A highlight of our recent trip to Japan, April 27 saw us at the opening of a stunning and stimulating exhibition of contemporary ‘craft’ (工芸 kogei) at the internationally renowned 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan. Entitled ‘Art Crafting towards the Future’, the exhibition features 12 contemporary artists personally chosen by Director Akimoto Yuji, formerly Director of the Chichu Art Museum at Naoshima and director of the Naoshima Fukutake Art Museum Foundation.
At dinner with Akimoto-san, in a 200 year old traditional reception room in Kanazawa, I asked him what were the criteria for his selection of the artists? Akimoto-san has at the centre of his vision a focus on the continuation of tradition, but tradition reinterpreted by the realities and demands of the 21st century, and by means of virtuosic artistic skills. Preamble to the exhibition states: “All of the…artists…assume the stance of the “modern artist” and work as independent individuals…either creating kogei (craft) as contemporary art or their work is sufficiently contemporary in expression that they can be understood as doing so….as artists (they speak) to their times and (create) kogei with an awareness of the future….Their endeavour is not to catch up with Western art but rather to seek new horizons in kogei expression.”
The latest news from Kitamura san, busy with radio and television interviews, is that a huge queue snakes around the museum to buy entry tickets and that there is a 30 minute wait to enter the lacquer room.
LKG has long asserted that the pejorative classification of art objects as ‘craft’ undeserving of the status of true ‘art’ is mistaken. Advice suggests that there is a growing academic debate in Japan regarding the term ‘bijutsu’ (美術) superimposed by the West to push Japanese art into arguably incompatible Western art historical categories.
Works at the current exhibition at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art challenge these artificial categories on all levels. Director Akimoto is determined that objects will take their rightful place in the world of contemporary art. This exhibition is creating a controversial reassessment of the role and definition of kogei, an augury of a boom in its appreciation.
The works of three artists in particular captured our attention: The overglaze iron-red and gilt painting on ceramic of Mitsuke Masayasu, breathtakingly intricate and delicate; the ambivalently beautiful porcelain sculptures of Aoki Katsuyo; and the almost tattoo-like narrative designs in blue and white underglaze painting of Hayama Yuki…each deriving from tradition but recreating and reinventing that tradition in stimulating contemporaneity.
This is one of the most exciting and stimulating exhibitions I have seen in a long long time…an added reason to visit the beautiful city of Kanazawa.
Unryuan Kitamura Tatsuo