Koji Hatakeyama, born 1956, hails from Takaoka city, present day Toyama prefecture, historically part of the Kaga feudal domain of the renowned Maeda daimyo. Significant patrons of the arts, the Maeda established Kaga as the centre of longstanding traditions in bronze casting, ceramic (Kutani) and lacquer (kaga makie). Maeda Toshinaga (1562-1614) named the city of Takaoka in 1609 and in 1611 commanded seven bronze casters (imoji) to the city, thereby establishing an art and craft industry which has continued for over 400 years, currently supplying some ninety percent of Japan’s casting works, religious and secular. The Meiji Period (1868-1912) and the Great Expositions of Europe saw Japanese metalwork, with its alluring alloys, rare surface patinas and exotic inlay techniques, wildly lauded by a voracious and happily startled audience.
Koji Hatakeyama has eschewed the traditional Japanese studio system, assumed the role of the individual contemporary artist and positioned himself firmly on the international stage. He adopts and adapts elements of the tradition as it suits his individual philosophy and practice, ‘My consciousness is veiled in bronze’. Techniques and materials are traditional. He creates organically profound abstract landscapes on bronze surfaces with miso paste and vinegar, and uses gold and silver foil selectively in interior spaces. His forms are redolent of tradition and appear functional, yet transcend this and are experiential. He straddles the supposed disparate worlds of the traditional and the contemporary, the functional and the autonomous, creating both unique contemporary artworks and works for use in the formal practice of tea. The body of artworks exists in a separate dimension from the tea vessels and differentiation is a conscious decision. Hatakeyama’s works are held in a significant number of international museums including the V&A London, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo, Museo de Arte Moderno, Argentina, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art Kanazawa, Japan and the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia. He is exhibited regularly in Europe, the UK and the USA and has received several prestigious art awards in Japan.
The ‘contained vessel’ is Koji Hatakeyama’s choice as the physical expression of his creativity. He speaks of the ‘illustrious and unambiguous’ tradition of the box in Japanese cultural history – and seeks a legacy therein. This unambiguous tradition is inextricably linked to the often demeaned aesthetic philosophy of the beauty of function, ‘yō no bi’ 用の美, an integral part of Japanese art and cultural history. Boxes of grand and humble design, of grand and humble purpose, of grand and humble shape, size and material, permeated the daily lives of the Japanese and continue to do so. The elegant pursuits of the aristocracy and the quotidian activities of the other classes of traditional Japanese society took place in the context of boxes: Exotically shaped and richly decorated boxes for the incense game (kōgō, kōbako); allusively encoded inkstone boxes (suzuribako) for the brushing of love poems and the tallying of merchants’ accounts; subtly decorated containers for tea powder used in the formal practice of tea (chaire, natsume) to name but a few. And then there is the venerable tomobako, the still current, and part of Hatakeyama’s practice, simply elegant, unadorned wooden box bearing the signature and seal of the artist, the imprimatur of a tea master or acknowledged aficionado, and perhaps the record of decades, centuries of illustrious provenance.
Context and class expressed themselves further in the designations of each box for domestic and formal use: omote and ura: Literally, ‘outside’ and ‘inside’, these can be applied in the first instance to the obvious outer and inner parts of a box, Hatakeyama’s ‘ contained vessel’. In the etiquette and practice of using boxes, there were those designated for domestic use (ura) and those, more elaborate and symbols of status and power, set aside for conspicuous display and the entertainment of guests (omote). ‘Outer’ and ‘Inner’ represent duality, metaphors for the superficial and the profound; the easily perceived veneer and the deeply embedded core. This implied duality is expressed variously in Hatakeyama’s works: the physical outside and inside (omote and ura); traditional techniques and modern interpretation; function and a-function; solid and flowing; form and abstraction; filled and unfilled space (yohaku); matter and void.
It is in the discovery of the ‘inner’ that Hatakeyama’s work is experiential. A lidded vessel is seductively inviting: Its hidden interior tempts with intriguing possibilities- what is inside? is something inside? It is an invitation to the intimacy of personal discovery and curiosity must be sated. The inner spaces of Hatakayama’s vessels are made radiant with the use of gold and silver foil, ‘ This place has no darkness.’ The term ‘radiant’ is selected to describe the void of Hatakeyama’s inner spaces in both literal and spiritual senses: Literal in that his use of gold and silver foil radiates light from confined interior spaces; spiritual in that ‘radiance’ suggests an otherworldliness, an ethereal light and depth, the enlightenment of the void.
The duality of ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ brings to mind Daoist ideas of the empty vessel, something encompassing nothing is its raison d’etre. Is emptiness ‘nothing’? is nothing ‘something’? There are various concepts in Japanese aesthetics that might be considered relevant here: ma 間 mu 無 and yohaku 余白。Used with reference to art, architecture, philosophy and other genres, each in some way refers to ideas of space, of the void, of transcendence. Inherent are both duality and non-duality, or the merging of dualities – is the void the merging or union of all things, where matter disappears? Is the void ‘contained’ in something like Lao Tsu’s ‘empty vessel’, Hatakeyama’s ‘contained vessel’?
Yohaku, for example, literally ‘remaining white’, is often referred to in English translation as ‘negative space’, that absence of decoration found in the asymmetrical placement of much in Japanese art, and observable in Hatakeyama’s landscapes. ‘Negative’ suggests ‘minus’, something missing. There is an alternative interpretation that encourages a fuller understanding, an understanding that the missing is actually present – this is the idea of yohaku as ‘margin’: A margin for interpretation, for individual response, interaction and imaginative experience that is gifted by the artist. An invitation to experience, to discover, has been extended by the artist.
Is not then the box, the lidded vessel, a perfect embodiment of ‘yohaku’, the perfect invitation to discover, to experience the fleeting moment of sensory delight in that discovery?