High above the glaze-spattered floor of Akiko Hirai’s studio, Moon Jars roost on the shelves like tranquil, plump-bellied hens.
The traditional Korean vessel – named for its milkish colour and rounded outline – is a signature piece for the artist, whose expressive corruptions of its centuries-old form have gifted the once prosaic object a startling second life.
Those in Hirai’s studio on the winter’s day I visit include both finished pieces waiting to travel north to Rutland for this, her latest exhibition, and a series of test pieces whose minutely shifting skins reveal the thought and labour that underpin each new iteration.
Among a group in her customary soft fir and peppermint greens, for instance, is one with a faint prickle of pink, inspired by the winter-flowering cherry blossom that ornaments the capital’s streets at this otherwise bruising time of year. And another coated in rich, opalescent black that Hirai conceived of as a ‘moodier’ version of the traditional Jar: ‘like the moon in a cloudy sky,’ she explains, turning it through clay-dusted hands. In the half light of late afternoon, it seems almost metallic, scattering black holes and stars as it goes.
To make a Moon Jar, the rims of two bowl-like hemispheres are joined together. The whole is then turned and its top cut to create the opening. The seam between the two halves, though smoothed, remains as a sort of a scar or ghost, barely discernible but granting a beautiful irregularity to the completed body. None is perfectly spherical, nor symmetrical.
But perfection and symmetry were never the aim. Although Moon Jars earned prominence in Korea’s late Joseon period (our 17th century) because their serene, minimalist quality dovetailed with the neo-Confucian ideals then prevalent at court, their aberrations have always been part and parcel of their charm. Serendipitous colours or blemishes acquired during firing, unintended divots and bumps in the form, these enhance rather than diminish the vessel.
In fact, it was exactly these sorts of ‘flaws’ that led Hirai to try her hand at making a Moon Jar in the first place. Precisely, the chipped, water-stained and iron-spotted skin of an 18th century example in the British Museum that was formerly in the possession of the British studio potters Bernard Leach and Lucie Rie.
Purchased by Leach in Seoul in 1935 (owning it was like ‘carrying a piece of happiness’, he said), the Jar was later given to Rie for safekeeping, initially for the duration of the Second World War, though she remained its steward for long afterwards. You can see its faintly glimmering, globular form in the background of almost every photograph of Rie that was taken in her studio, the artistic, platonic bond between the two artists made flesh. Hirai is not the only artist to have been as taken with the Jar (its charisma begins to feel otherworldly), but she is perhaps unique in the strenuousness of her response to its marks of imperfection, which, in her words, ‘give the pot so much life.’
We might see her own Moon Jars, then, as the culmination of that idea. Certainly, she subjects them to enormous stress, crushing and removing chunks from the jar’s lip, then garlanding its shoulder with a thick mix of mineral and wood ash-rich slips, paper fibre and glazes, which fuzzes and blooms in the kiln to practically metaphysical intensity.
The texture’s the thing. Photographs don’t do it justice: creamy, crumbly, craggy all at once – very like the barnacle and crusticle patina acquired by shipwrecked treasures on the sea-bed.
‘A pot is like a human,’ says Hirai. ‘Events in life are not always pleasant but they give people individuality and beauty. So I give my Moon Jars a lot of trauma and hardship…How it survives…[is] how it becomes what it is.’
It’s perhaps not surprising to learn that, growing up in Japan, Hirai studied cognitive psychology. She specialised in visual perception, and, since coming to Britain in 1996 – where she earned a second degree in ceramic design from Central St Martins in 2003 – she has sustained her interest in that area and in other sciences (she often listens to audiobooks: most recently Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time has been playing while her wheel hums). Theoretical ideas inform all of her work, so that it bristles with feelings and sensations. ‘All the physical phenomena can be translated to emotional experience,’ she says.
Here’s an example. Traditionally, both halves of a Moon Jar are thrown on the wheel, but Hirai felt that left the finished vessel feeling compressed and contained. Consequently, she coils the top half, which grants her Jars the air of ‘something grown, and perhaps still growing,’ she explains.
Consider too, that when she tears a Jar’s lip, she does so knowing precisely how suggestible the human mind really is: that, faced with an absence, it cannot help but imagine a repair to make it look ‘right’. Possible adjustments run through her Jars like an electric current. It makes them clutch at you in a way they wouldn’t if the rims were intact.
This notion, of encouraging the viewer to contribute to the work, comes from a philosophy in Japanese pottery that a vessel is the sum of a fine balance between object, environment and viewer, as opposed to a thing that exists on its own.
