An Essay to Accompany the Exhibition, by Angus Stewart
The pots made by Shozo Michikawa are chameleonic. Their colour changes according to the hour, or in response to context. If one pot holds one flower, a leaf or branch, the vessel enhances that fleeting expression of nature. A pot standing alone maintains its own idiosyncratic dignity.
There is a rare magic in this work. It is revelatory, the invention of a man with an exceptional intellectual impulse. Michikawa has a touch that is harsh yet poetic, disquieting yet seductive. His pots may at first look as if they have been constructed. This is misleading, for they are not constructs they are sculptures, each one a three-dimensional work that evolves from a lump of clay, a dead weight on a wheel. The process is one of spin, cut and thrust, replacement and repair, in part completed by delicate surgery.
From a western point of view these artefacts are as mysterious as haiku, the seventeen syllable Japanese poem. But I think their source is not literary and more likely to have come from landscape itself, possibly affected by the armour of the samurai, the silhouettes formed by people wearing kimonos, and the variety of landscape and daily existence recorded by Hokusai.
In anticipation of Michikawa’s fourth exhibition in London I have been re-viewing the pots already here and looking at photographs of his latest works currently on the way to London. As I expected, the pots of yesteryear hold their appeal. At first those that are travelling appear similar to their forebears, but on closer study their subtle difference becomes clear. The quiet excitement generated by their fresh nuances make me long to see that promise turned to reality.
What should be expected? With the advantage of hindsight, revisiting Michikawa’s work it becomes clear that he was and is aware of nature’s double-dealing; reasonable most days, often balmy, occasionally murderous and destructive. The gales that rip trees from the earth, the waves that plunder the seashore and carry off men, women and children, the earthquakes that toss aside roads, railways, homes and factories are predicted in the vertical spirals that recur with increasing vehemence and frequency. Omens of disaster lurk in his work. Nature at its wildest, nature at play and nature in repose; this man has nature’s ever changing pulse in his fingers.
‘I was born in a small town in Hokkaido, Japan; in front of a lake and behind a volcano, hot springs and mountains.’ In this sentence, Michikawa makes clear his modest background and his life-long obsession with the physical world. It is self-evident, art is his master, and equally clearly the volcanic eruptions of Mount Usu continue to inspire his ceramics. Nature’s turbulence pervades and invigorates Michikawa’s oeuvre.
In the flesh he is a man of warmth, one with a contagious sense of family, community and friendship. When his pots are in use, dressed with carefully-chosen branches, flowers or grasses, they are elegant, seductive, charming. Undressed, the twists can be hostile, foreshadowing disaster. Amphora-like cylinders, split at the neck or apparently patched and bandaged, may suggest death or disaster.
For some thirty years this thoughtful and ingenious potter has lived in Seto, a town that has housed potters for 1300 years. While he says the town has nurtured his work, Michikawa accepts he cannot totally control clay, as it is a substance retaining its independence, until overwhelmed by heat. He submits his handiwork to the kiln, it is the cooking in the kiln that determines the ultimate colour and contours. The form he has evolved and coloured is transubstantiated within the kiln.
The consanguinity between the practical and the pleasing can be seen in the vessels of every civilization. Pottery, the mix of fine-grained earth, variously coloured and worked by hand, hardened by heat, can long outlast its maker. And a pot’s purpose can change. What was made as an offering to a deity may well be set aside or lost for aeons, then resurrected and traded as an objet d’art. Any hierarchical meaning may fade and be replaced by admiration for exquisite form, seductive colouring or a story that catches the onlooker’s imagination.
David Attenborough, whose knowledge and understanding of nature is legendary, takes pleasure in collecting, touching, holding, and looking at pots. He revels in their physical form, while appreciating their purpose, be it utilitarian or sacramental. He values the sensual pleasure they give him. (1) This is unsurprising, for as Michikawa states ‘… pots are the interface of nature and art’. (2)
Michikawa’s beginning, like that of Leonardo da Vinci, was unremarkable, save that both men were to be visual and technical explorers. They both migrated from their birthplace and deliberately set out to emulate and overtake the accepted masters of their particular craft and art. Today we can look back and see the life of the renaissance genius; simultaneously we can look at Michikawa’s career to date and wonder if his work will be recognised five hundred years hence. To me, it seems odds-on that Michikawa’s pots will rank alongside those of his cultural ancestors, many of whom are already safely installed in the British Museum.
Michikawa is a potter of speed, energy and strict definition. Within and without each pot, these attributes are established beyond doubt. It is impossible not to be transported by the combination of robust health with fluid validity. While he pays homage to the past, grateful to China, the source of the Japanese tradition, he himself is a man of our times, a warrior who imposes his will as imperiously as did the traditional samurai. He was invited to exhibit in Beijing, within The Forbidden City, where his ‘proximity with nature comes down in one continuous line with the broad and deep Chinese concept of “the correlation between man and the universe” ‘. (3)
Often we are beguiled by run-of-the-mill pots or swayed by unchallenged and stale opinion. In a lazy way we recognise what is familiar, and while soothed, possibly sated, we turn away from the unsung. Those pots that seem undemanding are often set aside. Fortunately Michikawa’s originality calls out for attention. He offers freshness, technical prowess and figurative puzzles that irk and stimulate the alert. The traditions he draws on date back to the cave dwellers. Michikawa’s excellence as a technician, his empathy with natural phenomena, and his outstanding artistry, are something to shout about.
(1) BBC Four, Ceramics: A Fragile History
(2) From Michikawa to the author
(3) Jin Shangyl, Chairman, Chinese Artists’ Association
This exhibition had 34 pieces total.