About MatthewLarking

Matthew Larking is a lecturer at Kyoto Notre Dame University, Kyoto, Japan, and has written as an art critic for The Japan Times since 2002.

The original in modern craft tradition and contemporary oblivion

How to make original copies? A project at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka and work by Ken Kagajo that joins traditional craft and contemporary art

Ken Kagajo "Fold-Metropolice" Dyeing cotton laid on Board (2009)

Ken Kagajo "Fold-Metropolice" Dyeing cotton laid on Board (2009)

A convention holds that craft reveres the repeatable, through which standards, techniques and a particular aesthetic or style may be maintained.  The same repeatability, however, could lead to more spurious ends. It was the fate of Mingei wares in the wake of WWII which became clichéd, standardized, poor in quality and featured in high-end department stores in “Mingei corners” or, at the lower end, in tourist souvenirs from which evolved the euphemism “making Mingei.”  It is not, however, the case that repeatability must obviate creativity as craft too, both modern and traditional, maintains a reverence for originality, though often within vaguely circumscribed bounds.

A diary entry by the Japanese garden designer and tea connoisseur Mirei Shigemori (1896-1975) is telling. In 1958 he recorded that the modern Japanese/American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) had gifted him a tea kettle of his own design, which violated every concept of what a conventional kettle should be. “Noguchi doesn’t understand what ‘new’ means for tea ceremony,” wrote Shigemori. In art, as not in tea ceremony, Noguchi’s design could freely follow the artist’s creative impulse without care for traditional tea values and aesthetic concepts.  The creativity in tea wares, however, would find their genesis not in the liberation from rules or tradition, but freedom from the kind of arbitrary and impulsive behavior that resulted in Noguchi’s tea kettle.

That kind of creativity, one tempered by the rules and traditions established by Sen no Rikyu (1521-91), continues in the present, as evident in 2009 at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka. Here the Senke Jusshoku (a term coined in the Taisho period, 1912-26, to denote ten designated craft producing families) were invited to the museum to survey their collection of over 260,000 objects from disparate countries and cultures, select a few the hand and eye took fancy to, and then create something of their own in line with their tea traditions. The Jusshoku, or “shokka” as they are referred to in tea circles, are the artisans who have served the major Kyoto tea schools for over 3-400 years. The family representatives were present in the Osaka exhibition in their 11th-17th generations.

The 14th generation woodworker Komazawa Risai (b.1930) was intrigued by wooden wares from Kenya and, in particular, a colorful woven bread basket from Morocco. He followed its hexagonal form in his own creation of a mostly unadorned wooden sweets container. The 13th generation lacquer practitioner Nakamura Sotetsu (b.1965) settled on Iranian tiles decorated with geometrically arranged floral patterns, which she transferred into her own work, though further abstracted and more subdued.  The point, at least in part, was that any number of exotic wares from far flung centuries could function as stimulus in the creative process. But the elements foreign to or unharmonious with the tea aesthetic must be removed or refined and tempered to practical uses for which the objects were destined. They also needed to observe an aesthetic humility, be free from affectation, and follow simple decoration that brought out the natural state of the materials used in construction. Working within the rule-governed expectations of tea tradition resulted in refined and tempered originality. Throwing away all constraint of rules as in Noguchi’s kettle, resulted in nonsense.

Ken Kagajo "Fold-A boy" Binder on and dyeing cotton laid on board (2010)

Ken Kagajo "Fold-A boy" Binder on and dyeing cotton laid on board (2010)

There is another way in which originality in craft may be traditionally broached in contrast to the production of a single masterpiece as understood in a fine art context. It is by following a practice concerned with unrepeatable effects in a repetitive context. Ken Kagajo (b.1974) brings together the traditional craft world with contemporary art.  Initially he wanted to be a painter, though he entered the dyeing course at Osaka University of Arts because he thought he would succeed more easily in the entrance examination. Indeed, Kagajo takes a pictorial approach to his dye work that he conceives of as having affinities with nihonga (Japanese painting). His work has also been compared to mid-20th century Abstract Expressionism, although the artist is careful to point out that his work is firmly engaged with the characteristics of dyes. He seeks to find an expression appropriate to his materials and medium which obtain in the blurring, penetration and run of color that result in subtle effects and ultimately unintended errors.

