Story VII | The Art of the Vessel

LKG_JapaneseArt_Mitsumoto_Takeshi_650pxByōbu (vessel)   Mitsumoto Takeshi b. 1962   Reclaimed Iron

‘…the fact that a vase encompasses nothing, is the use of the vase’ 
Lao Tzu*

Seemingly contradictory concepts introduce this article: ‘Vessel’ is defined by the Oxford dictionary as ‘a hollow container, especially one used to hold liquid, such as a bowl or cask’, and ‘art’ as ‘the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. (emphasis added) The ‘Western’ Oxford definition precludes the ‘Eastern’ Lao Tzu’s concept of the function of the vase as encompassing nothing.

Here in a nutshell then is the age-old distinction between function and beauty, between art and craft/design, the implication being that the functional vessel cannot be art, particularly when the definition of art is ‘fine art’ and includes the assumption of ‘autonomy’, and that therefore autonomous art is more valuable, in every sense of the word, than mere craft.

The Japanese aesthetic is expressed as 用の美 (yō no bi), the beauty of function/work/engagement (Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary). I shall use ‘engagement’ as the appropriate translation in this context, both ‘work’ and ‘function’ suggest engagement – engagement with objects and with each other.

* I am indebted to ‘the Great and small GAZETTE’ for this quote.

The distinction between ‘fine art’ (usually two-dimensional) and ‘not-fine-art’ (usually three-dimensional) was irrelevant in Japanese culture until the mid 19th century Meiji Period (1868-1912), when Western art historians sought to superimpose their own cultural and art historical classifications on a culture newly encountered and superficially understood. This is the origin of the term 美術 (bijutsu), a concept created to compartmentalize according to Western cultural and academic traditions. Recently however, there is an increasing recognition amongst Japanese academics that these terms do a disservice to Japanese art and cultural traditions and further, that the concepts of traditional and contemporary may not necessarily apply usefully to Japan.

Encompasses Nothing (vessel)   Kaneko Toru b. 1962   Copper, Tin, Brass Powder, Lacquer   36 x 10 x 33 cms
AUD 5500   To purchase this work contact
Other works by Kaneko Toru also available

The idea of engagement is central to an understanding of the expression of artistic creativity in Japan. Art and beauty permeate engagement with daily life, and thus also the functional objects of the quotidian. This engagement is perhaps best expressed through the practice of tea, the perfect expression of the Japanese aesthetic and one that translates across the entire platform of art, culture, design and beauty. That the functional vessel is art, the embodiment of beauty and emotional power, is an essential part of the Way of Tea, arguably also the founding principle of Japanese aesthetics. It is the guiding aesthetic of the potter creating the chawan (bowl for tea), and increasingly today its little brother, the guinomi (sake cup). Engagement guides the form, demands disciplined creativity of the artist, and is the consummation of the aesthetic. In the ideal triangle of interaction (engagement) of artist, artwork and user/owner, the work is fully realized.

Guinomi (Saké cup)   Kochi Hidetoshi   Ceramic   8 x 8 x 6.5 sms   AUD 275   with signed storage box
To purchase this work contact
Other Saké vessels are also available.

Japanese ceramic glazes have often been called manifestations of abstract expressionism. In an example of the independent interpretation and response that artworks call forth, I quote from comments sent to us from a client, hijacked by sake cups in her journey toward a netsuke collection, ‘I walked up Collins St to the Japanese art gallery where I hoped to add to my netsuke collection…Each time I visit the gallery I am sucked in by the ceramic sake cups and pots…Finally (after a couple of other seductions) I fell in love with the colours of a deeper cup that reminded me of the Australian outback. I love the rough earthly texture and the way the ochre colour darkens at the outside foot to the embers of an ancient bushfire.’

Iron Twist (vessel transformed)   Mitsumoto Takeshi  b. 1962   Reclaimed Iron   14 x 10 x 48 cms
AUD 4950   To purchase this work contact
Other works by Mitsumoto Takeshi also available.

The vase that encompasses nothing stands as testament to the Eastern philosophical concept of 無 (mu), a ‘nothing’ that is rich, full and resolved. The empty vessel or hollow container that may contain something is a potential source of transformation, particularly in the hands of an Ikebana master.

A catholic, unprejudiced appreciation and expression of beauty that ignores artificial separations of ‘art’ and ‘not-art’ is embodied in the words of Yanagi Sōetsu (1889-1961), founder of the Mingei Movement: ‘Among the few who see things as they are …are the early masters of the Way of Tea. …They could comprehend intuitively. And with this penetration they saw truth. …What was their way of seeing? …Most people look through some medium, generally interposing thoughts, personal tastes, habits between the eye and the object. …Unless a thing is seen without mediation, the thing itself cannot be grasped… Those who employ intellect before they see are denied a real comprehension of beauty.

But seeing was not the sole merit of the Tea masters. They did not stop there, for merely seeing is not seeing completely. Seeing led them to using, and using led them to seeing deeper. Without using there is no complete seeing, for nothing so emphasizes the beauty of things as their right application. (emphasis added)  Not only did the Tea masters enjoy beauty with the eye and contemplate it with the mind, but they also experienced it with the whole being. We might say they comprehended beauty in action…to live beauty in our daily lives is the genuine Way of Tea.’

Chawan (tea bowl) : 樹林 Jurin Forest   Kishi Eiko b. 1948   Ceramic saiseki zōgan and silver glaze
POA   To purchase this work contact
Other sculptural and functional works by Kishi Eiko are also available

Lesley Kehoe Galleries believes in and supports the expression of beauty, emotional power and creativity in whatever form it takes. We encourage an independent personal response to each artwork, independent of art historical label, academic nomenclature, age, form or material. I use the term ‘independent’ to separate it purposely from ‘subjective’, as the latter somewhat disempowers the response as less than valid, and thus discourages confidence in the respondent. To beauty, emotional power and creativity, I would like to add ‘intellectual invitation’. In choosing to exhibit the works of international artists from a culture other than Western European, we offer an engagement with artworks that stimulate curiosity and an invitation to a journey beyond the expected, the anticipated and the taken-for-granted everyday.