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The Flavour of the Earth. Lorenzo Amato interviews Ishida Kazuya, Bizen master

Intervista in italiano

In Bizen (Okayama prefecture), a visitor can sometimes see lines of smoke coming from low mountains. Those might be one of the famed kilns where for almost a thousand years Bizen potters have been producing outstanding works of ceramic art known for their earthly colors.

Ishida Kazuya was born in Bizen in 1986, from a family of potters. After beginning his career in Japan, he studied in Oxford and then went back to Bizen, where he is distinguishing himself as one of the most innovative ceramic artists of the new generation. He has received prestigious awards in Japan, and has participated in numerous exhibitions in Japan, the UK and the U.S. A.

I met Ishida-sensei both in Inbe, at his studio, and again in Tokyo during his solo exhibition in Ginza, Tokyo (April 2021). On December 15th Ishida had just finished the firing process of his new collection, so I could then have some of his precious time for a remote-distance conversation, which we had in English.

 

First of all, I would like to thank you for allowing me to take your time. I would like to start this conversation by talking in general about Bizen-yaki (Bizen pottery). Bizen is one of the six ancient kilns of Japan (Rokkoyō). Master ceramists have worked in Bizen for centuries, elaborating unique styles and techniques. What does it mean to be part of this tradition?

We have over 800 years of tradition. We have old kiln sites, where we can still go and see old pieces made here by people who were doing the same job we do, using similar techniques. Even the clay is the same: earth collected from local rice fields and stored and processed for months according to an ancient method. Artistically, old Bizen masters are still very relevant; although they lived in a different era of Japan, they  created items for daily use that are not so different from our modern pieces. Of course, time makes a difference: many things we use today did not exist in the past, so new items have been introduced or adapted to modern uses.

What makes the Bizen tradition different from other traditions?

Well, first of all the long history of Bizen-yaki (Bizen pottery), and all the different shapes and styles invented through the centuries [e.g. ao-bizen, botamochi, fuseyaki, goma, hidasuki, sangiri]. Most of all, I would say, the fact that we do not use any glaze. Here glazes have never been used, as Bizen clay has a high shrinkage and it is cooked in a single firing, so applying glazes can be difficult. The old masters came to appreciate the beauty of the natural colors that the naked clay develops when exposed to heat, fire and melted ash in different parts of the kiln. This appreciation for natural, unglazed clay is called tsuchi-aji, i.e. the ‘flavor of the earth’. From this point of view, the long firing process of raw pieces (yakishime), so important for defining the ‘taste’ of the final works, could also be considered one of the main features of Bizen-yaki.

That’s right. In fact, in Bizen the pieces are never pre-fired into bisqueware, and they are loaded into the kiln completely raw.

Yes. When a piece is bisqued it is much stronger, so it can stand the highest temperatures with less chances of cracking. Instead, with a single firing the clay is less stable, and we have to constantly monitor the rising temperature in the kiln. This is why we need the ten-day-long process of raising the temperature until pique (circa 1200°-1230° Celsius).

6-When you load the pieces in the kiln, you also must be very careful about the position of the pieces in relation to the fire, the streams of hot air circulating inside the kiln, the falling of melted dusts in different parts of the kiln, etc., isn’t that so?

Yes, and also about smoke, reduction, and the ease with which we reach the right temperatures, which depends on the quantity of objects loaded: if the kiln is too packed it is more difficult to reach high temperatures, so we must be careful about the balance of pieces compared to the size and structure of the kiln.

I saw on Instagram that you just finished unloading all your works from the kiln.

Yes, I opened it about 10 days ago [around the 5th of December 2021].

How long did it take to unload it?

Unloading all the pieces took one day. Loading it, on the other hand, took one full week. Firing per se usually takes from ten to twelve days, after which you have to wait for eight days for the pieces to rest and cool down.

So the whole process of firing takes around a month. And after that you have to clean all pieces.

Yes. That also takes a couple of weeks.

8It must be a very demanding work, taking care of a noborigama kiln for days without a break.

Yes, it is.  As the whole process takes more or less six weeks, during the firing period we cannot throw new pieces. So in a sense our artistic work is divided into different parts: the throwing periods and the firing ones.

