Last week I travelled with some studio friends to Stoke-on-Trent. It's in the middle of the country and evokes bellowing chimneys, poverty and hard work, burning coal and travelling water, and millions upon millions of pots. Stoke was the centre of the British ceramics industry for a couple of hundred years because that's where the fuel was to fire the clay. But then late last century global forces blew the making of almost all crockery eastwards and this place found itself without a purpose. I imagine there's now a geological layer of shards of broken pot representing the detritus of an uncountable number of laboured hours. It feels exhausted as you wander round, overworked and crumbling with the slightly sick romance of huge, canalside, abandoned brick buildings, modestly falling around the trees which are growing up within them.
We had come to see a living marvel. Lee Kang-Hyo is a Korean artist who makes pots for a living, but what pots.. Every couple of years, the British Ceramics Biennial is held here in mourning and hope for an industry which is finding its way back to life. Being new to the profession, I'd never been. I have a tenuous, inauthentic relationship with British ceramics: my education has been from digital individuals on YouTube, hailing from many nations and cultures. In particular, I'd seen a couple of videos of this chap in action and thought (I'd recommend visiting his exhibition currently on at the sublime Goldmark Gallery.), and I appreciated his depth of understanding. Mr Lee makes large and awe-inducing onggi pots (made prolifically in Korea to store kimchi and other fermented food); but then he covers them in a dramatic, seven-minute performance made of the wet, coloured clay we call 'slip'. The time limit is imposed by the length of the pieces of paceful, loud and frenetic drumming music he puts on while making his work (and presumably his level of fitness).
In my geeky, completist, obsessive mode, I wanted to watch how he constructed the pots using enormous coils of clay. I'd tracked other onggi potters frame by frame as I failed to get to grips with the delicate, tricksy finger and hand movements used to bind the coil to the pot. But the more mature artist in me also wanted to find out a lot more about his performances, so calligraphic and apparently as spontaneous as the action painters of the fifties. He borrows and explicitly departs from a simple style called buncheong which often involves scratching motifs through the outer layer of slip. But why did he develop this, and what's his relationship to that performative art from seventy years ago? My Korean does not yet exist so I couldn't ask this kind of question. I did manage to ask, through an interpreter, what 'real' onggi potters would think of his work and he was sure they would criticise his poor technique. He has clearly allowed himself to forsake precise engineering in order to create a fluid, unpredictable, voluminous and meaningful painting surface, but which is entirely embedded in a history of making to which he has directly contributed.
And here I am in the middle of a redundant pottery factory where craft, as in all manu-factories, was raised to transcendent levels, all gone. And which leaves me cold. I should be a radical learner, curious to the extreme about my country's ceramic history but I find I have so much more empathy for the rapid, thoughtless, felt gestures of this spry artist. I'm briefly worried but hang on to the realisation of my own embedding in an old craft. I've been invited to teach a course in Korea next year, when I also hope to visit Mr. Lee. I wonder if we might have a fruitful but entirely wordless conversation based on showing what and how we make.