Fukami Sueharu -The Most Important Kyoto Ceramic Artist Today?

《Serene》 by Fukami Sueharu, porcelain, 2001
Image courtesy of the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture

The Triumphant Arches of Seihakuji Porcelain
Studio Interview with Fukami Sueharu (深見陶治 1947- )
Written by Matsuyama Tatsuo
Translated by Aoyama Wahei

Today, it is hardly an exaggeration to claim that the appreciation for Japanese contemporary ceramics is greater internationally than domestically. One artist who has spearheaded such a movement is Fukami Sueharu, whose works have been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, along with other prominent institutions the world over. In 2005, Fukami was the only artist selected amongst previous Grand Prize winners of the prestigious Faenza International Ceramic Art Competition to hold a solo exhibition at the International Ceramic Art Museum in Faenza. What is it about Fukami’s porcelain that captivates the world over? By fully reviewing Fukami's career as a ceramic artist, one can discover the reasons behind his many successes.

Fukami Sueharu was born in 1947 (22nd year of Showa) to a family kiln found adjacent to Kyoto’s Sennyuji Temple. This area was home to nearly 100 small kilns during the time of Fukami’s birth, and each manufacturer produced a different kind of ceramics based on their rural origins. Craftsmen were divided between those who had migrated from the Seto/Mino kiln sites, or those from Kutani. Fukami's father was a craftsman who came to Kyoto from Seto.

The artist was born soon after the end of the war. The tattered ceramic industry of Kyoto was greatly revived during this time, and Fukami’s family kiln played a small part in this restoration.

Fukami was the youngest of six children, yet as his elder brother took over the family kiln, Fukami was in no ways shackled by the burdens of the family business. From his childhood, the artist remembers that “a failed firing meant falling into debt.” Thus rather than running an unstable pottery, he “wished to be employed as a relatively stable lathe craftsman.”

Kyoto during Fukami's youth found itself in the era of the noborigama (rising chamber kiln). In other words, this was the heyday of the communal kiln system, wherein various small kilns would fire their works together in the same noborigama so as to heighten efficiency. If by any chance a kiln firing ended in failure, an entire month's sales would be lost.

The noborigama was eventually prohibited in 1970 by a legal statute for the prevention of air pollution, and thus Kyoto entered a new era wherein the electric and gas kilns were to gain dominance. Fukami experienced firsthand the demise of the noborigama, and it was during the advent of the gas and electric kilns that the artist began his career as an artist.

Fukami says that “if Kyoto's indigenous ceramic industry had happened to be an unstable one, ceramic artists would not have emerged from this region.” Indeed, the artist’s key creative technique of “pressurized slip-casting,” together with the reduction firing for his seihakuji (bluish-white porcelain) using an electric kiln, are modified versions of regional ceramic techniques used in Kyoto. As Yagi Kazuo, the legendary avant-garde Kyoto ceramicist, once famously quipped, “We're only just chawan (teabowl) makers,” it can be said that the local industry and its traditional techniques had given the progressive art of Kyoto its vitality.

The fact that the artist spent his early twenties during the end of the 1960's to the early 70's also played an important role in the development of Fukami’s aesthetics.

At the early age of 20, the artist, after graduating from the Kyoto Municipal School for Crafts (the present-day Kyoto Municipal Industrial Research Institute), was first selected at the Nitten arts exhibition in 1967. At the time, this was the youngest selection for an artist within the history of Nitten, and it was this recognition which strengthened
Fukami's resolve to become a full-fledged ceramic artist.

However, perhaps what must be mentioned above all is the phenomenal sea change within Fukami’s creative consciousness, first seen at the debut exhibition of his trademark “pressurized porcelain slip-casting” works at Kyoto's Asahi Gallery in 1980 -13 years from when he first debuted as an artist.

