The Philosophy of Balance: Japanese Ceramics and Material Agency

In the 1920s the renowned potter and so called ‘Father of British studio pottery’ Bernard Leach brought to the UK from Japan a ceramic aesthetic completely at odds with the ware being produced by UK companies and studio potters at the time. These pots, greatly inspired by Leach’s close friend and master Japanese potter Shoji Hamada, exhibited an elegance and naturalness of form and spontaneity of decoration that had no counterpart in the west. Emphasis was on abstract patterns, natural coloured glazes (often derived from wood ash) and evidence of the potter’s hand in response to materials. Leach’s work was a marriage of artistic aesthetics from the east and west and my aim is to further explore the nature of his work’s beauty.
I propose that not only was his pottery a balance between east and west, it was also, in the tradition of Japanese ceramic aesthetics, a balance of maker and material, of human and non-human forces and therefore has connections with modern ecological interpretations of material agency. To understand better the nature of this beauty we must first explore some of the Japanese philosophy central to the culture’s ceramic tradition.

Much Japanese thinking, and as a consequence its art forms, stems from a mixture of Shinto, Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist ideology and in contrast to the west, philosophy and religion are often intertwined. In the Shinto tradition of the cult of nature all things natural and even those inanimate; the sun, the mountains, plants and rocks are worshipped and viewed as divine, rejecting the idea of the human mind at the centre of existence. This reverence of nature can be seen as a recognition of the power of matter and materials which is supported by less human-centric philosophers today such as Harman who believes ‘tool-beings unleash their forces upon us’ (Harman, 2002) and describes anything that has an effect on the world as a form of technology, whether manmade or not. In this way, a volcano could be said to be technology, although it behaves independent of human forces. Therefore we might say the volcano has agency and with this thinking comes the suggestion that we are shaped by the world around us as much as we shape it.
This theory has parallels with what political ecologist Jane Bennett calls ‘the vitality of things’: ‘By “vitality” I mean the capacity of things – edibles, commodities, storms, metals – not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.’ (Bennett, 2010 pg.viii). Bennett challenges the notion that matter is passive and inert. She surmises ‘Humanity and nonhumanity have always performed an intricate dance with each other’ and proposes we look ‘beyond the life-matter binary’. To sum up the western human-centric view of agency ‘The philosophical project of naming where subjectivity begins and ends is too often bound up with fantasies of a human uniqueness in the eyes of God’(Bennett, 2010 pg. ix).
Potters and craftspeople already have an innate understanding of this ‘intricate dance’ of agencies. Working specifically with natural materials reinforces the notion that materials have their own agency and I believe Leach’s work to be an example of an artist exploring Bennet’s ‘vitality of things’, respecting and co-operating with the clay. This is something missing from much of the art history of the west which has traditionally adopted a Cartesian attitude to making, with the belief that everything has an original essence or nature that it derives from. This idea of a ‘perfect original’ may have influenced our emphasis on schematic design in the west. In pottery factories across Europe, imperfections were discarded because they didn’t meet the quality of the perfect original. Rather than celebrating the accidents and individual reactions of the materials in the kiln, they were seen as ‘wrong’, as rejects.
This contrasts directly with the Japanese philosophy of aesthetics where imperfections are seen to be beautiful. For hundreds of years, Japanese ‘unomi’ (tea bowls) have been prized, precisely for their imperfections. Their asymmetry, cracks, uneven rims and crazed glazes were taken to be a unique kind of beauty, a notion we struggled with to understand in the west perhaps until recent times when the aesthetic of ‘shabby chic’ has become fashionable and furniture with signs of wear and tear (whether authentic or not) have become desirable in the home. Traditional Japanese tea bowls for tea ceremonies, when cracked, were not discarded. Instead the cracks were fixed with gold lacquer, emphasising their imperfections. The realisation that the tea-bowl will continue after you are dead is supposed to raise an awareness of the transience of life. This style of Japanese aesthetic characterised by simplicity, natural materials and admiration of imperfections is called ‘wabi-sabi’. Leach’s inspiration is derived from this philosophy and way of living.
I propose that wabi-sabi, as an aesthetic that relies of the co-operation of man and the environment, is a celebration of what we now call material agency or as Bennett calls it ‘thing-power’. Like Bennett, Tim Ingold has similarly explored ideas of a craftsman making as a co-operation of agencies: ‘far from standing aloof, imposing his designs on a world that is ready and waiting to receive them, the most he can do is intervene in worldly processes that are already going on  (Ingold, 2013, pg.21)’.
Soetsu Yanagi, a close friend of Leach, summarises this idea of making best in a letter to Leach ‘we enjoy those pots most which are born and not made’ (Leach, 2015, pg.288). Similarly Ingold describes making as a process of growth, of an interaction, or reshaping of ‘active materials’. Do works of art continue to grow after they have been made? If a tea bowl develops cracks after being used ritually to drink tea from, is the material still growing?

