Material Histories of Japan

Written by Veronika Michelle Tan

“Me, myself, my emotions, and the material are part of the ritual of creating art” (Shiota 2017:10).

Chiharu Shiota (b.1972) is a Japanese artist who is globally known for utilising yarn threads as her main source of material to make web-like art installations (Anna Schwartz Gallery 2020). In contrast, Nobuho Nagasawa (b.1959) is a Japanese artist and a Professor at Stony Brook University in New York (Goodman 2015). She is known for utilising traditional materials with technology, comprising mainly of sound, light and interactive components that likely attract audiences to visually engage with her illuminative art installations. This essay will explore the cultural and historical context of how the material histories of Japanese culture have evolved into a technologically advanced society through the analysis of their artworks. Firstly, Shiota and Nagasawa will address the inexplicit meanings and material processes through their artworks The Key in the Hand (2015) and Voyage through the Void (Umi no Utsuwa) (2013). Secondly, Shiota’s and Nagasawa’s depiction of material beliefs and traditional customs of Japan in their works will also be analysed. Furthermore, Shiota’s installation, entitled Kimono Dress (2012) will be examined to discuss how she employs traditional kimonos with modern technologies. This is further emphasised by the 1870s Industrial Revolution movement that refined the weaving techniques of kimonos.

Both Shiota and Nagasawa addressed their artistic intentions and material processes through their respective works, The Key in the Hand (2015) and Voyage through the Void (Umi no Utsuwa) (2013). Shiota’s large-scale art installation consists of 50,000 keys knotted with bright red yarn (La Biennale di Venezia 2015). Beneath the layers of these keys shows two wooden boats. The boats contributed a significant role in the making of The Key in the Hand (2015). Shiota faced the deaths of her family members after the occurrence of an earthquake and tsunami in 2011 (La Biennale di Venezia 2015). She felt the need to communicate her grief after suppressing her melancholic emotions for quite a long time. Therefore, the boats signify Shiota’s two hands as she reminisces her journey of human features and memories of her loved ones from 2011 (La Biennale di Venezia 2015). During the material process, Shiota stated that people wrote a letter explaining the meanings of their key while others came directly to her and handed it in (La Biennale di Venezia 2015). This material process indicates that the keys are pre-owned and each of them have personal connections with the previous owners. The jangling keys amidst the web of red strings illustrate the notion of plasma blood cells or a heart within the human body. The blood suggests iconography of human relationships with one another (La Biennale di Venezia 2015). Shiota (2017:190) stated that the ‘red strings tied to the keys symbolises a chain of memories, locked away within the heart’. Despite this deep connection, the red threads can also be cut or broken which convey motifs of life and death. Therefore, disconnecting humane interactions.

By contrast, Nagasawa’s technological art installation highlights the appearance of a boat that is situated in a dark room with a hint of blue light shining from within. The boat is made of optical fibre woven in the style of traditional kimono weavers from Nishijin, Kyoto (Westwood Gallery 2022). Nagasawa recorded the sounds of waves from the Pacific Ocean that connects the United States and her hometown in Japan (TEDx Talks 2013). Nagasawa personally stated the sound of running water represents the presence of her father (TEDx Talks 2013). Like Shiota, Nagasawa has also expressed the loss of a loved one through her artwork. Similar to Shiota’s The Key in the Hand (2015), the blue boat also contributed a significant role in the making of Voyage through the Void (Umi no Utsuwa) (2013). As hinted by the Japanese title, Umi no Utsuwa (2013), her art installation highlights the ‘double meanings of “Vessel (container) of the sea” and “Vessel (womb of birth or life)” (Westwood Gallery 2022). Therefore, conveying the narrative of a visitor voyaging on the boat on a fleeting journey from the void to birth and travelling through life to the void at death (Westwood Gallery 2022). Ultimately, both Shiota and Nagasawa communicated their artistic intentions and material processes through their installation The Key in the Hand (2015) and Voyage through the Void (Umi no Utsuwa) (2013). Symbolically conveying the keys and the boat as an entrance to a different dimension.

Both Shiota and Nagasawa explored the material beliefs and traditional customs in their works The Key in the Hand (2015) and Voyage through the Void (Umi no Utsuwa) (2013). Shiota explained that ‘Humans are connected to each other in this world by the red threads’ (La Biennale di Venezia 2015). The connection of the red yarn and symbols of human relationships in The Key in the Hand (2015) is a depiction of a Japanese folklore: ‘The Red Strings of Fate.’ This folklore narrates the love of the red string tied around the pinkie fingers of two people who are destined to meet each other in life. The two boats also symbolise the God’s hands as they tie the invisible strings onto the keys which represents people’s pinkie fingers. The gods are the guardians of the global past and future (La Biennale di Venezia 2015). By contrast, the traditional boat in Nagasawa’s sculptural installation Voyage through the Void (Umi no Utsuwa) (2013) convey the commemoration of Japanese people (Goodman 2015). In her presentation, Nagasawa explained that when a person passes away, it is culturally believed in Japan that the deceased soul must travel and cross the river via a boat as a mode of transportation to enter the afterlife (TEDx Talks 2013). Through Nagasawa’s statement, the traditional boat and dark room signify a coffin for the deceased people. Ultimately, both Shiota and Nagasawa conveyed the material beliefs and traditional customs of Japan. Voyage through the Void (Umi no Utsuwa) (2013) and The Key in the Hand (2015) accentuates the commemoration in Japanese culture by sharing the same materiality of boats as a voyage to neighbouring islands (Goodman 2015:34-39). However, they display their large-scale art installation quite differently as The Key in the Hand (2015) revolves around the tale of Japanese folklore.

