Publish at November 17 2021 Updated November 26 2021

Ethnography of an apprenticeship of ignorance [Thesis].

The art of ceramics: experimenting with the uncontrollable

Pottery wheel

Learning ceramics at an art university in Kyōto.

In the middle of their 4 years of study, the students (the researcher as well) were given a small cube of clay to transform to account for the idea of mitsu.

Discussions among students take place to fully understand all the finer points related to this concept and this small cube to be worked.

"Yes this is the mitsu contained in himitsu (秘密), the secret. "

Mitsu, of the order of sensation, precious, secret, delicate, can also be applied to human relationships: intimate and dense.

This same word could well account for the quality of this ethnology thesis, which explored the daily life of a class of 25 students as they moved from 2nd year to 3rd year.

This is an important turning point for them, during which " technical difficulties intensify and the demand for production rises ".

How is knowledge arranged and integrated in the ceramics department?

Research, a transformative exploration

Alice Doublier, the researcher, has cast her ethnographer's eye on the campus space and the way it was organized to transmit knowledge, then on the modalities of " firing " collective practices with three modes of firing ceramics, and finally on the direct confrontation with difficult materials.

The thesis is profound and can be read on several levels. Two main narrative threads weave through it: that of the text, of ethnographic descriptions and analyses, and that of the drawing, which provides snapshots.

Each of the 25 students is drawn at the beginning of the thesis, and it is the story of their transformation and trials that we discover in the work. It can really be read as a story in which we become attached to characters whose adventures we follow.

There also comes the level of understanding of techniques, which opens our interest in how the cups in which we drink our teas and coffees are made.

How are the pots, the large jars, shaped, what are the issues of drying, how are the pieces set up on multiple floors in the kilns, what attention does the firing equipment require, and how do the collectives organize themselves to produce these objects?

And then, following the clue of the abandonment of certain objects, we understand that the issue of production is not the object itself but to investigate and construct one's knowledge from the recognition and exploration of ignorance :

" After the de rigueur presentations in front of professors and classmates, [the fired pieces]would end up piled up to gather dust, before being tossed into the departmental trash bins or onto the hillside overlooking the ceramics building. "

" This apology for transformation is far from passive and finds its main springs in the very confrontation with these often recalcitrant materials. It requires students to multiply their research and attempts, to compare their sensations and thus to experience a diversity of methods and ways of doing things, without these ever being hierarchical. "

" Freedom, autonomy "

Kyōto Seika University, whose slogan is " Freedom, autonomy ", has developed its ceramics department from the perspective " of opening up the field of possibilities "very widely.

In the ancestral Japanese tradition, becoming a ceramist was part of a long-term apprenticeship with a master. In the late 19th century, with the development of industry and its corollaries of physical and chemical sciences, it was a matter of mass reproduction of fired pieces to sell at good prices.

By the time the university was founded in the second half of the twentieth century, ceramic design had lost its status as a major art form and joined that of the decorative arts.

For one of its founders, Kawasaki Chitaru (in Japan, the first name follows the last), it was indeed a matter of reviving the present with ceramic creation:

"There were other things to do, we could create more freely from this material. To make the students meet this material and be able to create with this energy that comes out of the kiln, in total freedom. "

At Seika, the kilns were the starting point for the institution. Thus, the university offers:

" A space large enough to bake, and large kilns, kilns of a size that had never been used in universities before, but also kilns in large numbers. "

It is such a centrality that the circulations are organized in relation to the oven rooms and the tower rooms. By year, one room is assigned to the students, who each have a desk and a stool.

These are the students, desks, and stools that move around as needed.

Firing together

Three firing modalities are detailed in the three levels of understanding, adventure, technique, and knowledge exploration:

1. The 7 large kilns

Seven huge electric or gas kilns and two small electric kilns, which are used for decoration firing, are located in the university's kiln room.

