Kap-Sun Hwang and His Ceramics


An essay by Josef Straßer | Senior Curator | Die Neue Sammlung | The International Design Museum Munich


Why would a Korean ceramic artist come to Germany to study ceramics again here, given that for centuries Asian ceramics have served as an example for Europe? Was it not initially Chinese, later Japanese and Korean porcelain that fascinated the Europeans and would not let their inquiring minds rest until they succeeded in solving the mystery of the arcane science of “white gold”, until the first European porcelain was produced 1710 in Meissen?


Several things may have persuaded Kap-Sun Hwang (born 1963 in Seoul) to come to Germany. Apart from the strictly regulated training in Korea, a decisive role was played by his encountering works by “Gruppe 83” – German ceramics artists including Karl and Ursula Scheid, Horst Kerstan, but also Christa and Johannes Gebhardt amongst others. The objects that the “Gruppe 83” exhibited 1985 in Seoul deeply impressed Kap-Sun Hwang: “How is it possible to create such works with clay” I wondered. I suddenly realized this is chemistry. I then dreamed about going abroad to study.” (cat. Kellinghusen, p. 6)


That said, Kap-Sun Hwang first graduated from the Ceramics Department of the National University in Seoul with a Master’s in Fine Arts (MFA), and subsequently completed a three-year officer’s training in the South Korean Army.


His dream began to take shape in 1990 when he moved to Germany. First he learned the German language in Münster before going to Kiel in 1991 to study ceramics at the Muthesius Academy of Fine Arts and Design under Johannes Gebhardt. In contrast to the training in Asia, where for years students had to work strictly to the master’s designs (in keeping with the principle of appropriation through imitation) Gebhardt emphasized having his students developing their own personal creative individuality, an approach that was very suited to Kap-Sun Hwang’s own ideas on art. Naturally, Gebhardt also insisted that students master the craft itself, the throwing, the various molding and glazing techniques, not to mention methodical working – before contemplating any kind of artistic activity. However, having perfected these skills he then encouraged students to determine the focal points of their work, which were located between the poles of free experimentation and the development of an personal creative vocabulary.


For Kap-Sun Hwang everything revolved around glazes. The academy in Kiel offered him undreamt-of possibilities to experiment at will and uncover the secrets of what makes a good glaze. During the seven years he spent there, he devoted almost every morning to such experiments, graduating in 1998 with a final year project supervised by Johannes Gebhardt.


Immediately afterwards he received a fellowship from the Dr.-Hans-Hoch-Stiftung in Neumünster. This meant that for two years he was able to use the living and working quarters in the so-called “Stadttöpferei” (town pottery) free of charge, and devote himself entirely to his work as ceramic artist. Two events occurred during this period that were to have a lasting influence on his further career. The first took him back to one of the things that precipitated his move to Europe: by participating in a four-week intensive workshop with Karl and Ursula Scheid he received deep insights into the ceramics art of the two “grand masters”, whose work had a decisive influence on German ceramics after World War II.


The second event was that he came into contact with Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Meissen, and he free-lanced for the company for two years. This paved the way for his later work in the ceramics industry, which is manifest in his highly successful designs for Porzellan-Manufaktur Fürstenberg. Also connected with his work for Meissen is his decision to start dabbling in porcelain; after all until then he had worked primarily in stoneware.


In 2000 he stepped in for Johannes Gebhardt as visiting professor at the Hang-Zhou National College of Art in China. On his return to Germany with his wife Si-Sook Kang he settled in Kellinghusen, a highly traditional pottery town in Schleswig-Holstein, and created a working and living space in what was once a storehouse.


In 2003 Kap-Sun Hwang accepted the offer of a professorship for the ceramics class at the College of Fine Arts / Faculty of Crafts & Design at the National Univer­sity in Seoul. His reforms to the course produced radical changes to ceramics training at Seoul University within the set curriculum. He created better working conditions by ensuring the old workshop rooms were modernized; he took charge of installing new workshop fittings, new kilns and even new tools that he had developed specially. He firmly believes students should feel comfortable while working, their passion and interest should be kindled. In addition, Kap-Sun Hwang succeeded in altering the training structure itself. While previously the emphasis was on sculptural works, Kap-Sun Hwang returned to ceramic vessels – effectively to the founda­tions of ceramics training, which also included the long-neglected acquisition of precise throwing techniques. When it comes to making vessels throwing is still the most effective method for producing a considerable number in a short period of time.


