The Enchanting Magnetism of Craft Artistry

July 5, 2024
 The Enchanting Magnetism of Craft Artistry
 June 4, 2024, Ippodo Gallery hosted a talk session focusing on the future of craftsmanship with three special guests
Living National Treasure in maki-e lacquer Kazumi Murose, Living National Treasure in shotsuzumi small drum Genjiro Okura, and contemporary craft gallery owner Shoko Aono, discussed messages they wished to share with the audience and the essence they hope to preserve for the future of craftsmanship. The session was moderated by Seiichi Kondo, the 20th Commissioner for Cultural Affairs. The event highlighted the arrival of Asuka Cruise in New York, bringing together these esteemed figures to share their insights and aspirations for the preservation and innovation of traditional arts.

 Kondo: Shoko-san, you've been promoting Japanese craftsmanship as a gallery owner in America for 15 years. Could you share your insights on the differences in understanding between American clients and Japanese customers?



Shoko: Reflecting on these 15 years in business, it all comes back to the power of handmade craftsmanship. Operating the gallery for 15 years, I've conveyed the unique Japanese aesthetic that speaks to the senses—sight, touch, and more. Particularly striking was the time during the pandemic. Society, friends, and the city—all required distancing for several years. Amidst this, our Magic of Teabowl Exhibition received unexpectedly overwhelming responses. Many clients expressed how they found solace in the warmth of handmade crafts. It was a realization that the time and affection invested by the artists truly resonated with buyers. There's a broad spectrum of cultural understanding; some are deeply knowledgeable about selected materials, while others simply have a favorable impression of Japanese art. It's honestly challenging to find a common ground as an audience in New York, America.

Kondo: Functional artworks like tea utensils and tableware often provoke surprise. How do you communicate their artistic value, uniqueness, and significance as starting points for crafts?


Okura-sensei: From my experience, it's about shared experiences rather than verbal communication. In 2022, in a cave in Okinawa where a 23,000-year-old fishing rod fossil was excavated, we staged the Noh performance "Hagoromo." The echoes within the cave intertwined the ancient sounds of daily life with the performance, creating an exceptional experience akin to time travel. Visitors echoed similar sentiments, emphasizing the importance of shared experiences over words. In contemporary times, where simplicity and time performances are often valued, human emotions move in a direction opposite to time performances. With various modern influences, humans are losing their humanity alongside technology. Emotions that can only be experienced through our efforts and labor are equally present in both performers and audiences.


Kondo: Could you elaborate more on technology? The contrast between handmade craftsmanship and technology seems stark.


Okura-sensei: Technology allows for documentation and education across generations. Traditional crafts and performing arts passed down orally have faced difficulties learning techniques flourishing two or three generations ago. In this regard, technology's contribution lies in preserving images and colors from those times. There's an indelible line between what we three speakers strive to accomplish now and what industrial AI production lines create. We want to continue contributing to creating traditions for the future, leveraging various modern powers.


Kondo: The role of technology in transmitting traditional arts across generations is indeed an intriguing topic. What are your thoughts, Professor Murose?


Murose-sensei: When considering the essence and value of traditional crafts, I always return to their origins as tools—substitutes for natural items like leaves and stones. These are items essential for eating and living, imbued with meaningful designs. Crafts are a world where creation and survival are intertwined. While human evolution may lead some to find satisfaction in ego, design prowess, and self-assertion, ego often leads to conflict, hindering friendly interaction and development.

 The "simplest living" as a human being is crucial.

Traditional crafts teach us through all five senses to live in a way that respects others, quietly enriching our hearts. Designing and expressing beauty primarily through form was the essence of the 20th century, a period marked by disputes and divisions. Shouldn't we graduate from this cycle? If design predominates, the starting point disappears, leaving emptiness. Freedom within limits is the truest freedom.
Conversations between national treasure artists and specialists surrounding them always continue. We hope this talk session serves as a starting point for understanding the unchanging traditions associated with collecting artworks, tools, and ancient techniques.
about Genjiro Okura
Genjiro Okura is a National Living Treasure and the 16th head of the Okura School of small hand drum (kotsuzumi) performance. Trained rigorously by his father, Chojuro Okura, he was recognized as a holder of Important Intangible Cultural Property in 1985 and designated as a National Living Treasure in 2008. His international performances include "Hagoromo" at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. (1992), "Dojoji" at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris (1997), "Aoi no Ue" at the Royal Opera House in London (2005), and "Funa Benkei" at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing (2010). Okura not only introduces Noh to global audiences but also collaborates with local musicians, exploring new artistic expressions and significantly contributing to the global recognition and preservation of Noh. 
about Kazumi Murose

Kazumi Murose, a National Living Treasure in lacquer art, was born in 1950 and trained by his father, Kazuo Murose. He has been pivotal in preserving lacquer cultural properties, reviving lost techniques in projects like the restoration of Kotohira Shrine ceiling paintings and Ryukyu ancient musical instruments, and contributing to the analysis of Shosoin treasures. Making his debut in the Japan Traditional Art Crafts Exhibition in 1986, he has since received numerous awards and was designated a National Living Treasure in 2008. Internationally, his work was featured in the "Japanese Lacquer: A Modern Master" exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1995), the "Japan Culture and Traditional Arts" exhibition in Paris (2003), and the "Japanese Lacquer: Tradition and Innovation" exhibition at the British Museum (2010), where his fusion of tradition and innovation was highly acclaimed.

about Seiichi Kondo
Seiichi Kondo is a distinguished Japanese diplomat and cultural ambassador. He has held prominent positions such as the Japanese Ambassador to UNESCO and Director-General of the Agency for Cultural Affairs in Japan. Kondo is known for his efforts in promoting international cultural exchange and preserving cultural heritage. His work has significantly contributed to fostering global understanding and appreciation of Japan's rich cultural traditions.


About the author

Keiko Taniguchi

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