Tategu, Netsuke & Hello Kitty
by Josephine Rout
The refurbishment of the Toshiba Gallery of Japanese Art, at the Victoria & Albert Museum
Deep within the bowels of the Victoria & Albert Museum lies the Asian Transit Store. A small, arched room, the store was initially established as a temporary holding zone for objects from the Asian Department, and therefore contains a rather incongruous mix of objects from recent acquisitions to items withdrawn from display. It is also here that the netsuke collection lives, and where I was to spend my first day at the museum in my role as an Assistant Curator in the Asian Department. Huddled with a list of vague descriptions taken from the old registers, and using my phone as a torch, I was to find and corral the selected few that were to go in the Toshiba Gallery redisplay. I soon discovered that scrawling things such as ‘cat, ivory’ were fairly useless when faced with a box of netsuke, many of which were indeed felines carved from elephant tusks. While there are over a thousand netsuke in the collection, these finely carved toggles are merely a small part of a substantial collection. Comprising around 40,000 objects, including ceramics, lacquer, arms and armour, woodwork, metalwork, textiles, prints, paintings, and sculpture, the V&A collection of Japanese art and design is not only one of the largest in Britain, but also one of the most significant outside Japan.
Opened in December 1986, the Toshiba Gallery was designed by Paul Williams of Stanton Williams. At that time, it was one of the first permanent galleries of Japanese art in the UK, and remains one of the largest. It was the first of many projects to transform the museum, and now, thanks to the generous support of the Toshiba Corporation, the gallery has been refurbished as part of the V&A’s ongoing FuturePlan. The curation of such a collection, especially for a permanent gallery, requires an encyclopedic knowledge of its contents. Thus decisions regarding which objects would become part of the selected few for the gallery refurbishment and redisplay required careful consideration. Unfortunately, most of the ‘curating’, as most people understand it, had been done before my arrival by the experienced curators in the Japanese Section: discussions conducted about what to change, case-themes decided, relevant objects chosen, and display arrangements made. Indeed, it may seem that I had missed the most interesting part. My task was to make myself intimately acquainted with every single object that would be going into the gallery. The essential ‘Object List’ took the form of an Excel spreadsheet, the grid of which was to be filled with pertinent information on around five hundred objects that would be going on display. This proved an ideal introduction to such a vast and complex collection, allowing me to spend a significant amount of time in the stores with the objects.
The refurbishment also provided an opportunity for objects to receive intensive conservation treatment. Assessing objects with the conservators teaches one to look at objects in a completely different way, as each material requires its own methodology. For lacquer, a range of equipment is needed in order to actually see the damage; for textiles, mounting is an initial concern; many of the ceramics were assessed through the open display glass. Most objects could be neatly divided by material into the relevant studio, but there were numerous objects that subverted our expectations or required treatment in multiple studios. The iki-ningyo (living doll) samurai was a true example of conservation collaboration, requiring treatment from five studios.
Over the course of a year, I was to become the personal minder for these objects, ferrying them between the conservation studios, photography, and the mount workshop. I was responsible for knowing where they were at all times and why, and then ensuring that they were all ready for installation in October. As the refurbishment programme advanced, I grew ever-grateful to the object list, and the earlier work of corralling the objects. The gallery reopened on the 4th November 2015, and although the changes are subtle, they are significant. While the distinctive overhead wooden structure remains (inspired by traditional Japanese architecture), changes to lighting, the internal fabric of the display cases, display methods and interpretation provide an improved setting for showing the collection. Two-thirds of the displays have changed, among which thirty of the objects are new acquisitions shown for the first time. The chronological flow of the gallery has been reconfigured, so that visitors entering from The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Galleries of Buddhist Art will encounter Japanese examples of Buddhist art. It also contains the oldest piece on display, a 6th century Sue ware round-bottomed jar, which would have been used as a burial accessory. This sits below one of our most recent acquisitions, a cypress Shinto altar for the home by Sakai Design Associates from 2014. Including these pieces in the same case shows that while belief systems have a long history in Japan, they continue to shape and influence many aspects of Japanese life. The biggest change has been the increase of modern and contemporary material with three cases devoted to studio crafts, product design, furniture, fashion, and graphic art. In addition, contemporary objects can be found in other areas of the gallery, and photography features on the central north wall. Tea Drinking is an example of where we have interspersed contemporary material with historic, as the tea ceremony remains an important aesthetic experience still widely practiced in Japan. The inclusion of contemporary objects here demonstrates both how timeless some of these objects appear and how they continue to inspire artists and designers.
