Born in 1953, Akiyama Yō belongs to the generation of ceramic artists who came of age just as the contemporary art market in Japan soared, fueled by strong economic growth. Private galleries proliferated, collectors multiplied, and national and newly opened prefectural museums competed for acquisitions and group exhibitions. Representative of the mood was the 1990 exhibition curated by the critic Inui Yoshiaki (1927–2017) at the prestigious Takashimaya Department Store: The Now in Japanese Ceramics—Messages from Artists in Kyoto; A Drama in Space Enacted by Ten Clay Artists.
Like the other participants in that exhibition, Akiyama is a notable survivor of Japan’s “lost decades” after the economic bubble burst. He has continued to show his work in individual and group shows, both in Japan and internationally, receiving numerous awards and culminating in a 2016 retrospective at Musée Tomo in Tokyo. At the same time, he has served as a mentor to many younger artists: in 2019, he will conclude a teaching career at Kyoto City University of Arts, where he once studied ceramics with Yagi Kazuo (1918–1979) and sculpture with Tsuji Shindō (1910–1981).
Although Akiyama’s artistic trajectory brought him from southern Honshu to Kyoto, he considers himself a perpetual outsider only partially immersed in Kyoto’s complex ceramics world. Indeed, Akiyama’s work defies identification with any cultural center in Japan or even with Japan itself. Working far beyond any identifiable Asian glazed ceramic tradition, his frame of thought is the deep history of pottery embodied in its materials and processes. Akiyama grapples with the geological properties of raw clay and the effects of fire. Using a blowtorch on wet clay, he peels away the parched surface and reveals deep fissures. He finishes the scarred surface not with glaze but with smoke, impregnating the clay with carbon. In that sense, he perpetuates the “black pottery” surface pioneered by Yagi Kazuo and continued by Yamada Hikaru as a means of removing all cultural traces of Japan.
Numerous exhibitions in vast gallery spaces have enabled Akiyama to work on a grand scale: some pieces from his series Peneplain or Oscillation stretch along the floor or wall for six meters or more. He made the intimate Untitled T-028 in response to a conversation with collectors Alice and Halsey North, who told him they admired and coveted his large sculptures but could not possibly fit one into their New York apartment. Akiyama created Untitled T-028 for them as the first in a tongue-in-cheek “tabletop” series. Possibly the association with domestic space accounts for its vague reference to a bowl—but a bowl that has passed through a conflagration, splintering and melting in upon itself.
Akiyama Yō (b. 1953)
Japan, Kyoto, 2002
Fire-treated, carbon-infused stoneware
28 × 53 × 33 cm
Gift of Halsey and Alice North
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery S2017.16