New Wave Kogei

One is a bowl, catching a shaft of sunlight as it sits on a wooden bench. Its base is narrow and the upper rim fluidly uneven, while between flows a sharp-lined expanse of deep ocean blue, its lacquer surface subtly inflected with near-imperceptible ripples.

 

Photo by Nik van der Giesen

 

The other is a rectangular piece of glass, illuminated in a dark corner. Inside its organically bubbled transparency are neat rows of plants and flowers, their delicate forms transformed by fire into white ash, frozen in time, from petals to roots.

 

Photo by Nik van der Giesen

 

These creations may not sound like typical examples of Japanese craftsmanship – two words which are normally preceded with “traditional” and have long evoked a sense of centuries-old techniques, perhaps through the curved bamboo lines of a matcha tea ceremony whisk or the textured karakami paperwork of a temple screen.

 

Instead, these contemporary works embody a bold chapter in Japan’s crafts scene: they were brought to life by two young creatives based in Kanazawa who are among a fast-growing new wave of so-called kogei artists thriving in the crafts-rich Hokuriku region.

 

Behind the bowl is Mayu Nakata – a finalist in the Loewe Foundation Craft Prize 2019 – who creates timeless and minimal abstractions with fluid forms and deep surfaces inspired by “smoke, flame and thunderclouds”, using the medium of lacquerware, following years of studying traditional forms of the craft.

 

Photo by Nik van der Giesen

 

And the glass? This is Subtle Intimacy, created by Rui Sasaki, a contemporary artist working with all things glass, fusing her fascination with recording moments in time and cultural disparities with her highly-developed craft skills in order to bring her concepts to life.

 

Photo by Nik van der Giesen

 

Contemporary art and traditional kogei are inextricably entwined through the works of such creatives – and they are not alone, particularly in Hokuriku. The region has long been famed for its rich craftsmanship – lacquerware, copperware, washi, gold leaf – a heritage fuelled by its optimum humidity, abundant natural landscape, historical cultural policies and a still-lingering entrepreneurial spirit of the feudal age.

 

Today, there are signs throughout the region that the creative scene is perhaps on the threshold of a new chapter, with countless examples of contemporary creatives alchemising traditional materials into conceptual statements, mixing the impactful and the unpredictable with the aesthetically-crafted.

 

In short, new generation kogei artists often take their concepts as a starting point, before bringing their idea to life through the highly-skilled mastery of craftsmanship techniques – in contrast to traditional artisans who conversely spend decades finely honing their skills, before applying them to the creation of an aesthetic work.

 

It doesn’t take long to spot examples of these in the region’s blossoming creative scene. There is KUMU kanazawa by THE SHARE HOTELS, whose interiors, by designer Yusuke Seki, are a serene contemporary riff on the city’s rich history of samurai culture, Zen Buddhism and tea ceremony – as reflected in its modular grid ceilings of timber joinery hovering in geometric lines against industrial exposed concrete.

 

And scattered throughout the hotel are countless examples of so-called new wave kogei art, from calligraphic motifs to plastic sculptures. Among them is Kama on the fifth floor, a contemplative contemporary composition of tea tools by artist Hiroshi Kitani, a Kanazawa College of Art graduate, using primal materials such as copper, stone, black walnut and brass.

 

 

The boundaries between kogei and art are shifting, according to Yuji Akimoto, the respected curator and art expert who during his ten-year tenure as director of 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa masterminded exhibitions casting new generation modern craft artists into the global spotlight.

 

“Ten years ago, crafts used to be more traditional,” reflects Akimoto, director and professor of University Art Museum at Tokyo University of the Arts in Ueno, also famed for his pioneering work in transforming the island Naoshima into a global arts hub. “But the world of crafts has edged more and more into the modern art field. Modern art and kogei are getting closer and closer – the border between the two is increasingly overlapping.”

 

Photo by Nik van der Giesen

 

One example he cites is Tanabe Chikunsei IV, the fourth generation of an illustrious bamboo artisan family, celebrated for his large-scale site-specific installations, their fluidly billowing curves and woven organic textures combining to timeless contemporary effect.

 

“When I was director of 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art I organised a number of exhibitions in order to visualise these new upcoming artists,” he explains. “These artists existed already at that time – but by organising these exhibitions it became more visual to people’s eyes and the border became less categorised.”

 

He adds: “Crafts associations are perhaps still quite conservative and maintain their old style. Younger artists have had some frustration in finding places to exhibit their work, which was one reason why I started those exhibitions.

 

“There are more and more young artists who are building bridges between these two categories of crafts and modern art and I think it’s important to showcase their work and create opportunities for audiences see these two aspects of modern arts and crafts. Plus it’s important to see them as crafts as well as modern arts.”

 

And the Hokuriku region – with its deep culture of craftsmanship across the spectrum – plays a pivotal role in such a movement. Highlighting the unique foundations of the region’s kogei heritage, Akimoto continues: “Kogei is scattered across Japan, you can find it all over the country, there are many production areas. But the main difference with the Hokuriku region is that there are almost all the different types of kogei centred in one single place. One of the biggest reasons for this is the Edo era rule of Lord Maeda, who ordered crafts as a cultural policy. And another influence is Kanazawa’s tea ceremony culture, which continues today.

 

“One other key factor that makes Kanazawa different from areas such as Kyoto is the fact that the production areas and the people who use these crafts are in the same areas – the makers and the users are in close proximity here.”