Moreover, Kap-Sun Hwang places special emphasis on glazes. During his studies in Kiel he occupied himself intensively with creating glazes through experimentation; and his links to Porzellan-Manufaktur Fürstenberg stimulated him to systematically develop glazes, something that culminated in the creation of a special database for glazes and masses.


In Korea every single student is authorized to access this database, which is continually being expanded. This means the desired glazes can be developed rapidly without needlessly repeating previously conducted weighing and measuring. Consequently, the brief time of training can be used intensively for developing individual work.


One fundamental aspect of Kap-Sun Hwang’s teaching concept is to prepare students to work on an industrial scale. To his mind, a modern ceramic artist must also be familiar with industrial production methods. He does not see craft and industry as irreconcilable opposites but rather as complementing each other.


But Kap-Sun Hwang has altered the ceramics training in other regards. For instance, he attaches great importance to his students’ social skills, and works to promote it, or his own position as teacher as primus inter pares, but also financing material costs that way exceed the budget through workshop exhibitions, competitions, awards and prize money.


This also shows Kap-Sun Hwang not only drew on the experiences he gained during his training in Kiel but also successfully incorporated into his teaching the experiences made during his work as a freelance ceramics artist and when working for renowned manufactories. As a result he has been able to develop the framework for a modern, contemporary training combining European and Korean traditions.


These days his teaching leaves his little time for his own projects. His life is divided between two worlds and being a perfectionist he would like to do everything properly. This balancing act is only possible if you know what you want and what you are capable of. And Kap-Sun Hwang is capable of quite a lot even though he only has three months a year in Germany for his own projects. During this time he produces pieces in his workshop in Kellinghusen – mostly small dishes and cylindrical vessels. The cylindrical shapes with the thin colored stripes or staggered geometrical surfaces are especially impressive.


The colored areas consist of differently dyed porcelain masses. First of all, Kap-Sun Hwang throws a series of identical vessels, which only differ in the color. Once as hard as leather they are cut and following a further drying period assembled into new vessels, which feature the staggered color areas. The cylinder shapes with colored lines are produced in a very similar way: Once again the vessels are cut and the individual sections assembled using dyed porcelain sections. Firing is done in an electric or gas kiln at 1,280° C. While the insides are often glazed, Kap-Sun Hwang first trims the exteriors with a diamond-edge tool before subsequently polishing them. This creates surfaces that not only have to be perceived visually but also touched in order to appreciate the vessels in their entirety, in their artistic perfection.


Kap-Sun Hwang loves music. Using ceramics he can do something he cannot do with music: He can work with ceramics. This is also demonstrated by the objects created especially for the exhibition, which in common with Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg variations” repeatedly take up a topic and vary them brilliantly – in this case through slight shifts in the colored segments.


Like all of Kap-Sun Hwang’s works these “variations” stand out for their perfect craftsmanship and technical precision. This aspect also plays an important role in his designs for the porcelain industry because perfectionist Hwang expects the same exacting quality in the industrially produced works as he does for those produced by hand.


Even though the industrial production process cannot be compared with that of the craftsman (neither as regards investment costs nor as regards the numbers produced or possible profits) the two can still be linked to each other: materials and techniques can be tested on the objects produced by hand before they go into production, prototypes can be made that serve as models for planned mass production. Working on such models requires a different kind of thinking than that needed to design a mass product. And it is this precisely that constitutes the chance of fruitful cooperation between industry and artisanship. This is why Kap-Sun Hwang is so keen for his students to also experience the industrial production aspect in their training.


He himself is the best example for the success of this collaboration: Back in 2003 he designed a set of dishes for the Porzellan-Manufaktur Fürstenberg, for which he received the red dot design award as “best of the best”. And both in his most recent products for Fürstenberg, and in his other works it is evident that Kap-Sun Hwang is a modern, globally active ceramic artist who succeeds with his works to create a very successful link between art and industry, Asia and Europe.


For an internationally active museum like Die Neue Sammlung it is precisely these aspects that are important. The structure of the collection, the exhibition profile and the intentions of a museum dedicated to pioneering design quality must invariably reflect the full range of national and international arts and craftsmanship, as well as design.


In Kap-Sun Hwang’s oeuvre, ideas and thought we find the approaches and positions that interface between art and industry more manifest than in the work of hardly any other ceramic artist today. For this reason his works are truly predestined to be exhibited at the Internatio­nales Keramik-Museum (International Ceramics Museum) Weiden, which is a branch of Die Neue Sammlung.


Published in conjunction with the exhibition „Kap-Sun Hwang – Koreanische Keramik | Korean ceramics“; Internationales Keramik-Museum Weiden, Zweigmuseum der Neuen Sammlung, The International Design Museum Munich.