Reflections of the MoonTHE MOON JARS OF YOUNG SOOK PARK
THE CRUX OF THE MOON JAR IS THE ‘BELLY’ WHERE THE TWO SEPARATELY THROWN HALVES, OR BOWLS, JOIN. SHE LIKENS THIS CONNECTION TO A MARRIAGE; BOTH HALVES MUST BE IN HARMONY TO SURVIVE.
A moon jar is a serene and ethereal thing, like a rippling reflection of the moon itself in a lake. Young Sook Park is regarded as a modern master of this challenging form, and on meeting her, it soon becomes clear that creating a moon jar is far from a peaceful process. The jars are highly vulnerable to breakages in the kiln – only about 10 % survive firing – while the luminous, plain white glaze is one of the most difficult to execute. It’s a vocation that demands tremendous resilience and physical fitness. Now in her 70s, Park burns 500 calories a day at the gym, and farms her own vegetables. At her studio, huge bags of dried, home grown chillies sit alongside dozens of moon jars. She derives her energy from the work itself, and says she cannot fail to be happy and youthful when she spends her life transforming earth into ‘jewels’.
Park’s calling came in 2000, when she developed a passionate desire to contribute to Korea’s cultural identity. Embodying Neo-Confucian ideals of frugality and purity, the moon jar first emerged in Korea during an important period of renewal following the Japanese and Manchu invasions of the 16th and 17th centuries. Reviving the tradition seemed to be the perfect way to serve her country’s cultural heritage. All she had to do was acquire the requisite technical skill. This task took five years of persistent trial and error. Now she pushes the boundaries of the form, increasing the size of the jars, and refining the glazes and firing techniques. Her work can be found in the collections of the V&A, the British Museum of Art, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University.
Viewed with hindsight, Park’s whole life seems to lead towards the moon jar. Her father made intricate, traditional inlaid furniture, and her upbringing instilled her with an appreciation for fine craftsmanship. She became an antiques collector and, as a housewife and mother in the late 1970s, began making small ceramic pieces of her own. It was around this time that she bought a rare 18th century moon jar, mesmerised by its profound simplicity and a presence that she longed to replicate. She would eventually sell the jar to the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul, where it is now listed as a national treasure.
As we drink green tea, Park draws my attention to the immaculate white porcelain tea set in front of us, another example of her work. The pot does not drip as she pours, and it stays hot long after we finish the last of the tea. She achieves these properties without calculations or measurements, yet lays no claim to this ability. It is her hands that do all this, she says. Years of working with her father, and handling countless pieces as a collector, have imparted generations of skill and knowledge in the form of an innate, tactile understanding. A rich seam of lineage and humility runs through her work, and she considers herself as much a medium as a creator. The crux of the moon jar is the ‘belly’, where the two separately thrown halves, or bowls, join. She likens this connection to a marriage; both halves must be in harmony to survive. The jar’s final shape depends on how this unique relationship endures firing, and is beyond her control.
Park’s story would be incomplete without mentioning fellow Korean artist Lee Ufan. In the early 1980s, he came across her gallery, Young Sook Park Ceramic Studio. Recognising something exceptional in her work, he became an unexpected mentor and motivating force in her life. She expresses gratitude for his sometimes exacting, but always valuable, criticism, citing the moment he said he was proud of her as a true high point in her career. They have worked together on many occasions, holding their first major joint exhibition in Tokyo in 1987. Their most recent works, from 2016 to 2017, form the inaugural exhibition of Park’s New York space, Y-S-P Gallery. Her porcelain surfaces provide a canvas for Lee’s minimal, meditative brush strokes. Park and Lee also have nascent plans to establish a museum centred around their collaborative relationship. Park speaks passionately about this vision, and says she intends to continue working until it is realised.
For Park, the power of the moon jar is its ability to move people. It saddens her that many museums cannot devote enough space to display those in their collections as solitary, independent forms. The effect of the moon jar’s austere beauty is not obvious or immediate; it works on the beholder slowly. Not intended to be symmetrical or perfectly shaped – just as the moon itself is not a perfect, unblemished sphere – the jars always reveal a human touch. This living quality expresses the full potential of porcelain; at once fragile and durable, fluid yet still.