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Report for the talk “Online Lecture: Kōgei 2020 in context”

Gallery 5 – The Red of Life. The Spirit of Nature

The exhibition Kōgei 2020 – The Art of Crafting Beauty from Nature was held at the Hyōkeikan of Tokyo National Museum from 21 September to 15 November this year as part of Japan Cultural Expo. Despite the disruption 2020 has witnessed, the exhibition was able to go ahead, albeit under changed conditions. In this Third Thursday Lecture, Hiromi Uchida, Co-ordinator for Kōgei 2020, sat in conversation with Nicole Rousmaniere, Professor of Japanese Arts at UEA and Research Director, SISJAC. Of course, both Ms Uchida and Professor Rousmaniere are very well known to SISJAC audiences: Prof Rousmaniere as the Institute’s founding and now Research Director, and Ms Uchida as a former member of the original team. Their conversation (pre-recorded out of scheduling necessity) had the happy familiarity of sitting in with old friends.

The exhibition Kōgei 2020 was curated by Moroyama Masanori and featured 82 works by 82 artists from across Japan. The lecture touched on the many people and organisations involved in bringing the exhibition together, its intended role as a showcase for Japanese artworks during the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, and the challenges that Coronavirus brought to proceedings. A central thread however was kōgei itself, how it was employed as a term and indeed expressed through the displays of the exhibition.

 As Prof Rousmaniere observed, the exhibition’s selection of the word Kōgei for its English title was far from a simple matter. English translations of kōgei tend to lean towards art-craft or craft, but these struggle to capture the meaning of kōgei or carry additional meanings of their own. Drawing comparisons with the exhibition Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan that Prof Rousmaniere curated at the British Museum in 2007, she noted that in that case, the direction taken (with credit to Rupert Faulkner) was to shift to the verb: ‘crafting.’ In the case of Kōgei 2020, recognition, and perhaps redefinition, of the term kōgei internationally became a goal shared by the organisers and artists.

Tsuchiya Yoshinori
Chikufū rōgetsu (Breeze Blowing through Moonlit Bamboo Grove) kimono in figured gauze, 2013, private collection

Ms Uchida took us through some of the pieces in the exhibition. One work was displayed by each of the 82 artists represented. The overall theme was kōgei and nature, and pieces were selected jointly by the exhibition curators in dialogue with the artists. The selection of artists itself represented a new approach. As well as traditional artists of the Kōgeikai (who would have been represented in Crafting Beauty), the Tokyo exhibition brought in artists more often represented at the Niten, who approach kōgei through the frame of art process. Seeing images of a selection of these works, from the bamboo sea waves of Ryūmon—2018 (Ripples—2018) to the exquisite shimmering gauze of Chikufū rōgetsu (Breeze Blowing through Moonlit Bamboo Grove), I think we all wished we could have been in Japan to see them in person.

Honma Hideaki
Ryūmon—2018 (Ripples–2018), 2018, private collection 

 Further reconsiderations to the accepted course of kōgei’s presentation in Japan were made through the display. The exhibition was held at the Tokyo National Museum, an important step for works of contemporary kōgei, in the Western-styled spaces of the Hyōkeikan. Works of different media were displayed together, replacing the traditional ‘category by material’ approach in favour of groupings by colour / conceptual colour. Architect Ito Toyo was engaged to design the vessel through which the objects were displayed, which he achieved in sympathy with the building’s historic fabric and atmosphere. Significantly, works were not cased. Instead, they were displayed on elegant open plinths, the form of which represented energy rising up from the ground and into the kōgei displayed.

Kōgei 2020 set out with clear ambitions to innovate and bring kōgei to new audiences. With visitor numbers and profiles affected by the Coronavirus pandemic (the international crowds originally anticipated were not to be found in Tokyo this autumn), the legacy of this project will be critical to its success. As the 2019 ICOM meeting in Kyoto showed, the definition and thus role of the museum is currently a matter for hot debate. The significance of the equal platform that Kōgei 2020 offered artists of different generations and backgrounds cannot be underestimated. In terms of global ambitions, the exhibition will sadly not be travelling, but online resources including images of works with artist comments, a forthcoming explorable 3D virtual tour (using Matterport technology) and plans to add English subtitling to the symposium recordings will share its message more widely.

At the time of conversation, Kōgei 2020 had just closed to the public. Our speakers, Ms Uchida and Prof Rousmaniere, promised to return with an update and answers to the audience’s questions. As kōgei continues to be supported by the energy up from the ground, we can look forward to beautiful things ahead.

Dr Mary Redfern

Curator of the East Asian Collection, Chester Beatty

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