We must record the recent death of the great Japanese artist Ryoji Koie who was born in Tokoname, a traditional pottery area and who lived there much of his life, yet his reputation was widely known throughout the ceramics world.
Noted as a ceaseless experimenter he was thoroughly conversant with every precept in the traditional Japanese book of ceramic rules and pushed every one of them as far as was possible and often thoroughly debilitated them. His was an exuberant personality and he lived his life to the full resulting in a reputation as something of a ‘wild man’. But those who knew him claimed it was simply an impatient lust for life that meant there was much he chose not to be concerned with. He attracted many followers and his extended household and studio seemed always able to accommodate yet another. It was not only Japan but from many countries came his followers and he welcomed all. He did not teach but simply made and they learned and taught others and many today make Koie-like works unintentionally. His spirit remains in numerous works in many countries.
He originally learned his ceramics at high school then in 1962 entered the Tokoname Ceramic Art Institute and the following year won the principal award at the Asahi Ceramic Art Exhibition. He thought at the time that it was strange. “I did not expect it to be so easy“, yet he was already starting to become disillusioned with the way the Japanese ceramic world was structured and thus began his rebellious path. He set up his first studio and proceeded to make work in several genres from tableware in many styles – white works, hikidashi-guro(black), sometsuke (overglazed porcelain), yakishime and oribe through to trail-blazing sculptural expression like the singular series made, at different times, in tribute to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Chernobyl and 9/11 where partial decomposition and disintegration was an element of the planned outcome from the firing part of the process. He deliberately did not court skill saying that what was more important was what else was present in the work. “The highly skilled I am sorry for – there is no meaning in just creating something. Those with only skill don’t convey feelings in their work.” His work could be provocative, boisterous and intense yet always with a sense of freedom and humanity, from his large installations to small sake cups.
One acknowledged huge influence was the revolutionary, 1950s Sodeisha artists in Kyoto, in particular Yagi and Yamada. Yet he also said “Everything is my teacher” and wrote that his influences included: “My mother, Yami’s death and my father. My grandparents’ stories of their travels. The Tomimoto family and music. Fishermen and sea, wind, sun. A slope, the shadow of an overpass. Pottery fragments, the remains of fires, spirits. I can’t write the names of drinking establishments – there is perhaps much one cannot write that has been a teacher or anti-teacher. Shitara’s water and cold wind. Various people. My first wife, Yoshiko.”
The Koie style made its major debut in 1968, at his first exhibition of that year, RETURN TO EARTH. Koie had been scheduled to show at an outdoor exhibition at the Modern Art Museum in Nagoya, but the event had to be cancelled due to political interference. Koie, beside himself with anger, showed up at the exhibition site anyway, and created a work there, alone. For this work, he took the powder of pulverized sanitation equipment (toilet bowls and basins) and formed a series of mounds, then placed on top of each an impression of his face, moulded by means of a mask, which was seen to gradually decompose, from mound to mound, until finally consumed in the final mounds.
This series shocked the art world but many came to see Koie as a great artist who questioned existing beliefs and one who made tremendous discoveries within the stuffy, tradition-bound Japanese ceramic art world of the time. His main questions back then were, “Who am I? What is living? What is dying?” And he answered “It’s how we live.”
He travelled to many countries exhibiting, giving demonstrations and talking about life and work – for him the two were inextricably mixed and his outgoing personality left an indelible impression wherever he went. His visit, as a guest artist to the first Gulgong Festival back in the 1990s was unforgettable for those who were there and they recall events with a wide smile. He returned to Tokonome to build a 20 metre long anagama kiln deliberately designed to fire very unevenly.
He won honours at the prestigious Vallauris Ceramics exhibition in 1972 and in 1980 was invited into the then influential International Academy of Ceramics. In 1992 he became Professor of the Aichi Prefecture University of Fine Arts and in 1993 he was gifted the esteemed, Japan Ceramic Society Award. His work can be found in major museums and galleries around the world from the Smithsonian in Washington to the V+A in London, the Metropolitan in NYC and the Museum of Victoria in Melbourne as well as every significant museum in Japan and Korea.
So when you observe and enjoy work that appears robust and spontaneous, or distorted as though still spinning, or with broken-bread textures and consciously gestural applications of lips, handles and lugs, or gritty, undomesticated surfaces and forms that have moved beyond utility, then think about one of the originators and certainly a master, Ryoji Koie.