It might be helpful to think of things wabi sabi then as indexical drawings, documentations of the ways human and non-human forces have an effect on one another. Iversen describes indexical drawings as ‘a registration of something unique’ or ‘graphic traces’ (Iversen, 2012) but more generally we can think of them as an action that causes something to have an effect on another thing. So a tea bowl with cracks from use might be viewed instead as an indexical drawing of time, use or the weather. I would loosely describe Leach’s work as indexical drawings in that his pots are celebrations of the agency of materials. Leach’s work exhibits the tenet of ‘truth to materials’ which became popular with the British arts and crafts movement in the late 19th century after the Industrial revolution and later with the Bauhaus artists working as his contemporaries. The idea of this philosophy was to celebrate materials in their natural state, not to disguise them as something else.
But how exactly do Japanese ceramic aesthetics and Leach’s pots illustrate this co-operation of agencies? Firstly, I propose we look at the style of decoration. Decoration on Japanese ceramics and many examples of Leach’s work can be characterised by two main distinctive features; the presence of large amounts of empty space, and loose, gestural brushwork. Regarding the presence of emptiness, thinking back to the main philosophies of Japan, Taoism teaches that the wholeness that exists in the universe is all in the expression of dual forms e.g. hot and cold or light and dark and so perfection and completeness can only be achieved with the balance of forces. The prevalence of empty space in Japanese art may be an expression of the importance of this Taoist duality – of space and emptiness, or ‘In view of the influence of Taoism and Zen on this art form, the relative emptiness of the canvas can be understood as an evocation of the nothingness that forms the context of all particular things’ (Parkes, 1995 pg.90). This dichotomy of yin yang can be seen in the co-dependency of the will of the human mind and the random forces of nature to create what Leach calls an aesthetic of ‘supreme beauty and truth (Leach, 2015).

Confucianism more practically focuses on how this emphasis on duality can be a force for creating a better society, with a balance of forces between the intuitive and rational. For much of western history, the natural, intuitive side of human nature has been repressed when it comes to art. The focus of western ceramics at the time of Leach was on traditional, precise decoration which contrasted starkly with the spontaneous and intuitive brushwork decorating the ceramics of the likes of Japanese potters. Pattern rather than realistic depiction was seen as the highest form of decorating for them. Yanagi hypothesises ‘there are many ways of seeing, but the truest and best is with the intuition…pattern is born when one reproduces the intuitively perceived essence’ (Yangagi 1974, pg.114). Pattern therefore is seen as less removed from nature than what we would call a ‘realistic’ image, since pattern is born from our intuition and bypasses the rational side of our brain, making it more true to reality.
Patterns in the Japanese tradition are closely related to calligraphy. The term ‘hakeme’ is given to the loose brushwork effect of slip applied with simple materials such as cotton rags or slip brushes made of hemp or fibre. Drawing from Dogen’s idea of ‘body-mind’ the Zen aim was to paint with the condition of no-mind with awareness distributed through the whole body so you become the subject and the brush becomes an extension of the body. This union of mind and body is the crux of Eastern philosophy and so many Japanese art forms including the tea ceremony. This has similarities to Ingold’s proposal of ‘making longitudinally rather than laterally’ and the co-operation he describes in ‘Making’: ‘in the act of making the artisan couples his own movements and gestures – indeed his very life – with the becoming of his materials, joining with and following the forces and flows that bring his work into fruition’ (Ingold, 2013). Leach and Hamada’s free style of decorating recognise and respect the agency of clay, glaze materials and tools.
In Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie’s TED talk ‘How to truly listen’ she talks of the difference between someone making music thinking of themselves as a ‘technician’ and someone who sees themselves as a ‘musician’. Good musicians become at one with their instruments, they no longer play the instrument, but play themselves. She describes the way holding drumsticks looser, as if they’ve become part of the arm means she feels ‘at one with the stick and at one with the drum’ (Glennie, 2003) and can play more expressive dynamics but with less effort. The same can be said of the calligraphic style of glaze decoration on Leach and Hamada pots. You can tell from the vitality and energy of their mark-making that the brush wasn’t held stiffly but that the movement was a union of body and tool. Like Glennie, they thought of the arm as a ‘support system’ for the tool rather than as a detached thing.

