Artefacts that serve the mind

Derek Jones relishes a touch of Japanese art that is gracing the Ruthin Craft Centre

The Ruthin Craft Centre is an extraordinary building – beautifully shaped for its purpose, and above all, adaptable. That characteristic has never been more in evidence than during its current exhibition. It is as if Japanese Style: Sustaining Design has been housed in an entirely new series of spaces, from the spectacular to the intimate. The exhibition is as different as can be imagined from recent displays at the Centre, many of them of great interest, but each needing the kind of flexibility which the building can provide.

It is, of course, amazing enough, even in a world of instant communication, that work of the highest quality should be transported across the globe – from densely populated Japan to a small town in the Vale of Clwyd. You would normally expect exhibitions of this kind to be housed in capital cities. To secure it for Ruthin required particularly skilful networking on the part of the curators, as well, naturally, as considerable imaginative insight into what has often been thought at least an exotic and certainly a ‘different’ tradition and culture.

It goes without saying that nowhere is any longer as ‘different’ as all that. Japan has a similar pattern of economic history as other developed nations, from industrialisation through to post-industrialism. Japanese firms have been investing in Wales for some time, giving rise to several previous Japan ‘seasons’. There is also an Institute for Japanese Studies at Bangor University. Indeed, there is a growing sense of connection between the two countries, of which the Ruthin show is the latest manifestation.

It is often claimed that craft work is self-indulgent – makers doing their own thing, harmless enough, but making no relevant or useful contribution to contemporary issues and needs. Like many previous events at Ruthin Craft Centre (whose strap-line is, of course, The Centre for the Applied Arts), but never so ambitiously, Japanese Style: Sustaining Design demonstrates, vividly, that this need not be the case.

I should say, before going any further, that I loved the show. It is full of beautiful things, and, just as importantly, provokes questions and debates. It embodies the insight of the great potter Bernard Leach (1887-1979), who wrote that, “pots and all other artefacts serve the mind as well as the body”.

Can the practice of crafts add something to the global debate about the conservation and renewal of natural resources? Is change possible without doing damage to tradition? Can the things we make be beautiful as well as useful? And can Japanese experience, especially since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami forced them to consider these questions as a matter of urgency, help us to understand and answer some of these questions ourselves? These are the themes of the Ruthin Japan Season.

Gallery 1, the largest of the Ruthin spaces, is, on this occasion, devoted to textiles, a whole spectacular sea of them, hung from the ceiling and filling the entire gallery. They are the work of Japan’s Nuno textile company which specialises in linking traditional techniques with the latest technology and ecological discoveries and, in particular of its artistic director, Reiko Sudo. At first sight, these exhibits seem simply exotic – and beautiful. But once you start walking through the hangings, you begin to appreciate the great variety of designs, colours and materials on show. Some of the materials are recycled. Some suggest patchwork and other familiar techniques. Samples are helpfully displayed and explained around the walls of the gallery; they can also be felt.

It is quite clear that a marriage between longstanding Japanese tradition and modern methods of production has been successfully achieved. A real surprise is in store, however. One of the fabrics on display is an amalgam of cloth and paper. Funded by the Mino City Government, Gifu Province, especially for this exhibition, Satoshi Hasegawa made 600 sheets of (Washi) paper, from sustainable sources, which Nuno incorporated into the fabric.

Whether this particular experiment has wider application remains to be seen, but what matters here is the principle – that new techniques of making cloth can be developed using modern technology, wasting nothing, and displaying recognisable affinities with the tradition.

Some of the fabrics on display in Ruthin has already been bought by the Smithsonian (Washington DC) and MOMA (New York), which is, in one sense, another feather in the Craft Centre’s cap. However, the idea of these exhibits ending up in a museum’s permanent collection, merely to be seen, strikes a slightly jarring note in an exhibition intended to make you think about sustainability.

Similar tensions arise when you move into the more intimate space of Gallery 2, and to Gallery 3, which, ingeniously, looks out on to the Centre’s courtyard. In most ways the making of pots is a sustainable process par excellence. What can be more sustainable than clay?  And what, before the advent of electricity, could have been more respectful of natural resources than the firing of kilns by means of wood?

Yet, at least since Bernard Leach, distinctions have been drawn between individual pieces, made and bought mainly to be admired and fetching high prices, and more everyday work designed to be used.

The dichotomy is not, of course, absolute. There are some beautiful (and I guess effective!) stoneware hot water bottles on display in Galleries 2 and 3; and stunning, traditionally-made bowls, vases and plates, also much in evidence, need not necessarily be destined only for shelves and window sills. Ceramics are sustainable crafts even when they become the property of the privileged classes.

For once, however, the exceptionally beautiful is partly eclipsed by work which has been made speedily in response to urgent need. The centrepiece of the Gallery 2 exhibition is a display of simple tea bowls made by some of the people who lost everything in the earthquake.

This is no nine-day wonder. Takahiro Kondo had been engaged in the democratisation of his craft in Tohoku, north east Japan, for some ten years, running summer workshops with local people.  The clay used for the Ruthin bowls was collected from an area greatly affected by the quake. Kilns had to be improvised, because, poignantly, many ancient climbing kilns had been destroyed. The achievement of these bowls is a living example – even a re-invention – of sustainability in action. Back home, they are distributed free from the temples. In Ruthin they are being sold to benefit an environmental education charity in Tohoku.