You used a noborigama kiln: How big is it? How many pieces you can load inside at the same time?

The kiln is about eight-nine meters long and two and a half meters wide. If I only have small pieces maybe around two thousand could fit it. On the other hand, if I have large pieces only, I can fire one thousand pieces at the same time. As I make pieces of  different sizes, the average is between one and two thousand pieces per time.

How many times a year do you fire the kiln?

I have both a noborigama kiln and an anagama kiln, and I tend to alternate their use during the year. For example, the anagama in spring and the noborigama in early winter, like this year.

What is the difference between the two kilns?

Anagama consists in a single narrow chamber, while the noborigama has many chambers. In Bizen we traditionally use reduction firing in the noborigama. I use also the anagama kiln because my previous master, Jun Isezaki [a very famous Bizen potter, honored with the prestigious title of Living National Treasure], is a specialist in anagama. Under his guidance I studied the oxidized way of firing, so I also experiment with the anagama.

What different results do you get in the anagama and in the noborigama?

Noborigama gets heavier or darker coloring, from smoke and embers. Anagama is good for hidasuki straw marks. The colors from the anagama are usually brighter and more strongly marked than those from the noborigama, depending on the ashes. The clay I use might be different, too, depending on the kiln, and of course very often the shape and style of a piece depends on the clay. All aspects of creating a piece are interconnected.

Was there ever a time when you were disappointed by the results, or vice-versa a time when everything came out perfect and wonderful?

It is never the case that I am really wholly ‘disappointed’, as there are always pieces that come out better than hoped and others that end up being relatively bland. Well, yes, sometimes the back side of a set of pieces does not receive enough heat for the dust to melt and decorate them as planned. It also happens that pieces I took good care of end up cracking during the firing. But there are always good pieces alongside the broken or bland ones. That is part of the randomness of the firing process.

Ah, broken pieces! Does it make you sad when you see them?

(Laughing) Well, yes, but I always think that even if things did not go as planned I have to carry on, and maybe learn a lesson from what happened. And of course, there is a bit of happiness and a bit of sadness after every firing.

You have also studied abroad. You know the Bizen tradition and at the same time have an international perspective about ceramic art.

I use some aspects or techniques of the Bizen masters of the past, but I use them as part of my own individual artistic research. There are also many important aspects of the Bizen tradition that are not part of my work. Having also studied other traditions makes me free. I feel part of the Bizen history, but at the same time I can use other sources of inspiration and look for a different kind of public. This allows me to experiment both within and outside of the traditional patterns, and to combine different traditions in total freedom.

Talking about you as an artist, which artist inspires you the most?

My personal hero is Takahiro Kondō. He is very well known internationally. He studied in Scotland, and now works in Kyoto. He uses both ceramics and glass, but also other materials.

Have you ever considered using glass yourself? Maybe in the future?

(Laughing) Maybe in the future. Although Takahiro Kondō is more of a contemporary and conceptual artist, he gave me plenty of advice about my work. One of his signature techniques is using platinum as a drip over his sculptures. This unique approach, and the idea of experimenting new materials in combination with traditional techniques, was an inspiration for me. I first saw one of his exhibitions in Kyoto, when I was twenty. By then I was studying ceramics at the Kyoto Prefectural Ceramists’ Technical Institute. I met him after the exhibition, and afterwards I visited his studio and he offered support and advice that have had a deep impact on my life. That is also the reason I decided to leave Japan for a while and broaden my experience of other traditions.

So your research was directly inspired by him. Are there other artists who have had a similar impact on your research, or whom you admire?

Yes. A potter who lived in the UK, Hans Coper. He worked with very simple colors, black and white, yet he could form recognizable pieces. He often used the wheel as a starting point, then altering the final shape of the objects by re-forming them by hand or joining together pieces shaped according to different geometrical archetypes. His works have a very distinctive style and at the same time appear very powerful, almost primordial.

Let’s talk more about your technique: You use different kinds of clay for your work.

Yes, I use a unique technique called spiral wedging (rahō). It’s a technique that requires the use of the wheel. I form the piece, made with Bizen clay, on a wheel, and then I apply a porcelain slip on it. I mark the liquid surface of white porcelain with a comb, creating white lines that stand out from the dark clay beneath. Then I make the vase expand by modelling it from the inside with my hand, while the wheel turns. This creates a spiral pattern that follows geometrical proportions naturally. Then I use a blowtorch to dry it quickly, which in turns creates cracks on the porcelain slip.