I suggest this questioning of where the ‘mind’ or ‘body’ ends and tools and materials begin has parallels with one of the main characteristics of Buddhist existence: ‘anatman’, in other words a rejection of ‘the self’. The Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna proposed that not only is there no ‘self’, ‘there is no such thing as fundamental essence of nature of anything’ (Billington, 1997),arguing that since the world is in a constant state of changing and ageing, we can only know one thing in relation to another. The Buddhist belief in reincarnation might reinforce the idea that matter is in a constant state of flow and the objects we perceive are only a pause in the flow of materials for a limited amount of time. They may go on changing indefinitely. In his essay ‘On the undermining of objects’ Graham Harman includes Giordano Bruno’s views on matter: ‘there is no genuine form in the world other than the world soul (Harman, 2002)’. This description of the impermanence of things resonates with the wabi-sabi aesthetic. The beauty of forms lies in the fact they are ever changing. Growth and decay is part of life and Eastern philosophy, especially Zen Buddhism teaches that it is crucial to accept this.
Leach writes of Japanese ceramic aesthetics ‘the nature of the beauty discovered by the tea masters is in the first place – non individualistic’ (Leach, 2015). This unique beauty of non-individualism can be seen to stem from the necessity of early Eastern pottery, especially that of white Korean slipware, to be functional: ‘utility is the first principle of beauty (Leach, 2015)’. These pots and bowls were simple utensils made for peasants without any need to be beautiful. In these simple, unpretentious pieces the Cha no yu (tea masters of Japan) recognised an unusual form of beauty which can be summed up with the idea that “merely doing” something is in itself a great source of beauty, implying as it does a state of freedom not bound by concepts of beauty, much less fear of the ugly’ (Yanagi 1972, pg. 173). The freedom in this non-individualistic form of beauty may also refer to a co-operation between material and the human mind rather than the human mind’s imposition on nature.
The focus on dual forms is important to understand Buddhist ideas of beauty. In Buddhism true beauty only exists where there is no distinction between beauty and ugliness. ‘If an article is beautiful, we may say it has achieved Buddhahood (Yanagi, 1972, pg.129) because, like Shinto, Buddhism also seems to recognise of the agency of materials in that it is not only humans who can achieve enlightenment. Objects too can be released from duality. It is only by making objects that are co-operations, that rise above the dichotomy of human and non-human that they can be truly beautiful and honest.

My research into the subject has brought me a greater appreciation of the beauty of Japanese aesthetics and a greater understanding of how making can be more ecologically interpreted as a joining of forces. I have explored the way Eastern philosophies are tied up with theories of material agency and the way this resulted in a ceramics aesthetic that emphasises the vitality of matter and the importance of working intuitively with materials. This focus on the balance of opposites, of intuition and rationality, freedom and constraint, perfection and imperfection, has stood out as being central to most of the Eastern philosophies and one of the main influences on Leach ceramics. It’s a theory that true beauty lies in the centre of polar opposites, not in any extreme.

Bibliography

Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant Matter: A political ecology of things. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Billington, R. (1997) Understanding Eastern Philosophy. London: Routledge.

Brown, S.G. (2007) Practical Wabi Sabi. Carroll and Brown Publishers Limited.

Bryant, L, Srnieck, N, Graham, H (2011) The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Australia: re.press.

Cazeaux, C. (2000) The Continental Aesthetics Reader. London and New York: Routledge.

Glennie, E (2003). How to truly listen [online] Available at <https://www.ted.com/talks/evelyn_glennie_shows_how_to_listen#t-366097&gt; [Accessed 16 May 2017]

Harman, G. (2002). Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects. Chicago: Open Court, pp. 15-44.

Hume, N.G. (1995) Japanese Aesthetics and Culture: A Reader. Albany: State University of New York Press. Pgs. 77-108 ‘Ways of Japanese Thinking’.

Ingold, T. (2013) Making: Anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture. London and New York: Routledge.

Iversen, M. (2012). Index, diagram, graphic trace. Tate Papers Issue 18. Online.

Leach, B. (2015) A Potter’s Book. London: Unicorn.

Yanagi, S. (1972) The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty. Kodansha International Ltd.

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