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The New Mini and Japanese Pottery: Of Pasts and Pastes

An interview with Kichizaemon XV can be found at the bottom of this page.


This article will apear in Virtual Reality: The Last Human Narrative? (Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi 2014)


In the world of cars, the new Mini is one of the most striking appearances of recent years. It seems to grab people's attention in the same way as did the Citroen DS which, when it first appeared in 1954, challenged the semiologist Roland Barthes to write an essay about what he considered a "superlative object." (1) Only five years later, in 1959, another car appeared which, though utterly different from the Citroen DS, became a motoring icon of its own. This was the old Mini, the ancestor of the new one. At the moment the old Mini was launched, it attracted neither the same amount nor the same kind of attention as the Citroen DS. The old Mini was simply a popular car judged primarily in terms of practicality, and not in terms of futurist design. The Citroen DS, on the other hand, seems to have been from the beginning a matter of "dreams" announcing a "change in the mythology of cars" (Barthes).

It is possible that the new Mini heralds a similar change. The Mini Design team explains how it transferred traditional formal language of the old Mini into the 21st century. Certain typical characteristics needed to be preserved, like the chromed radiator, the lid-like roof, round headlights, etc. Most important was that the new Mini should not simply be a backward looking retro design car. In some way, it should contain "the genes" of the old Mini (former design chief Frank Stephenson), and then develop a life of its own.

The result is what is considered an "emotional" or an "organic" design that relies very much on "concrete" values. Characteristically, the first model of the new Mini was not generated on a computer screen but was fabricated - life sized - out of clay, which is a relatively unusual procedure in modern car design, the more so since this clay approach is not concealed to the public but advertised by the Mini-potters as a constitutive part of the new Mini's identity. The Mini website announces: "Let's rely on pencils, paper and clay, not on computers." It seems that, after all those years of postmodern simulation, with the new Mini we receive something "real."

Critics of the new Mini can only be some die-hard form-follows-function romantics. They see in the creation from 2001, if not a retro design car, so at least a self-conscious reproduction of a preexisting design, which they condemn as incompatible with the spirit of the old Mini. The old Mini was just a "utility vehicle" which, in all its simplicity, became a typical expression of necessity, that is, not of style but of non-style. All that Alec Issigonis, the designer of the old Mini did, was to combine compact external dimensions with maximal space inside. His intention was not to create a lifestyle but a fuel-efficient car for adults (as a matter of fact, Issigonis was even against car radios and comfortable seats because they would distract drivers).

At the same time the problem is too complex for any bipolar confrontation of old Mini against new Mini to be sustainable. The New Mini, too, is not exclusively presented as a lifestyle product, but as a "car to live with." Aesthetics are important, but, in the end, the new Mini turns out to be more practical than the old Mini. The interior design, for example, is said to be stylish but also "easy to understand." In the new Mini, "style" is supposed to go hand in hand with function. (2) The conclusion is that style has become a necessity for the new Mini in the same way in which 3-inch wheels were a necessity for Issigonis (because he wanted save space).

Kichizaemon Raku XV (born in 1949) is the fifteenth successor of the Japanese Raku pottery dynasty established by his ancestor Chojiro around 1570. Chojiro developed a special technique of making tea bowls that is followed to this day and known by the name of Raku-style. The composition of the clay and the glaze as well as the low-firing method carried out in a small oven still remaining where it stood 400 years ago, are transmitted, in an almost alchemic way, from generation to generation. As important and binding as the technique is the Raku-ware's style. Raku-style unites aesthetic ideals of sobriety, simplicity and transcendence that Japanese aesthetics denotes by the word wabi. Some of Chojiro's tea bowls are particularly famous and serve as a kind of prototype models of the Raku spirit. Most of these typical tea bowls are monochrome black (though red is also possible). Chojiro's tea bowls impress through the total exclusion of decorative effects. The black color is supposed to express silence, unity of spirit and nature. "Black" is here, as Chojiro's successor in the 15th generation explains, not a color but a kind of non-color signifying the "refusal of color itself." "Chojiro's black is totally different from these lustrous black textures. His black reminds us of matte, rusty iron, or a clay texture that cannot be called pure black." (3)

Japanese tea bowls are a curious phenomenon. Though the focus seems to be on aesthetic matters, in reality, the highest ideal by which this artistic tradition has been dominated over centuries is utility. By putting utility into the foreground of their aesthetics, potters affirmed the decision to avoid any aestheticizing effects, or stylization.