The majority of Fukami's early work is now owned by the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture located in Hanford, California, and its collection vividly illustrates the evolution of Fukami’s work from porcelain, to then stoneware, and then to his bluish-white seihakuji “half-porcelain” works. The Clark Center had held a large-scale exhibition of their Fukami collection in 2003, entitled “Genesis of a Genius –the Early Ceramics of Fukami Sueharu,” which displayed the various stylistic changes of the artist in full. Today, this exhibition can only be viewed when glancing back at its exhibition catalog.

After being selected to the Nitten at the age of 20, Fukami failed to be selected for two consecutive years. It was this repetition of failure which helped to further develop the artist’s creative consciousness.

From this time, Fukami had been under increased pressure to develop his own style of self-expression. Although the artist could learn the “techniques” for creating ceramics at school or from his family kiln, his early Nitten failures taught Fukami the importance in creating an authentic ceramic philosophy to call his own. To further mature as an artist, Fukami pushed himself to “read each and every art book he could get his hands on, to listen to others, and to see as many art exhibitions as possible.” In fact, Fukami placed greater emphasis on attending exhibitions of contemporary art and sculpture, rather than exhibitions of ceramics.

The early 1970’s was a turning point for Japanese contemporary art. New challenges to Western conceptions of “modern art,” which were imported into Japan since the Meiji Period, were sparked from various sectors throughout the nation.

A key example of this challenge was Sekine Nobuo's work entitled “Phase – Earth,” exhibited at the very first Japan Contemporary Open-Air Sculpture Exhibition held at Suma Rikyu Park in 1968. This work featured a gigantic circular hole, measuring 2 meters in diameter, which was dug within the park; placed next to this circular hole was an identical mound of earth, which was formed with the very earth that was dug from the circular hole. Sekine was a member of the Mono-Ha Movement, which was to increase its influence on Japanese art from this time. Artists affiliated with this school would take ordinary mono (objects or things) such as earth, stone and iron scrap and, without changing the material’s fundamental qualities, would combine these objects together and present the newly created space as a work of art.

Furthermore, the Osaka World Expo was held in March of 1970, with themes hailing “mankind’s progress and harmony.” In May of the same year, the 10th Japan International Art Exhibition was held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. Yet to fully advance the theme of “man and material” proclaimed by art historian and exhibition curator Nakahara Yusuke, the show abolished work entries by nationality, as well as discarding the awarding of prizes.

It can be said that these three elements helped to change the face of Japanese contemporary art. However, one also cannot ignore the sociological changes that took place within Japan as having greatly influenced the art of this era.

In particular, the violent student protests that shook the nation, in particular the battle between students and police at Tokyo University’s Yasuda Lecture Hall erupted in January of 1969. In July of the same year, Apollo 11 landed on the moon for the first time in the history of mankind. Furthermore, the literary giant Mishima Yukio committed ritualistic suicide in November of 1970.

Looking back, these events illustrate how turbulent and impressionable these few years were in Japan's history. It was this era which first gave rise to artists confronting the idea of “creating things.” Why were they creating, and what were they trying to express? Perhaps it could be said that without the formulation of a viable “concept,” it was virtually impossible to “create objects” during this time.
From the end of the 1960’s to the early 70’s, Fukami's aesthetic style would rapidly change. The artist's “Picture Book of Dreams,” made in 1972, was an open book formed from stoneware, with a white porcelain bubble popping out from the pages of the book. It was decorated with graffiti-like sometsuke cobalt blue under-glaze paintings, which were also vaguely reminiscent of wood-block paintings.

