When a copy is an original–the Satō Woodblock Print Workshop and Rebecca Salter

What happens to the conceptualization of a copy when artisans engage in reproducing a contemporary work of art?

Satō Keizō consults with printer Nakayama Makoto (left) and carver Kitamura Shōichi (center) about reproducing Rebecca Salter’s series of paintings.

Satō Keizō consults with printer Nakayama Makoto (left) and carver Kitamura Shōichi (center) about reproducing Rebecca Salter’s series of paintings.

Outwardly, visual artist Rebecca Salter based in London and the Satō Woodblock Print Workshop situated in Kyoto occupy the disparate worlds of contemporary art and traditional Japanese woodblock prints. Salter works in an irrevocably contemporary idiom of fine art abstraction seemingly disconnected from the history, material culture and linear aesthetic of Japan’s heyday of woodblock prints during the Edo period (1603-1868)—a world that Satō Keizō and his team of artisans seem hardly to have left with their authentic reproductions of Hokusai’s and Hiroshige’s.

Salter’s and Satō’s worlds converged twenty-five years ago when the contemporary artist and traditional artisan first met through Akira Kurosaki, woodblock print artist, teacher and preservationist of the medium. Since then, Satō, with his sharpened eye for interpreting contemporary art in woodblock and pigments, and Salter, an established print artist and global proponent of woodblock printmaking, have become regular collaborators. Just a few months ago, I was visiting Satō’s workshop when an international express mail package of a series of Salter’s watercolor and acrylic and paintings arrived. Salter’s request was to reproduce her contemporary originals as limited edition woodblock prints in anticipation of a retrospective on her artworks to be held at the Yale Center for British Art February-May 2011.

Carver Fujisawa Hiroshi demonstrates how one of his blocks captures dimensions of Salter’s design.

Carver Fujisawa Hiroshi demonstrates how one of his blocks captures dimensions of Salter’s design.

While Satō indisputably identifies his shop’s work of recreating Hokusai and Hiroshige ukiyo-e masterworks as reproductions, with equal certitude, he asserts that his recreations of Salter’s contemporary originals are themselves original works of art. To better understand Satō’s claim of originals of Salter’s originals, we return to Satō’s Kyoto workshop where Salter’s originals traverse the steps in the (re)creative process. Satō arranges a meeting with his senior print apprentice and the two master carvers who will cut Salter’s designs into woodblock. After rapid confirmation of the timeline and logistics of the project, the foursome slides into a detailed assessment of Salter’s originals. The different artisans discuss the materials and techniques Salter used in her creations and determine how best to translate them into woodblock prints. Theirs is not simple tabletop talk, but a full sensory analysis in which they turn the originals over and over in their hands to evaluate the texture of the paper, the qualities and layers of paint and the luminosity of the image at varied angles. They debate the challenge of reproducing Salter’s trademark diffusions of blacks and grays that while conducive to color-wash techniques in woodblock printing are nevertheless daunting in their randomness and profusion. At times, in a display of generational divide, the younger of Satō’s two carvers counsels his senior how conventional tools and techniques might render some of Salter’s expressionistic contemporary effects.

At the conclusion of the consultation, Satō divides Salter’s series of originals in half, entrusting to each of his carvers, working in their separate studios, the task of faithful interpretation. Senior master carver Fujisawa Hiroshi, who became an apprentice woodblock carver at the age of thirteen only a few years after the end of World War II when he realized he was not inclined academically, says his comprehension of Salter’s work is mediated by his training as a traditional artisan. Adamant that he lacks sufficient knowledge of contemporary art to fully appreciate Salter’s work, he credits his Buddhist beliefs for enabling him to maintain proper conduct (kōdō) in order to produce his high-quality work. He concedes that having never met Salter in person, he cannot know her œuvre. But he is quick to acknowledge that what he sees as vestiges of traditional Japanese aesthetics in Salter’s paintings allow him to interpret her work. Her asymmetrical contours; bold, scapular lines; and flourishes and fusions of light and dark all seem familiar to him as traditional aesthetics that run through calligraphy and ink painting. Through these resonances, he gains the confidence to cut Salter’s paintings into wood.

Carver Kitamura Shōichi works through a stage of the woodcutting process for one of the four blocks that will capture a single original painting by Salter.

Carver Kitamura Shōichi works through a stage of the woodcutting process for one of the four blocks that will capture a single original painting by Salter.

Kitamura Shōichi, the younger carver Satō commissioned for Salter’s project, has engaged in numerous collaborations with contemporary artists, from Singapore to Melbourne. A graduate of Kyoto Seika University’s art department whose woodblock print major was launched by the aforementioned Akira Kurosaki in 1987, Kitamura represents a contemporary variation of the artisan; unlike his senior Fujisawa, he consciously recognizes his roles as both artist and artisan. Moreover, he inherently understands the abstraction that pervades contemporary art and the infinite interpretations it invites. His selection of commonplace veneer plywood for his carving, he explains, though a far different medium from the tight, smooth mountain cherry preferred in traditional Japanese woodblock printing, better suits the expressionistic effects in Salter’s work. Although Kitamura is also an experienced printer, in his carving, he concerns himself only with the microsecond decisions necessary to capture Salter’s originals on his blocks, leaving the effects of his blocks in the printing process up to Satō to resolve.

Unsolicited, each carver identifies budget as a limiting factor to how precisely he can interpret Salter’s paintings in wood. Satō directs them, for instance, to generate only four blocks per print for each of Salter’s originals, inevitably altering the precision of their final result. This reality, a scourge to artists and artisans alike, is heightened in Japan where the relative cost of labor, and also in this case, of high quality timber exacerbate the challenge. But the carvers both emphasized the importance of interpretation over materials in their final product.

Fujisawa’s and Kitamura’s woodblocks of Salter’s originals have yet to undergo their own interpretation by Satō and the team of printers in his workshop, but already Salter’s originals are begetting new originals. Whereas duplication defines the reproduction of historic masterworks, artists and artisans engaged in contemporary art printmaking participate in a creative process that demands constant interpretation on the part of artist-artisan carvers, such as Fujisawa and Kitamura, and printers like Satō. Far from standard notions of duplication, Salter’s works become originals again.

Claire Cuccio is an independent scholar based in Kobe, Japan, writing on woodblock craft and printmaking in China and Japan.

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/