The Japanese received the first elements of inspiration from Korea. The "models" that inspired the development of these most sophisticated Japanese craft objects were, paradoxically, ordinary rice bowls used by Korean peasants. What is important for the development of Japanese pottery is certain anti-stylistic, bound-to-earth attitude. Sen no Rikyu, a contemporary of Chojiro and teacher of tea ceremony, was perhaps the highest authority on matters of tea bowls at his time. One day he heard noblemen discussing stylistic problems of tea vessels which made him say: "Gentlemen, this is most unbecoming talk. The connoisseurship of tea vessels consists in judging whether they are suitable for their purpose or not, and whether they combine well or badly with each other..." (4)

We have noted above that the design of the new Mini has been called "organic." Another car that has been called organic is the Citroen DS and first and foremost so by Roland Barthes. For Barthes, the Citroen DS represented a new example of "humanized art," being no longer purely technological but, as an almost living being, linked to human life. However, Barthes' use of the word "organic" is completely opposed to the way in which it appears in evaluations of the new Mini. When Barthes says that the Citroen DS is organic, he talks more like a scientist who desires to create a structure as perfect and transparent that it starts to move, to function, on its own. The Mini's organicity, on the other hand, goes more in the direction of "real" organic life that inspires our imagination but remains, in the end, mysterious and impenetrable. Similarly, almost every sentence that Barthes writes about the Citroen DS can today be turned inside out in order to evoke the essence of the new Mini. For Barthes, the Citroen DS is an object that has "fallen from the sky" or come down to us from another universe. Barthes evokes Gothic cathedrals and insinuates that the letters DS (pronounced deesse in French) would suggest the sense of "Goddess."

Nothing could be more opposed to the new Mini. If the Citroen DS has fallen from the sky, the new Mini looks as if it came out of the earth. "Earth" is here not the earth of origins (of blood and earth), the earth of nature or of those simple eco-romanticisms that are usually incorporated into SUV cars. The new Mini's earth is an ambiguous phenomenon, which is the reason why its texture comes closer to that of clay, that is to a half-fluent, half-structural paste combining past, imagination and reality.

According to Barthes, the Citroen DS manifests no "origin" which is correct: no earth is clinging to the deity. However, the new Mini is also supposed to go across borders. The Mini has no clearly national or cultural origin. Neither the British nor the German (the new Mini is produced by BMW) identity sticks to the car like a predicate. Its "identity" can be located rather on a virtual level in the subconscious of the people who link the Mini in imagination to vague components of a "national character." In this sense the new Mini is not a "neutral object" but manifests a kind of "globalized" national identity. In other words, the Mini carries its past and identity not as a reified past in the present (like a retro design car) but in the form of a simultaneous incorporation of past and present.

This explains why, in spite of the "aesthetics of the concrete" that the Mini is supposed to radiate, its "being" is situated in the domain of the dream. This dream is not futurist (as in the case of the Citroen DS) but located in the domain of virtual fluency in which past, present, and future are melted or, better, partially solidified into a paste. It is thus no contradiction when the Mini website, in spite of the insistence on the anti-electronic pottery method that helped to produce the new Mini, attempts to attract customers by announcing: Immerse Yourself in the New Mini.

The new Mini has been made, in an alchemic way, out of that concrete, organic paste that the French epistemologist Gaston Bachelard has qualified as "oneiric." (5) Since the 1990s, architects working with computer aided design programs insist that they do not draw but build by sticking together "virtual clay." Most recently, a large number of modeling systems or "electronic sculpting systems" that use the term "virtual clay" in a more official fashion have emerged on the software market. The paste-like material of dreams provides a kind of creativity that is not represented by a stable and abstract structure. Paste can be touched. The Citroen DS could only be timidly caressed because, as says Barthes, "the touch is the most demystifying sense of all senses, contrary to sight, which is the most magical one." According to Barthes, the Citroen DS is shiny, "as smooth as cake icing" and symbolizes perfection. Excelling in "lightness," the Citroen DS produces a "silence of a marvelous order" which Barthes classifies as the silence of heavens. Nothing could be more opposed to the sculptured Mini. The heavy new Mini vibrates the silence of earth, of the past or of the paste. While the Citroen DS attempts to objectify spirit in a purely abstract way, the new Mini conserves spirit in a half-concrete, half-virtual form that can be conserved only in the ambiguous state of paste. While the Citroen DS is liquid, ethereal, and impresses through its "glassy surfaces" (who would like to caress "a Goddess that is the exaltation of glass"?), the new Mini's levers, buttons and dials have been designed with their "look, feel and weight very much in mind."

