The Weird and Wonderful World of Ceramic Art

The City of Kasama has a history of pottery-making going back over 1500 years, with ancient kilns still being unearthed from the local hills. To this day there are regional artists working with both traditional and innovative methods to produce several hundred tons of ceramic pieces per year, and you can’t throw a plate in Kasama without hitting a tiny gallery or workshop. So, it seems exceptionally fitting that this historic location be the setting and site for the Ibaraki Ceramic Art Museum.

Originally built 13 years ago with funding and land provided by the prefecture of Ibaraki, the museum is an interestingly designed concrete building sitting proudly atop one of Kasama’s many tall hills, surrounded by lush woods and fertile lawns. It not only offers exhibitions on three separate levels, it also has a lovely gift shop right near the front door and a small Japanese eatery where you can dine on locally produced ceramic tableware.

Keeping with its rather young age, the building itself is decorated with scattered modern art installations, including the adorably (and deceivingly) named ‘Fluffy 5’, which comprises 5 cloud-bubble shaped aluminum pieces in 5 different colors arranged on the lawn beside a viewing window. The exhibitions themselves usually veer towards the modern and contemporary arm of the art world, with one of the current exhibitions entirely comprised of pieces that would not normally fall into the assumed category of ‘ceramics’. A teacup poodle, inside a teacup, painted in a Wedgewood style motif! A leather jacket and handbag that look so authentic it’s hard to believe they weigh several dozen kilos! Pieces so delicate and detailed it seems the artists themselves must have cast them fully formed from their imaginations. And each one has a separate story and thought-process that intrigues and beguiles the viewer; an attempt to expose the way things change through the process of time and heat, attempts to subvert our preconceptions about objects, explorations of the limits of the medium and craft.

The main curator, Mr. Takashi Yanagida, was kind enough to take the time to show us around this fantastical exhibit and impart his vast knowledge of each piece. As curator he is one of those responsible for coming up with the themes for the exhibitions, and is also in charge of approving and executing the themes of other curators. When asked about how they decide on the themes he mentioned several different processes: often it was a question of timing, basing events on the season or local customs. For example, the current main exhibit was planned as a way to introduce the intricacies of modern art to children and families by making it easier to understand and more engaging for the younger set, as a way of passing the summer holidays. Each piece asks questions such as ‘is it a person? Is it an animal?’, and tries to ignite curiosity and discourse. Other exhibits involve a vague theme proposed by the curators that they then take to the artists; they ask the artists to provide 3 to 4 pieces that they think fit the tone of the overall theme and choose among them for display. Sometimes they hold solo exhibitions, covering the work of only one especially famous or meritorious artist, such as the locally revered Matsui Kosei (coming up next year).

Overall, the museum works in a symbiotic fashion with the local artists and community, providing the artists a location to showcase their wares and expand their audiences, and giving locals and visitors alike a glimpse at the innovative and intriguing new worlds of ceramic art that are constantly being formed within the region. As Mr. Yanagida mentioned quite frequently, most of the up-and-coming artists of the region are young females, and their fascinatingly nuanced work featured prominently in the latest exhibit. In addition, one of the current exhibits features the Kasama National Children’s Pottery Competition selectees; a whole room filled with the strikingly well-formed creations of junior high students from around the country, part of the city’s initiative to promote the appreciation and continuation of the local export.

The final exhibit we toured was a collection of some of the most famous and renowned ceramic artists from around the country, featuring some breath-taking pieces of skillful construction. Of particular note was the previously mentioned Matsui Kosei, whose work often involved layering different colors of clay, making patterns, and then expanding the clay on a wheel to create a double-layer double-colored pattern. Another artist, Itaya Hazan, was known for his beautiful celadon-style glazes and delicate carving of pieces; his etchings were so well done that they appeared as embossing as opposed to being sunken into the piece as you would expect.

However, for those who prefer a more natural encounter with art, the woods surrounding the museum are filled with whimsical pieces, especially the ‘Clay Forest of the Magician’. As you climb the slight hills there are colorful mosaics, rows of clay birds, and even a giant dog collar for the woods’ canine guardian (big enough to hold an elephant!). Across the street from the museum is a large gift shop filled with particularly expensive pieces and local foods, complete with a small cake shop and café that also serves soft ice cream. As a result, it is easy to make a day of it here; a tour of the museum and its fascinating pieces, a walk in the whimsical woods, some snacks and shopping to round off the day. For a glimpse at Kasama’s past and future, the Ibaraki Ceramic Art Museum is a highly attractive choice.

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