On December 1, 2016, I attended the gallery discussion “Forum Follows Function: A Dialogue with Linda Siroka and Takeshi Yasuda” at the Alfred Ceramics Art Gallery. These two speakers, as well as Alfred University’s Art History Club members Grant Akiyama and Max Mustardo, chose pieces from the gallery’s permanent collection that were currently on display to discuss the functionality of them. People who attended were encouraged to walk around the gallery before and after the discussion to look at some of the works mentioned or ones they found interesting themselves; they were also welcome to add to the discussion of the main speakers.
Ole Jensen. teapot, 1993. Porcelain, glazed.
One thing that grabbed my attention and has stuck with me was when Siroka recalled a conversation she had with designer Ole Jensen. She quoted him as saying “If a piece functions really well, then [if there’s] something that doesn’t work really well, we might forgive it.” This quote ties in with one of Jensen’s teapots on display. Originally stemming from a design exercise in which the design must encompass two opposites, Siroka explains, Jensen’s teapot does have a functionality to that degree, yet lacks a main function of a normal teapot: it wouldn’t keep tea hot for very long. Despite this, Jensen used a very bright, “hot” shade of yellow when painting it. teapot, while not meeting the utilitarian function of an everyday teapot, it does represent a contradiction as was the goal of the design exercise.
I found much of Yasuda’s portion of the discussion very thought provoking. He begins by saying that “Functionality is the responsibility of the user, not the maker.” He expands this by discussing how the function of some things change over time and occasion and from culture to culture. Yasuda brought up that archeologists can only make educated guesses at best for the use of some of the tools they find. Then, he talked about the tea culture in much of Asia and how when Manchurians forced Chinese people from their homes, they left behind their elaborate tea sets behind. This made it so the elaborate sets were then even more valuable and used mostly for special tea ceremonies and most people used simpler tea sets for everyday use. Yasuda then told the group that how we would use a teapot here in America differs greatly from how a teapot might be used in Japan. Here, we would most likely use a teapot for serving tea. In Japan, on the other hand, a teapot may be used for serving tea, but they don’t stop their imaginations from running wild. Yasuda said that they might be used as flowerpots, gravy boats, sauce bowls, wine decanters, and whatever else the owner can think to use it as. These examples all worked well to prove his point.
During the event, the idea that once a piece with a utilitarian purpose becomes obsolete, it then becomes a symbol. This reminded me of when my former high school art teacher taught us that when a craft becomes obsolete, it then becomes art. While some things can serve a purpose and still be artistic (photography for example), I can certainly agree with this statement. I would also like to add that the obsolesce adds a layer of appreciation to someone’s work. In the animation industry, the techniques of traditional animation and Ray Harryhausen’s dynamation are considered obsolete. While during their heyday, these techniques were just the industry standards and the best way to produce the work needed, but when an artist or even an animation studio produces a short film or feature length film using an “outdated” technique, people tend to be in awe of their determination and commitment, proving them to still be valid methods. When someone writes a code from scratch to make an effect that can easily be made using something on the market, or to make an effect that was popular years ago and was improved upon, people may not appreciate it as much until they see how an artist used this effect specifically to work with other elements of the artist’s original code. Overall, obsolescence does not equate absolute uselessness or lack of value and that no matter the intent of the artist when making anything, after it’s shown to the world, what it’s for is determined by the audience.