Organic, rough-hewn vessels streaked with glassy, running glazes; stylised sculptures inspired by natural forms; intricately carved, painted, and textured plates and vases — these and much more will be showing at Aliwal Arts Centre until Tuesday 13 September 2022.
Ceramic House’s latest exhibition, Tougei 2022 — Ignis/新薪之火 is not only a feast for the eye, but also a splendid demonstration of the medium’s wide-ranging possibilities.
If you’ve ever encountered wood-fired ceramics, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the pieces here were born from fire and falling ash in a traditional brick kiln. But don’t be fooled: all but one of the 150 pieces on view were created and fired in gas kilns, under the watch of Master Potters Mr Lim Kim Hui and Mdm Shee Bee Heo.
The alchemy of the kiln
Ever since they founded Ceramic House in a studio unit nestled deep in Tampines Industrial Park, the couple has developed a practice that fuses traditional Chinese techniques, Japanese aesthetics, Southeast Asian elements, and local materials.
But it’s the art of glazing and firing that interests them the most — particularly, reduction firing at a high temperature (1300°C), which creates porcelain-like effects. This process involves controlling the flow of gases within the kiln to create an oxygen-deficient atmosphere.
The result? Fluid glazes in a range of colours — rich reds; intense, earthy browns; deep blues, and pale celadons. Surfaces with dark brown speckles are another tell-tale sign of this technique, which draws out the iron in the clay.
Apart from the firing technique, the glazes used draw together the 17 exhibiting artists — all protégées of Ceramics House with their own unique styles.
When I visited Ceramic House for our interview, Mr Lim introduced his homemade glazes to me. He singled out a deep, speckled, inky blue, which he named Subaru, not in reference to the car brand, but to the Japanese term for the Pleiades constellation.
“No matter how beautiful, I’m not interested in ready-mixed, commercial colours,” he explained. Rather, it’s the processes of experimenting with raw materials and developing his own glaze recipes that have kept him riveted over the years.
Mr Lim said,
“Even after firing for such a long time, I still feel excited each time I open the kiln.”
Working with the unpredictable alchemy of wood ash and reduction firing continues to produce surprises, even after more than 2000 carefully timed and documented firings across three decades.
Cross-cultural encounters and a history of Ceramics House
Of the many subtle hues and shades that Mr Lim has formulated, the most distinctive are the tenmoku (天目) glazes. Many of these are marked by “oil spots” that seem to float on the glazed surface, giving it an unexpected depth.
Tenmoku originated in Song dynasty China before it travelled to Japan, and in more recent years, Taiwan. Thanks to Mr Lim’s efforts, it’s now made its way to Singapore too.
I suspect Mr Lim’s interest in this style has to do with its rich, cross-cultural history, which, in a way, mirrors his own journey as a potter.
In fact, Mr Lim’s first encounter with pottery took place, quite unexpectedly, in Taiwan, where he had been posted for National Service. After their training had ended, the recruits were brought on a tour of a porcelain factory. Mr Lim couldn’t tear his eyes away from what he had seen. When he returned to Singapore, he joined Ming Village, a porcelain production company much like the one he had visited, as an apprentice.
It was there that he honed all the skills he would need as a potter, and, of course, met Mdm Shee. The two potters worked in different departments, with Mr Lim producing wares on the wheel and Mdm Shee specialising in the intricate craft of decorating blue-and-white porcelain. Eventually, the couple got married and decided to start their own studio.
By then, Mr Lim had become the most skilled potter in the village. But as someone with an artistic background (Mr Lim proudly told me that out of his five O-Level “As”, the only one that wasn’t for “Absent” was for Art), he wasn’t content with just copying antique models for purchase orders. “I could only realise my own designs if I set up my own studio,” he explained.
But surviving as a studio potter wasn’t an easy feat. There were many points at which, torn between paying the bills for the industrial unit and buying milk powder for their newborn children, the couple considered giving up their dream.
