Arts & Culture

Conversation Between Two Cities: Ayu Larasati & Tok Yu Xiang

Pursuing pottery in the present

Words by
b-side staff

In a special collaboration with Manual Jakarta from Indonesia, B-Side brought together three creative figures from each city to chat about their works and how the environment and culture of their homes have shaped their career in the industry. This time, Ayu Larasati (Jakarta) and Tok Yu Xiang (Singapore) talked about their shared passion for ceramics and pursuing this career path despite challenges in the present.

Conversation Between Two Cities is a series of three articles that aims to showcase the glimpse of differences and similarities found in Jakarta’s and Singapore’s creative industries, as two noted figures exchange their working experience.

Read Conversation Between Two Cities: Chris Bunjamin & Juliana Tan here.

Ayu Larasati chanced upon ceramics to become one of the very few local artisan ceramists with an independent studio to her name. In addition, she co-owns a boutique in Jakarta, leads workshops and juggles her career and motherhood.

Tok Yu Xiang (Todd) is a Taiwan-based Singaporean ceramist whose curiosity for clay and pottery has brought him around the world, as he continues to explore the possibilities within the field. He is most recognised for his knack in wood firing technique.

Ayu Larasati (AL): I guess I just want to know how you started to become a potter.

Tok Yu Xiang (TYX): I went to school without knowing what I really wanted. I was studying a major at LASALLE College and you know, the school was very experimental and I was more interested in performance art back then. I found clay before I turned 21. Back then, we didn’t learn a lot of technicalities about clay, so I felt like I was deprived of that foundation. Along the way, I hungered for more knowledge about clay. After my military service, I decided to work and save up to travel and learn. I went on a quest to go overseas as much as I could to learn from other ceramists and artists. So that’s how I got into this. How about you?

AL: I was trained as an industrial designer actually. It was my second year in university and we had to take classes. I have a background in woodworking and metal welding, and I took two ceramics classes. After that, I went to work as a product designer and fell out of touch with working with my hands. When you’re working, you don’t really have time to make things on your own. I also already had a kid. My son was really young, so I was trying to make something without having to leave home.

Clay is actually one of the things you can do at home, something you can make in the kitchen and bring it to fire somewhere else.

I thought the arrangement was very convenient for me and my situation.

TYX: How’s the pottery scene in Jakarta?

AL: It’s very interesting because there are many more independent ceramic studios now, compared with two or three years ago. But we could have more. For example, in Canada, there are plenty of independent ceramic makers to form a strong community. Here, they’re still emerging; the community isn’t as strong, and there’s fewer than six of them in the city who do it full time. The others have it as a hobby or do it part-time, which is really fine. But to do it full time is very challenging, and not all of us have the privilege to do that.

TYX: Yeah, I think that’s also how South East Asian people deal with ceramics.

We don’t have a strong cultural background and I think we use a lot more plastic than ceramics in this region.

I feel it’s the same in Singapore. More people want to learn but… I don’t know like, in Jakarta, do they really buy ceramics there?

AL: I think it’s not our culture to use pottery. For example, if you look at Japan they buy ceramics like they buy clothes. But here… I agree with what you said. We still use a lot of plastic, a lot of mass-produced ceramics.

The awareness of having handmade ceramics as your daily ritual is very new. A lot of the things I do is to introduce this — very niche and very new — idea to people.

AL: Is it different in your case because you produce more art pieces than functional ones, right?

TYX: I split myself into two parts. One part of me, I practice my art — it could be ceramics, it could be some other things. And the other half of me, because I have to make a living and I have this set of skills that I use to supply my clients’ needs. Right now, I live in Taiwan and Taiwan has a tea culture. They look for teacups, tea bowls, and I can survive by making these, sort of. But when I go back to Singapore, there’s no such market. It’s really difficult because I do wood fire pottery and Singapore doesn’t have the facilities. But the interesting thing is, tea culture is slowly picking up in Singapore. The demand is slowly growing from there. But other than that, I think Singaporeans don’t really see a lot of good in wood fire pottery and prefer more affordable ceramics.

AL: So, would you say one of your first projects was one for a teahouse?

TYX: Ah, what was the first professional project that I got and really enjoyed doing… I got a lot of projects to make cups and tea bowls, but I was not really happy about them. Two months ago, I was invited to Finland to conduct a wood firing programme.

To me, it is one of the things that I’m satisfied with — when people acknowledge my skills in wood firing.

I feel that most of my clients don’t really know the quality that they are looking for. They just want a certain colour – very simple, good for the money.

AL: I think to be able to appreciate wood firing, you have to see beyond, beyond the colours, because it’s the process of wood firing, specifically wood fire, that makes the piece valuable.

TYX: Yeah.

AL: I feel the same way too. People in Jakarta, maybe they are not aware that in gas firing, there’s oxidation and reduction. That’s why these pieces cannot be consistent. And when we do commercial work, sometimes they just want consistency. Like restaurants, they want everything to be the same colour, which is kind of pretty impossible to do because it depends on the placement of the pieces. They vary from top shelf to bottom shelf — this is variation.

