The Jing – a thick, beaten-brass gong – rings with a metal ‘hum’ that vibrates to your belly. Above, the smaller, sharper clash of the Kkwaenggwari – a second gong, struck lightly at first, then steadily harder, faster, louder. The leather skin of a Buk, a drum shaped like a shallow barrel, provides a steady pulse while the Janggu – longer, tapered in the middle like an hourglass – strikes a rhythmic beat. The whole ensemble begins slowly, lilting, almost out of time. Then the pounding quickens, the rhythm tightens. With an almighty crescendo the drumming reaches a maddened pitch, as if the music were running away with itself. As the players begin to chant, their performance becomes a delirious ritual, the whirling, snapping, rumbling vibrations its disembodied spirits.
This is Samul nori, Kang-hyo Lee’s ‘making music’. A form of traditional Korean percussion born out of folk dances and harvest celebration, it originated in the rice fields where farmers prayed for a good yield. In its throbbing rhythms, Kang-hyo finds a vital energy that fuels the creative processes of his colossal Onggi pots.
The work is extraordinarily labour intensive, and quite unlike any technique we find in the West. Great ropes of earthenware clay called ‘coils’, sometimes six feet long, are formed and draped over Kang-hyo’s shoulders. Standing above a clay base, the potter feeds each coil down through his hands around the edge of the pot, pinching with one hand and pressing with the other, then paddles the surface until it is smooth, all the while turning the wheel with a foot. Within a matter of minutes, the enormous clay walls are built up into a cylinder of unbelievable size.
Originally designed to store fermented kimchi, bean pastes, and soy, the use of Onggi has declined in recent years with the invention of home refrigerators. Kang-hyo is one of a shrinking number of potters capable of producing pots of this size, having spent three dedicated years with an Onggi master acquiring the necessary skills. For a time he was making up to thirty a day; now he has to wear a brace, so demanding is the work on his body.
Though the throwing of these forms is methodical and pensive, their decoration is quite the opposite. With the hammering rhythms of the Samul nori beating from a nearby speaker, Kang-hyo covers his giant Onggi with liquid slips – first with ladles flicked and jabbed around the pot, then with his own hands, smearing, stroking and scratching over the surface of the clay. He remains transfixed throughout: there is just the potter and his work, consumed by the transcendental music.
Like the Samul nori, Kang-hyo’s Onggi pots are directly linked to Korea’s rural past, to its celebrations of food, crops and sustenance. Poets of the past have seen in the four traditional drums the representation of four elements of a storm: the roaring winds of the Jing, the thunderous Kkwaengwari, the Janggu’s heavy downpour, the Buk’s rolling clouds. In the tumultuous, swirling surface of Kang-hyo’s Onggi, the musical tempest thunders on. Vigorous and meditative in equal measure, they offer nourishment for the soul.