Kagajo learnt the traditional paste resist dyeing technique while in university along with katazome (stencil dyeing), though he has taken to bleaching commercially produced patterned cloth in recent work in order to achieve gradated effects between bleached and unbleached areas.  Many of his works are produced at home where he fixes fabric to the floor and then goes to work with his paste resist on fabric sheets often over a metre in length.  Before beginning this process he finds it necessary to consult the weather forecast for five day stretches without rain as the dyeing and fixing from beginning to end takes about this long.

Although Kagajo traces traditional continuities in his hybrid practice, some traditional purists have taken exception to Kagajo’s work and processes because they resist easy duplication and so seem to aspire too forcefully to originality.  Perhaps such criticism is also representative of a tension between the traditional and the contemporary, though in Japan it is frequently the case that contemporary artists have traditional craft technical training due to the structure of the art university system. It seems, however, that easy duplication, as it went for many later Mingei products, can be synonymous with creative stagnation and in the end, mass production.

Ken Kagajo "Manipulation-Inner Space" Hydrosulfite on velvet laid on board, (2010)

Ken Kagajo "Manipulation-Inner Space" Hydrosulfite on velvet laid on board, (2010)

Kagajo offers a different route.  While he pursues unrepeatable effects in a repetitive context, he has also put his dyed and bleached fabrics to very practical uses, as may be expected of craft, such as the fabric framing a tent support or as the material for handbags.  Kagajo’s relation to the dyeing tradition, then, is not merely the skills, techniques and visual resemblances that are a repetitive force of habit, but more like the definition that art historian Michael Baxandall proposed: “a discriminating view of the past in an active and reciprocal relation with a developing set of dispositions and skills acquirable in the culture that possesses this view.”

Images courtesy of YOD Gallery, Osaka

Lacquer’s latency by Matthew Larking

‘Soul is anxious for wing in the air’ (1998)

‘Soul is anxious for wing in the air’ (1998)

‘Soul is anxious for wing in the air’ (1998)

Kenji Toki (b.1969) took his Master of Arts in the lacquer section of Kyoto University of Arts in 1996 though he has been exhibiting in dozens of group and solo exhibitions since 1992 and international shows since 1995. His work is a hybrid of craft and design that also engages fine art, photography and architectural installation. While he uses software applications and rapid prototyping to arrive at finished works, he considers this less a break with long held craft traditions than a fusion of lacquer with technology. He positions himself as the present manifestation of the spirit of progressive kogei he discerns in Japanese lacquer since the 7th century. Indeed, he considers his computer a ‘craft tool.’

In pursuing a concept of progressive tradition, Toki overturns long held ideas about lacquer. It is conventionally used to coat the kind of tableware objects kept and used indoors. The novelist Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) wrote of lacquer in his eccentric aesthetic treatise, ‘In Praise of Shadows’ (1993), that darkness was indispensable to its beauty. Toki, however, for the Kyoto Art Festival (1998), created curved lacquer sheets called ‘Soul is anxious for wing in the air’ that were elevated above the ground and arranged along a bridge that spanned a pond. The purpose of such a setting was to bring the craft out of the shadows so that lacquer’s brilliant color could be appreciated. It was also a mild riposte to objections about keeping lacquer out of direct sunlight due to the damage it causes the surface, dulling its sheen. Toki’s work, too, chimed suggestively with his inspiration, form and material. The lacquer sheets were inspired by the surface of water and their evident droplet shapes further conspired. Lacquer too is a liquid material that hardens by chemical reaction with moisture. It was perhaps fortuitous that the exhibition coincided with Japan’s rainy season.

 ‘Form for Wish’ (1999)

‘Form for Wish’ (1999)

Kenji Toki ‘Form for Wish’ (1999)

While previous work was intimate, works like ‘Form for Wish’ (1999) in the collection of Ayabe City, Kyoto Prefecture, assumed a monumental scale. Once again Toki coated the abstract work with his trademark red lacquer, but used carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) to create the form. Such fiber is more often used for applications in the aerospace and automotive industries. It helps  Toki achieve a thinner, stronger and lighter construction. ‘Form for Wish’ is approximately six meters high, a centimeter thick, but weighs merely seven kilograms. The uptake of the material seems like a shift away from tradition, but Toki notes that practically any surface can be covered in lacquer, and part of his attraction to the space-age material is that there are no preconceptions of how the material may be put to use. The form further reengages traditional lacquer craft ideas through an attention to the molding of the surface.