Another art installation made by Shiota, entitled Kimono Dress (2012) will be examined to explore the interactions of traditional kimonos with modern technologies. Kimono Dress (2012) is a part of the State of Being series, which illustrates an orange kimono with floral designs on it. The addition of floral patterns indicates the luxurious material quality that was solely worn by the upper-class elites from the feudal social hierarchy in Japan (Milhaupt 2014:16). Milhaupt (2014:16) further explained that ‘a typical wealthy family wore a silk patterned kimono that was embroidered with gold and silver threads.’ In contrast to commoners, who sewed their own kimonos with an affordable and comfortable fabric (Milhaupt 2014:23). The kimono display is surrounded or caged in a web of black yarn. The kimono appears to be paralysed in a particular space and time by the layers of black threads around the dress. Through this, the material use of black threads evokes a fading effect on the appearance and historical context of this kimono.

This effect is similar to the fading history of kimonos being worn on a common or daily basis during the Edo period (1603-1868) to a garment being primarily reserved for extraordinary occasions in contemporary Japan (Milhaupt 2014:11). In 1872, four years after the collapse of the Tokugawa military regime, the Meiji emperor wore a Western style uniform on his first public appearance (Milhaupt 2014:20-21). This indicated that the Meiji government wanted a civilised society. He ‘attempted to place Japan on equal footing with Western nations’ by converting Japanese style garments to Western style ideals and articles of clothing, also known as Tofuku in Japanese (Milhaupt 2014:20-21). Eventually, Empress Shoken publicly adopted to Western dress codes approximately in 1886 (Milhaupt 2014:21). This signifies that kimono became less recognisable in public outings as both men and women wore Western style suits and dresses. While kimonos were worn in the privacy of their homes and for informal occasions (Milhaupt 2014:21). Therefore, Shiota twirled the black threads around the kimono like a protective barrier as the garment carries the connotation of preservation and care through the historical context of kimonos. Ultimately, the public encouragement of donning Western fashions on a daily basis eventually led kimonos to solely be reserved for special occasions.

Nagasawa’s Voyage through the Void (Umi no Utsuwa) (2013) and Shiota’s Kimono Dress (2012) is further emphasised by the Industrial Revolution movement that refined the weaving techniques of kimonos. Nagasawa proclaimed that the optical fibre is woven in the style of Plain Weave, also known as Hira Ori in Japanese (Kano et al. 2015). Traditional Nishijin weavers used the Plain Weave technique to make kimonos. This method is also emphasised in the orange kimono of Shiota’s Kimono Dress (2012). According to Hashino (2016), ‘Nishijin had been the most advanced silk weaving district in Japan, producing high quality fabrics for the privileged since the medieval period. The origin of Nishijin silk weaving industry began shortly after the Onin War in Kyoto (1467-77) when weavers settled at Nishijin instead of Kyoto to ‘resume production of silk fabrics using textile technology’ that was introduced from China (Bank of Japan, Kyoto Branch 1914:3, cited in Hashino 2016). Peter Nathaniel Stearns is a historian and professor at George Mason University (b.1936). He recorded that Japan’s Industrial Revolution took place during the 1870s (2012:139). The introduction of the power loom was a major development in the weaving industry because it took one third less time to weave the same material as compared to the traditional handloom (Hareven c.2002:57). This invention was considered as highly important for Nishijin silk weavers because it saved time and effort to produce fabrics. ‘It now takes two to three years to train a handloom weaver’ in comparison to a power loom weaver which only take one year to train (Hareven c.2002:58). Therefore, it is titled as ‘power’ loom. Between the period of the Industrial Revolution, the material history of silk is further expanded when France and Italy had to rely on the exportation of silks from Japan because the Pébrine disease had a negative economic and material impact on their silk producing industries. This reliance on Japan’s material exports increased Japan’s economic growth. Therefore, ‘Japan became the world’s leading exporter of silk by 1912’ (Milhaupt 2014:66).

In conclusion, Shiota and Nagasawa’s site specific art installation integrates the material histories of Japanese culture to address meanings and perspectives through contemporary art. Firstly, how Shiota and Nagasawa briefly accentuated the material processes through the open-ended interpretations of The Key in the Hand (2015) and Voyage through the Void (Umi no Utsuwa) (2013). Secondly, how they both intervened with Japanese cultural beliefs of the boats and threads of yarn in their works and revitalise the narrative of ‘The Red Strings of Fate’ and the commemoration to the afterlife. Lastly, in Kimono Dress (2012), Shiota employed the use of cultural-historical context of kimonos and the Industrial Revolution. Overall, both Shiota and Nagasawa works utilised and convey similar materiality and art medium. However, the contextualisation of their works is different.

Figure 1: Umi no Utsuwa (Voyage through the Void) by Nobuho Nagasawa, 2013, site-specific installation: woven optical fibre, stainless steel frame, light, sound, Setouchi Art Triennale, Shodoshima, Japan, Photograph by Nobuho Nagasawa, Image & Artworks © 2013 Nobuho Nagasawa. Courtesy of the artist and WESTWOOD GALLERY NYC

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