There was also a desire to avoid the connoisseurship that curators of earlier generations tended to emphasise. One of the main reasons for this was that, despite the significant holdings of Edo (1615-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) material, we were keen to avoid presenting Japan as a culturally static nation rooted in the past. Rather, it is one that continues to produce exceptional craftsmanship, and builds upon this tradition to become a global centre of design. Since the mid-1980s, the museum has had an active programme of acquiring contemporary Japanese studio crafts. On display are highlights from this part of the collection. In a case arranged by the traditional materials of metal, glass, ceramic, bamboo, and lacquer, there are examples of how makers have challenged the boundaries of craft to create innovative and striking works of art. The constellation of networks that have supported the development of craft and have enabled Japanese design to flourish are outlined in a case that begins with an exceptional example of dry lacquer by Nobuyuki Tanaka at one end and consumer electronics at the other. Connecting these seemingly incongruous objects are the institutions and initiatives that have supported creative output, such as art schools, craft and design associations, government support, and a critically engaged audience.
Rather than threatening this creative ecosystem, globalisation has encouraged collaboration, with numerous design partnerships springing up between Japanese manufacturers, designers and craft practitioners, and their overseas counterparts. One such example is a cypress screen by the Amsterdam-based design studio BCXSY created in collaboration with Japanese master-joiner Seihachi Tanaka. Employing the traditional Japanese joinery technique of tategu, the screen is made of two interlocking shapes. Displayed next to this is a light from Issey Miyake’s Reality Lab IN-EI series, created with the Italian lighting manufacturer Artemide. Using a single pieces of non-woven fabric made from recycled PET bottles, the shade is folded in such a way so that it does not require an internal frame. Rather than existing as one-way exchanges, these partnerships have encouraged the specialist matching of concept with skill.
Also within the Modern and Contemporary section are a number of early 20th century kimono. Often mistaken in the West as a garment that has remained unchanged and unaffected by fashion, the selection of kimono on display aims to disprove this misconception. Unfortunately, for conservation reasons, we are unable to show kimono as they would have been worn, with obi and various accessories, and thus displayed on T bar mounts. Instead we have an interactive touchscreen with two videos about traditional Japanese dress culture. The first shows how an inro and netsuke would have been worn suspended from an obi, while the second outlines how kimono are worn with obi. Next to these we have included other forms of Japanese dress: avant-garde fashion and street style. Since the 1970s Japan has been synonymous with cutting-edge fashion, largely due to the work of designers such as Issey Miyake. His most recent ‘132 5.’ range of womenswear, created using computer software, explores the multiple dimensions manifest in clothing. Each piece starts as a single sheet of fabric folded into a flat geometric shape, and, when lifted from the centre, opens up in a series of origami-like folds to form a garment such as the dress on display. Within the same case are a pair of heel-less shoes by Noritaka Tatehana, a young designer whose beguiling creations have garnered him a celebrity following. Inspired by the vertiginously tall footwear worn by Edo period courtesans, he has sought to create a shoe that would have a similar effect. A trained dyer and weaver, Tatehana uses traditional materials and techniques to hand-craft his shoes.
Another form of Japanese dress that has become increasingly influential is Lolita street style, the hyper-feminine fashion mostly found in the Tokyo district of Harajuku. While the term ‘Lolita’ is derived from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel of the same name, this look shuns the over-sexualisation of young women in favour of a modest yet defiant femininity. Ranging from the saccharine ‘Sweet Lolita’ to the dark depths of Goth, Lolita style is characterised by layers of frills, lace, and ruffles worn with demure accessories such as parasols and gloves. Included in the redisplay is an outfit by cult Lolita brand Baby, the Stars Shine Bright inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps one of the most unexpected objects selected for the gallery, and certainly one that garnered significant press interest, is the Hello Kitty rice cooker. It combines two 20th-century inventions that have greatly shaped modern Japanese life: the electric rice cooker, and the mascot as brand. In 1956, Toshiba launched the first commercially successful rice cooker, an invention that transformed the domestic world. Not only did it free housewives from the arduous task of cooking rice, but it also ensured that rice would remain a staple food in the Japanese diet. Meanwhile, Hello Kitty was launched by Sanrio in 1974 and now adorns over 50,000 products. Amongst these are numerous items clearly aimed at adults, such as domestic appliances. Her widespread appeal and commercial value has contributed to the government’s recognition of popular culture as an important element of Japanese enterprise. It is the complexity of this evolving culture that first piqued my interest in Japan, and since then I have been fascinated by the multitudinous ways in which history links to the present. While Hello Kitty may be a recent invention, her aesthetic parameters are not. Netsuke, so many of which are carved in the form of animals, show us the delight that sophisticated and urbane men from the Edo period took in the natural world and the charm of creatures such as cats. Indeed, this Japanese aesthetic based on the appreciation of the cute, kawaii, has antecedents to Hello Kitty; she is an example of how the contemporary can encourage us to re-evaluate the past.
[Originally published in the Cambridge Humanities Review, Issue 11, pp. 26-27.]