Staccato: Variations of Sensation

by  Moon Yujin (Independent Curator and Writer)

Memories remain with us as images, that are, those that invisible to the eye and ungraspable by the hand. As a memory, once stored, goes through continuous repetition within the mind, it may chip away bit-by-bit, become blurred by another memory, or led to distortion while becoming muddled with new memories. Memories, whose essence are no longer discernable through perception, are, more or less, traces of previous sensations. At times, when one coincidentally encounters a stimulation similar to that of a prior experience, he/she may be able to vividly recall a sensation that had been recorded in the past. Music that one heard while traveling may revive sensations of the air or sunlight of the particular occasion; the scent of a stranger that one passed by on the street may suddenly arouse a fuzzy feeling from deep within. However, such are only momentary revivals of sensational fragments, and therefore, never tangible.  

        The buncheong works of Huh Sangwook attempt to revive such traces of sensations into objects or phenomena, that is, something substantial. By referring to personal memories and the original form of buncheong, the artist gives tangibility to sensational experiences, characterized by an overlapping of the past and present.  Peonies in full bloom in front of the studio; fish whose eyes were once met; air that is different by the day; sound of wind brushing against trees; a cup of tea shared with a friend; conversations that master potters (sagijang) of the Joseon dynasty shared with the matière of buncheongin the rhythm of scraping.  

Traces of Sensation

The sgraffito technique, or bakji in Korean, is the formative language that essentially shapes the buncheong ware of Huh Sangwook. The layers of traces that are built upon the grey-bodied surface, through the repetition of scraping and covering, yield a uniquely deep texture and divergent patterns. Such repetitive motions of the hand and their traces are neither the results of a pre-set trajectory nor the visual reproduction of a particular object. Rather, they are a rhythm that the artist discovered by activating the inner sensations that had been stored within his personal experiences.

         Such activation can be understood through Richard Sennett’s idea of the “probing touch at the fingertips.” In order to produce an accurate pitch on a string instrument, one must rightfully place his fingertips on the fingerboard on positions that are not easily discernible by the eye. When learning to play a string instrument, we grope around for the exact position while listening to the sound, and sound is thus remembered together with the feeling of the fingertips against the strings. The touch at the fingertips becomes the guide to accurate finger sensibility. [1]

         In the same way, during the act of scratching, the sensitization on the fingertips, its pressures, depth, and rhythm define the manual expressions to follow, that is, the characteristics of the sgraffito expressions. Within these characteristics are embodied the artist’s sensations of fingertips. This builds upon the same principles as “touch is the arbiter of tone.” By repeating this act an infinite number of times, the artist continues his sensory conversations with clay and engobe, and during this process, the surface of his works is covered densely with rhythmical expressions, that are, at times, regular, and, at other times, irregular. In this way, the sensory traces of the artists are directly conveyed to us through the texture, form, thickness, and overall ambience of the works.


         In the works of Huh Sangwook, memory is concretized on two different levels. While, on the one hand, the object of memory is visualized through the method of representing what has been experienced, on the other hand, sensation – as a subject recalling conversations with material matter, that is, the memory of the workings of the hand – obtains form through repetition, overlapping, and short movement. The Staccato series is a good revelation of such formative strata. This exhibition is a major showcase of the Staccato series, characterized by a rhythm created by the layering of the traces of sgraffito designs. An homage to “Buncheong Rice-Bales-Shaped Bottle”[2] produced during the Joseon Dynasty in the 15th century, the series features small, circular indentations – the characteristic expressions of the original work – rendered using the sgraffito, rather than the stamping technique. Here the hand motion to intricately scratch out the pattern is repetitive yet non-continuous. In this way, the artist plays in a staccato manner.

         “Staccato” – an Italian word meaning “detached” or “separated” – is better known to us as a musical articulation indicating “to play the notes in individual short, sharp bursts.” On scores, it is marked by a dot above the note. Huh’s new series of works features surfaces that have been scratched away with disconnected dots, as opposed to wide faces or drawings as in his previous works. The series is a representation of staccato – from the visual form of the pattern (consequence) to the rhythm between the scraping motion and the touch of the fingertips (process), and moreover the sounds created by the scraping of the engobe.