A monthly schedule of firings is drawn up, collective loadings are to be organized (the " Tetris " of the setting up is sometimes organized with the help of models), temperature curves are to be followed, pins and boards are collectively placed to organize the floors, it is also a matter of taking good care that the pieces are dry so as not to blow up the whole batch.

Students work in a collective organization where they learn to do together and, together, to make (i.e., also to undo and redo).

2. The dragon oven

This is a wood-fired, decked oven modeled after the climbing ovens of the seventeenth century. It is lit collectively at the end of the summer during a course of several days in the forest.

All students are invited to this training course, which is compulsory for the 3rd years. The latter, in teams that they organize themselves, lead the operations. The teachers and the 4th years do not intervene.

This is a real physical test (the very high temperatures), relational (the organization in teams and the management of unforeseen events) and technical (the mastery of cooking with wood), at the end of which the 3rd years obtain the status of " of seniors "

" Moisture, heat, stacking bricks, flames and students who may or may not be able to understand this kiln from the inside out are all elements that need to fit together correctly for the year's firing to be successful. Each one is thus like a riddle posed to a group in new terms every year. "

3. The mini ovens

They are hand-built and coal-fired for personal cooking. They can be opened as they are cooked. Again, the personal experience is a collective work.

The researcher, Alice Doublier, wanted to create an explosion of the small earthen cube " mitsu ". The students' shared thoughts and research on this subject led to the experimentation of a device that allowed her to create an explosion of the cube distributed in " bowls-boxes " shaped on the lathe: the "bowls-a-thee-Alice".

" In a matter of seconds, the bowl went from bright orange to deep black, going through a series of gradations of reds each more intense than the last. Tsutsumi went to call Haru for the first explosion. Rio opened the oven, Haru lifted the lid inside, and it was up to me to throw the ball of raw dirt into the bowl. "

Ten explosions created galaxy-like bowls... and to further hear one aspect of the experiment, a student came up with the idea of placing firecrackers in the oven. The explosions were more successful than the first ones (a more muted sound was heard), but the object was less interesting.

" Steal the work by looking. "

仕事は見て盗め shigoto wa mite nusume: steal the work by looking.

The third part of the thesis details the hand-to-hand with the turning of the large 90 cm high jars, and the experiments around the crystallization of zinc oxides for the making of metallic glazes (for which the recipes are not stabilized!).

This is an exploration of gestures and recipes as a starting point:

"To learn, one must already know how to see, that is, how to properly set one's gaze."

In all learning, there is the gesture observed, mimed without material, repeated, and experienced in contact with the material. On the wheel and in the kiln.

"If you fail, it's okay, it's even good," he continues. "You'll understand better on your own how to do it. You won't get it if you ask "how to do" and I answer "like this.""

For the dragon event, where the task is to cut wood, throw it into the kiln, and hear if it crackles properly, students learn how to throw the wood into the kiln: first by observation, then by passing the wood to each other, and finally by throwing it under the guidance of another student.

Making something means opening up to sensoriality: knowing how to look well, listening to the sound of crackling wood, the clay thrown correctly on the lathe, feeling the edge of the hand positioned with the right angle and pressure, the placement of the hips at the edge of the large electric kilns to place the bowls, embodying repeated and commented gestures.

All of these learnings are deeply embodied from a practice of not knowing, trying, sharing, and exploring.

"When it falls, the earth must go " wham!" " otherwise the gesture is too soft. "

Mitsu, the before-galaxy

The work on the notion of dense intimacy (mitsu) may have originated in the beauty of the Tenmoku bowls from the 12th and 13th centuries,  preserved as national treasures at the Fujita Art Museum.

Depending on the light, its intensity and direction, the iridescent bowl is sometimes simply black with some silver highlights, and in other lights appears as a galaxy...

Illustration: StockSnap from Pixabay.

To read:

Alice Doublier. The texture of the world: learning ceramics at a Kyōto art university. Ethnology, Paris-X, 2017.

Thesis available at:

Works by a Seika artist, Kurihara Kaori (first name follows last name):

See more articles by this author




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