Witness to an Ancient Truth: Ceramics by Young-Jae Lee
Are they all the same, all of these vases? What may seem to be true at first glance vanishes the moment we look closer. All of a sudden, little variations appear in these similar shapes or in the color of their glazes, little signs of individuality and character. Each vessel is one of a kind. Some are a bit more plump and orientated horizontally, others are stretched into the vertical, a bit longer or shorter.
Lip, neck, and shoulder are words often used to describe parts of a ceramic vessel. The connection to the human body is obvious, and Young-Jae Lee sees, at least, her spindle vases as bodies. Arranging them together in a group, as the potter has done for a number of museum installations, gives the impression of a gathering of people showing the familiar, broad spectrum of individual shapes and forms. Some of the more bulbous spindle vases may even evoke the image of dancing figures spinning around.
Each of these so-called spindle vases is individually formed by putting two separately created bowls on top of each other to create an indivisible unity of one globular body. In the process of duplicating one form, a new shape comes into being, not unlike the space we create when carefully placing our cupped hands together.
Traditional Korean storage vessels come to mind and, indeed, without stressing her heritage too strongly, Young-Jae Lee’s ceramics are deeply rooted in the culture of her homeland. Not primarily the shape—the form is influenced by her German education as well—but more so in her approach to pottery: striving for mastery, not by continuously inventing new shapes, but through modification, transformation, and re-shaping pre-existing valid, basic patterns. Young-Jae Lee experiments systematically with forms and glazes. She persistently analyses the sculptural understanding of each of her three main forms: bowls, spindle vases, and plates. The basic geometric shapes of sphere, cylinder, and cone remain at the core of her creative work. This concentration and focus contains a richness of possibilities to be examined with every single vessel. Lee is not focused simply on the repetition of a form once mastered, but she endeavors to access a quintessential uniqueness within the similarity.
Despite references to both her Korean roots and her German visual and theoretical education, there is something else about her vessels that is hard to capture in words. It has to do with the fine balance between perfection and imperfection that bring her pieces to life. Whether presented on stands or directly on the ground, as a singular piece, or installed among others of the same group, Young-Jae Lee’s ceramics claim their own space, the way sculpture does. But, the moment we mention the category of “sculpture,” we think primarily of a work of art. Artwork in the Western world is primarily characterized by the essential lack of function. Many contemporary artists question the assumed function of their artwork, only to emphasize that very lack of function as a way to establish proof of their qualification as art objects.
Young-Jae Lee has always viewed herself as a potter, rather than a ceramic artist. All of her vessels are intended to be used. In her view, there is no contradiction between art and craft. Keeping the aspect of function in mind is an important part of the throwing process, especially when shaping a smaller bowl as a perfect drinking vessel. In this context, the creation of a vase provides maximum freedom, even though Young-Jae Lee assembles hers from two bowls. Regardless of specific form, all of Lee’s works posses a certain sculptural quality, without relying on a reference to “artistic” non-functionality. Her spindle vases are naturally seen as sculptures. Through their voluminous form and captivating simplicity, they command a presence in their own right. And, are simplicity and effortlessness not the highest level of mastery?
These ceramic vessels are the result of a continuous dialogue between emotion and concept, which goes back to the beginning of Lee’s career in the 1970s. Enriched by her knowledge of Asian ceramics, European art history, and African art, Young-Jae Lee’s central question is one of quality: what makes a good ceramic work? There is probably no simple answer, but Young-Jae Lee’s pieces capture our attention and our hearts.
In their breathtaking, but humble and modest beauty, Lee’s works appear as witnesses to an ancient truth, age-less, timeless, yet existing in a state of constant change. In this case, beauty is something that radiates from within certain thoughtfully and skillfully hand-made objects. It is inscribed in their imperfections. This pottery makes us feel more alive and more connected to the world. An island of calm is created by looking at these vases or holding one of the bowls with both hands. We are allowed a few transient moments of contemplation, and deep happiness.
Susanne Wedewer-Pampus is a freelance art critic and curator based in Germany.