The new Mini comes thus closer to the highest aesthetic ideal of Japanese pottery, to that of wabi, which refers to "the primordial articulations of human consciousness," (6) remaining at the same time functional, simple and offering a spatial and tactile effect.

The problem for the generations of Raku family members succeeding Chojiro was to recreate the Raku-style without ending up in pure imitation. Kichizaemon XV, like all the thirteen generations of potters trying to capture Chojiro's spirit before him, insists that he is not making retro design tea bowls: "I repeat that so-called traditional art today tends to have lost its creative energy because it is often under the illusion of trying to revive the past in the present by superficially reproducing past styles or by rearranging or retouching them in minute details." We recognize that "postmodernism" is a 400 year old problem, at least for Raku potters: "Regarding the question of the inheritance of tradition versus innovation, the important element should not be the superficial decomposition and rearrangement of forms that belong to a certain accomplished style, nor a reconstruction of tradition styles by adding new elements to them. Postmodernism has fallen into this trap of conventionalizing the superficial surface layers of past forms and styles. The generations of Raku masters of the past 400 years since Chojiro were also in danger of following this path" (Kichizaemon XV). 

It needs to be added that for Raku potters this problem is even more dramatic than for contemporary car designers. As a matter of fact, an imitation of Chojiro's style would be entirely useless because Chojiro's declared aim is to have "no style." Chojiro forbade himself the creation a certain aesthetic form, color, style, and insisted on non-form and non-color. What is asked for in the art of pottery is not self-expression but "slicing off aesthetic elements regarding form, reducing individuality to nil, going beyond the idea of form, and even ignoring the idea of self-expression would eventually lead to a point where beauty denies itself" (Kichizaemon XV).

In the essay on the Citroen DS, not even two pages long, Barthes uses the word "magic" four times and "spiritual" two times. However, the magic that Barthes has in mind is not that of alchemy but that of science. Scientific magic is the device that looks like magic, but which still remains perfectly explicable. The components of the Citroen's body, for example, seem to hold together "by sole virtue of their wondrous shape." This is a mystery of science for which there are, in the end, always rather common sensical solutions.

To the Citroen's science-fiction style we oppose the new Mini's virtual ethno-style. The Citroen DS is magic and mathematical as much as the new Mini is concrete and virtual (did not already Issigonis insist that "mathematics is the enemy of the truly creative man?"). While the Citroen DS represents a newly discovered humanized and "consumable" science, the new Mini is magic because it is made out of that concrete paste that contains the past in a virtual form. For this reason the existence of the new Mini represents a fall back into alchemy.

Barthes associates alchemy with that inhuman "bestiary of power" present in the old myths of cars. While these myths contain the "alchemy of speed," the Citroen DS managed to overcome alchemy in order to distribute the more human fruits of "relish in driving." In 2001 nobody considers speed, at least that of moving objects, as alchemy. The alchemy of the 2000s is the simultaneous presence of different realities offered by new technologies of communication.

Both the Citroen DS and the new Mini are organic, but the new Mini has one thing that the Citroen DS does not have: genes. Genes are the new component that has been added to the paste since Bachelard's times. But because nobody can really say in which way the genes have "generated" this or that concrete form, these genes remain in the domain of the virtual, doing no more than confirming Bachelard's claim about the oneiric character of paste. Genes carry information that is neither concrete nor abstract but "virtual" in the sense of "possible though at the same time not possible." These genes permit the shift from structural to dreamlike organicism.