This is, in fact, your signature technique. Did you invent it?

I learned the basic techniques as a student. Maturing as an artist, I tried to learn more techniques and combine them with the ones I already knew how to use, and this is the way I ended up evolving this original style.

When we met in Tokyo, in April 2021, you told me that the porcelain you use as slip actually originates from the Bizen territory.

Yes. I dig it myself. Potters in Bizen do not use this porcelain, as the clay that everybody associates with the name Bizen is a dark stoneware clay made from rice-field earth. Anything made with that white porcelain instead of the traditional clay would not be considered truly ‘Bizen’. Also, the porcelain mine in Bizen is owned by a brick factory, and it is forbidden to dig it. However, I received special permission from the director of that company, since using that specific porcelain is part of my artistic project.

Have you ever found other kinds of clay that have properties similar to Bizen clay?

Yes, in the UK I could find a very nice clay in Devon. There are clays in the world that have an even more distinctive character compared to Bizen clay. What makes Bizen-yaki special is the way the unglazed clay is fired (yakishime), and all the attention and the techniques required by the firing process.

What is your most famous series of pieces?

Well, so far spiral wedging is my most personal technique. For example, the larger vases made with that spiral technique are also quite popular in the UK and are considered my signature series. But recently I have been trying to experiment new techniques: for example, by using wild, rough porcelain, which is completely new, not only in the Bizen context. I am also experimenting on the marbling technique, which together with the spiral wedging reveals the character of the different materials used on the surface of the objects.

 

At the exhibition held last autumn at the Kakiden Gallery in Shinjuku (Tokyo) I was able to view see the new series, ‘Abyss Chawan”. Is this an example of wild porcelain?

Yes, exactly. I call it ‘wild porcelain’ because I dig it out myself. I also call it ‘rough porcelain’ in contrast with the usual  porcelain, which is very smooth. While porcelain is famous for being a very plastic and flexible material and for its transparency, I use it unrefined in a way that makes the final pieces sturdy and textured like unglazed stoneware. I also like to leave grains of sand and small stones inside the porcelain I dig, so the final pieces present porcelain as it can be found in nature, without refinement: that is why I call it ‘wild’.

The marbling style is also new from the 2020 collections?

I have experimented with it before, but only now have I started to create sets with this technique. I plan on doing more in the future.

Do you have other techniques or styles you want to experiment in the future? Something you have not done yet?

I want to try and create more series with the wild, rough porcelain technique. I want to see how different shapes and objects can be redefined by the use of this composite material.

That is very interesting. What do other Bizen potters, especially the more traditional ones, think about these experiments?

Ah, well, my friends like my techniques very much, but I have not had the chance to talk to other potters about it, and I have not really asked them. Some people are interested and some people are probably not.

Maybe some older potters do not appreciate changes?

(laughing) Maybe, maybe!

I feel there is a special appreciation for this… uh, let’s call it shin-Bizen [i.e. modern Bizen] that you and other young potters are experimenting.

Yes, there are many young potters in Bizen who are trying to innovate and create new paths for the Bizen style. Indeed, you can consider my style to be Bizen, because I carry out in my techniques what I have learned from past generations, but at the same time you could consider it to be non-Bizen, because some of the innovations I have introduced are very radical. In any case, for me it is not so important how you define my work, Bizen or not, as the most important thing is that people from inside and outside Japan like my work and can find joy in it.

In some of the videos you show during exhibitions we can see you walking in the woods, looking for materials or earths to use as clay. Is this relationship with nature and exploring the external world important for you?

Well, yes, this is an integral part of the way I see my work. The impulse of getting around and exploring is part of an attitude that we call waku waku. It means excitement and also impatience: if I stay and model my pieces only in the studio, then I feel it as some kind of office job, or the kind of job where you just have to work without thinking too much about anything else. Instead, I like to get around and discover new things. It gives me new ideas, and of course lets me experience the feeling of physical concreteness that you can only get when you are walking, especially in nature, and touching and smelling what you see around you. It is a way of expanding my awareness of the physical world, and by collecting samples of clay, porcelain, sand and stones, I make this experience an integral part of my pieces. This also concerns our responsibility towards the materials we use. Recuperating materials and earths that would be considered useless has implications in regards to the environmental sustainability of our work. For example the porcelain I use is the material that has been discarded as useless by the factory in charge of the mine, as it was grinded by the machines of the miners. I like the idea of transforming something that would be otherwise ignored or accumulated as waste into works that have an important social value.

