UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Specters of the vessel : Sōdeisha, Isamu Noguchi, and nonfunctional ceramic art in postwar Japan Kramer, Jeremy J.


Created in 1954 by potter Yagi Kazuo (1918-1979), The Walk of Mr. Samsa is known as the quintessential obuje-yaki, or ‘kiln-fired object.’ Used by proponents of Japan’s ceramic avant-garde, and particularly associated with Sōdeisha—a collective of ceramicists co-founded by Yagi in 1948—the neologism introduced a renewed questioning of functionality into the language of ceramics by referencing objets trouvés, ‘found objects’ appropriated by proponents of Dada and Surrealism. However, in the context of postwar Japan, the term obuje-yaki did not denote found objects but works of nonfunctional, abstract, ceramic sculpture. Yagi’s Mr. Samsa is considered to be a chief example of the genre because it clearly departs from the ceramic convention of functionality. The members of Sōdeisha often declared their work as fine art, but by working with the medium of clay they applied this declaration to a medium more often associated with the creation of practical objects. Frustrating scholarly attempts at defining Sōdeisha is this assumed conflict between traditionalism and modernism. Some see the group’s references to foreign culture or their lack of functionality as attempts to escape the dogma of Japanese ceramic tradition. In response to the pursuits of the folk-craft movement (mingei undō) and Japanese traditionalists, Sōdeisha argued for an alternative conceptualization of the medium that might incorporate both functional and nonfunctional objects. I argue that Sōdeisha’s allusions to ‘foreign’ cultural forms and terminology did not merely serve to escape tradition, but to make an argument within the debate on tradition (dentō ronsō). This was also the case for their allusions to ‘Japanese’ cultural forms: they engaged with nonfunctional, prehistoric and historic ceramics of the Japanese archipelago. Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), through exhibitions of his own quasi obuje-yaki in the early postwar period, can be credited with encouraging Sōdeisha to adopt forms reminiscent of dogū, clay figures from the Jōmon period, and haniwa, the funerary ceramics of the Kofun period. These ritual items of Japan’s distant past embodied the spiritual potentialities of the ceramic medium and allowed Sōdeisha to complicate the binaries of ‘fine’ and ‘folk,’ ‘foreign’ and ‘Japanese,’ that underpinned the theories promulgated by mainstream traditionalists.

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