         On the piano, there are multiple ways to execute staccatos. It can be played solely by the finger for short, sharp notes with a bouncing effect; or by the movement of the wrist or entire arm to express greater depth as if pressing further down; or with a free and relaxed arm to snap against the keys with greater energy. Each of the three methods can be combined – controlling the movement of the fingers, wrist, arm, and shoulder in various ways – to express more delicate rhythm and richer textures.  Staccatofeatures layers of such diverse range of textures and rhythms. Clay surface that has been scratched away is covered with white englobe then once again scraped away, leaving rough traces. The surface is then overlaid once again with a thick layer of englobe and occasionally with pigment, then yet again scratched away with sharp articulations, gently revealing the clay body. The traces of each of the different matiére and the hand movements come together as a single layer yet undergo variations, protruding and inflitrating, at times, in andante manner, and, at other times, allegro. From impromptu patterns produced by the instincts of the fingertips to the geometric designs, texture in itself, and the vague traces of the objects, the images of sensation, going beyond the fingertips of the artist, cover the surface of the works, coming together in harmony.

From Still-Life to Mindscapes

         Sgraffito drawings, a characteristic element of the buncheong works of Huh Sangwook, embody objects remembered by the artist. The drawings are projections of objects of affection that have been captured by the eye, as opposed to the fingertips. Unlike the Staccatoseries, in which sensational memories, in coming together with physical properties, have become works in themselves, the images of these “objects of affection” only attain their identity as memories of the artist’s personal experiences, that is, content of memories. In the pond situated within a garden filled with pansies, lotus, peonies, camellia, tea flowers, daffodils, and groundsels are fish swimming about against peonies in full bloom. Peonies are the artist’s primary motif, representing the origin of his buncheong work and the ultimate existence that allows him to reflect back on his artistic career. In this light, “objects of affection” are assemblages of objects of particular attachment or meaning. Natural landscapes or matter encountered and experienced in his daily life, mainly wild flowers, fish, wind, and the scenery on view from a half-open window, have long been subject matter for the artist, and on the occasion of this exhibition, he newly presents his Still-Life series featuring objects in his studio that have been arranged within a circular frame. Object such as table with a tea set, flower vase, and white porcelain vessel are not memento mori but rather items that reflect on life and living.[3] These objects, as they had in the life of the artist, are “forever” alive, embracing vitality within the englobe, circular dishes, and someone’s life.

         The exhibition showcases a wide variety of works ranging from small tableware to large objects dominating the energy of the space, including dishes for decorating walls, stool-like objects that can be placed in the living room or garden as decorative pieces or furniture, tea cups that add warmth to the conversations between loved ones, and wallplates that convey the strong vitality of peonies. Surrounded by these works of diverse size and scale, we awaken all our bodily senses and enter the memories of the artist.

*This essay was written for Huh Sangwook’s solo exhibition held at KSD Gallery in 2016, and has been translated into English by An Soyean.

[1] Sennett explains, “…the musician touches the string in different ways, hears a variety of effects, then searches for the means to repeat and reproduce the one he or she wants […] The principle here is reasoning backward from consequence to cause.” In other words, this is characterized by a cycle in which the sensation of the fingertips remembered through sound enables accurate finger positioning, and consequently, the accurate tone is remembered as sensation on the fingertips. Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 157.

[2] Treasure No. 1423. Collection of Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art.

[3] Referred to as nature morte in French, “still-life,” within the European tradition of still-life paintings, literally embodies the notion of death and generally symbolizes vanitas. On the other hand, within Chinese and Korean (Joseon Dynasty) tradition, flower-and-vessel paintings (器皿折枝圖, Kr. gimyeongjeoljido), depicting rare antique vessels together with fruit or flowers, embodied wishes for health and happiness. The vessels related tea drinking or flower vessels depicted in the Still-Life series are objects that represent peaceful and pleasant moments, thus existences of life and living.

What is Buncheong ?

Buncheong is a type of Korean ceramics which had been invented in the transition period from Goryeo dynasty to Joseon dynasty. The word ‘Buncheong’ is short for bunjang-hoecheong*, which is the Korean word for ‘decorated celadon’. Art historian Ko Yuseop** coined this term referring to the type of Korean ceramics characterized by grayish-green color on the body with white-clay slip overlay. Various decorations of applying w hite slip make buncheong style unique. Buncheong is basically a continuation of celadon considering the type of clay and glaze used, but the clay body for Buncheong has a lower iron content than celadon clay, making Buncheong ware brighter in color. Variations of decorating methods and different content of clay from region to region contribute to the diversity of Buncheong. READ MORE >>

*Bunjang means to decorate and hoecheong means grayish celadon. Each word’s meanings are as follows : bun 紛-powder, face powder(cosmetics), pigment, coloring, to apply make-up, white; jang -to decorate, to apply make-up, to dress up, to disguise; hoe - ash, lime, dust, grey(color), grayish; cheong - blue, green. 
** Ko Yuseop (1905-1944), also known by his pen name Uhyeon, was the first Korean to establish a modern academic framework for Korean art and aesthetics during the Japanese colonial occupation.

Qu’est ce que le Buncheong ?