 

However, Akimoto also highlights the importance of maintaining a sensitive balance between the regional localisation of crafts heritage and the freedom of creative conceptual expression.

 

“Crafts exist not only in Japan but also overseas – England, France, Italy – each place has a certain local influence and locality. It’s important to understand one another’s crafts and communicate with each other. I don’t think it’s good for crafts to become the same as modern art all over the world – it must also maintain its own unique characteristics.”

 

For Hokkaido-born Mayu Nakata, the path to creativity has meandered, both geographically and conceptually. After working in sales, which involved relocating within Japan every few years, she realised that she wished to devote herself to something that only she herself could do – and use her hands in the process.

 

Photo by Nik van der Giesen

 

She followed a string of instinctive creative clues – a magazine article about shoemaking, memories of shodo calligraphy as a child – and serendipitously ended up in the esteemed 19th century lacquerware world of Kagawa Shitsugei.

 

Nakata went onto study under several Living National Treasures for five years at the Kagawa Urushi Lacquerware Institute, a seminal period which now enables her to bring her creations to life with exquisitely crafted precision.

 

 

Three years ago, she moved to Hokuriku to join Kanazawa Utatsuyama Kogei Kobo – an acclaimed incubation space for new generation creatives, specialising in five craft categories: metal, glass, ceramics, dyeing and lacquerware. It provides a studio space for each artist for three years, alongside support from faculty staff and the opportunity to collaborate with members.

 

“You can never be taught how to become an artist,” says Nakata (a flame-coloured vessel of hers can also be spotted in Kanazawa’s Hyatt Centric Hotel). “When I was in Kagawa I learnt traditional techniques. But in Kanazawa my work changed. There are many places here where you can feel a sense of the modern. I now feel so much more free to create whatever I want. The size of my works has become much bigger and the form is more free and fluid.”

 

A bird in flight, the crash of thunder and lightning, urban density: these are among themes that fuel her work’s quietly minimal, elegant and flowing lines, crafted in a spectrum of hues using a lacquerware technique called Kinma.

 

“Through my work, I hope to share what I am feeling now in this moment with people beyond the now. Lacquer is a long-lasting material so my work could last for thousands of years. It can be a vehicle to understand, connect and talk with one another through one’s own discoveries.”

 

For Rui Sasaki, currently a specialist faculty member at the glass studio at Kanazawa Utatsuyama Kogei Kobo, a primal pull to using glass can perhaps be traced to the discovery of the material during a childhood holiday in Okinawa.

 

Subsequent trips studying overseas in the US – and a reverse culture shock upon her return to Japan – fuelled a deep fascination with the fissure between the familiar and the unfamiliar, prompting explorations of nostalgia, the senses and the meaning of home.

 

Photo by Nik van der Giesen

 

Her conceptual artworks span the visual spectrum but are threaded together by both glass and an underlying desire to record a moment – from the fragile solidity of her plants and flowers in the Subtle Intimacy series to the human-sized nest-like cocoon of countless tangled glass strands in Self-Container No.1.

 

“Glass is fragile yet we have windows to protect us in our homes,” explains Sasaki, as effervescent as her creations. “So it’s protective but also fragile and can shatter. It can be hot or cold. And it’s not really liquid or solid – the atoms are always moving. It’s a special material.

 

“I’ve always been interested in recording moments. I use glass not because I’m interested in its shininess, but to preserve things. People think of me as a conceptual artist, for me, but the material is also so important.”

 

The weather – a key topic of conversation in Kanazawa, where snow and sunshine often appear in a single day – is another inspirational trigger for Sasaki, who spent time in Bergen, Norway “the rainiest city in Europe”, exploring the dynamics between people and the elements.

 

  • 「Liquid Sunshine」2016 / Photo by Pal Hoff
  • 「Liquid Sunshine」2016 / Photo by Pal Hoff

Her explorations led to Liquid Sunshine, an atmospheric series of large-scale installations of countless pieces of gently glowing (and fading) blown glass containing phosphorescence, in the delicately fine and ethereal form of water drops or bubbles.

 

  • 「Liquid Sunshine / I am a Pluviophile」2019 / Corning Museum of Glass /The 33rd Rakow Commission. Photo by Yasushi Ichikawa. Courtesy of The Corning Museum of Glass
  • 「Liquid Sunshine / I am a Pluviophile」2019 / Corning Museum of Glass /The 33rd Rakow Commission. Photo by Yasushi Ichikawa. Courtesy of The Corning Museum of Glass

Ultimately for Sasaki, like many creators, at the end of the day, the labels don’t really matter, be it crafts artist or conceptual artist, as long as she can keep creating – and there’s nowhere she would rather be at present than Kanazawa.

 

“In Japan, I’m more of a contemporary artist than a craft artist, but outside Japan, I’m probably viewed as a crafts artist,” she smiles. “People can’t really categorise me – and that’s probably a good thing.”

Danielle Demetriou(Writer, Editor)

Danielle Demetriou is a British writer and editor based in Tokyo. She moved to Japan in 2007 after years working on national newspapers in London. She is a Japan correspondent for the UK Daily Telegraph and also writes design, lifestyle and travel stories for international magazines (Wallpaper*, Conde Nast Traveller, Architectural Review, Design Anthology etc). Passionate about Japanese design, architecture and craftmanship, she has reported widely on these subjects across Japan, from the islands of Okinawa to northernmost Hokkaido (plus many other places in between) and her secret hobby is being a (very novice) potter.

http://www.danielledemetriou.com/