Tohoku was no stranger to the ceramic arts. It was in some senses fortunate, and, in others, a bitter irony, that the Craft Centre was able, during the early stages of planning the exhibition to negotiate the loan of 58 works from the Hale Collection, some of it not seen by the public since the late 1970s. All the pots in the exhibition are from the Tohoku region, some of them dating from the 18th and 19th Centuries, some as recent as the 1970s. They are beautiful, and need a separate essay to describe them adequately. Meanwhile, their presence in Gallery 3 at Ruthin serves to illustrate how much was lost when the earthquake struck. The kilns in which many of them were fired, in continuous use for up to 300 years, were completely destroyed.

Mashiko is a pottery village 60 miles north of Tokyo, also badly affected by the tsunami and earthquake. The potter Shinsuke Iwami is based there, but, during the month of April, he is conducting a residency at Brookhouse Pottery, near Denbigh, at the invitation of the internationally renowned potters, David and Margaret Frith, who have done more than their share of opening up the world of ceramics to the people of north Wales, and, not least, continuing the bridge-building between this country and Japan which was pioneered by Bernard Leach.

Sustainability lessons are by no means confined to rural areas. In the same spirit, craftspeople working in association with Kagure, Urban Research are dedicated to a ‘local, sustainable life style, and a connection with the earth, even in the city’. Examples of their work – knives, forks and spoons, oven gloves, and so forth – are also in Gallery 2. The Craft Centre has picked up on this theme by using recycled industrial timber to display the work in this section of the exhibition.

It is, at first sight, a bit of a stretch from small domestic vessels and utensils to architecture, which is not always associated, even conceptually, with the applied arts. However, in the context of Japanese Style: Sustaining Design the links are clear. Not least, of course, a country like Japan, which is susceptible to earthquakes, needs strong building materials capable of withstanding the worst damage that nature can inflict. When natural disasters occur, speedy rebuilding needs to take place.

The temptation to architects and planners would be to follow the path of mass housing characteristic of Tokyo and western industrialised cities, devoted as they are to glass, steel, and concrete. Some architects think differently, and their suggestions can be inspected in small studios around the Ruthin Craft Centre courtyard.

Perhaps the most beautiful photograph on display shows a house made of earth by Tono Mirai. His starting point, inspired not only by Japanese tradition, but by the example of adobe houses in Morocco, is that earth is easily available. Which is just as well, because, again, the Sendai region, where he originates, was badly affected by the earthquake. The earth house is more than useful, however; it is the very opposite of mass-produced, conveys a sense of mystery and suggests that there will be surprises around every corner. Beauty and utility are by no means incompatible.

Whilst he is here, Tono Mirai is constructing a shelter for children using local wood, clay and plaster. I am sure they will love it!

Having just finished reading Eurwyn Wiliam’s The Welsh Cottage, I was struck by the potential fruitfulness of a conversation between Welsh and Japanese architects about the whole issue of the materials we now use to construct our built environment. So much of traditional Welsh, and European, materials – wattle and daub, thatch – have been destroyed, allowed to decay or, in the nick of time, taken down and reconstructed at St Fagans. It is surely time to think again about their revival, not because they are ‘quaint’, but because, strengthened by the employment of modern technology and carefully looked after, they last for a long time.

Wholly different in atmosphere but sharing the same commitment to the use of traditional techniques is a room of wooden shelves designed by Kazuya Morita, from Kyoto. He would surely raise his eyebrows at western houses, such as ours, which, he might think, were hopelessly cluttered with books and pictures. I do love his solution to the space problem, but am not sure how practical it would be!  His ideas for storage fit well with a future when Kindle has entirely taken over. That he is more practical than I have so far given him credit for is shown by the emergency shelters he has designed. They are composed of basic, easily accessed materials, have been made by survivors, and are clearly of the utmost relevance and use in present circumstances.

If I have a caveat about the architecture section in the Japanese Style exhibition, it is that the work on display is the exception, even in Japan, rather than the rule, the work of individual visionaries, shown out of context. The work is beautiful indeed, and perhaps, over time, it may become more normative. But is there any evidence that the Japanese authorities are at all inspired by the ideas? Have they the time or the money to pick them up and run with them in a densely packed and complex society?

This, in turn, raises a wider question about the whole exhibition. As must be quite apparent, I was enthralled by the show: its beauty, its relevance. It is a triumph of curatorial art. Yet it is questionable whether those responsible are being completely accurate when they refer, without qualification, to Japanese Design. How typical is the work on display in Ruthin? To what extent have Japanese makers in general assimilated the necessity for sustainability? One is bound to wonder whether the conservation of natural resources was any more at the top of the Japanese official agenda than of the Welsh or of the European. The co-curator, Michael Nixon, acknowledged that this was of crucial importance.

On the other hand, there has been some perceptible re-thinking in Japan since the tsunami. There is, obviously, no question of overnight conversion. This is a slow, uphill business in Japan, as everywhere else. The Studio Archi Farm is one promising straw in the wind. The most beautiful farm buildings are solar-powered, but once again the architects have wider interests – they farm, growing organic crops by traditional methods; and their influence is beginning to be felt by their neighbours – a model step-by-step approach.

Was this, perhaps, the assumption made by Michael Nixon and Philip Hughes, director of the Ruthin Craft Centre, when two or three years ago, they started to plan for a Japanese season? The earthquake took place while they were still at the planning stage. They offered to postpone, but were persuaded by Japanese colleagues to keep to the timetable.

An exhibition cannot change minds overnight – and perhaps cannot, by itself, change minds at all. Nonetheless, it can sow seeds. So far as Wales is concerned, germination is now the responsibility of all of us, not least politicians, local government officials, economists, industrialists, architects, scientists, and educators. I hope some of them visited Japanese Style: Sustaining Design – more than once!

Derek Jones is a freelance writer. Japanese Style: Sustaining Design is at the Ruthin Craft Centre until 24th June.

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