Fukami Early Works.jpg

Left Photo《Picture Book of Dreams》 H 26.0 W 24.0 D 19.5cm (1972)
Photography by Hatakeyama Takashi

Right Photo 《The Morality of Youth》 H 51.0 W 48.0 D 35.0cm (1974) (photos courtesy of Hohono Geijutsu)

In 1974, Fukami exhibited the work titled “The Morality of Youth.” The roof of the box-shaped object was made with a large wavy silhouette, much like his current seihakuji works. The artist says that a fluttering flag was the source of inspiration for this work. Furthermore, when closely observing the patterns of the Irabo (ash-based) glaze which smothers its body, one can find the semblance of a human face. In other words, hidden within this work is the image of men waving flags. Says Fukami, “The flag is a symbol of nations, of establishments, of social groups; as a reflection of my young self, I wanted to symbolically express the frustrations and pains of those people living under the flag, together with its social hypocrisies, within this work. I'm slightly embarrassed by such emotions when reviewing this piece today, but I suppose this was how I felt at the time.”

Thus it can be seen that Fukami's stoneware in the early 70's were highly political in nature, and his artistic style differed greatly from work to work.

The excessive variance in Fukami's style would come to an end with the half-porcelain work entitled “The First Journey” in 1975. The wave-like form of the upper body was made by pressing the mixed clay into a cast, while the base of the work was made through hand-pinching.

This transformation was not simply a result of Fukami switching his primary material from stoneware to half-porcelain. Rather, what could be observed was a change in consciousness, particularly in regards to the notion of “expression.” The upper body of “The First Journey” evokes images of a churning ocean. One can perhaps claim that the work is highly abstract if simply comparing the form of the piece to a roaring wave; yet it is not the changing form of a “wave” which is vital. Instead, what is important are the “myriad possibilities” for change that a wave’s form can express. From 1977, Fukami has created several similar works, and each depicted a “cross-section” of a wave in a rectangular form of approximately 50 centimeters on all sides.

What the artist had strived to represent, however, was not simply a fragment of a wave, but a wave's “continuity,” or in essence, its unlimited and perpetual ability to stretch out across an ocean. At the artist’s first solo exhibition at a Kyoto gallery in 1978, the artist displayed various works of splashy, twisted porcelain in a circular pattern across the gallery floor that were, in essence, a precursor to the large-scale installation works of today. Expressed during this show were the eternally flowing waves of the ocean.

The desire to create works which further expressed the continuity of space would ultimately lead Fukami to develop new and singularly-independent works that would fully satiate this wish, especially in terms of size. In other words, a collage of square-like objects of 50 centimeters in size could only be a fragmented collection of space. And if organized as an installation, the gallery space itself would be transformed for only a brief, ephemeral moment in time, rather than for perpetuity.

The concepts of “eternity” and “continuity” would eventually free Fukami’s works from the contraptions of “objet d'art.” In his youth, Fukami had internally struggled with the idea of “objet d'art” within contemporary ceramics. Although the artist could not compose a clear answer to this concept with words, he strongly felt that an answer could be found within his works.

The meaning of “objet” in French is objectivity. Such is the polar opposite of the subjectivity of man, and at the same time, an object was a mono (thing) that a person would interact with within his subjective, everyday life. When placing this concept within the spectrum of post-war ceramics, the “objet d'art” was further labeled “objet-yaki (ceramics),” after the legendary debut of Yagi Kazuo's seminal 1954 work “Mr. Samsa's Walk.” Although originally called “objet-ikebana,” the origins of the phrase, or even the rules for which a work could be called an objet, remained unclear.

Works devoid of any element of functionality, or in other words, works that could only be physically referred to as an “object,” were categorized as “objet d'art.” Thus utilitarian vessels such as jars, bowls and plates did not fall under this category. However, when understanding “objet d'art” within the context of modernism, the term itself, especially within the realm of contemporary ceramics, is a highly unique and controversial concept.

fukami_8.jpg fukami_17.jpg
《Distant Ocean》(1976) and 《Wind》(1980)
Images courtesy of the Clark Center

The Formal Independence of Seihakuji

In the 1980's, Fukami Sueharu’s works shift toward the realm of “anti-objet,” and the technique that helped propel the artist in this new direction was “pressurized slip-casting.” The epiphany for wielding this traditionally industrial technique first came when Fukami witnessed his elder brother mass-producing porcelain chopstick holders through slip-casting.

