Installation view of “Looking Afar / 遠くを見る,” Lisson Gallery, West 24th Street, New York, 2022. Photo: © Masaomi Yasunaga, Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Stillness in the Midst of Chaos: A Conversation with Masaomi Yasunaga

Masaomi Yasunaga pursues “fundamental beauty.” A student of Satoru Hoshino, Yasunaga continues the experimental ethos of Sodeisha, or “crawling through the mud association,” a postwar Japanese art movement (1948–98) that explored the sculptural possibilities of ceramics. But instead of clay, Yasunaga adopts glaze as his primary material, often combining it with raw elements—feldspar, whole rocks, metal or glass powders—before burying his intentionally pliable forms in layers of sand and kaolin, then firing them. Once cooled, the sculptures are excavated from their beds like archaeological artifacts. Both process and resulting works privilege natural forces over artistic artifice, “melting the material and letting gravity take hold of its shape once again, eradicating the ego along the way.” 

Untitled, 2021. Glaze, glass, stone, kaolin, and kiln wash, 83 x 76 x 58 cm. Photo: © Masaomi Yasunaga, Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Robert Preece: Untitled (2021) has an engaging mystery and depth. What were you thinking about when you were making it, and how did you achieve this effect?
Masaomi Yasunaga:
First, let me elaborate a little on the basis of my practice. What is fire? Fire is a phenomenon that is an absolute necessity to my method of production, and it lies at the heart of my practice. While fire is an inseparable factor in human evolution, it also possesses the ability to destroy. I experienced its terrifying might four years ago when a fire broke out in my studio and engulfed it in flames. 

How do I deal with these flames in my practice? How do I perceive fire? I think of the flames as a filter, and the kiln that controls the flame as a sort of time machine. I once made a white porcelain jar by mixing my grandmother’s ashes with glaze. My main objective was to mourn her in my own way and to share my feelings with my relatives. When I look back on that experience and contemplate what it meant to me, I believe that the process of filtering my grandmother’s remains through fire created a change in state from material to memory. The most important part of this act was the thought that I would never forget my grandmother’s death, and I used the fire to enhance the purity of that thought.

RP: Could you explain the gravel plinth for this work as it was installed at Lisson Gallery in East Hampton, in 2021? What is the visual reference? 
MY: My family have been devout Catholics for generations, and I was baptized as an infant. In order to escape religious persecution, my mother’s ancestors migrated to a small island along the Goto Islands in Nagasaki Prefecture in far southwestern Japan. The island was occupied by just a few dozen inhabitants. My mother, who was born there, was also very devout; and growing up, I witnessed her strict asceticism. My works inevitably incorporate this kind of faith and asceticism, but not intentionally. The ideal form of artwork for me is not that of self-expression, but rather, something that exists beyond the filtering of the flames.

Installation view, Lisson Gallery, East Hampton, New York, 2021. Photo: © Masaomi Yasunaga, Courtesy Lisson Gallery

RP: What are you thinking about when you create multi-part works such as Fused Pots (2021) and Fused vessels (2021)? 
MY: In Japan, each part of a vessel is referred to by the name of a different body part. For example, different parts of a flower vase are referred to as the waist, body, neck, mouth, and ears. I believe this is done to implement a form of personification, and I feel that I also personify works within my practice.

The works constructed with multiple vessels that melt into each other during firing, such as the “Melting Vessels” series, are inspired by the image of a group. These works can refer to my wife, my sons, or myself; they symbolize individual personalities coming together to form a single collective.

RP: What are some of the ideas behind other forms, such as Untitled (2021) and Accumulation (2022)? 
MY: The process of shaping my works entails the selection of a few thematic keywords first, and then I engage in a process of intuitively modeling the work based on the theme. Accumulation represents the accumulation of various experiences and the presence of everything. My Christian legacy, my encounter with ceramics, the death of my grandmother, marriage to my wife, the birth of my children, and the act of creating innovative works have all accumulated into what I feel is the essence of this work. From another perspective, for me, it also represents the history of humanity.

Untitled represents artificial objects being returned to nature. Within the process of creating this work, I took granite—a natural object—and shaped it to my will. Then I returned it to its natural state once again through firing and melting the work, embodying a chaotic state that lies between the natural and the artificial.

Skeleton of vessel, 2021–22. Glaze and underglaze color, 25 x 25.5 x 25.5 cm. Photo: © Masaomi Yasunaga, Courtesy Lisson Gallery

RP: The distance between the two vessel forms increases in Skeleton of vessel (2021–22), emphasizing the surface of the connection in the middle. Why?
MY: I often use bones as the subject for my works because they allow me to imagine a form of sensual distance. I added imaginary bones to this work, stripped the flesh off, and just left the bones. I find it interesting that what remains is a purely imaginary skeletal structure that lacks functional intention. Skeleton of a box (2020–22), with a box as the motif, is part of the same series.

