Artist Lee Kang-hyo is considered one of the finest Korean ceramicists today. Ahead of his new exhibition in Hong Kong, he tells Tatler about his mission to reinterpret Korean Buncheong
South Korean artist Lee Kang-hyo is regarded as one of the country’s finest potters today. It comes as no surprise as the artist has spent the last 40 years interpreting the Korean Buncheong—traditional Korean stoneware—in his own way. Lee eventually mastered the skill of applying liquefied white clay to the surface of vessels and platters. For him, the ceramic surfaces are like paper for ink brush painting.
Other than his work in Buncheong, Lee is also renowned for his moon jars, a type of traditional white porcelain from the late Joseon period. Its popularity and interest have steadily has skyrocketed internationally over the years, with RM from the pop band, BTS even purchasing his own.
With an exhibition underway at the Korean Culture Centre in Hong Kong called Ode to the Moon until March 12, Tatler catches up with the Korean artist in this exclusive interview to discuss his vision of modernising Korean Buncheong, how ceramics as an art form has changed over the years and the emerging popularity of moon jars internationally.
You spent 40 years endeavouring to interpret the Korean Buncheong in your own way. What about Korean Buncheong interested you in the first place?
Traditionally, oriental paintings are painted with black ink on white paper whereas Buncheong ware involves painting and decorating with white soil on a black earthen background. This technique is quite unique because it can express light and shadows by painting with white soil onto the colour of natural soil and express various pictorial language.
It's been 40 years. Do you think you have found the style you’re looking for?
For an artist at work, it’s about the process of finding oneself and building the style according to one’s ideas and perspectives on life. Ultimately, the artist’s ideas and spirit represent the art itself. Style is something that flows like water and is always in a constant state of flux because flowing allows endless changes instead of rotting. For me as an artist, there’s no permanent form. There’s only a continuous progressive form. There’s also no fixed style because the ever-evolving artist’s life is the style.
Nature is important in your work. How has it influenced the type of artist you are throughout your childhood to this day?
I believe that nature exists by itself. It doesn’t require human touch and logic. We feel comfortable and happy when we look at nature because suddenly, we are teleported into a realm where all our thoughts stop, and we are merely required to look. Artists, myself included, cannot recreate nature but can only express the quality of nature. Nature is the mother of all things; it’s the universe itself.
As an established Korean artist, do you feel that ceramics, as an art form, has developed a lot over the years?
In the past, Korean ceramic culture had emphasised practical aesthetics but recently, we’ve come to an era of individual creation that emphasises individual artists’ ideas and aesthetic expressions. I think that the art form and expressions in the field of ceramics have become more personal and universal than ever before, just like all art that transcends across genres.
You’ve also been trying to interpret Korean Buncheong into contemporary art objects. Why is it important to modernise them?
Humanity’s thinking and history are constantly changing. If things don’t change according to the flow of the times, they will only waste away and disappear. Even the most splendid cultural heritage of the past runs the risk of falling into oblivion if it doesn’t keep up with the flow of the times.
Similarly, Buncheong ware—the traditional Korean stoneware—falls into ‘tradition’ that symbolises a spirit of the times. Only when the tradition is newly built in sync with the new era can its vitality be maintained and developed. The essence of ‘modernisation’ in my Buncheong series is not an option; it’s a necessity and vitality to a tradition.
Can you tell us more about the pieces you’re exhibiting at Ode to the Moon in Hong Kong?
My wall piece and stool series are all based on the techniques and modern reinterpretation of the traditional Korean stoneware, the Buncheong ware. I tried to capture the images of nature such as sky, wind, and water pictorially through the simplest shapes possible.
How do you feel about working with the Korean Culture Centre in Hong Kong and Soluna Fine Art for this exhibition?
Usually, it’s not enough for individual artists to exhibit in front of the world. It’s thanks to the broader outreach and support of influential art organisations like Soluna Art Group (which comprises Soluna Fine Art and Soluna Living) that I was able to concentrate on my creative process while interacting with the public.
What would you say or want visitors in Hong Kong to get out of or feel about seeing your pieces?
Firstly, I would like to tell the audience that art is very subjective. You can feel and reflect more on it by emptying your mind and just looking at the work itself. Don’t think too hard, but look at the art with a relaxed mind and feel it with your heart.
What’s a typical day like for Lee Kang-Hyo? What is your creative process like?
Rather than describing a typical day for me, I want to explain how my regimen has evolved through my forties, fifties and sixties instead. At the age of 40, I only thought about my artistic projects day and night. It was a period of courage and devotion that was instrumental to forming my basic training and foundation as an artist. At age of 50, I built a solid foundation based on my studies. At the age of 60, I immersed myself in expanding my art world. After turning 60, I harmonized my work and life by committing to work for six to seven hours and the rest of the hours reading, going out for walks, and meditating.
An artistic inspiration doesn’t suddenly fall from the sky. Only through long hard concentration and immersing myself in the work can I unravel it one by one like a thread. The inspirations and ideas are already within me. It’s only a matter of dedicating one’s mind and actions to the hard work to reveal the inspirations. The artist is the nature and universe himself because his work reflects himself and his life.
You're not exhibiting the moon jar this time but it’s become very popular internationally over the years. Can you tell us more about its significance?
The people of Korea love the moon. The lunar calendar was used rather than the solar calendar before. Rather than its splendid characteristics, I like the subtle and simple emotions that the moon evokes because although the moon jar is round, it’s atypical and distorted. Our ancestors also made and loved such imperfect beauty in moon jars.
This timeless Korean sentiment has continued to the present day, which is why contemporary artists producing the moon jars in this era are garnering so much attention and interest. I think the combined expression of past sentiments in the contemporary moon jars makes them timeless and global; my current expressions of moon jars become futuristic as well.
Ode to Moon runs from January 13 to March 12, 2022 at the Korean Culture Centre in Hong Kong.