Large size is the major constraint of typical casting methods. Fukami at this time had already understood that his conceptual ideal was simplicity in form, thus to create works of utter simplicity and, at the same time, were transcendent of size limitations, Fukami soon realized that “pressurized slip-casting” was the only plausible technique to pursue. However, extraordinary ordeals were awaiting the artist in order to successfully apply the technique to his envisioned works.

Fukami's very first “pressurized slip-casting” works, exhibited at Kyoto's Asahi Gallery in 1980, were works spawned through grueling hard work and a dire lack of food and sleep. The gallery was known for exhibiting well-known artists, and although Fukami had already received the Grand Prize at the Kyoto Municipal Craft Exhibition in 1978, it was a tremendously prestigious step forward for the artist.

Through various stages of modification, Fukami eventually came upon the following procedure for pressurized porcelain slip-casting.

1. An image is first drawn, and a half-porcelain cast is made according to this design.
2. The cast is linearly divided, and is placed in a veneer box, with its outer regions filled with clay. Next, plaster is filled into the cast, and an outer Plaster of Paris cast is completed.
3. If the end work is large, the plaster cast is divided into three parts, and is stabilized with wood oak and bolts.
4. After opening a small hole in the plaster cast, liquid slip porcelain (kaolin and petunse) is poured into the cast, and the mold is placed under intense pressure in a specialized compressor for approximately 3 hours. Then, the liquid slip is emptied from the cast.
5. The plaster cast is removed after 3 hours, and as the cast had absorbed the water within the slip, a thin, unhardened, 14 millimeter thick porcelain clay frame is formed.
6. The porcelain clay body is naturally dried for two weeks, and then is artificially dried within a drying chamber.
7. Using an ultra-hard Tungsten alloy metal blade and sandpaper, the porcelain body is carved at every rim and edge. After the sharpening of the body, the porcelain is bisque-fired.
8. While compressing the façade, a seihakuji bluish-white glaze is sprayed onto the body through an airbrush, and is dried. A glaze’s depth and color changes according to how thick the glaze is applied on different sections of the work.
9. To ensure that the piece does not break or bend after firing, the inside of the hollow porcelain piece is further glazed by spraying glaze through an opening.
10. For approximately 24 hours, the piece is fired and completed through reduction.

The above technical process is a culmination of extreme skill, diligence and failed firings. Yet why does the artist continue to challenge this method, even when it requires Fukami to tolerate both the pains of failure and inefficient firings? Perhaps the main reason for persevering through these tribulations is that this technique is the only method that can effectively help the artist to attain his aesthetic ideal - to “erase the fingerprints of the artist.”

It is common knowledge that in the world of ceramics, an artist's “fingerprint” is a highly-valued characteristic. In other words, the traces of an artist's hands are often what give ceramic art its unique flavor, and what differentiates a work of “art” made by a ceramic artist from a mass-produced, machine-spun work. Such imprints are a validation that the work is truly one of a kind.

By erasing the hands of the artist, Fukami is in effect erasing the ambiguity behind the term “artist” or “ceramicist.” Furthermore, this erasure ultimately separates the artist from his work, and creates a free-standing and pure mono (object) that is independent from all else.

After his 1980 solo exhibition, Fukami begins to actively pursue the competition circuit. Quite impressively, the artist scored consecutive major prizes at large exhibitions from the years 1982 to 1986.
1982 Grand Prize, 10th Chunichi International Ceramic
1983 Governor of Aichi Prefecture Prize, 11th Chunichi
International Ceramic Exhibition
1984 Special Selection Prize, Nitten
   Runner Up to Grand Prize, 12th Chunichi International
Ceramic Exhibition
1985 Grand Prize, 43rd Faenza International Ceramic Exhibition
   Grand Prize, 13th Chunichi International Ceramic
1986 Bronze Prize, 1st Mino International Ceramic Exhibition

In a span of 5 years, Fukami Sueharu was quickly elevated to international stardom. After his commemorative exhibition at the International Ceramic Art Museum in Faenza, the artist set off on a flurry of solo exhibitions in museums and galleries spanning Germany, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, and the United States.
There have been several ceramic artists from Japan who have received top prizes at international exhibitions. However, even when simply comparing the number of solo exhibitions held by these artists with those held by Fukami, it can be claimed that the demand and recognition for Fukami’s works exceeds that of other ceramicists. What is it about Fukami's art that enraptures the hearts of people the world over?

