Collecting the Contemporary

Collecting the Contemporary

Contributed by Bernadette Rankine, Director for Southeast Asia, Bonhams

I am not a ceramics person, 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 are imperial Ming-style underglazed-blu and copper red vase, Jiu’er Zun, Qianlong seal mark and of the period, hammered loudly in Hong Kong for SGD 4,120,983.

Unquestionably, this is a beautiful vase with a noble lineage and stellar provenance, having came 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 leads one to enquire and dig a little into the past and the ceramic traditions of North Asia.

The artist 1Huh 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-sponsored 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.

2 Contemporary Korean ceramics are making a silent yet strong headway in the artworld 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.

V&A’s Samsung Curator of Korean Art, Dr Rosalie Kim, explaining how artist Kang Ikjoong (b1960) appropriates the moon jar, one of the most iconic Korean ceramic, as a metaphor for the now divided Korea Moon Jar with Golden Karma, USA, New York 2013-15

So, 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 etched into the glaze and in one instance  fat white flowers (lotuses?) surrounding them. The artist practises 3Buncheong, a technique known for animated motifs and sgraffito. The clay and glaze are similar to celadon but less processed and refined. There is a spontaneous energy, wit and robustness to his work.

Huh Sang Wook
Mindscape Series
Courtesy of the artist Huh Sang Wook
Side view and the base
Huh Sang Wook
Mindscape Series Detail

Like the Imperial Ming style vase which references an archaic shape and underlines the Qianlong Emperor’s fascination with the past in a very solemn and serious manner; Huh does the same by using the Buncheong technique and ‘primitive’ motifs that hark back to a tradition which emerged 4around 1392. Korean ceramic tradition dates back 10,000 years.

However, unlike the Qianlong vase, my humble pieces were not bought at auction but from Huh’s exhibition 5 years ago in Singapore. My pocket did not feel the pinch and more importantly they do make my heart smile every day.