butsuri (2022)

Artist’s statement: Hideo Mabuchi

w 40″ x d 20″ x h 68″
wood-fired reduction-cooled stoneware; digital prints; wood

The custom shelving for this installation is meant to recall the “three-posted” arrangement of stacks inside a kiln. The forms of the four ceramic vessels located on the middle shelf are my 3D, thrown-and-altered takes on ancient “seal-script” (蝌蚪文字) versions of the Chinese characters (kanji) used in Japanese to write the word butsuri (physics) 物理:

In the above image, in each row, the modern form of the character is to the left of the arrow and a corresponding seal-script form is to the right of the arrow. In this work I made an independent ceramic vessel for each “radical” in each character — as you can see, both butsu and ri comprise separate left and right parts, so I have four pots to represent the two kanji. I wanted each ceramic piece to be a vessel capable of holding/containing; in the case of one of the radicals this was straightforward but the other three required some imagination…

The four butsuri pots are displayed on the middle shelf together with a set of plaques that are meant to recall portions of a periodic table of the elements — specifically, the elements carbon/C, oxygen/O, sodium/Na, magnesium/Mg, aluminum/Al, silicon/Si, sulfur/S, potassium/K, calcium/Ca, and iron/Fe. These are the elements I have focused most closely on in my studies of wood-fired ceramic surfaces from a physics (butsuri, 物理) perspective, representing in a sense the cast of characters in my personal story of rediscovering atomic physics through ceramics. Each of the plaques includes at bottom center a number representing the electronegativity of the corresponding element, which is a key property in determining its behavior in the formation of materials and in processes of oxidation and reduction.

Hanging elsewhere in the gallery you may notice a diagram created by the European Chemical Society, titled “The 90 natural elements that make up everything — How much is there? Is that enough?” I’m glad that the elements central to wood-fired ceramics are all in plentiful supply, with the exception of magnesium. Apparently by locking away the trace amounts of magnesium found in most clays, we’re taking a tiny bit of the world’s supply of it away from smart-phone manufacturers.

The bottom shelf of the shelf stack displays a set of digital prints of ultra-high magnification images of wood-fired ceramic surfaces, acquired using scanning electron microscope (SEM) instruments in the Stanford Nano Shared Facilities of Stanford University. Electron microscopes are amazing modern instruments that provide us with a window into the beautiful micro- and nano-landscapes of ceramic surfaces. My sense of wonder at the physical processes underlying color and texture formation in wood firing motivated me to learn how to use SEMs and additional instruments for the physical analysis of art-matter.

link to full size image

Part of this work was performed at the Stanford Nano Shared Facilities (SNSF), supported by the National Science Foundation under award ECCS-2026822.

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