Japan, of course, is a type of mecca to potters – a place where the traditions of making run deep. Traditions that Hirai, who was born in the shadow of Mount Fuji, has absorbed and regenerated in the genesis of her own, irreducible aesthetic.
Some of those traditions have stuck more than others. She has embraced the term Getemono as a means of describing her works (it means ‘second rate’ or ‘unrefined’ and historically was only used pejoratively). And she has dedicated almost 20 years to perfecting an ancient technique known as Kohiki, in which white slips are layered over a dark clay body.
Hirai likes the provocativeness of its surface: ‘You can actually see through to the darkness underneath, and that is quite ambiguous,’ she says. The stygian underlayer also rouses the white coat to a fiery intensity. Apparently samurai warriors liked to drink their tea from Kohiki bowls.
If you’ve ever held a piece of Hirai’s domestic ware, you’ll know how acutely she attends to that physical, skin-to-clay encounter. Her cups, bowls, teapots and seed pod vases are deeply satisfying in the hand, each either faceted, dimpled, fluted, crackled or sanded to a rough grain that prompts the tips of the fingers to restless enquiry.
Kohiki is especially relevant in this respect because, even after firing, it remains ‘unfinished’, its surface a little porous and thus sensitive to its environment and how it is handled. Age and use, then, will burnish each vessel, so that each will always be a little different from another: each unmistakably itself.
In fact, Hirai firmly believes that her work only achieves its full expression when it has become part of someone’s life. ‘When I get that feedback from people, “I only use your cup for my morning tea or coffee,” that’s the best compliment.’
The unique finishes that mark out her work, and particularly her Moon Jars, are the result of an impossibly complex equation involving Hirai’s knowledge and intention, and the never entirely predictable reactions of minerals and elements in the kiln.
She fully admits that it took her ‘quite a long time to work these things out’. That, when she started – a part-time adult learner at City and Islington College – she was ‘happy with nothing. Only after a lot of experiments did maybe one or two pieces in a whole kiln of work come out ok.’
Her starting point, she tells me, was always ‘just to make a pot, anything I liked, and actually there’s nothing wrong with just finding your own way. Of course decoration, firing, materials, you have to learn, but with form, you can just guess, you can just do it. We make not just with our eyes, but with our other senses. A gut feeling, we call it. But it’s not, it’s experience.’ The first Hirai piece that I ever bought was one of her ‘Morandi’ bottle vases – so named for their resemblance to still lifes by the Italian artist Giorgio Morandi. Though the comparison is not her own, she doesn’t mind it: ‘I like the simple, gentle tone of his paintings, and I like the eccentricity of Morandi himself,’ she says, when I ask her about it.
Today I own several more, enough to keep the bottles – some squat, some tall and slim-necked, all faceted and finished in the same lightly speckled greyish-white glaze – in a family group. I look at them almost every day, but had never noticed, until Hirai told me, that only a few of them are faceted the entire way around. She does it, she says, to celebrate London’s diversity. ‘There is a lot of it here, I love it, whereas – have you been to Japan? It’s quite homogenic.’
When she travels, Hirai collects what she calls antique ‘junk’ pottery – pieces that bear the scars of accidents in their making. They would have been considered faulty because of it, and probably discarded, though clearly they are still in circulation. She likes to use them as well as display them: ‘if you use it, you can actually see more in it,’ she says.
On the table is a stack of old Delft tiles, faded, cracked and discoloured with age. She points out the different designs: two farmers, a hare, a little dog, a man and woman hand in hand. Then: thin glaze, thick glaze, porcelain white, earthenware white, minute disparities in the blues. A lesson pulsing in every square inch, if you know how to look.
Leach and Rie saw their Moon Jar as a repository of tradition; their work – however different in style – as a way to build new pathways backwards into a contained history. But Hirai, it seems to me, achieves the opposite. Her pieces might have absorbed, revere and are veined with the past, but they face forward, and they are still unfolding.
Lucy Davies is author of several books on photography and the visual arts, having served as The Telegraph’s Senior Arts Editor from 2017-2022 and as creator, in 2009, of ‘telephoto’, the paper’s first online project dedicated to art and documentary photography. She has been a jury member for several photography awards and contributed to publications including the V&A Magazine, World of Interiors, the British Journal of Photography, and for The Royal Photographic Society, the Barbican and the National Portrait Gallery. She is currently writing a forthcoming Guide to British Art.