It so happened that several of Mr Lim’s students at the time were Japanese. Neither Mr Lim nor his protégées were fluent in English, so Mr Lim resolved instead to learn Japanese from them.
Along with the language, he also picked up their taste for wabi-sabi — an emphasis on transience, austerity, and an appreciation of flawed beauty. Coming into contact with Japanese aesthetics was pivotal for Mr Lim, because it was entirely at odds with his training at Ming Village, which emphasised accuracy, precision, and a refined, rather than raw, finish.
He had to be meticulous, exacting, even while mass-producing porcelain wares. But more difficult was to let go, to know when to leave something looking perfectly imperfect.
Through commissions and later, trips to Japan, Mr Lim continued to develop his interest in Japanese ceramic styles. He related,
“When we went to Japan, we would buy not one or two books, but entire boxes of them.”
His search for a truer artistic voice wasn’t easy, because it meant, in a way, undoing the ten years of training he had acquired at Ming Village. “I struggled for a long time at this stage,” he recalled.
But it is through these quite literal trials by fire that a Master Potter is made. Thirty years on, Mr Lim has made a name for himself in the local ceramics scene. He has also brought up able protégées of his own, many of whom have gone on to set up their own studios.
Ceramic House has also become a community of potters, and it is their works that Tougei, which first began in 2011, seeks to showcase.
What’s in a name?
Tougei 2022 — Ignis/新薪之火 is a title as eclectic as the various artistic styles that thread through it. “Tougei” (陶芸) is the Japanese word for ceramic arts, which, coincidentally, is the same in Hokkien.
The title Ignis/新薪之火 is a homonym for an idiom which refers to how a tiny, star-like spark can set alight an entire field (星星之火，可以燎原). The first Chinese character in the title plays on the word “new” (xin), which is also, of course, the first syllable of Singapore. Not only were the works in Ignis made in Singapore, but many also incorporate locally-sourced materials.
For instance, rice straw grown by students of Spectra Secondary School was wrapped around the pots. In effect, the potters localised the hidasuki (fire marking) technique, which derives from traditional Japanese bizen pottery.
The second Chinese character in the title Ignis/新薪之火 has the radical for “grass” added to it, symbolising wood, Thus, the show’s title speaks to a desire to rejuvenate the age-old tradition of reduction firing in wood kilns, by infusing it with contemporary styles and techniques.
A heart for the community
Beyond showcasing the medium’s possibilities, the exhibition was also conceived with the intent of giving back to the community. Working together with SHINE Children and Youth Services, the artists conducted a series of free workshops for the youths. If their coiled, pinched, thrown and glazed vessels — which are also on view at Ignis — are sold, the funds will be channelled back to SHINE.
In addition, 10% of the proceeds from the exhibition as a whole will be donated to Extraordinary People, a charity that supports individuals with special needs. Mr Lim said,
“Since we have this opportunity to attract such a large audience, let’s use it to do something to help our society too.”
As a potter, I found Tougei 2022 illuminating — I discovered a range of effects I’d thought were only possible in an authentic wood kiln. But you don’t have to be familiar with the technicalities of pottery to enjoy the show.
The works themselves are visually compelling and it’s immediately clear what each potter is interested in, be it cats (Jow Lee Ying), playful, pithy phrases (Cheyenne Yu); lines and repetition (Christine Fan); the textures of nature (Bernice Lim); finely rendered dreamscapes (Lam Hui Zhen) — the list goes on.
Throughout the show, there is a spirit of innovation and a real sense of joy in working with the medium. Located in town (finally, an exhibition that isn’t in some obscure industrial park!), Tougei 2022 — Ignis/新薪之火 is well worth a visit.
Tougei 2022 — Ignis/新薪之火 runs from 9 to 13 September 2022 at Aliwal Arts Centre. Opening hours are 11am – 8pm. Check out @tougei.sg on Instagram for more.
An earlier version of this article contained references to the Tougei exhibition being an annual occurrence. This has since been removed.