A few weeks ago I was in Long Island City early for a meeting and wandered into a Slovakian general store to browse around, suspecting that it might stock ceramics from that part of the world. It was a store like many stores that serve specific cultural communities in the city – products looked unbought and abandoned, displays that made the whole place look like business was beside the point. Past all the preserved foods and exotic snack chips, were indeed a few shelves of pottery: generic mugs and plain flowery vases mostly. And behind a stack of white plates, I noticed a rough textured piece that looked like a Chinese tea cup had been carelessly plopped onto a long, unglazed cone of a stem. The outside was the color of the most unaesthetic dirt – a yellowish brown that couldn’t have been arrived at intentionally. The inside of the cup was a dark pea green, glazed haphazardly. Hard to imagine drinking out of this, but that only added to its strangeness.
The store’s caretaker was stocking shelves when I walked in and he wandered over to see if I needed help. When I asked about it, he offered that it was a kind of wine glass for a special Slovakian liquor made of fermented honey. Convinced and charmed, I bought it, brought it home and arranged it on a bookshelf where other ceramics are kept. Among them, a tiny ivory colored bowl made by a former intern of mine, a jade green vase I bought at the local Korean supermarket, a coal black Japanese cup and saucer I picked up at the flea market at the Tenri Cultural Center here in Flushing.
In moments like that in Long Island City, I’m returned to my unexplainable infatuation with ceramics.
I remember seeing some centuries old plates and vases from what’s now Iraq at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco a few years ago. They were decked out in blues you could only find in fleeting flashes on an ocean’s surface. This blue was nothing but its own color; ultimately transparent and fresh as tomorrow morning. The marks divining its surface were aggressive (I’m not saying violent) compared to the austere Tang Dynasty stuff I had just marveled at in another room. In the next, from another century, the Japanese surface on some of their vessels: cracked and irregular like volcanic earth in some, mirror smooth in others, delivering their own kinds of complexions that were also nothing like the names we have to describe them. “Brown” just wasn’t enough.
In my kitchen cabinet is one of my favorite possessions: a plate with gently sloped sides that I bought in a pan-middle eastern restaurant in Amsterdam. It’s decorated with a briskly outlined fish in the center and multi-colored dots, dabs and strokes all around it. It’s body is built from a thickly formed ceramic and I’m convinced eating out of it makes stuff like my oxtail stew taste at least 10% better. A pair of coffee cups copped in a Berlin flea market that are just the right size, freckled with blue Pollack-y drips – its cultural origins unknown. All I know is that my coffee’s on point from out of that, caffeine rationed to exactly the right amount.
I was at Smack Mellon, an alternative art space in DUMBO, Brooklyn a few weeks back to see an exhibition by Yoko Inoue. In this vast space, Inoue had created her intimately scaled version of a Japanese night market populated by ceramic figures, vessels and masks that were mutant hybrids sampling from global consumer culture. Things were clearly marked for sale, rightfully – ceramics imply the functionality and normalcy of exchange even when, as in Yoko’s case, they’re aesthetic and conceptual vessels. In her work, Japanese-ness bleeds out, from the hand-crafted care we associate with the production of ceramics to the evoked make-shift spaces where deals are done. At dinner, when ceramics fulfill their most obvious task to make life a little bit better, to make daily rituals a little bit finer, is when we’re returned to our most unintelligible selves and when we become psychically connected to the ancients, who must’ve also derived great pleasure from wining and dining on classic material.