Edited by Alice North, Halsey North, and Louise Allison Cort
(Monacelli Press, 2022)
Listening to Clay, a recently published hardcover that includes sixteen interviews with contemporary Japanese ceramic artists and five interviews with Japanese art dealers, is not a coffee table book. Flipping through it, you won’t find glossy illustrations of teapots, vases, and stoneware sculptures. Instead, and as is fitting for an art book that has the word ‘listening’ in its title, it has far more words than images. (In fact, reproductions are noticeably sparse.) This book is first and foremost an opportunity for artists to describe their practices.
The participating artists span the last fifty years of ceramic arts in Japan—the oldest artist is Hayashi Yasuo (b. 1928) and the youngest is Kondō Takahiro (b. 1958). The five dealers include a combination of Japanese and American gallerists. All subjects were selected by established collectors of contemporary Japanese ceramics, Alice and Halsey North, and art historian and ceramic scholar Louise Allison Cort. “Not a survey or chronology, this book presents life stories that are personal, day-to-day, distinctive, and in the artist’s own voice,” the American trio writes in the introduction, which also contextualizes the techniques, cultural attitudes towards, and markets for ceramics in twentieth century Japan.
Interview questions were tailored to each artist, producing a broad range of responses. Hayashi Yasuo talks about how his World War II-era training as a kamikaze pilot in pitch black nighttime conditions was a visual source of inspiration for his later, black-slipped ceramic work, for instance. Mishima Kimiyo talks about developing ways to print on clay as part of her process for creating highly realistic reproductions of trash, such as trompe l’oeil stacks of newspapers and cardboard boxes, or soda cans. “I had to invent the technique because no one had done that before,” she explains, before lending insights into her methods.
Because the conversations were so individualized, no questions were asked universally across the board. Mishima Kimiyo was asked, “If you had the time, money, and energy to make anything you wanted, what would it be?” It would have been interesting to hear varied answers to this question from a few artists. Another question that would have been insightful to hear multiple perspectives on is one asked to Miwa Ryūkishō: “How have Japanese ceramics changed in your lifetime?”
But this absence of unifying questions may be part of the book’s general approach, which sidelines the interviewer (and spotlights the artists/dealers). The interviews are a handful of prompts followed by lengthy responses. It’s unclear which of the three interviewers is asking the questions, since their identities aren’t noted. And several interviews are edited and condensed from multiple conversations that occurred between 2007 to the present.
Although the book is dominated by artists’ voices, the ones that readers are privy to overhearing were preselected with a certain bias. Cort and the Norths hand over the mic, but only to artists with whom they have longstanding friendships and who the Norths have personally collected. “The three authors selected artists they knew well,” writes Monika Bincsik, associate curator of Japanese Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum (where the Norths have gifted several works), in the foreword. This makes one wonder about artists the authors didn’t know well, who therefore never made it into this authoritative textbook-sized tome. At times Listening to Clay reads as a sort of primary source reference accompanying the Norths’ collection.
After the interviews, Listening to Clay includes an informative glossary of terms and people, plus a helpful index, making it suitable for scholars who might want to use these interviews as a research tool. One of the artists, Miyashita Zenji, passed away a few years after his interview, making this posthumous publication of his words a unique resource. When asked how he started layering colored clay, a distinguishing characteristic of his work, Miyashita Zenji said that “with pottery, you have to learn to break the rules. If you don’t, you can’t achieve work that is distinctive.”
Listening to Clay will appeal to readers with an interest in understanding contemporary Japanese ceramics beyond the surface-level visual joy of it. (But if you’re someone who likes and needs illustrations, this book might leave you seeking for clay.)