The Korean ethos of balance, especially when it comes to form and function, have always been an integral part of my design philosophy as a Korean-American. Having recently discovered the quiet beauty of the moon jar, also known as dalhangari, I’ve grown immensely fascinated with its history and how different ceramic artists have created their own depictions over the decades.
Moon jars were created in the late Joseon Dynasty (17th-18th centuries), when Korea was influenced by Confucian ideals of minimalism and purity. The jars were typically made of porcelain and joined by two separate halves that came together to create a look similar to the milky, organic form of the moon. The perfectly imperfect nature of the jars made them distinctive and uniquely Korean, as no two jars were the same.
“In modern art, as everyone knows, the beauty of deformity is very often emphasized, insisted upon. But how different is Korean deformity. The former is produced deliberately, the latter naturally. Korean work is merely the natural result of the artisan’s state of mind, which is free from dualistic man-made rules… Here lies buried the mystery of the endless beauty of the Korean artisan’s work. He simply makes what he wants, without pretension.” — Yang Soetsu
Since then, moon jars have been made in varying materials, methods, and finishes. I selected a variety of works from four Korean ceramicists (spanning from the States, Korea, and Europe) who continue to make moon jars, and learned more about why they are so significant for each person.
“Moon jars are traditionally made in two [spherical] parts and balance simplicity and imperfection in an inconceivable way […] Back when moon jars were made, porcelain was a rarity and was really hard to turn them into bigger vessels. The only way was to make them in two halves. Nowadays, we have more technology that helps us process the clay in advanced ways to help with that problem. I am often able to make bigger vessels without combining two halves, but I still combine two halves to make even bigger vessels than the traditional ones.” –Dave Kim via Raw Artists
I also love seeing the exploration of what a conceptualized moon jar can become. Artist Young Jae Lee’s Spindle Vases are an interesting departure from the traditional shape of the jar, but with the same principle of creating one form out of two separate components.
“Inspired by Constantin Brancusi’s ‘colonnes sans fin’ (columns without end), Young Jae Lee combined geometrical modules on the vertical and created the first examples of her spindle vase form… As in the moon jars, Lee’s spindle vase is created by two separate bowls that are joined up like two arched palms of the hand. As a result, they create a spindle-shaped contour with an encased hollow space. As seen in the Korean traditional approach to moon jar forms, the foot and rim of Lee’s spindle vases are equally high, and the diameter of the foot is slightly smaller than that of the rim of the vessel. Her vases however differ from the traditional model since she adds a third, widely open bowl-like shape.” —Pucker Gallery: Bauhaus Meets Korea
As the times have progressed, many have opted to make the moon jar in one continuous piece rather than by joining two. With the advancement of technology in both material and mechanism, there is a certain creative freedom to decide which path the ceramicist would like to take in this endeavor, and I find it very intriguing to see the differences amongst artists.
The images below are of an in-progress jar coming to life by friend and ceramicist DTK, who has preference for making his jars in two parts as “it shows more movement on the piece.” He also accentuates the seam in the middle, where they are joined, to make it a part of the visual dialogue rather trying to hide it as if it didn’t exist.
“The brush strokes on my jar is called ‘buncheong,’ which is white clay over dark clay. A long time ago, porcelain was saved for royalty, so peasants would use buncheong techniques to emulate the whiteness [of porcelain] and bring a little bit of class into their homes. That style is a lot more fluid and modern, in my opinion.” -David of DTK Ceramics
The influence of the moon jar, which was first and foremost created to function as food storage, has become the essence of Korean design: thoughtful minimalism evoking calm, acceptance of imperfections as part of the natural order, appreciation of beauty in both controlled and uncontrolled circumstances. The constant push and pull to achieve optimal balance is seen in the creation of the dalhangari, and has been very inspiring for me to share with you.