…Korea’s Crafts: Old and New…

In the modern world, the element of traditional culture that has remained closest to our daily lives is crafts. As a form of traditional culture, craft proves its value not be merely being handed down through generations, but by reinventing itself as something relevant in the lives of people today. Times have changed enormously and people’s desires vary more than ever, original but by adapting while maintaining their spirit, traditional crafts remain a living, breathing link to Korea’s history.

Crafts mirror the times they are created in. If you want to know more about any given period, all you need to do is look at work produced from that era. If crafts refer to the skills from which objects are made, tradition can be thought of as the cultural body of work created from such skills.

Traditional crafts develop according to each historical environment. In the prehistoric age, crafts developed out of necessity, with our ancestors using natural materials to make most of the tools they needed in their everyday lives. They used clay to make plates, knitted grass to make clothes, and cut wood to build homes.

During Korea’s Bronze and Iron ages, with metal readily available, people started making accessories and weapons, too. Weapons were for hunting, but they also served to symbolize the holder’s statues. It was during this era that crafts began to assume true artistic value.

Crafts blossomed during Korea’s dynastic times, as nations emerged and governments assumed more power. Buddhist culture started to take root in people’s lives as well, exerting a great influence on the development of crafts. Crowns, earrings and other accessories that represented the authority of the royal palace were developed. Buddhist temple bells and other religious artifacts, as well as architectural techniques learned through building temples, also laid the groundwork for traditional crafts.

Crafts became important instruments of statehood, so governments established institutions that created masters. Crafts centered around the needs of nobility flourished during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), when highly artistic ceramic crafts and Najeonchilgi (lacquerwork inlaid with mother-of-pearl) came to the fore. When the Joseon Dynasty took power, pragmatism became more important. Decorative items took a back seat to whit porcelain, Buncheongsagi celadon and other straightforward and practical goods.

Today, Korea has 50 designated traditional crafts in seven broader categories, with experts in those fields recognized as jangin or “masters”. However, the term jangin doesn’t simply imply a high degree of skill at building things: it also suggests admiration for someone who has made it to an artistic level unreachable by others. A master is an artist who breathes life into craftworks.

In Korea, artistic activities or skills that have great historical, artistic or academic value have since the 1960s been designated as intangible cultural properties. Such are divided into state-designated “important intangible cultural properties” and “intangible cultural properties”, which are decided by municipal or provincial governments. Sometimes, they are also called “human cultural assets”.

The seven state-designated traditional crafts are ceramic craft (earthenware and roof tiles); metal craft (using gold, silver and other metals to produce tools and decorate surfaces); woodcraft (the construction of buildings, furniture and instruments); stone craft; textile craft (weaving fabric or making clothes and accessories); leather craft (using animal skins or feathers); and paper craft, which either produces paper or decorates objects with paper.

Each nine crafts has its masters, including sculptors who decorate the surface of metallic objects, woodwork masters who make large frames for construction, cobblers who craft traditional shoes, and masters in the art of making works of jade.

People we now call “masters” are the first generation of intangible cultural properties in craftwork. Even throughout Korea’s tumultuous modern history, they were able to keep their crafts alive.

During Japan’s colonial rule and in the aftermath of the liberation in August 1945, Korea’s traditional crafts and craftspeople faced constant upheaval. Rapid industrialization brought Western technologies and fashions, which often threatened to over-whelm traditional crafts completely. Through it all, the old masters dedicated their lives to continuing their craft and passing it down to younger generations. They faced enormous hardships, and many simply gave up or turned their hand to more commercial pursuits. And even now, decades later, just making a living remains a major challenge for many traditional craftspeople.

Cho Chung-ik, a master of traditional fan making, became an intangible cultural property of Jeollabuk-do Province in 1998. He began making his fans, adorned with taegeuk (the yin-yang) patterns similar to those on the Korean flag, in the 1970s. Today, the fans are renowned for their beauty and unfailing practicality, and are a constant presence at major events promoting Korean culture.

Cho says his fans are “the roots of our people and the faces of Korea”. The fans gained their first international exposure at the 1982 Asian Games and the 1988 Olympic Games, both in Seoul. To some extent a victim of his own success, Cho today finds himself having to balance the competing interests of commercial gain and maintaining the true spirit of his artistry.

Bamboo and hanji (traditional paper) are the main materials for fan making, though silk can be used as well. About 80 to 90 bamboo ribs are used in creating a taegeuk pattern, and the peacock fan, which uses an astonishing 8,000 bamboo ribs, takes anywhere between one and six months to make.

Despite his own success, Cho is worried that no one will follow him into the taegeuk fan craft after he dies. Pay can be very low and the future is always uncertain, so government support is often needed to keep crafts such as Cho’s alive. For Cho, making fans requires dedication to a notion of eternal beauty, even at the cost of tremendous personal hardship. This is an outlook that, in itself, is highly at odds with what we consider a work ethic today.

“To become a master requires character. It’s important how you make things and in what sort of mindset,” Cho say. “After you’re done learning physical techniques, you have to instill your heart and soul into your work. There’s hardly any young people who want to learn traditional crafts. Those who do come don’t last more than a couple of months. They have to be determined to learn traditional culture but since this doesn’t pay well, they can’t stay on for too long. Crafts is art. You can’t apply economic theories to that”.

