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Interview: Julia Hutt on Noritaka Tatehana

published on 25 September 2014

Niamh White interviews V&A curator of Japanese art Julia Hutt about Noritaka Tatehana's work and its place in the history of Japanese craft.

Niamh White interviews V&A curator of Japanese art Julia Hutt about Noritaka Tatehana's work and its place in the history of Japanese craft.

Noritaka Tatehana, ’Language of Art’ (from the Hairpin Series), 2014

Niamh White: Can you tell me a little about black lacquer and the process of creating a piece with the material?

Julia Hutt: Lacquer, which was first used in Japan at least 10,000 years ago, is the sap from the tree Toxicodendron vernicifluum (formerly Rhus verniciflua) which is indigenous to East Asia. After tapping the trunk, the sap is filtered and heated to remove impurities and excess water. It can then be coloured by the addition of vegetable or mineral dyes resulting in a limited range of colours- black, brown, red, green and yellow; chemical dyes were introduced during the late nineteenth century which greatly extended the range of colours. In the lacquer medium, the Japanese traditionally favoured a black and gold colour scheme in which black lacquer was combined with gold lacquer, the latter consisting of metal flakes suspended in clear lacquer. In lacquer the colour black was achieved either by the addition of iron filings or soot. In particular the Japanese perfected a technique, roiro-nuri, whereby black lacquer could be polished to a deep, mirror-like gloss. In order to make a lacquered art object, it is necessary to apply lacquer in extremely thin layers to a prepared base, most commonly wood. Each layer has to be dried or hardened and polished smooth before the next is applied. Approximately twenty base layers need to be applied before the surface or decorative layers are added on top.

NW: Noritaka Tatehana’s central piece in SHOWstudio’s exhibition is a large scale, black lacquer and pearl inlay hairpin sculpture. Tatehana is known for mastering traditional Japanese crafts and using them in surprising and innovative ways. Why do you think he would choose black lacquer? What is the symbolic significance of the material and craft?        

JH: The fact that Tatehana created the hairpin sculpture in black lacquer inlaid with pearl-shell was undoubtedly for a specific reason. Lacquer is a very expensive material and an extremely time-consuming craft, a high quality item often taking over a year to complete. As a result, lacquerware became an object of considerable status from an early age. By the Edo period (1615-1868), lacquer came within the purchasing power of not only the aristocracy and ruling elite, but also merchants and wealthy townspeople, while still remaining a status material. Traditionally hair ornaments were small, functional items that could have money lavished on their material and decoration. These would have been worn by a woman together with a kimono, reflecting not only the wearer’s status and wealth but also her sense of fashion.  Although Tatehana’s piece is a contemporary sculpture rather than a functional hair ornament, it undoubtedly alludes to a time of traditional Japanese values, especially Japanese female dress and hair accessories, such as might have been used by a geisha. The use of lacquer, moreover, similarly refers to one of the most quintessential of Japanese materials and crafts.

NW: Is working to this kind of scale a contemporary approach, or would you see artefacts as large as this during the Edo period when the medium was at its peak?

JH: During the Edo period very few large lacquer artefacts were made, exceptions being items such as a palanquin or set of shelves for a wedding trousseau. This was mainly due to the cost of large pieces, the small size of the typical Japanese interior and the fact that there was no tradition for large domestic items of Japanese lacquer. Whereas the appearance of large objects can be seen as a western influence, small or miniature items, such as hair ornaments or netsuke (toggles), can be seen as traditionally Japanese. In this context the scale of the hairpin sculpture also very much reflects a contemporary approach by Tatehana.

Since lacquer had no equivalent in the West, it began to be seen as old fashioned in Japan, yet continued to be extremely popular in the West, both having disastrous consequences on the lacquer craft in different ways.

NW: Tatehana also features a black lacquer sculpture of a samurai sword in the exhibition. Do you think this piece references the influx of creativity during the Edo period when people were prohibited from creating weapons?

JH: With the frequent outbreak of civil war from the late Heian period (794-1185) onwards, the sword came to play a fundamental role in the Japanese way of life, especially in association with the rise of the samurai. By contrast the Edo period was a time of peace and prosperity, largely through measures strictly enforced by successive ruling Tokugawa shoguns.  Although weapons were no longer needed for fighting and killing in warfare during the Edo period, highly ornate arms and armour continued to be made for ceremonial purposes. Samurai were also permitted to wear the daishõ, a pair of long (katana) and short (wakizashi) swords, status symbols until their ban in 1869. Tatehana’s choice of a black lacquer sword undoubtedly has deep symbolic meanings in the Japanese psyche.

NW: Historically there has been a real synergy between life and art in Japanese culture. Utilitarian objects seem to be aestheticised and crafted to the same degree as works of art, and lacquer has been used in both areas. Do you think this attitude remains today? How has the development of synthetic materials impacted this?

JH: I do not think this attitude is still true today. The situation was completely changed by the opening of Japan to the West from the 1850s onwards and the subsequent exposure to superior western technology which had a positive affect on many spheres of the arts and crafts. Since lacquer had no equivalent in the West, it began to be seen as old fashioned in Japan, yet continued to be extremely popular in the West, both having disastrous consequences on the lacquer craft in different ways. In more recent years, many people around the world have failed to understand lacquer, the complexities of working in the medium and its high price. As a result sales have dropped dramatically and the use of synthetic materials, primarily plastic, has greatly increased. This has had a profound and detrimental effect on the manufacture of lacquer, both in terms of utilitarian and art objects. Clearly synthetic materials are not only cheaper and quicker to produce but can also be mass produced. In addition, to the inexperienced eye, synthetic materials can imitate the effects of a lacquer surface though, in reality, this similarity is purely superficial.

NW: In the context of Tatehana’s hairpin, the lacquer appears graphic, solid, almost like Pop Art! It is in contrast to the fine fragile detail of some more historical pieces. Do you think this presents a new language for the medium and a new energy?

JH: Indeed, in certain respects, Tatehana’s hairpin represents a new language and energy for the lacquer medium.  However being a piece of sculpture rather than a functional hairpin, the demands of the two object types are very different. In particular the size of the two objects represents two opposite extremes. Although the sculpture is uncharacteristically large, size is not necessarily the way forward. At a time when people are questioning the apparent high price of lacquerware, should artists be contemplating objects of a considerable size? Large art objects are fine for a one-off but are not ultimately the answer for a craft in decline.

NW: Who have been the main innovators in the field of lacquering? Do you see the medium surviving in cultures increasingly focused on mass production? Do you think it can survive?

JH: There are many innovators in the field of lacquer, working in different forms, techniques and periods. If I had to mention a few from the past, they would be Hon’ami K?etsu (1558-1637), Ogata Kõrin (1658-1716), Ogawa Haritsu (1663-1747) and Shibata Zeshin (1807-91). In terms of contemporary lacquer, it is difficult to single out artists who have not yet stood the test of time! Since the characteristics of lacquer and the resulting methods of working with the medium represent the very antithesis of mass production, it is difficult to see how lacquer will survive in Japan as an art form. However its beauty and importance is such that it must survive, especially as it is so deeply rooted in the art and culture of Japan.

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