It’s challenging to do commercial work when our approach is very artistic.

TYX: How do you manage having a kid, a studio and all these?

AL: The studio is running on a very lean operation right now. There are two other full-time makers in the studio, so I’m not by myself. But when we do a large project, we have a freelancer — he also has an independent studio. He does throwing and our methods are pretty much similar. With that studio… we have about eight people, but the partnership is only for large projects. Sometimes I do commission work that I handle myself. They’re more sculptural, bigger and challenging.

TYX: Interesting, so in Jakarta, there are a few small production houses.

AL: Very small ones, because the big manufacturer factories don’t open their doors.

TYX: In Singapore, I don’t think we have production houses. Actually, in Singapore, it’s more based on teaching ceramics as a hobby.

AL: Is there any misunderstanding about the profession of a potter that you want to clarify?

TYX: In Singapore, they just want to make money out of teaching ceramics.

They are not thinking much about production. They are not thinking deeper about designing and creating with clay.

Every time we need to produce a similar product, we need to do so many tests. Kiln tests, firing tests. And we have to consider how many to make to achieve at least a 60% success rate. I find that when I get to know my colleagues in Singapore, they shy away from the technical stuff that I’m very curious because why…

AL: I can completely relate to that. I think in terms of hobby and teaching, the easiest way to make money in the city is the same.

If you’re selling workshops, it’s easier than actually selling your own work. It takes a while for you to be at the price you are happy with. People still need to be informed about the process of handmade ceramics, and we do so many testings to get it right.

It takes time and a lot of engagement with your audience to sell. It takes a while to build your aesthetic and have your voice from clay to story. I think if I wanted to just focus on selling workshops, it would be much easier for me. And for the technicalities, even professionals skip that process because that’s the hard part.

TYX: Can you talk about the stigma in Jakarta?

AL: I think the industry here is very much male-dominated. And it’s not only in ceramics but all crafts, like wood or metal — everything is dominated by males. And they smoke a lot in the studios and I have asthma, so it does not bode well. (laughs) And I don’t know why I feel like I’m the most organised. When it comes to tools, a lot of people are very careless. This has nothing to do with gender, but I think the environment feels very masculine. Here, they call them tukang (labourer or handyman), and I’m basically one of them and these craftsmen have this very rough approach to craftsmanship. It’s more bearable now that I have my own studio.

TYX: Wow, not easy.

AL: There’s also a misconception about smaller objects — that they take less time to make and are, therefore, cheaper, which is not necessarily true. That sort of scale comparison, that’s how people perceive it here.

TYX: I don’t really care about what they think. I don’t really give a shit because ceramics right now still cater to a small group of people in Singapore. If they know, they know. If they don’t, they don’t care. I hope they get to know, but I can’t be bothered for now.

AL: I’m just curious. What kind of things, for example?

TYX: I have a friend who would ask me why I make these ugly looking stuff. I’m just like what the hell…

AL: You shouldn’t call them friends then. (laughs)

TYX: So your family supported you in doing this?

AL: Well, my family are all engineers, so they questioned why I was doing this. But I just kept doing my own thing, and they saw me being very consistent and serious about pursuing ceramics. And in my family, I just have to prove myself to be OK, you know, that I can actually make a living out of this. They started out very sceptical, but after the struggles and everything, I’ve reached a point where this is going somewhere and people can see this is a fruitful journey. What about you?

TYX: I was a rebellious kid. My parents were against my ideas. But the funny thing is, when I got into this, I became very hardworking and determined to make it happen.

Until they finally realised, “Oh, this kid who didn’t want to study is now suddenly so hardworking? OK, just do, just do.” So now, they support me full on. I am doing my master’s degree and they are giving me moral support. Things are falling into place after so long, which is good.

AL: When you choose to be a potter, it’s not going to be an easy road to carve. Everybody will have their own unique journey and there’s no right or wrong way to do things. Have you thought about going back to Singapore after your studies?

TYX: I thought about contributing as much as I can to Singapore in my own ways, but to go back and start again is like fighting an uphill battle. Your facilities are not there. I’m pushing some ideas to the studio where I used to work. I’m also working with institutions to bring young artists to Singapore to show the students other ways of working with clay.

AL: OK, that’s good, that’s really good. Seems like Taiwan is now the place for you. What keeps you motivated to be a potter?

TYX: I think I still don’t know a lot about ceramics, about the material itself, even after going to the U.S, being invited to work with other artists, seeing how they do things. There are so many other ways to use clay. Right now, I’m working with a team known as the Termite Science Club. They found a species of termites that eat and produce clay through their droppings. They gave me 10kg worth of the clay, which will be used for tea ceremony. And I’m just still very curious. That’s why I’m in this line. How about you?

AL: I’ve learned so much from just doing this. I’m a very spiritual person and working with clay is like working with nature. You have the fire, earth, soil and, of course, water. And you play around with oxidation, reduction and the air. It’s very fascinating because the more you do, the more you don’t know about it — that keeps me going.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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