This process detaches the craftsman from egotism and individuality. Only once the student no longer fights against infinite repetition, follows the unquestionable tradition, and abandons his ambitions to create something extraordinary will he build the foundation upon which he can succeed. Kollwitz was aware that this quest required him to abandon his individuality and his desire for inner fulfillment. He did not intend to infuse Japanese techniques and aesthetics into his own postmodern and syncretistic style, but rather to learn a specific kind of ceramic tradition developed in Japan for centuries.

It usually requires twelve years for an apprentice to master the Japanese discipline that lies between art and craftsmanship. Jan Kollwitz, who followed the old Japanese tradition with a more stringent attitude than many of his colleagues, patiently took more than twelve years to finally make the central piece of the tea ceremony, the chawan. He tried thousands of times to create his own interpretation of the yamachawan and the yunomi (the smaller and bigger tea cups) before attempting to make smaller, glazed tea bowls for traveling. While doing so, he always kept an old adage in mind: when a young potter fires a chawan, it is likely to turn out superficial and influenced by an inherent desire to create art, thereby removing its genuineness. In 2009, when he fired a chawan for the first time, Jan Kollwitz finally gave shape to the concept of emptiness central to chanoyu and tea ceremonies in general.

 From a Western point of view, the difficulty of Japanese apprenticeships may be incomprehensible. Yet, if someone decides to embark on such a journey, they will ultimately learn the balance between technical skills, humble confidence, and serene faith. The potter relies on the spirit within this balance to produce truly great ceramics. In Cismar, just as in Japan, it is customary to place small bowls with rice, salt, and sake on top of the kiln to please the spirit that lives within. This may seem strange at first glance. However, anyone who has sat in front of a humming kiln and experienced its lively warmth, listened to the rhythm of oxidation and reduction, its breathing in and breathing out, and who has seen the white heat inside, the flames flickering through vents and cracks and the vibrating air on its surface, knows, without a doubt, that the kiln’s spirit is present and at work. During this time, the spirit takes the role of master, with all of the ambivalence and unpredictability that the position inherits. 

The potter, independent of the experience he acquires over years or decades, then inhabits the position of student again. His task is to listen, observe, and serve the developing ceramics by reacting in accordance with what is heard and seen. With every firing, the potter subjugates himself to an existential exercise, illustrating that the tradition of Japanese ceramics does not merely involve creating nice, practical goods. Instead, the craftsmanship of Japanese ceramics is a lifelong exercise where one learns to acclimate to the environment and to harmonize with the world. Ultimately, through his craft, an artist should be able to find a balance with uncontrollable forces. One should also have the ability to simultaneously capture and let go of individual moments. The lifelong journey of developing ceramics radiates a strong message to the silent observers handling them: everything is, indeed, simple.

- Christoph Peters

This text is an excerpt from the book Japan Beginnt An Der Ostsee: Die Keramik Des Jan Kollwitz, published by Wachholtz in January 2013.

Sara (Bowl)   

Pucker Gallery