Recently you’ve tried to make pieces in  colors different from the ones you used  before.

True. Bizen-yaki is traditionally brown or dark brown, with parts colored in grey or blue with the sangiri technique, or clear colored with red stripes with the hidasuki technique. Recently some potters have begun using black slips. But if I make pieces that have new shapes it does not make sense to use the same colors. That is why I want to use the slip over the surface. Now, porcelain is white and it gets covered with wood ash. This creates patterns of colors. By adding cobalt the porcelain acquires tonalities that recall  the blue of the sea, while mixing it with Bizen clay allows me to obtain orange marbling that resembles stratified soil or a shell. In the end, all of my coloring alludes to nature.

For example, the Abyss Chawan is blue.

Yes. As the abyss is the bottom of the sea, so the blue-cobalt coloring of the Abyss Chawan reminds us of the dark blue of the deep. This is also connected to the rough materials like wild porcelain, which cannot be as white as refined porcelain because it contains natural impurities, such as sands and stones.

Sometimes you arrange exhibitions and demonstrations with artists from other fields, such as ikebana (flower arrangement).

Yes. For example, in April with my good friend Kazuhiro Sugimoto, a great and very well-known ikebana artist, I made a demonstration of flower arrangement on top of my spiral vases. We often talk together about our relative arts, and we have developed a kind of synergy that is helping both of us to find new ways of improving what we do. We support and actually inspire one another.

Now let’s talk about your public: do you think that Japanese people today know about the Bizen tradition?

Mh, I think it depends on their age. People who are, let’s say, 50 or older know about the Bizen tradition, as they have a better knowledge of traditional Japan. Younger people less so.

I know that another famous pottery tradition, Shigaraki-yaki, has become very famous thanks to an NHK drama set in the Shigaraki village. There is no NHK drama about Bizen, maybe they should make one? (laughing)

Sure, maybe! (laughing)

You are very active on Instagram and other social media to promote Bizen-yaki. You show videos and tutorials about your art and activities.

Yes, I try to show the way I work, which shares similarities to what other young potters do. But they also relate to old Bizen-yaki, so in a way it is all connected.

You also take part in many group exhibitions with other young Bizen artists.

Yes, this is in part due to the fact that group exhibitions are usually promoted by Japanese department stores. Exhibitions can focus specifically on young potters, or more in general on Bizen potters, so it depends.

It is really fascinating how shopping culture can influence artists’ careers. In Italy we do not have a system of large department stores like in Japan, so usually when people go shopping they do not find themselves inside an art exhibit they can visit for free.

Ah, really! Then this is different in Japan. Department stores have an entire floor, usually the seventh or eighth, dedicated to modern artists. It gives us plenty of opportunities to show our works both in group and solo exhibitions.

When is the next firing going to take place?

I am still thinking about it. Maybe in spring I will use the anagama kiln, but I am not sure yet. 

Any plans for the future? What is your next exhibition going to be?

Well… I was invited to come to Bali for a workshop, and I was getting ready to go, but with this new Covid variant (Omicron) I cannot be sure if I can go through with that plan or if it will have to be postponed. In March there is going to be a solo exhibition in a department store in Okayama, focused on wild porcelain. In June-July-August I should be going to Australia for a residency in Sidney.

Do we have any hope of seeing you and your art in Italy?

Well, I would really like to visit Italy, and having an exhibition there would be a dream for me. But at the moment it is impossible to organize anything like that. Maybe in the future, after the world recovers from the Covid19? Who knows?

Well, let’s hope the pandemic will disappear soon! Meanwhile, can international readers find you and your work on-line?

Of course, on my web site (kazuyaishida.com), as well as on Instagram (bizen_kazuya), where I try to upload videos of my current activities.

