Liberating the Chawan: I Am a Tea Bowl. I Am the Sea.
The key feature of KANEKO’s contribution to this exhibit at the Pintô Art Museum is
its intriguing position-in-between. On the one hand, the work of the artist duo
(Haruhiko and Masayo Kaneko) reveals the beauty and complexity of traditional
Japanese ceramics. On the other, it expresses a desire to transcend tradition. In
Japan, this desire has often been a source of conflict between the artists and those
dedicated to conserving a valuable cultural legacy. For visitors to this exhibit it is vital
to appreciate the severe pressure to conform innovators like KANEKO face within the
Japanese craft world.
In recent years, KANEKO has been actively exhibiting in Europe. In these exhibitions,
the duo has sought to emphasize the artistic aspect of its work as opposed to its
craft aspect. They feel honored, naturally, to have Haruhiko’s extraordinary tea
bowls included in the collections of the British Museum (London) and the Guimet
Museum of Asian Arts (Paris). At the same time, they have felt somewhat
misunderstood in Europe as representatives of Japanese aesthetics, especially
considering their quite different position at home. The artists were encouraged,
therefore, to see the Guimet bowl portrayed by a French-Vietnamese photographer
as an objet d’art as opposed to an artifact from traditional culture. The positive
response to KANEKO’s 2019 installation at the Revelations fine craft biennial in Paris
may also indicate that a shift in their European image is underway.
 Huynh, Jean-Baptiste. Infinis d’Asie. Paris: Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet and Editions
This daring three-part installation amounts to a deconstruction of the chawan (the
Japanese word for tea bowl). This deconstruction does not reject the chawan’s time-
honored aesthetic tradition, however. Rather, it opens an informative dialog between that tradition and present-day artistic concepts. It encourages the viewer to see traditional artistry in a new light and to appreciate the historic roots of contemporary art, which are occasionally difficult to perceive.
In Japan, the tradition-oriented ceramics world has been unreceptive to ideas like those of KANEKO and others. Of course, it’s not only a question of reception. Many Japan-based ceramics artists themselves, including KANEKO, find the transition from traditional aesthetics to the different values of 21st-century art difficult.
Elsewhere in Asia, the welcome has been warmer. A 2018 show at HaoHaus (Chiayi,
Taiwan) was the first KANEKO exhibition to focus primarily on contemporary
ceramics. Despite employing some of the most ancient means of art—clay and fire—
and an age-old glazing technique, the works they displayed evidenced an
extraordinary will to transcend the past.
KANEKO now appears ready to free itself entirely from the confines of traditional
Japanese pottery. Yet although the artists have indicated their ability to blow the tea
bowl into a thousand exquisite shards, their aim is not to destroy tradition. Instead,
the goal is to invigorate tradition by reassembling it into novel symbolic patterns that
lend new resonance to the chawan’s form and connotations.
 For a discussion, see http://gallery-kaikaikiki.com/2017/02/report_pottery01/ and http://gallery-kaikaikiki.com/2017/02/report_pottery02/. In contrast, building bridges between traditional and
contemporary has come naturally to international Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara (see Ceramic
Works, Tokyo: Foil, 2010). In another example, American Tom Sachs exploited his off-the-spectrum
freedom to challenge the Japanese tea world with his 2019 Tea Ceremony exhibit at Tokyo Opera City
Art Gallery (disdainful of craft traditions, in his way Sachs was highly respectful of the Japanese art of tea).
KANEKO ceramics are medium-centered and have a remarkable visual impact. The work has essentially three layers of meaning.
One layer is its expression of the artists’ relation to nature, above all, the sea. Here, characteristic pieces include the Blue Wave and Blue Wall series.
Where Ishigaki Blue (as KANEKO terms it) appears in the work, it refers to the ocean
encircling the artists’ home island of Ishigaki, Okinawa. For KANEKO, this vivid,
green-tinged blue is understood as a source of life, inspiration, and peace. In
contrast, the black and silver tones of yuteki glazing—which suggest ocean depths or
the night sky—evoke introspective considerations, on solitude, perhaps, or human
Also known as Jian ware, tenmoku is a style of tea bowl developed in China
approximately 1,000 years ago. “Tenmoku” refers to Mount Tianmu, a Chinese
mountain whose surrounding area is associated with such ceramics. Yuteki tenmoku
is a type of tenmoku ware. “Yuteki” refers to the “oil spots” that appear in the dark
iron-oxide glaze. For centuries, Chinese and Japanese yuteki tenmoku tea bowls have
been among the most highly valued chawan used during the tea ceremony in Japan.
There are strict rules about what qualifies as a yuteki tenmoku bowl. KANEKO’s
addition of blue glass (symbolizing life) to the bottom of such bowls represents a
violation of these rules.
A second layer of significance is the work’s expression of personal history. Masayo
Kaneko is originally a child of the city. But Haruhiko’s boyhood was passed on Yoron,
where he spent many happy hours wandering the reefs that surround the idyllic
island. The Blue Wave series carries the subtitle “Memory of the Presence.” The
phrase refers to the surging, un-reflected-upon immediacy you feel when you
become so absorbed in something that consciousness releases you for a while. Time
ceases to flow. You become integrated into the world, present in it, as it is present in
you. Haruhiko cherishes his boyhood reef-walking memories of presence and, with
Masayo’s insightful assistance, attempts to recapture them in ceramics.
A third key layer of meaning in KANEKO’s work is, of course, its resistance to the constraints of the Japanese pottery tradition and the desire to transform that
tradition into a medium of contemporary art. As previously noted, KANEKO is not
alone in such efforts. Kazuo Yagi (1918-79), who founded the Sōdeisha group in
Kyoto in 1948, is likely the best-known name associated with Japanese ceramic art
that wishes to free itself from craft and guild restrictions. Another example is Raku
Kichizaemon XV, who is seeking to introduce ideas from contemporary sculpture into
the long-established Kyoto ceramics family he leads. KANEKO, however, has no
connection with such groups. The duo’s struggle has been an independent one
fought in relative isolation.
Surprisingly, KANEKO’s home island of Ishigaki in Okinawa is closer to Manila than to
Tokyo, and the island’s appearance is more similar to that of the rural Philippines
than to landscapes typically associated with Japan. Of course, in these days of rapid
travel and instantaneous communications, the physical and cultural distance
between mainland Japan and Okinawa is increasingly diminished. Still, KANEKO’s
perspective on Japanese ceramics may be more understandable when regarded as
that of quasi-outsiders to mainland traditions. It may be that art lovers in the
Philippines, whose view of Japanese culture is less influenced by Japanese norms,
will readily appreciate the adventurous, non-traditional aspects of KANEKO’s work.