I like to think I appreciate all aspects of the culture of South Korea, where I live, but different attractions bring different foreigners here. Some come for the food, some come for the music (pop, traditional, or somewhere in between), some come for the medical tourism. Others, like British ceramicist Roger Law, come for the pottery. The half-hour documentary above will give you an idea of what makes Korean pottery, and the Korean potters who craft it, so distinctive, taking viewers into the workshop of Lee Kang-hyo, who has become famous by there bringing together the distinct traditions of onggi glazed earthenware pottery and buncheong white slip decoration.
“As a high school student, I asked myself some fundamental questions,” says Lee in voiceover as we watch him beat the clay of what looks more and more like a large jar into shape. “What would be good to do for a living? What is my best talent? How can I enjoy a life of peace? It was then I decided to become an artist.” As he creates, he tells us about the long history of pottery in Korea and his experience practicing and mastering the traditions in which he works. Looked at onggi, he says, “I never thought they were simply big jars. I thought they were great sculpture.”
“My documentary tells the story of Lee Kang-hyo’s search for a beautiful life, through his work with clay and the love of his family,” says director Alex Wright, a story that “gives an insight into the spiritual journey that plays a vital part in his artistic practice.” For Lee, this had to do as much with the heart and mind as with the hand, loosening up and lightening up even as he grew more skilled, a realization that first occurred when he became friendly with Japanese master potter Koie Ryoji. “Kang-hyo, why don’t you try to change your thinking?'” Lee remembers Koie asking after he presented him with his latest piece. “And he lifted it up and crushed it. He said: ‘Form doesn’t always have to be straight. It can be beautiful.'”
That lesson holds in other cultural spheres as well. “Ceramic culture is very closely connected to dietary life and food culture,” Lee observes. “Korea has developed a fermented food culture. A lot of foods are fermented and stored, such as sauces and kimchi,” which might stay in their ceramic jars for years before consumption. And so “Korea has developed the skills to make big jars, more than any other country” with the “quickest and most perfect forms.” This might sound like the makings of a rustic, utilitarian pottery — and indeed cuisine — but in fact the work of Lee and other Korean masters increasingly aligns with the growing global taste for things outwardly simple but inwardly refined. In that particular sensibility, whether expressed as pottery or food or music or anything else, Korea might well lead the world.
Lee Kang-hyo ‘Onggi Master will be added to our collection of Free Documentaries, a subset of our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.