Last Friday I had the pleasure of basking in the presence of centuries-old pottery at the Freer-Sackler exhibition, Vietnam’s Ceramics: Depth and Diversity. While this may not sound particularly interesting to some, after spending a semester learning to grasp the fundamentals of clay work (including throwing and building), I have a healthy appreciation of the complex and intricate mastery of ceramicists. To put it plainly, making objects out of clay that are both aesthetically appealing and properly executed is really, really hard. Even now that there are tools to expedite this process, e.g. electric kilns and pottery wheels, learning the basic chemistry of clay, how to work the material, and gaining the general muscle memory and coordination needed is, and this an extreme understatement, overwhelming.
After about a month of laborious toiling, here are a few samples of what I was able to accomplish:
Art and photos: Krista Alba
Another month later, here was my overall progress on just cups and bowls alone:
Art and photos: Krista Alba
Slow progress, right? This is the brutal reality of learning a craft like ceramics. It is demanding, and even when you work for weeks on something, there is no guarantee that the outcome will be even close to what you initially imagined; however, this is the same intrigue that makes ceramics so beautiful. The mistakes and errors are sometimes a part of the charm that leads to the eventual product. Now that you have some context on what it takes to be an expert ceramicist, I hope that my excitement about this exhibition makes a modicum of sense.
The featured Vietnamese pottery is artfully made and many of the objects had been thoroughly used by families or individuals for generations. The types of pottery, where they were made, when they were made, how they were made, and where they were distributed is the primary focus of the exhibition, hence the title Vietnam’s Ceramics: Depths and Diversity.
Here is a good example of the breadth of work the exhibition hosts. While all of the pieces featured in the picture are from central Vietnam, two of them were made in the last several centuries, while the bowl to the right is labelled as being produced somewhere between the 13th and 14 century. This is a small sample of what the exhibition has in store—these are only three out of twenty three works on display.
During my visit, I couldn’t help but admire the small, intricate humanity woven into the pieces. While most of the pottery is utilitarian, it’s hard to ignore the aesthetic choices, both purposeful and accidental, made by the artists during this process. Not only is there a variety between the objects themselves, the time periods, and the uses, but there is differentiation between the handling and making of the ceramic pieces. For instance, the artist of the jar pictured above unintentionally covered it in wood ash while firing the work, resulting in the bespeckled glazing (now a common technique among ceramicists to make work more visually dynamic).
Here is another work that I found impossible to gloss over:
Sweet Dreams of Protection
Photo: Krista Alba
Recovered from the ruins of an ancient Buddhist monastery in 1943, the label beneath specifies that this sculpture is in fact one of few known pillow forms, as they are altogether uncommon. The description elucidates that it could be the mythical golden turtle Kim Quy, a supernatural creature believed to protect Vietnamese people in popular lore. Once I saw this headrest, I felt immediately a more direct connection to the past. There are moments when history and artifacts become less abstract, less “historical,” and altogether holistically more concrete. This was definitely a moment for me. The weight and relevance of the turtle's mythology to the Vietnamese people, partnered with the carefully sculpted body of the work, brought me to a place of internal reflection and peace.
A few centuries from now, I wonder if humans will be studying our artifacts—the things we find common or uncommon—and I wonder if they will be reminded of their own humanity through us.
Vietnam's Ceramics: Depth and Diversity is indefinitely on display as of July. It is located on the bottom floor of the Arthur M. Sackler and Freer Gallery of Art. Comment below if you have ever experienced a similar moment or if you have any questions!