Contemporary Japanese art looks to historical craftsmanship for inspiration

Editor’s Note: Emmanuelle de Montgazon is an independent curator and specialist of Japanese art.

CNN  — 

In Japan, time is not always conceived of in a linear fashion, as it often is in the West. Past, present and future are not distinct realms, and they can instead overlap and shift.

This conception of time comes to the fore in contemporary art, where many of today’s Japanese artists are recreating and developing ancient crafts in their work. As such, “tradition” is not a relic of the past but rather a living, constantly evolving idea.

This attitude toward traditional crafts is one that I have explored in my work as a curator and, most recently, at Asia Now, a boutique art fair in Europe dedicated to contemporary Asian art.

To coincide with Japonismes 2018, a year of celebrating Franco-Japanese relations across cultural institutions in France, I curated “The Japanese Platform,” (with scenography designed by the celebrated Sou Fujimoto Architects), a project exhibiting work by some of the most innovative established and emerging artists working in Japan today.

Fantasista Utamaro references manga and traditional Japanese illustration.

Three of them – Fantasista Utamaro, Aya Kawato and Yuken Teruya – particularly embody this historical approach to craftsmanship in contemporary Japanese art.

Fantasista Utamaro references manga and traditional Japanese illustration, though he reimagines them in new and alternative materials. Some of the artist’s best-known works have seen him layering acrylic paint and resin into blocks of carefully cut wood to produce bold, cartoon-like images.

While the creations reference popular manga, the powerful visual effect is only achieved through the artist’s knowledge of lacquering techniques. Utamaro’s output is the result of time, concentration and physical labor, and to complete his pieces he must work in stages, gently cleaning each coating and slowly building up the artwork layer by layer.

Aya Kawato, meanwhile, employs a similar physicality in her art, though she has taken things one step further by building a custom loom to produce intricate 2D canvases.

At first glance, her artworks look like pixelated printed images, though they are in fact intricately woven sheets of paper that Kawato has colored in high concentration – with subtle variations –square by square. Having trained in historic textile techniques at university, Kawato has adapted her practice to produce these mesmerizing optical illusions.

Aya Kawato's intricate 2D works are informed by historic texile techniques.

Finally, Yuken Teruya manipulates traditional paper-cutting methods, putting a modern spin on the ancient Japanese art of kirigami (a form of origami whereby the paper is sliced as well as folded). Using unorthodox materials, including legal tender banknotes, McDonald’s packaging and Prada shopping bags, Teruya uses a scalpel knife rather than the traditional scissors to achieve a more complex cut that looks almost three-dimensional.

These three artists exemplify the constant evolution of traditional techniques. And the importance they place on physical labor, skill and craftsmanship is vital to understanding contemporary art in Japan.

A rooted philosophy

Japan is, more than ever, a laboratory of the future. In the West, we see ourselves as inhabiting the Anthropocene – a world shaped by, and centered on, humankind. We mainly see our future in expanding our territory upwards to the sky and to space. However, in Japan, futurology is rooted to the ground.

Following natural disasters like the Kobe earthquake in 1995 (a disaster of such scale that it sent shockwaves through a society forced to recognize its own fragility) and, more recently, man-made disasters like the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, artists have questioned their daily lives and the ways in which they make art. This has sometimes involved looking back to fundamental beliefs such as animism – which the huge success of the 1997 anime film “Princess Mononoke” attests to –but also a conception of time being non-linear.

Yuken Teruya uses a scalpel knife rather than the traditional scissors to achieve a more complex cut that looks almost three-dimensional.

Today’s Japanese artists have an evident respect for the world they inhabit. Disasters – natural and man-made – have reminded them that humans don’t dominate or shape the world to the extent that proponents of the Anthropocene might have us believe. They are grounded in a respect for the Earth, and this is evident through the physicality of their art.

The techniques used by Utamaro, Kawato and Teruya are centered around the human body. Each requires physical skill, labor and the manipulation of materials by hand, a combined focus that I believe is unique to Japanese contemporary art.

But this physicality is, by no means, a mere tribute to the past. The future is as prominent in their work as tradition is. Japanese artists do not fear new technology, rather they develop existing crafts to incorporate it. Their work is, after all, an expression of humanity.