We must once again return to the issue of “objet d'art” when tackling this question. In the West, ceramics have long been categorized as “craft art,” wherein the individuality of an artist was seemingly absent. In Japan, however, there have been artists such as Ogata Kenzan in the Edo Period, along with Itaya Hazan and Tomimoto Kenkichi in modern times, who have created ceramics that were vivid evidence of individual artistry. However, irrelevant of the constraints imposed by functionality, the world of craft was in many ways incompatible with individual artists.

Yet after the post-war introduction of Western conceptions of “modern art,” regardless of whether a work was functional or not, what became paramount was the form of “self-expression” used by a subjective artist. In other words, the fundamental underlying premise of modernism was the subjectivity of the individual. Although ceramics did not traditionally contain elements of subjectivity, when ceramics were in fact instilled with a fledgling, self-expressive subjectivity, the end product could no longer be referred to as a mere “thing.” Rather, the work blossomed into what is now considered “objet d'art.”

The 1970's, however, introduced a growing distaste or objection to the subjectivity of an artist, and the conception of “objet d'art,” free from the fetters of functionality, had no choice but to reach a stage of independent self-existence. Fukami Sueharu's ceramic art bid its last farewell to the ambivalence found in the self-expression of the so-called artist, and embarked on the journey of existing for existence's sake.

Much like how modern sculpture discarded its traditional pedestals or platforms, defragmented its very forms, eradicated its compliance to sheer volume, and was minimally reduced to the naturalness of objectivity, or how the advent of installation art created a new-found predominance in “space” which absolved the reliance on “art as substance,” this aesthetic shift was a natural progression.

Moreover, what Fukami wishes to reveal is the “space” that lies beyond the supple curves and sharp silhouettes of his works. The triumphant arches that give birth to his curving forms represent what cannot be seen: the perpetual circularity and the continuity of space itself.

Fukami Sueharu Scene II.jpg《Scene II》(2004)
Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia

During his most recent Faenza exhibition in 2005, an Italian art critic, to show his reverence for Fukami's art, literally kneeled down before a work as if it were holy, much to the befuddlement of the artist.

Perhaps the art critic, as with other foreign aficionados, sensed that Fukami Sueharu's porcelain were at the cusp of the divine. It can be claimed that the ultimate test of modernism is divinity. If such is in fact true, one can consider the art critic's actions to be praise of the highest order.

Written by Matsuyama Tatsuo
Translated by Aoyama Wahei

Honoho Geijutsu No. 94, 2008 Yufuku Gallery/Toku Art Ltd.

Fukami Sueharu (深見陶治) Artist Profile
Born 1947 (22nd Year of Showa) in Kyoto, Japan. Receives Grand Prize at Kyoto Craft Art Exhibition in 1978. Receives Grand Prize at 10th Chunichi International Ceramic Exhibition in 1982. Special selection at Nitten, runner-up to Grand Prize at 12th Chunichi International Ceramic Exhibition in 1984. Receives Grand Prize at 43rd Faenza International Ceramic Exhibition in 1985, along with the Grand Prize at 13th Chunichi International Ceramic Exhibition. Receives the MOA Okada Shigekichi Merit Prize in 1992, along with the Japan Ceramic Society Award. Receives Kyoto Art and Culture Award in 1995. Receives Mainichi Art Award in 1996. Receives Kyoto Prefecture Culture Prize in 1997. Solo exhibition at Faenza International Ceramic Museum in Italy, 2005.
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