I chose to write about Translated Vase (2011), a contemporary sculpture by Yee Sookyung. The object is made of ceramic fragments of contemporary vases from traditional Korean workshops that were deemed inferior and thus discarded. The celadon porcelain shards joined together in the piece represent the centuries-long history of ceramic production in Asia, which originated in China. The gilded epoxy that binds the fragments references the traditional Japanese technique of kintsugi, whereby broken pottery is repaired with gold lacquer. This process reminds me of the phrase “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” The gold lines that connect each fragment further enhance the object’s beauty.
I chose this object because its shape appeals to me. The bulbous construction, each part protruding from the other, reminds me of a scene from the video game Little Nightmares II where a character gets trapped in a gelatinous mass of flesh and eyes. The Little Nightmares game franchise centers on two kids (Mono and Six) who find themselves in a dysmorphic and warped world where everything is elongated. The game has many monsters, like the Hunter, the long-necked Teacher, the bulbous Doctor, and others. Everything they do is twisted out of proportion, taken to an inhuman level, showing the raw aggression behind all of these characters. At the end, it is revealed that Mono is unable to escape this world when he is chased and trapped by the gelatinous mass of flesh and eyes that forms its core. In this game, anything with a bulbous shape represents malice and disgust. Even in the real world, the adjective “bulbous” isn’t very positive. Translated Vase, however, despite being what one would call bulbous, creates a beautiful and intriguing sight.
Since this object is contemporary art, made only about a decade ago, its interpretation is the same now as when it was created. Sookyung explains that, by translating the broken porcelain pieces into biomorphic and geomorphic forms, the work evokes the imperfections and fragility of the human condition as well as the overlapping, contentious histories of the countries that make up East Asia. Traditions are pertinent to any culture, but they are especially embedded in Asian cultures. Those who strictly follow traditions, however, may sometimes perpetuate ideals that are no longer aligned with our current times.
Personally, as an Asian American, I feel pressure to pursue a STEM career. My interest in the arts is deemed useless and a mistake. Growing up I was also pressured to look a certain way, to eat less and exercise more to fit into the Chinese beauty standard. Translated Vase speaks to me, showing that something so different and broken can be beautiful. To the average person, each fragment of the object seems to be fine. You can spot various designs of auspicious clouds, trees, cranes, and lotus flowers; my personal favorite is the vase fragment with three-dimensional dragon scales. Though each of these fragments is similar in color and material, they are inherently different, becoming even more charming and exquisite as they come together.
I think an important aspect of this object is that it’s created by a contemporary Asian artist. Though the MFA’s collection of Asian art is extensive, there isn’t nearly enough space dedicated to it. I believe this is the case at other major museums as well. Even in the American school curriculum, art education is heavily based on the western perspective. Translated Vase also points out the subjectivity of art. Sookyung gathered works from artists who thought their creations were flawed, unworthy to be exhibited to the world. But Sookyung transformed them into a desirable piece that is seen and admired by many people. Over time, our definition of art changes and becomes more broad. The identity of the artist is also evolving; there are no limitations to who can create art and when they can create it. Our concept of what is beautiful is no longer one-dimensional, but unique to each and every one of us.