The Way of the Tea: A Japanese Residency

Eva Masterman, Crackpot 01, 2016

Camden Arts Centre’s residency programme looks to provide emerging artists with the space and resources to develop new work through practical and curatorial support. As well as our renowned on-site residency programme which has welcomed artists such as Mike Nelson, Francis Upritchard and Anne Hardy among others, we run a collaborative exchange with Arts Initative Tokyo (AIT). For its second iteration earlier this year, AIT hosted artists Eva Masterman and Jackson Sprague, nominated by Camden Arts Centre for a six week period of research and experimentation. Eva Masterman draws on her experience in Tokyo and how it has shaped her ceramics practice.

Following an unexpected phone call from Camden Arts Centre, I was invited to take part in a residency at Arts Initiative Tokyo, and was soon on a plane to Japan. My little pod-flat in the heart of Shinjuku — think London’s Soho but bigger, taller, louder, brighter — made me feel as if I was living in a boat, floating on the sixth floor. The bathroom and walls were cast plastic units with beige textured wallpaper that flexed when I pressed against it. The constant hum of the air conditioner, blowing out warm air into my brightly lit room, drowned out the noises of the street below, drying the air and the back of my throat.

For me, Tokyo was a place to absorb and reflect. I spent my days wandering and walking through the clean city of loud jingles and flashing lights: a city of signs and moving billboards. Most of my exploring took place during work hours — 10.00am — 5.00pm — so I missed the famous rush of bodies, the trains strangely empty. I was unnerved to notice women only coaches. In rush hour, women and men were divided: a signal to the unsettling undercurrent of an outwardly pure veneer. I was reminded of the empty, dystopian scenes from zombie apocalypse movies.

In the fast city, I felt myself slowing.

This feeling of slowing manifested as a kind of sensory shift. Unable to communicate to a largely non-English speaking public, I stopped using my voice, and opened my eyes and ears, drawing in the visual overload of unfamiliar imagery and new sounds. I was constantly confronted by the aesthetic consideration of the Japanese. The framing of their work sites, the curation of their front steps with plants, air conditioning units, windows — even the most mundane pile of rubbish was made to feel placed and considered.

Photo: Eva Masterman

As well as wandering through the city, most of my time was spent in museums, surrounded by ancient tea bowls and other craft forms. In particular, the numerous house museums — the homes of dead artists and National Treasures preserved as shrines to their life and work — represented the harmony of work with the everyday and the domestic. Walking from the tearoom to the studio, into a bedroom, through a garden and back into the studio, the rhythm and flow of the architecture was a suggestion for the future, a way of living that effortlessly connected the artist, the work and the environment. So different from the compartmentalised way I live my life in London.

I began to question different attitudes to learning and material specific practices through the lens of a culture that is relatively new to international ideas of museum education culture, but, in contrast, has centuries of skill at the centre of its national identity. My own work constantly struggles with the relevance of process and what that means within the contemporary context of Western art education and practice. Immersing myself in a place where skill is a prerequisite to learning was incredibly liberating. There were no conversations about skill, it simply was. A tea bowl is held in much higher esteem than a piece of contemporary sculpture, and that consideration for the history and craft that created their heritage, is in stark contrast to the conceptualisation and deskilling that has taken place in the UK.

Photo: Eva Masterman

As my time went on, I travelled out of Tokyo, making more connections with the juxtaposition of history and the contemporary that forms the foundation of how I have come to think of Japan. A country and people who are incredibly modern, but also respectful and anchored to the traditions of the past. I was constantly amazed by the unending generosity of strangers: the willingness of one to meet me in odd areas of Kyoto and spend the whole day showing me studios and galleries; another opening up his studio, then driving me across the countryside to introduce me to his friends and neighbouring artists. So much time given to share and show what was important and include me in the interconnecting community of the individual artist, potter and industry.

Whether in small pottery towns like Bizen, or large industrial areas like Arita, the practitioners that create there are working together to produce an environment that perpetuates the skill and craft integral and unique to those areas, but is also acutely aware that looking back is not enough. Design projects link Dutch design with Arita slipware, Bizen potters are creating Anagama kilns in the heart of Oxford in large-scale research and community projects. There is a pride in that history and an ambition to drive it forwards that was inspiring and invigorating to be a part of.

Kawai Kanjiro’s studio. Photo: Eva Masterman

Coming back to London, what I take from the experience is an opening up of community and possibility. Clay is a material that is so much a part of the culture of Japan — it is not simply a material to make ‘art’ with. The consideration and relationships between object and person, history and contemporary spliced together, has given me a new perspective and hope that those connections can be the site of real innovation and relevance within the international art world.

Perhaps this is most eloquently articulated through my meeting with the artist Takuro Kuwata. His explanation of why he uses the tea bowl as a central philosophy and form in his work cemented what I have ultimately taken away from this residency. At the beginning of the ceremony, the Master will spend a moment contemplating the tea bowl. Something of the artist is instilled in the bowl, and that feeling or personality is communicated to the Master and transcribed through the ceremony. The tea bowl becomes not simply an autonomous object, but one that has the power to connect across generations, to communities through active engagement and performative use. It connects the artist and the public and yet still translates beauty, skill, and concept. It facilitates a moment of contemplation before use, an allowance for the space to experience an object in a contemporary sphere, whilst still within the historical context in which it is situated. With the intention of communicating something of the maker to the audience, the tea bowl is a reaching out between maker, object and life: the embodiment of a way of working that creates a connection through historical and contemporary practice.

The experience has shown me a way to look forward and outward, beyond simply my own practice, and into the wider networks connected across time and place. I would like to say a heart felt Arigatōgozaimashita to AIT and Camden Arts Centre for an opportunity that has broadened my horizons and expanded my practice in ways I could not have imagined.

Eva Masterman is a London based artist who recently completed an MA in Ceramics at the Royal College of Art. She works with clay and plaster as a sculptural medium and regularly teaches ceramics and casting at Camden Arts Centre.