Ken Matsuzaki does not allow his noborigama kiln to rise beyond 1250˚c. Five or ten degrees in excess of this limit, for even a few minutes, could make a seven-day firing, containing nine hundred pots – half a year’s income – and consuming upwards of fifty sacks of coal and two and a half thousand bundles of split chestnut and pine, totally worthless.
pine bundles awaiting future firings at Ken Matsuzaki’s Mashiko pottery
Pottery is, at its essence, a numbers game; but it is one of inherent contradiction. One might define working in the immensely pressurised way that Matsuzaki does as the marriage of precision with the imprecise. Firings as protracted as his involve innumerable numerical fluctuations – temperature changes, atmospheric reduction and oxidation – the sum of which are, nonetheless, pots that defy simple enumeration.
Matsuzaki checking pots from a recently finished wood firing
This duality between precision and imprecision, chaos and order, lies at the heart of wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi, until recently the prevailing aesthetic in traditional Japanese culture, is a philosophy of imperfection and impermanence. It takes solace in decay and obfuscation; in the degeneration of all things into nothingness and the genesis of life. Like Matsuzaki’s pots, it is enigmatic, idiosyncratic; more potent in the not knowing.
This yohen dish, with its dark, whirling motion, is the embodiment of the wabi-sabi aesthetic. It speaks the wabi-sabi decorative language of discolouration, cracking, splashing, splitting and mottling. Between the shino brushed thick over a thin, silvered veil of slip and the oily pools of molten ash glass, it bears the earthly colours of rain, mud and smoke. It seems as if a koi pond frozen in time, the fat, milky-white fish drifting through the murky waters; an archetypal wabi-sabi metaphor.
Like wabi-sabi, Matsuzaki’s work loses something in the analysis, is nullified in the explanation. It prefers the discrete comfort of shadows, the realm of the inexpressible where chemistry remains alchemy: where clay, silica, feldspar, and wood ash become swirling koi.