In the past, fans were indispensable during summer. But with air conditioners and electric fans around, traditional fans are now recognized primarily for their aesthetic value. So in order to preserve the tradition of fan-making, Cho says, creativity and change are absolutely vital.

“Whats important is the creativity. On the foundation of pride in our traditions, we have to keep creating new pieces,” he says. “Cultural art is about creating beauty. A master is an artist. The job is to delight people and to create something new”.

When we say that crafts reflect their times, it means that craftspeople have to respond to what people need and want. Today, as in any other age, crafts must be reborn to reflect the modern world. Tradition isn’t static, nor is it built over a short period of time.

Preserving tradition in a creative way means giving a contemporary twist to that tradition. While inheriting ideas and a certain spirit, tradition should adopt a new style that fits the current times. Celadon during the Goryeo Dynasty, one of the most significant ceramics at the time, gave way to Buncheongsagi celadon and white porcelain in Joseon times. Tradition was inherited and developed while adjustments were made to meet the demands and objectives of a new era.

The balance between tradition and modernity has exercised the minds of masters for centuries. One example of this trade-off can be found in the practice of making string holes in the body of gayageum (12-string Korean zithers). The traditional technique to make gayageum’s holes isn’t very precise and even alters the shape of the body, with strings likely to be left out of position. A computer drill is far more accurate, keep the body intact and saving time. In order to ensure precision and efficiency, the modern craftsman have to find the right blend of machine and traditional handiwork.

With the recent growth in interest in all things traditional, Korea’s old-time crafts are looking as vibrant as they have done for some time. Traditional craftworks are on show all over Korea, and if you’re son inclined, you can sign up for lectures or experience programs. Aside from exhibitions, craftworks can be found in art shops, department stores or duty free shops in the form of small souvenirs right the way up to pricey luxuries.

But even these products don’t guarantee the ongoing health of craftworks. To achieve that, it needs to look beyond the stereotypical images of traditional craftworks and forge a deeper appreciation of the values behind them. In between the extreme opposites – an artwork displayed  in a glass case in an exhibition and a mass-produced trinket in a souvenir shop – traditional craft must recover its identity as a form of living art.

Fortunately, traditional crafts have struck some genuine chords with the public in recent times. In universities across the coutnry, ever more students are applying for programs related to traditional crafts. Craft studios in the Bukchon region of Seoul are offering various programs year-round for Koreans and foreign tourists alike. By crafting pieces there, visitors gain a genuine affinity with traditional culture.

Elsewhere, masters have collaborated with contemporary artists, and architecture or industrial design majors have offered designs to intangible cultural properties from the regions. In their own ways, these are all examples of tradition modifying to meet the needs of a different time. Last October, the Seolhwa Cultural Exhibition displayed a series of items that combined traditional elements with the work of industrial designer Mah Young-beom. Cho Dae-yong, a master who makes bamboo blinds, displayed a piece that connected optical fibers and bamboo. Kim Hwan-gyeong, a master of lacquerwork, drew modern patterns on Joseon-era wooden furniture. Song Bang-woong, a master specializing in mother of pearl, made a cosmetics chest with mother-of-pearl pasted on to metal instead of wooden plate. And Yoon Byung-hoon, a bamboo master, built a cabinet with tiny cut pieces of black bamboo. When they went on display, these utterly unique handiworks by the six masters caused a minor sensation.

Crafts, which had long been considered merely decorative, are increasingly reclaiming their practical roots, too. While the Seolhwa Cultural Exhibition mostly show-cased hardware decorated with traditional crafts, the 2010 Craft Trend Fair, which held its fifth show in December last year, aimed to display the very latest trends in traditional and modern crafts. Under the name “Next Craftsmanship – Change from Succession to Application”, the exhibition presented a picture of the future of Korean crafts as reflected in its essence. Visitors could take a look at craftworks and also purchase handiworks at an affordable price, while listening to masters’ first-hand account of their production. It was a real chance for the public to get closer to crafts.

In Korea, biennales and festivals offer opportunities for people to get in touch with traditional crafts. The World Ceramic Biennale, held every other year in Gyeonggi-do Province, is the largest crafts event devoted to ceramics. Potters from around the world flock to the show to exchange skills ideas. The big increase of these regional festivals in recent many years means people can now experience traditional crafts virtually anywhere.

In order to tap into modern consumer markets – rather than just appeal to rich collector or tourists – it’s vital for crafts to adopt innovative approaches to sales. Many have tried to take traditional crafts overseas, but they lacked design or marketing strategies to compete in the modern global market. One big success, however, is 212Design, which has set up shop in the Soho of New York. To crack foreign markets, this design company used traditional crafts technique such as balwoo (bowls for Buddhist monks) and Najeonchilgi to create contemporary products.

The Internet has played an important role in modern craft, and designing and dyeing have relied heavily on computer programming. Other prime examples of the old using the new are online exhibitions and online shopping malls for traditional crafts.

Today, there are many signs that traditional crafts are thriving – studios are doing well, masters are working with brands and designer, and university students are taking a greater interest in them. Not confined to museums or high-brow discussions, crafts are adapting and staying relevant. This is surely the best future for traditional crafts.

Source : Korea People & Culture Magazine, January 2011


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