When the Japanese aesthetician and founder of the folkcraft movement Yanagi Soetsu first visited Britain in 1929 he had two great objectives. The first was to buy as many ladderback chairs as he could find. The second was to visit the Hebridean Islands in search of textiles that fulfilled his criteria of ‘objects born, not made.’
What he saw and thought of value, like his adoption of the poetic terms ‘wabi’ and ‘sabi’ as terms that express the effects of age, wear and tear on quotitidian objects, have been hugely influential within the crafts both in Japan and Britain. They have provided a way of thinking about the connection between makers and their materials.
But ‘wabi’ and ‘sabi’ have been a mixed blessing. For much that is made within Japanese traditions fails to fit in with this aesthetic, and much contemporary craft is in some way transgressive or urbane or just plain whimsical. With this group of six makers, all of whom have adopted Japanese techniques and skills, there is the sense of synergy, of energy moving back and forward, a conversation with a loved and chosen, not a loved and inherited, tradition. Enthralled homage is most definitely not on their map. This might be called a ‘new Orientalism’, one where the ‘wabi-sabi’ aesthetic is cunningly deployed and one where traditions are under tough but affectionate scrutiny.
For instance, all of these makers share an interest in flux, in the shape-shifting qualities of their material. With Hiroshi Suzuki metal is hammer-raised to make vessels that have a sinuous fluidity, an enlivening sense of movement that is also palpable within Kei Ito’s textiles. Catherine Martin achieves the rare feeling of one material’s kinship with another, of how metal and textile can talk to each other. Alastair McCallum makes use of elaborate metal working techniques to create objects of a weather-beaten austerity. And in the work of Mica Hirosawa and Sara Keith, textile traditions are upended and revivified. Yanagi might not have approved of such shape-shifting, such sensuous delight in process, but we surely can.
Edmund de Waal
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