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Anagama: The Art of Uncertainty                                                                      by Owen Rye

First Published in Ceramics Art and Perception No. 10, 1992, pages 40-42

The art of the anagama involves a continuous process of uncertainty. With only a medieval Japanese model to follow, which is seemingly almost irrelevant to the modern day art world and society, the anagama is, I believe, the most currently viable of the ancient traditions and means more than the concession to tradition that we make by respectfully retaining the Japanese name of this wood fired tunnel kiln. To me, the art of the anagama means a total aesthetic art form incorporating materials, fire and intuition.

A persistent view encouraged by many practitioners is that wood firing is process-driven and that tools and kilns are so important that the products are almost secondary. This thinking derives considerable momentum from the marathon-like nature of anagama firing which occurs over a period of several days. However, this is a view which alienates curators and writers whose sole preoccupation is the final work. My view is that process determines what is possible and what is not and that no amount of inspiration will produce a work outside the limits of its technique. If art critics are to fully appreciate the anagama aesthetic, they must try to understand the nexus between process and potential.

The key to understanding process is integration: the way in which the selection of materials relates to the final texture and color, the influence of the clay on form, the interrelationship of forming technique with the type of clay, and the way in which firing time, temperature and atmosphere interrelate with the materials and the form according to the types of fuel used. These are all determinative and inseparable aspects of the final work. The particular choices made in all of these elements of process are major contributors to individual style.

My preference is for light-colored, open coarse clays which allow some eccentricity of form and the development of bright flashing color. High iron clays can give subtle color changes but, as in Iife, everything loses its color in the dark. My work is mainly vessels made on the potters’ wheel. The wheel-made vessel allows an interplay between the apparent familiarity of form and the unfamiliar and variable richness of surface. The best forms derive from a mixture of intent and accident. I look for qualities of form which proclaim the fluidity of clay, the softness derived from a somewhat erratic movement, slowed down and frozen. Subsequent processes influence form, particularly the method of packing the kiln where appropriately-shaped vessels are stacked on each other. Finer details of surface finish are used on small scale forms whereas unadorned form is more important at a larger scale where the viewer tends to stand at a distance.

The work is made in series, all related but each different, as a way of developing a particular form. Often the earlier, clumsier ones of the series, made before skills develop are the ones which ultimately are the best. These combine well with the crudeness of the firing process; pieces of wood are thrown near and on the pots, moving them or partly burying them in ash, creating surface variations. Many vessels distort from the heat and the weight of others placed on them.

The surfaces of the pots produced in the anagama have a natural quality, evoking a feeling of an event beyond human control. It is the quality of the surface which above all gives this work its abstract character. Those potters who wish to emphasize applied marks on the surface of the clay will aim to achieve a thin layer of ash, and flashing colors. My aim is to emphasize the contrast between the man-made form and the natural surface, just as a Greek amphora raised from the depths of the Mediterranean is enhanced by an encrustation of layers of tiny skeletons. The endless complexity and layering of surface fascinates me. Shiny wet transparent glass, dry heat parched sand, soft grays and greens, glowing pinks and oranges, craters and scars, bristling fused ash. This variation is often further emphasized by re-firing and by applying a further coating of glaze or slip or modifying the surface in some other way to evoke a more elaborate suggestion of age and meaning.

After a piece has been removed from the kiln, decisions must be made as to how much evidence of the fire to leave, which areas to polish or to leave rough, feeling the difference between creating and destroying narrative, playing rough against smooth, wet against dry, dark against light and color against grey.

It is an easy task to analyse works from the anagama in terms of colors, textures and forms and their interrelationship, but any art work is more than a collection of colors, textures and form. The nature of the anagama medium is not about clarity and certainty; rather, it is about uncertainty and mysteries not easily understood.

The notion of the uncertain and the mysterious has considerable appeal to the artist. Here is something of the distinction between the language of science and the language of poetry; in the former the aim is to restrict the meanings of words so as to convey great clarity; in the latter, it is to enrich the meanings of words so that each carries the maximum suggestion and evocation of richness. If the nature of anagama is uncertain and evocative, then classical standards become alien to its nature. By denying perfection, we can accept the virtues of imperfection. The concept of the flaw, the accident, is a concept involving acceptance rather than control. As Jack Troy asks: ’’ Must an artist display white-knuckle control over every square centimeter of an object for it to be considered successful?”

Once control is abandoned, a rebellious search for extremes becomes a matter of pride. Moving far from any recognized standards of beauty does not take us to a state where everything is equal. Standards must still apply, and do apply among the anagama fraternity. However, a clear, definitive statement on standards in an art is a sure sign of a dead art, cold and immobile, wherein any novice can produce acceptable work to the accepted formula. Art is about itself, but it is also a commentary on institutional ideas. Art is a criticism of the standard of other art - and herein lies the key to standards. The most important work is that which extends and enriches, which indicates a branch in the road and points to a further direction and opens up vistas previously unseen.  And for this there are no prior indications, no criteria can be written.

An experience common to all devotees of the anagama aesthetic is the ambiguous quality of some works emerging fresh from the kiln. When the kiln is unloaded, some works are vibrant and exciting, and will appear so to others. Other works fail by any standards and can be rejected with little analysis. There is always a third group, the enigmatic ones, which provoke an uncertain response. These are the ones which we put aside to study over a period of time and which slowly reveal their value - or lack of it. Perceptions must change to encompass them.

My conscious sources of inspiration lie in that sense of mystery; the mystery of past civilizations, evoked at a time when I was working as an archaeologist. This preoccupation with antiquity has no part in looking backward to vessels of any particular tradition, at least not consciously. It has far more to do with the general mystery of times past, the fascination with how things might have been, with a membership of a human family through time. An object can start that imaginary journey, and my work is to make that object for myself.

For me the best of these objects begin the creation of an imagined history, a dream of a past world in which they could have been made. A fantasy of their making, what they may have  been used for, what hands touched them, where they were discarded and lay for eons, accumulating layers of imaginary narrative for my idle daydream, where imagination and uncertainty intertwine.

As potters involved in the aesthetic of anagama, we are absorbed in a process of a different kind, a process of constant revision of our work and ideas. As clarity emerges, the work shifts to take on a new sense of ambiguity in a continuing search for that vital uncertainty. Philip Guston advocated maintaining a condition of continuity when he said: ‘‘One is propelled to make what one has not yet made, nor seen made, what one does not yet know how to make”. The art of anagama becomes truly the art of uncertainty.


Jack Troy, 1991. No ideas but in things, in American Woodfire (Catalog), University of Iowa Museum of Art.

Philip Guston, 1978. Edited by Rene Mckee. Catalog. Philip Guston: Paintings 1969-80. Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1982