A Short Glossary of Japanese Terms

Anagama: lit. ‘pit kiln’, a wood-fired kiln composed of one long chamber dug into the ground or a hill. It was introduced from Korea around the 5th century AD.

Aobizen: lit. ‘blue Bizen’, a Bizen piece colored in blue hues with marks in lighter blue. The firing process is similar to the hidasuki technique, except that near the end of the firing a strong reduction atmosphere is created so that the colors change.

Bizen-yaki: Bizen ceramics, i.e. a piece made in Bizen, or the tradition of Bizen ceramics as a whole.

Botamochi: clear round areas (the shape and size of a traditional mochi sweet) on the brown or dark (e.g. goma-colored) surface of a Bizen piece, obtained by placing round objects on the surface of the object, thereby shielding only those round areas from other chemical processes.

Chawan: the cup used for the Japanese tea ceremony (Chanoyu). It is the most important single item of the ceremony, collected and cherished by practitioners, and probably the most important ‘genre’ of traditional ceramic art in Japan.

Fuseyaki: the double coloration of a piece, obtained by partially stacking it into another one during firing, thus shielding only one part of it from other chemical processes. 

Hidasuki: the effect of a clear colored piece covered in bright-red lines. It is created by placing a piece wrapped in rice straw inside a refractory box that shields it from flames. During the firing the straw eventually dissolves and marks the surface in red.

Goma: a grey/brown, sesame-like colored natural glaze due to pine ashes melting at the highest temperatures and fusing with the minerals of the clay (esp. on the upper body of the vessels).

Noborigama: lit. ‘climbing kiln’, a wood-fired kiln composed of many interconnected chambers that progressively ‘climb’ a hill. It was introduced from Korea around the 16th-17th century AD.

Rahō: the spiral wedging technique used by Kazuya Ishida. 

Rokkoyō: the Six Ancient Kilns of Japan. The term refers to six Japanese towns that have been important centers of ceramic production for the last thousand years: Bizen, Echizen, Seto, Shigaraki, Tamba, Tokoname. 

Sangiri: a cangiant, metallic blue/gray coloring characteristic of pieces completely or partially covered in ash and therefore lacking oxygen during firing (and so undergoing  reduction firing).

Tsuchi-aji: lit. ‘taste of the earth’, i.e. the appreciation of the texture and colors that unglazed stoneware acquires during firing at high temperatures.

Waku-waku: a natural curiosity and willingness to explore new places and concepts.

Yakishime: the traditional process of firing unglazed pieces in kilns such as the anagama or noborigama, and all the techniques connected to the decoration of the pieces through  firing.

A Minimal Bibliography

Mieko Sawada, Japanese Pottery. Yakimono Bilingual Guide (Tokyo: Shogakukan, 2020): a bilingual introduction to the main traditions and terms of Japanese pottery.

Penny Simpron, Lucy Kitto, Kanji Sodeoka, The Japanese Pottery Handbook. Revised Edition, New Introduction by Ken Matsuzaki and Philip Leach (New York: Kodansha USA, 2014): an illustrated typological manual of Japanese pottery, with comprehensive lists of English and Japanese terms divided into historical and technical categories.

The Bizen: From Earth and Fire, Exquisite Forms / / Tsuchi to honō kara umareru zōkeibi, ed. Masahiro Karasawa (Nagoya: NHK PlanNet Chubu, 2019): the catalogue of a recent, large exhibition that was held from 22.2.2019 to 27.9.2020 in seven different venues around Japan, Tokyo, Tochigi, Yamaguchi, Shiga, Huogo, Okayama, Aichi. It serves as a good introduction to Bizen-yaki, and it offers pictures, articles and biographic entries, both in Japanese and English, of the most important masters of recent Bizen tradition.

Next: The Bizen-yaki. Artists Creating The Future of The Bizen / Bizen no mirai o sōzō suru mono tachi (Okayama-Fukuyama: Tenmaya Bijutsubu, 2020): catalogue of an exhibition of more than 20 young Bizen artists, held at the Okayama Tenmaya gallery, Okayama, 8-14 July 2020, and at the Fukuyama Tenmaya Gallery, Hiroshima, 2-7 dicembre 2020; on pp. 8-9 it features five works by Kazuya Ishida.

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