‘Latency#9’ (design process) (2003/4)

‘Latency#9’ (design process) (2003/4)

Kenji Toki ‘Latency#9’ (design process) (2003/4)

Latency Concept

Latency Concept

Kenji Toki Latency Concept

‘Latency#8’ (2003/4)

‘Latency#8’ (2003/4)

Kenji Toki ‘Latency#8’ (2003/4)

Since 2002 Toki has conducted his artistic research in computer assisted design (CAD) and rapid prototyping to search out the implications of new technology for craft in his hybrid digital/hand practice. Toki extracted curves based upon the natural forms of leaves and entered these into computer software where he created a seamless surface between the lines. He then used the automatic construction process of rapid prototyping which converts a design into a solid object through the build up of layers. These layers are sliced in the CAD model and that data directs a laser on to the surface of a tank of photosensitive resin. Where the laser strikes, the resin solidifies. The layers accrete into a final form which is then coated in lacquer by Toki. The point of these experiments, which Toki calls ‘Latency,’ was to arrive at forms mechanically created though finished by hand. These were based on nature, though not found in it. The result was something that also retained connection to traditional lacquer ideas of flowing curvature, lightness, organicity and a certain cleanliness.

‘Forms that are too fine to waste - Chicken Thighs’ (2006)

‘Forms that are too fine to waste - Chicken Thighs’ (2006)

Kenji Toki ‘Forms that are too fine to waste - Chicken Thighs’ (2006)

Further reference to mechanical construction arrived in a series of individually produced and hand finished copies exhibited at Kyoto’s Gallery Gallery in 2009. These works took their formal cue from the mass produced polystyrene trays found in supermarkets for food packaging and display. Toki’s trays are again homage to mechanical reproduction and traditional craft. He uses his computer to generate an object as a body for lacquer and he uses his superlative lacquer coating skills to create objects which are almost perceptually indistinguishable from the visual and formal characteristics they ape. Indeed, Toki compares his lacquer application to both the skill of the painter, and his minute and precise hand movements to the precision of digital measures.

Traditional lacquer production fell into decline in 19th and 20th centuries as it could not compete with the mechanical production methods that turned out copious quantities of inexpensive products for a receptive and burgeoning consumer class. Toki, however, inverses that trend, utilizing technology to produce individual mechanically produced works which straddle a virtual-handcraft divide. Such an inversion allows Toki to individualize the reproducible.

Matthew Larking is a lecturer at Kyoto Notre Dame University, Kyoto, Japan, and has written as an art critic for The Japan Times since 2002.

All images courtesy of Kenji Toki http://www.kenjitoki.com/

The repetition of the commonplace by Matthew Larking

Craft has occasionally sought a status commensurate with that of fine art or an avant-garde in the 20th century. However, it is rare that a contemporary Japanese artist has followed an internal logic within his conceptual work to arrive at hand-crafted ceramics.  This, however, is the present end point in the artistic practice of Nobuaki Onishi (b.1972).

While the conflating of the values of the various arts is usually attributed to developments in art dating from the late 1960s, it was in the Quattrocento that earlier debate clearly arose  concerning what values were appropriate to each art and in which Onishi’s early work from 2004 is intricately woven.

The issue concerned the Quattrocento conception of the two sculptural modes: that of free-standing, fully three-dimensional sculpture and low relief sculpture.  Leonardo da Vinci thought that the sculptor may claim low relief as a form of painting principally because it could be used to tell a narrative and operated in a near two-dimensional space impenetrable to the viewer.  In essence, low relief sculpture could be understood as a kind of ‘fat painting’ and virtuosic painters such as Andrea Mantegna could play on the conflation of sculptural and painterly values in grisaille works like his ‘Samson and Delilah’ (c.1505).   While the modern conception of sculpture favors the autonomy of the free-standing work operating in the real space of the world shared with the viewer, Nobuaki reengages these two sculptural modes and their relation to painting.

