Contributed by Bernadette Rankine, Director for Southeast Asia, Bonhams
I am not a ceramics expert, nor do I have any expertise in this field. My eye and inclination leans towards the modern and contemporary. However, working for Bonhams means that there is always an opportunity and sometimes no choice but to handle historical art works. Recently, an exceptionally rare imperial Ming-style underglazed-blue and copper-red vase Jiu’er Zun, Qianlong seal mark and of the period, hammered loudly in Hong Kong for SGD 4,120,983 (pictured left).
Unquestionably, this is a beautiful vase with a noble lineage and stellar provenance, having come from the collection of Tang Shaoyi (1862-1938), the first Prime Minister of the Republic of China, 1912, and once even handled by the Qianlong Emperor. Fingers are crossed that this statuesque remote beauty will be put into orbit in a museum for all to see, love and enjoy soon.
With this in mind, I would not even consider the few pieces I have, by a contemporary Korean artist, to be material for deep discourse or deep pockets or an auction star. To me, these are artifacts which require no research but nevertheless in a roundabout way lead one to enquire and dig a little into the past and the ceramic traditions of North Asia.
The artist, Huh Sang Wook, is alive and known, and his works are in museums around the world. It was not until a chance visit with a friend in 2017 to the V&A of the Samsung-sposored exhibition of 15 emerging and established Korean artists, that I was forced to pay a little more attention to three odd-shaped plates by Mr Huh, which I bought randomly in Singapore at Boon’s Pottery in 2014.
Contemporary Korean ceramics are making a silent yet strong headway in the art world as witness by the collections in the Guggenheim, Metropolitan Museum of Art and the V&A. That the ‘mercenaries’ of the market have not fully caught on to the growing interest in the art world gives me hope there will be opportunities for me to learn and grow with the artist and his circle.
For the time being, I am happy to share some space on my cluttered desk with three bold works by Huh Sang Wook. My trio are from his Mindscape Series with stylised fish motifs (see above) etched into the glaze and in one instance, fat white flowers (lotuses?) surrounding them. The artist practices Buncheong, a technique known for animated motifs and sgraffito. The clay and glaze are similar to celadon but less processed and refined.
Like the Imperial Ming-style vase that references an archaic shape and underlines the Qianlong Emperor’s fascination with the past in a very solemn and serious manner, artist Huh Sang Wook does the same by using the Buncheong technique and ‘primitive’ motifs that hark back to a tradition that emerged around 1392. Korean ceramic tradition dates back 10,000 years.
However, unlike the Qianlong vase, my humble pieces were not bought at auction but an exhibition of Huh’s pieces held some years ago in Singapore. My pocket did not feel the pinch and more importantly, they make my heart smile every day..