You can touch the new Mini without demystifying it. The main approach we use when being confronted with the new Mini is not that of seeing, as in the case of the Citroen DS, but that of empathy. Of course, what it is that we are going to empathize with remains entirely open. Is it the present, the past or some kind of future? Though the car is so tactile and charged with so many "feelings," its essence remains unreachable. The more we touch and the more we feel, the further it moves away. It is just like the experience described by Kichizaemon XV when he received the commission to reproduce an old Chojiro tea bowl: "I once got a commission to reproduce the tea bowl called 'Kamuro' by Chojiro, which was an invaluable experience. I was face to face with the original for months, putting it in front of my worktable, carefully touching it all around, occasionally putting it to my lips in order to reach full understanding of every detail of the piece to be reproduced. () The more I got involved into that piece, the more unreachable it became."

We, who know the new Mini, know the reason why. The essence of these objects is virtual and it is embedded somewhere in the past(e).

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein

Above: Daihatsu Gino, example of a retro Mini



1. That the form-follows-function romantics are wrong might be shown in the example of the retro-design car Gino that the Japanese carmaker Daihatsu launched in 1999. The Gino is a more or less literal reconstruction of the old Mini. However, it is obvious that the career of the Gino evolves along much more modest lines than that of the new Mini. In spite of its Mini-like reinstatement of the useful family car identity (it even has four doors), the Gino is far from being accepted as the successor of the old Mini. The same must be said of other outspokenly "cute" Japanese cars of the late 1980s, which never overcame the status of mere kitsch, like the retro-inspired Figaro, the PAO and the BE-1 (all three by Nissan).

2. Roland Barthes: "La nouvelle Citroen" in: Mythologies (uvres compltes I, Paris: Seuil, 1993), p. 561-723. The text was drafted in 1954 and published in 1957 in Mythologies.

3. All quotations by Raku Kichizaemon XV are taken from his essay: "Raku Tea Bowls: The Essence of the Form. The Evolution of Wabi" in: Raku Museum (Kyoto: Raku Museum, 2000).

4. Quoted from Hugo Munsterberg: The Ceramic Art of Japan, p. 100.

5. Gaston Bachelard: L'Eau et les rves (Paris: Corti, 1942), p. 32.

6. Toshiko and Toyo Izutsu: The Theory of Beauty in the Classical Aesthetics of Japan (Haag: Nijnhoff, 1981), p. 55. Wabi "refers to the peculiar metaphysical or existential region which is to be located somewhere between the phenomenal and pre-phenomenal or the articulated and the non-articulated whole" (Izutsu, p. 52).

An Interview with Kichizaemon Raku XV

Link to the Raku Museum's website

Mr. Raku, your family has made Raku tea bowls for over 400 years. Though they all maintain a certain spirit, one can clearly see that all those bowls do not simply look the same. Has there been something of an "evolution" of form or of style during those 400 years.

It is difficult to say where the change is and where the continuity is. As a matter of fact, things are continuously changing. Sometimes change happens over a very long term, sometimes it happens within the performance of a single individual. In theater, the old things just disappear. But here, in pottery, we keep the old styles. We transmit them, and these styles are fixed. In this sense, what we are doing is different from other arts. There is a certain saying, huekido sՓ, which means certain things change and certain things don't change. It is actually very difficult to articulate this position in a foreign language. The particular Raku style is a fixed style, which is called the tekone s style. (1) According to the tekone style, the lines are always vague and soft. An important question is how to maintain this style. One can say that this style is included in Raku pottery in a really evolutionary fashion.

You have these constraints that come to you from history through a long line of ancestors. When thinking of yourself within the context of international contemporary art, do you not feel your heritage as ballast, as a handicap, because it prevents you from adopting the same individualist expressionism that other artists are allowed to adopt?

The representative of the first generation of Raku potters, Chojiro, was really a superb artist. And each subsequent generation tried to interpret his work. Each generation really struggled to do so. And only when we interpret in a really personal way we will make a good tea bowl.

Does your art have a place in international art, independent of the Japanese tradition?

International art actually means Western art, because that movement clearly dominates. But in the 20th century, this modernism is crumbling; people find this modernity suspicious. Only in this situation could Chojiro obtain the status of "modern" or "postmodern". What he produced were individual expressions but he tried to overcome this individuality. And I think that the overcoming of individual expressions is really the essence of modern art. My work always begins with Chojiro. It is the starting point of my work.

