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

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