Shell Vessel is a ceramic sculpture created by the Japanese artist Koike Shouko in 1997. Currently located on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this shigaraki stoneware sculpture is a strange rippling form that is reminiscent of the smooth roughness of an oyster shell and the waters it resides in. “Broccoli shaped” could be one way to describe it. At the top, it flares out like a soft coral with white, textured folds, gradually pinching together into a dark stalk at the bottom. There is a sense of dignity and character in how the sculpture seems to plant itself into its display, as if its presence is unquestionable. I’m sure if someone smelled it, it would be the not too unpleasant smell of clay, glaze, and the musty air of a museum display, but I think it might smell somewhat like the sea.

Most people, hearing that, might think of clear beaches and cooling sea breezes, but I tend to lean more toward the slightly more “unpleasant” scent of gutted fishes, newly cleaned out oyster shells and fresh vibrancy of live seafood. Scenes like that are probably hard to picture though, in cities like New York. The fish you see in supermarkets are in chunks, displayed with bold health and safety warnings stuck on its packaging. Live fish are a rarity, and more likely to appear in a pet store than on the market for sale.

For me, this difference reflects the different ways people approach the momentous task of living. Hong Kong, whose existence and sheer population seem ridiculous when compared with its living space, is a good example, both as the place I regard as my home, and also as the place I feel I understand the best at this point in my life.

Living on such a tiny patch of land, everything becomes much more condensed. The idea and practice of coexistence is as much a way of keeping up with the rapid change as well as an irreplaceable part of life. Here, existence is built into and around nature, and life creeps and steals herself into places you least expect, at least until it tries to snatch your bag of McDonald’s while you wait for the bus down the hill. You look up and you see buildings, but also the lush green of the hills. You look down and see horrible traffic, but you also smell the subtle perfume of salty sea and pollution. This tight, concentrated, rolling blend of lives and desperate desires to live as we please feels like a comforting constant in a world now far, far away. It is made so much more obvious when you look out to see a home not your own. Because, surely, as the sun will rise tomorrow, there should be live fish in the market and grannies rushing to get the freshest pickings in the mornings, no? So much of what we think is normal is dependent on what we perceive around us, that when we find those subtleties gone, it leaves so much more space for loss and the warped, self-made realities we call memories. Reality is often far from what we think we see, rose-tinted or not.

Looking at Shell Vessel, I can understand how I am drawn to the thought of nostalgia and how we regard our existence. As you draw your eyes over curves and bumps of the many folds of the sculpture, you are reminded of the home you grew up in, the rugged hulls of boats, the salt of the sea, the sea wind, oysters, the tang of the food you’ve only realised you desperately miss. When you look again at that shell-like form (what else can you call that?) and see the clumping and little crimps on the edges of the folds of the sculpture, you wonder how the artist can bring out so much with only the clever manipulation of hard earth.

Ironically, since I could remember, I’ve always had poor memory. Perhaps it is linked to how individuals perceive things around them. I am reliant on the specific triggers of smells and sights recalling certain details. In my own understanding, it is clear that a large part of what artists strive to achieve is not to influence the emotions of the viewer, but rather the specific impressions people have of their memories.

During my biology class in high school, I once did a lengthy experiment on the rate of degradation of shells in seawater of varying acidity. Although the experiment was important and I worked on it quite a lot, it wasn’t very successful. I ended up with strange results neither my teacher nor the internet could answer. I made up a possible reason for the anomaly in my paper, blaming it on the probable cleanliness of my beakers and the purity of the buffer solutions I used. Even now, I feel a tinge of fear when I see bags of salt and white seashells as I am confronted by the baffling memories of overflowing beakers and entire samples of shells reduced to powder.

How well should a person understand something to be able to depict it realistically? In a way, science is using facts to understand something fully, while also accepting what we know might be quickly swept away by newly discovered knowledge, and that we can never fully understand what we strive to make the whole of. On the other hand, artists seem to work from what is partial understanding. We rely more on how we perceive something and build our reflections on what we see into something a little more tangible. When we look at Shell Vessel by itself and look at it without associations, it is a complex cauliflower-like monstrosity that looks little like a shell. However, what is the point if we do not look at art without the meaning and intention behind it? What use is removing the viewer’s point of view or the artist’s point of view? Memories are transient impressions of past events, easily forgotten, yet also easily remembered. How much we think of the objects and lives around us, what we choose to accept and reject is entirely reliant on what we can recall, and how we choose to process and understand our consciousness. Shell Vessel is a little like a record of the questions and opinions of both viewer and artist, complete at this moment, but changing in the next, and whose answer will always change with the audience.

Ultimately, there is no answer to the questions we ask. How can there be, when the question itself changes like the wind, as you think more and learn more and build up more of those memories inside the vessel you call yourself. What is truly definite is how we decide to proceed, of whether to reject, accept, or continue questioning.

But, for now, look at that sculpture and reminisce about good food from home (wherever that may be) and carefree days of salty sea air and oysters. Its ruggedness is surprisingly beautiful, like rocky little boats that carry our thoughts.

Koike Shouko, Shell Vessel (貝のふたもの)

1997, shigaraki stoneware with white glaze

Photograph was taken by self at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Evelyn Lam’s critical essay, “Shell Vessel,” won second prize in the Eighth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. Evelyn, who hails from Hong Kong, is finishing her foundation year as an Illustation major at SVA. She likes soy-based foods, fluffy animals, and listening to music.