Yushitessen (Barbed Wire)’ (2006) (detail)

Yushitessen (Barbed Wire)’ (2006) (detail)

Yushitessen (Barbed Wire)’ (2006) (detail)

He did this by casting conventional quotidian items such as a pen or a rubber glove for his ‘Infinity Gray’ series from around 2004 and painted them with virtuosic flare so that those objects were visually indistinguishable from the object copied.  In as much as the superlative painting techniques were addressed to the eye, the technical craftsmanship, the portability of the cast objects, their original utilitarian functions and their evident touch-ability, were addressed to the hand.  Onishi left these visual illusions incomplete, however, and at some point in each work he would let the coloring fade to the clear resin beneath which gave the object its form as in ‘Yushitessen (Barbed Wire) (2006).  The point, ostensibly, was to show up the illusion for what it was – an artful fabrication.

‘Shoha Burokku’ (2006)

‘Shoha Burokku’ (2006)

‘Shoha Burokku’ (2006)

‘Shoha Burokku’ (2006) (detail)

‘Shoha Burokku’ (2006) (detail)

‘Shoha Burokku’ (2006) (detail)

These ideas were honed in his ‘Dress’ series along with the pursuit of repetition.  An example is his ‘Shoha Burokku’ (2006), cast from the concrete tetrapod structures placed along the shore board to limit erosion.  Onishi left his sculpture uncapped at the leg-ends so spectators could see inside the structure to its smooth white surface although the outer surface was painted in trompe l’oeil fashion.  In this sense the painted surface was the one common to painting or low relief sculpture though assembled into a three dimensional free standing sculpture.  The four legs were originally cast from the same single leg and then conjoined into its final structure.   What Nobuaki effectively achieved in ‘Shoha Burokku’ was an almost literal copy of the real world that made clear its artifice through its hollowness.

‘Chain/ banana, ice’ (2009) (detail)

‘Chain/ banana, ice’ (2009) (detail)

‘Chain/ banana, ice’ (2009) (detail)

Onishi’s most recent work has turned to championing the value of the copy over the original.  In the work ‘Chain/ banana, ice’ (2009) the artist continues to distinguish originals from his copies by inserting his hand-crafted visually identical bananas and ice cubes among the real things and filming the decay of those real things while his own fabrications retain their pristine forms and colors.  The point, in part, is that the inorganic copies are infinitely more visually pleasing in the long term than the perishable organic originals and these engage, tangentially, through their subject matter, the 19th century shift from the art/nature opposition to the art/craft distinction in his ceramic works.

'Pottery 1’ (2009)

'Pottery 1’ (2009)

'Pottery 1’ (2009)

Pottery 2’ (2009)

Pottery 2’ (2009)

Pottery 2’ (2009)

In ‘Pottery 1’ (2009) and ‘Pottery 2’ (2009) Onishi has set aside the fabrication of the living world and taken to producing ceramics in authentic materials. ‘Pottery 1’ comprises four small dishes arranged side by side and ‘Pottery 2’ three mugs arranged similarly.  In the contemporaneous work ‘Chain/ banana, ice’ the subjects referred to their originals but in these ceramics it makes little sense to ask which is the original on which the others were based and which the copies. Each plate and cup is virtually indistinguishable from the others. Onishi has arrived at the easy duplication that many take to be one of the essential qualities of craft.  He too has arrived at the rigid craft distinctions proposed by the philosopher R. G. Collingwood who described craft as a predetermined result through means-ends relations such as planning and execution.  The exhibition title ‘Chain’ under which Onishi exhibited these ceramic works serves also to confirm such relations as the title implies both a succession of events leading to the present works from 2004 and also a concept of ‘servitude’ in which the creative process is circumscribed to the reproducible rather than the one off original.

The shift to craft becomes a way for Onishi to resolve the tensions of original and copy that had inhered in his sculptural works.  Craft, because it obviates such tensions due to the reverence for replication, becomes conceptually alluring.  Onishi has moved, then, from early works that cast copies from originals in which he had left the visual illusion incomplete to visually complete ceramics produced with authentic raw materials which are all conceived of as reproductions from the outset without reference to an original.

Matthew Larking is a lecturer at Kyoto Notre Dame University, Kyoto, Japan, and has written as an art critic for The Japan Times since 2002.

Images courtesy of NOMART, INC, Osaka.