RP: You studied for a Master’s in Environmental Design in Osaka. To what extent do you think that training has impacted your sculptural practice?
MY: My research topic in graduate school was based on the production of ceramic works. There aren’t many differences from my current discipline. The biggest factor that continues to influence my practice is having developed an interest in glazes during my academic studies.

Untitled, 2005. Glaze and porcelain, 27 x 10 x 10 cm. Photo: Courtesy Masaomi Yasunaga

RP: You’ve identified Untitled (2005), a glazed work, as a key point in your development as an artist. In what ways? What did you learn?
MY: I started practicing ceramics as a student, and I have always been interested in glaze used for decoration over clay, which is the main material used in ceramics. I produced this work when I was still a student, and it is one of the first works in which I used glaze as the main medium. At that time, I placed powdered glaze in a box made of clay and fired it. After firing, the box was broken and the glaze lumps inside were made into the artwork. Creating this work revealed the difficulties—as well as the possibilities—of using this innovative technique of creating works mainly out of glazes.

RP: The next important works you cite are from 2019—Melting vessel, which consists of glaze, clay, and copper wire, and Crumbling, made of glass and plaster. What changed over the intervening years, and how do these works signal a breakthrough?
MY: After graduating from university, I worked with clay and porcelain to make vessels in conjunction with my glaze works. This was partly to make a living, but I also wanted to gain more experience in kiln firing, which is the most important part of my practice. After creating vessels for over 10 years, I built a wood-fired kiln at my studio in 2011, and I proceeded to produce and fire white porcelain works for seven years. That kiln was fired more than 100 times over that time period, and the firing method for my current glaze works is based on my experiences during that earlier stage.

In 2018, my works began to receive attention from the Nonaka-Hill gallery in Los Angeles, and I had my first exhibition there in 2019. The two works I presented were Melting vessel and Crumbling. Prior to this exhibition, I had only exhibited works in the domestic craft scene in Japan. So, these two works hold a great significance in changing my life after their presentation in the United States.

Crumbling, 2019. Glass and plaster, 12 x 10.5 x 9.5 cm. Photo: Courtesy Nonaka-Hill

RP: With Melting vessel (2020), made of glaze and clay, Untitled (2021), made of glaze, granite, colored slip, and kaolin, and Fused vessel (2021), made of glaze, colored glaze, colored slip, and kaolin, I feel a serenity, timelessness, a meditative quality, calm within chaos. Is this intended?
MY: The goal of my discipline is to pursue what I believe to be fundamental beauty. It goes without saying that my works are shaped by my will, but I believe that firing the works filters out any impurities such as will, ego, and miscellaneous thoughts, revealing the fundamental beauty that I seek from within the work. The fundamental beauty that I seek is, as you say, something that involves eternity in the sense of sensory perspective, a meditative quality, and the stillness in the midst of chaos.

RP: Are there any artists whose work you particularly like?
MY: I like the Japanese ceramicist Satoru Hoshino, who inspired me to take up ceramics, and Sterling Ruby, who held a two-person exhibition with me at the Nonaka-Hill gallery two years ago. My interest in contemporary art has bloomed only in the past three to four years. I believe that I am influenced more by ancient civilizations and their artifacts, as well as by historical Asian ceramics, in which I’ve been interested for some time.

Installation view of “Looking Afar / 遠くを見る,” Lisson Gallery, West 24th Street, New York, 2022. Photo: © Masaomi Yasunaga, Courtesy Lisson Gallery

RP: What is your working process like? Is it planned out, or more trial and error? Are there many experiments and failures?
MY: Most of the time, I bring small works directly into production straight from the images in my head. For larger works, however, I go back and forth between rough sketches and production. There are roughly three steps in the production process: molding, firing, and polishing—and I am especially focused during the molding process. I am aware that I create a relatively large amount of work, and I aim to eventually complete every work that I have started. I keep all the unfinished and unsatisfactory works because even if something does not turn out well after being fired, I plan to bring it to completion through repeated re-working and re-firing.

RP: Your studio is in Iga-shi, Mie prefecture, southeast of Kyoto. What is your working atmosphere like? 
MY: I normally work in silence. I sometimes play music depending on my mood, but I prefer relatively quiet music. From the window, the view overlooks the countryside with rice fields. I have two assistants, so I make sure to have lunch and coffee breaks with them.

Empty vessel, 2021. Glaze, slip, and kaolin, 79 x 58 x 20 cm. Photo: © Masaomi Yasunaga, Courtesy Lisson Gallery

RP: To what extent would you consider your works to be “Japanese,” “international,” personal?
MY: The imagery of my works transforms organically from one work to another, but there is an underlying unifying factor in that that all of my works are derived from personal experience and the thoughts that follow afterwards, which are heavily reflected in each work. Starting from this initial factor, I sometimes expand the images into something that transcends space and time, and social or temporal borders.

Masaomi Yasunaga’s exhibition “Looking Afar/遠くを見る” is on view at the Lisson Gallery’s Chelsea location through October 29, 2022.