When I was working as the manager of a Japanese art gallery in London a couple of years ago, I came across a unique piece of pottery which intrigued me. The gallery specialised in Japanese folding screens, Buddhist sculpture, and hanging scrolls – the vast majority of which were antique and often dating back to the 16th century or earlier. However, the gallery owner also had an eye for beautiful contemporary pieces, particularly ceramics. One day we were changing the display in the gallery and we pulled a ceramic bowl out if its box in the stockroom which the gallery owner had picked up on one of his regular trips to Kyoto several months before I had joined the gallery.
It was an unusual piece with its jagged edges, the bowl itself slightly lopsided, and with abstract designs sketched across the surface of the inside of the bowl. It had a certain kind of energy – this was a piece that had been made by knowing hands, full of life, explorative, and demonstrating a relaxed sense of self-expression that was in contrast to the refinement and controlled detail that was usually such a characteristic feature of Japanese design. When I went to look up the description of the bowl so that I could print a gallery label, I found that there was barely any information written about it. The stock database merely stated ‘broken bowl, ceramic’ and its measurements. I asked the gallery owner if he could tell me more, but all he could say was that he had bought the bowl in Kyoto from a dealer a couple of years earlier, and he hadn’t been able to find out the name of the artist, the date it was made, or which part of Japan it had come from. The bowl had simply caught his eye.
‘Right!’ I thought, ‘I am going to make it my mission to uncover the mystery of this ‘broken bowl’, and find out exactly who made it, when, where, and if possible, discover what the inspiration was behind it.’ So, I started by turning the bowl over to decipher the artist’s signature… they are often stamped in kanji (Chinese ideographs) of which there can be numerous readings for each one, meaning names are notoriously difficult to read. However, it was not going to be that easy. All that was written on the base of the bowl was a single character,’ め’ , one of the 46 hiragana phonetic symbols, equating to the syllable ‘me’ (pronounced ‘meh’). This could be the first syllable of either their first name or their last name, it could be a man or a woman, they could be dead or alive… my quest had begun!
In the next part of the story, I make contact with the mystery artist -find out who it is and how they react in Part 2, coming soon…