Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Hare with Amber Eyes (1)

Recently, I was loaned a copy of The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal. It is an account of a collection of netsuke the author inherits from his uncle, which leads him to research his family history and how the collection has traveled through his family's intersections with history. As an artist, I found it a thought provoking narrative.

In the prologue, the author introduces how he first encountered the netsuke while in Japan. However, I was most intrigued in this chapter by his mention of time spent at Nihon Mingeikan, the Japanese Folk Museum: "The museum is a reconstructed farmhouse in a suburb, which houses the collection of Japanese and Korean folk crafts of Yanagi Soetsu. Yanagi, a philosopher, art historian, and poet, had evolved a theory of why some objects -- pots, baskets, cloth made by unknown craftsmen -- were so beautiful. In his view, they expressed unconscious beauty because they had been made in such numbers that the craftsmen had been liberated from his ego." (Page 3).

This philosophy de Waal describes is called mingei. I had first come across this idea visiting the Mingei Museum in San Diego, where it was defined as "art of the people" or "folk craft." However, this description - the idea of its functionality, mass production, and anonymous origins, is something that I find beautifully poetic. It brings me back to my undergraduate wheelthrowing class with David Wright, watching him throw a pitcher with such practiced motions while he discussed something completely different, such as his pet rabbits.

Most descriptions of mingei do not mention papermaking, but with its history as a craft, I believe there could be philosophical correlations. Craft is many ways is a word for antiquated technology, and papermaking fits that definition perfectly. I think of the anonymous papermaking farmers of Japan, growing their crops during the summer, making paper over the winter months. Each region of Japan was known for its own special paper, some for printing money, some for covering windows, some for calligraphy, some even, I imagine, for toilet paper.

It is this anonymous legacy that I am contemplating. As an artist working in a craft tradition, my inheritance is not that of a medium like painting, where the names of significant painters for the past several centuries are known, written about, and included in the art history cannon. Instead, it is a history of hands, understanding the motions that have been made for centuries to shape plant matter in particular fashions. It is a history of water, how purities and impurities have colored and cleansed fibers in their processing. It is a history housed in libraries, in collections of incunabula, illuminated manuscripts and early printed books, in printed matter such as broadsides and pamphlets, in drawings of artists where it serves as a substrate. It is, in short, a history of the intersection of nature and technology.

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