Do you want to evoke emotions of the past? There is an image of "Raku" in people's mind. When you make Raku tea bowls, people expect you to evoke this image. Do you constantly have this image in mind when working?

What I want to evoke is difficult to express in words. All those working in fine arts make artifacts. It is not like literature or poetry where artists rely on words. In my case, it is very difficult to say what kind of image I have in mind when I am working. I am actually trying to overcome the individual. The result is nothingness. Chojiro manifested nothingness in the same way in a tea bowl. At the same time, by overcoming the individual we attain universality. This is paradoxical, but it is just the source of real artistic creativity. Creativity always starts with a paradox, and during the whole process of creation this paradox remains constant. I think that this is the essence of art. And, of course, it is precisely because of this paradox that I cannot explain what it actually is that I have in mind when I am making these tea bowls. If this "thing" would be something concrete that can be named, it would be something very narrow. But this paradox, which is so necessary for our creativity, does not have a straightforward logic. And, in the end, the only thing that I express is this paradox. I do it in a very individual way because it is my very own expression. The world is full of paradoxes. You always have parts and wholes, you have love and hate, you have consciousness and unconsciousness. These are my keywords. The world is a world of binary oppositions and I express this paradoxical situation through my art. You can say that I express my anger about it. As a matter of fact, my tea bowls are attempts not just to express those paradoxes but to overcome them.

What does clay as a material represent for you? What would be different if you were working with marble or with wood?

Clay is formless. That means: Chaos. In its essence, clay is chaos.

Your bowls are not always seen as transcendental objects that have this "non-style". They are also decorative objects. How do you cope with this?

You and many other people say that Chojiro's works represent a kind of metaphysical negation. But at the same time, tea bowls need to be useful (that's even an important aspect of tea bowl aesthetics). If you negate everything, you will also negate the shape of the tea bowl; that means in the end you won't have anything. What I want to say is that also Chojiro was bound by the utilitarian constraints of his time. His tea bowls do not come "out of another world," but he was living within a concrete environment at a certain time. But Chojiro desired to have access to the world of nothingness. Of course, he could not fully reach it, he only recognized it. In a way, he was floating in it like a leaf in the wind, he was swinging in this world of nothingness like a pendulum. And through his art he was trying to express this very situation, this very agony. Take the tea ceremony for example. The tea ceremony that I performed for you today was a succession of all styles. All styles and all forms are contained in it. Of course, you will say that it's better to have one's own style. But if you try to get rid of all previous styles and all forms, you will have a kind of freedom from which something like art can ever arise. Nothingness in itself is really nothing. But the paradox that clings to nothingness, that paradox is art. In other terms, art must be open to nothingness but it should never melt into nothingness and really become "nothing". Religion also faces this paradox. But religion overcomes it through the phenomenon of belief in something that we cannot touch or see. Art does not have this belief. This is actually the only point that separates art from religion.

You once wrote the following sentence about the "nothingness" that Chojiro is exploring: "There is a world so dark, as if it were a black hole, which immerses everything inside it in darkness." Is this darkness not the virtual reality that we are confronted with today?

What I mean by black hole is not some dark ominous thing but a big paradox that contains all different directions of consciousness. This not nihilism but, on the contrary, the hole contains everything. In this sense it does not mean virtual reality at all. The individual consciousness might be like virtual reality. However, the sort of simulation produced by computers is not authentic at all. What is most important for me as an artist is to say how we can live in the real world. Our technical world is very much inclined to play tricks with us all the time. But I am opposed to this.

We have just overcome postmodernism. Still, this does not mean that we have returned to modernity. Today, many people turn towards tradition (though not towards traditionalism). Many people are interested in "ethno" expressions of culture. In this context, does Raku art not appear like the art of the future?

Globalization is inevitable and in this globalized information culture the part cries out as it is surrounded by the whole. The whole is Westernization. But it is not enough to praise singular traditions as parts that are opposed to a Westernized whole. The result would actually be a decline of ethnic art.

Kyoto December 2003


1. Tekone is the characteristic technique of Raku pottery. As the potter uses no wheel but merely his fingers, he creates a unique vacillation and distortion.


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