Listening to Clay – The Brooklyn Rail

Listening to Clay: Conversations with Contemporary Japanese Ceramic Artists
Edited by Alice North, Halsey North, and Louise Allison Cort
(Monacelli Press, 2022)

Listening to Clay, a recently published hardcover that includes sixteen interviews with contemporary Japanese ceramic artists and five interviews with Japanese art dealers, is not a coffee table book. By flipping it over, you won’t find glossy pictures of teapots, vases, and stoneware sculptures. Instead, and as appropriate for an art book with the word ‘listening’ in its title, it has more words than pictures. (In fact, reproductions are noticeably sparse.) This book is the first and most important opportunity for artists to describe their habits.

The participating artists cover the last fifty years of ceramic arts in Japan — the oldest artist is Hayashi Yasuo (b. 1928) and the youngest is Kondō Takahiro (b. 1958). The five dealers include a combination of Japanese and American gallerists. All subjects were chosen by established collectors of contemporary Japanese ceramics, Alice and Halsey North, and art historian and ceramic scholar Louise Allison Cort. “Not a survey or chronology, this book tells life stories that are personal, everyday, unique, and in the artist’s own voice,” the American trio wrote in the introduction, which is also included in context the techniques, cultural attitudes toward, and markets for ceramics in twentieth -century Japan.

The interview questions were tailored to each artist, producing a wide range of responses. Hayashi Yasuo talks about how his training during World War II as a kamikaze pilot in dark night conditions was a visual source of inspiration for his later, black-slipped ceramic works, for example. Mishima Kimiyo talks about developing ways to print on clay as part of his process for creating very realistic waste reproductions, such as trompe l’oeil stacks of newspapers and cardboard. box, or soda cans. “I had to invent a method because no one had done it before,” he explains, before providing insights into his methods.

Because the conversations were very individual, no questions were generally asked across the board. Mishima Kimiyo was asked, “If you had the time, money, and energy to do whatever you wanted, what would it be?” It’s fun to hear different answers to this question from some artists. Another question that would be insightful to hear many insights is the question to Miwa Ryūkishō: “How has Japanese ceramics changed your life?”

But the lack of this unified question may be part of the book’s overall approach, which sidelines the interviewer (and draws attention to the artists/dealers). Interviews are several signals followed by lengthy responses. It is unclear which of the three interviewers is asking, as their identities were not mentioned. And several interviews have been edited and abridged from many conversations that have taken place between 2007 to the present.

Although the book is dominated by the voices of the artists, the voices of the listening readers are chosen with a certain bias. Cort and North provided the mic, but only to artists they had long been friends with and personally collected by North. “The three authors chose artists they knew well,” Monika Bincsik, co-curator of Japanese Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum (where the Norths donated some works), wrote in the preface. This amazes the artists less known by the authors, who have therefore never entered this powerful book tome. Sometimes Listening to Clay reads as a kind of primary reference to the source included with the Norths collection.

After the interviews, Listening to Clay includes an informative glossary of terms and people, along with a useful index, making it suitable for scholars who may wish to use these interviews as a research tool. One of the artists, Miyashita Zenji, passed away a few years after her interview, making this posthumous publication of her words a unique resource. When asked how she started laying colored clay, a unique feature of her work, Miyashita Zenji said that “in pottery, you have to learn to break the rules. If you don’t, you won’t get a job that’s unique. ”

Listening to Clay will appeal to readers with an interest in understanding contemporary Japanese ceramics beyond its level of visual joy. (But if you’re a lover and need illustrations, this book may leave you looking for clay.)