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Calling Mingei:
The new exhibition at Pace London

Caterina Tiezzi

 

During what is arguably the “most important” week for Art and Design in London, as Frieze Art Fair and a number of parallel initiatives call the public’s attention, Mingei: Are You Here? adds another voice of craft to the scene.

Wall Label @ Caterina Tiezzi.

Wall Label. Image © Caterina Tiezzi, 2013.

 

Mingei: Are You Here? is the latest exhibition to open at Pace London, and it will remain in the showroom on Lexington Street until 14th December 2013. With this display, curator, author and lecturer Nicolas Trembley aims to provide a reflection on the influences of Mingei theory, with a particular focus on the effects it might have on contemporary art. [1]

But what exactly is MingeiMingei is the name of a Japanese theorisation of craft, conceived during the 1920s by the gentleman-scholar Sôetsu Yanagi.[2] Explored in depth in the book Japanese Modernisation and Mingei Theory: Cultural Nationalism and Oriental Orientalism, the author Yuko Kikuchi reports Yanagi’s main ‘criterion of beauty’ which inform Mingei:

‘1. “beauty of handcrafts” (Shukōgei no Bi)
2. “beauty of intimacy” (Shitashisa no Bi)
3. “beauty of use/function” (Yō/Kinō no Bi)
4. “beauty of health” (Kenkō no Bi)
5. “beauty of naturalness” (Shizen no Bi)
6. “beauty of simplicity” (Tanjun no Bi)
7. “beauty of tradition” (Dentō no Bi)
8. “beauty of irregularity” (Kisū no Bi)
9. “beauty of inexpressiveness” (Ren no Bi)
10. “beauty of plurality” (Ta no Bi)
11. “beauty of sincerity and honest toil” (Seijitsu na Rōdō no Bi)
12. “beauty of selflessness and anonymity” (Mushin/Mumei no Bi)’ [3]

In the case of the exhibition at Pace London, curator Nicolas Trembley characterises this philosophy as follows.

 ‘The Mingei movement assigned value to and saw beauty in everyday objects marking a revaluation of popular crafts in the midst of the industrial revolution. The beauty of Mingei is captured by adjectives such as simple, natural, healthy, functional, affordable and sincere, and the aesthetic is powerfully convincing when presented with typical examples.’ [4]

In fact, the exhibition has many examples of Mingei-objects, placed next to contemporary works inspired by this theory. Sharing the space of a long vitrine, which is said to reference ethnographic exhibitions, are a few examples from the Momoyama Period (1573-1603 circa), alongside samples from the 20th- and 21st-century, and works specially commissioned for the exhibition. [5] In doing so, the display answers the primary question of the show: “Is Mingei still relevant?”

 

View of the gallery space at Pace London @ Caterina Tiezzi.

View of the gallery space at Pace London. Image © Caterina Tiezzi, 2013.

 

The answer seems to be a positive one, that rides the wave of a revival of craft Trembley has identified in contemporary art. For example, looking at two groupings of vases displayed at the beginning of the exhibition, we might be able to see how a certain taste for simplicity of form and decoration is sought both in samples from unknown craftsmen working in the Momoyama period, and in those of artists and designers practicing at different times between the 1930s and the 1980s.

 

Vases. Image © Caterina Tiezzi, 2013

Vases. Image © Caterina Tiezzi, 2013

 

While arguably a certain continuity can be seen in objects of similar typology such as vases and receptacles, what should one make of a display that also features chairs, a steel kettle, acrylics on hand-loomed linen, or even an oversized blade-like object made of stainless steel? According to Yanagi’s theory, a certain beauty can be seen in the continuity of tradition that craftsmen build upon in their doing. [6] In fact, if at first the display at Pace London might be puzzling, on a second look one might start to notice how single works reference traditional objects, calling to mind calligraphy scrolls, weaving, and many other images of artisanal practice, or of the everyday. [7]

Whether through the use of techniques, materials, concepts, or forms, the objects displayed in this exhibition seem to echo values of Mingei. The range in the dates of the display also helps prove the point that this is a practice shared across time, and still relevant to date. Yet the fact that some works of art were specially commissioned for the show and for the exhibition itself, I would argue, is testimony to a willingness to not only showcase this lasting phenomenon and educate people, but also perhaps to boost this phenomenon itself. Whether to do so craft needs to be associated with art, has been and still is debatable. This might be especially true in the case of Mingei, a theory that makes a point to distinguish between four types of crafts―namely folkcrafts, individual or artistic craft, industrial crafts and aristocratic crafts―and judges them differently.[8] Yet in the view of the curator of the show, this question might be misplaced in this case.

‘The new generation of artists invited to be part of this exhibition and who make use of traditional techniques do not consider themselves craftspeople. Rather, their approach is conceptual. One may find parallels between their visual approach, which is devoid of representation and often minimal in form, and Mingei principles. There is no need to categorise here; it is no longer a matter of positioning one artistic field against another. Instead, these artists play with art history and simultaneously consider modes of exhibiting. They evaluate anew a certain strand of ‘everyday’ creation.’ [9]

Translated and interpreted Mingei seem to still be influencing conceptions of making. However, it is curious that a show which so passionately displays the relevance of Mingei, would question it at all in its title. Craft-expert, critic and curator Glenn Adamson might argue that this questioning, this state of “crisis” present in theorisations and discussions on craft, is intrinsic to the concept of craft itself – for this was crystallised in a moment of transition. But is really this the state of craft to-date? [10]

Walking away from an exhibition that exists, this week in particular, among a plethora of other points of view, theories, methods of making, and sensibilities, a call is made: Are You Here to see Mingei?

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[1] Or so it is said on PaceLondon’s dedicate webpage for Mingei: Are You Here?. For more please visit the gallery’s site at: http://www.pacegallery.com/london/exhibitions/12602/mingei-are-you-here).

[2] Yanagi, Sôetsu. “The Way of Craftsmanship”, in The Craft Reader, ed. Glenn Adamson (Oxford; New York: Berg, 2010), pp. 167-176.

[3] Kikuchi, Yuko. Japanese Modernization and Mingei Theory: Cultural Nationalism and Oriental Orientalism (London; New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 53.

[4] Wall Label, Mingei: Are You Here?, Pace London gallery, London, UK.

[5] Pace London gallery. “Mingei: Are You Here? Press Release”. Pace London, UK. Web: 17 October 2013.  http://www.pacegallery.com/london/exhibitions/12602/mingei-are-you-here.

[6] Yanagi, Sôetsu. “The Way of Craftsmanship”, in The Craft Reader, ed. Glenn Adamson (Oxford; New York: Berg, 2010), pp.168-9.

[7] Nicolas Trembley also proposes that next to the influence of Mingei, the other thread of the show are the figure and work of late artist Isamu Noguchi.    For more see Pace London’s Press Release for Mingei: Are You Here?, at this link http://www.pacegallery.com/london/exhibitions/12602/mingei-are-you-here. In particular “Mingei: Are You Here? An essay by Nicolas Trembley” translated by Lucile Dupraz.

[8] For definitions and discussions on these four categories please see the following sources. A) Yanagi, Sôetsu. “The Way of Craftsmanship”, in The Craft Reader, ed. Glenn Adamson (Oxford; New York: Berg, 2010), pp. 167-176. B) Kikuchi, Yuko. Japanese Modernization and Mingei Theory: Cultural Nationalism and Oriental Orientalism (London; New York: Routledge, 2004).

[9] Trembley, Nicolas. “Mingei: Are You Here? An essay by Nicolas Trembley”, Pace Gallery Press Release, Web: http://www.pacegallery.com/london/exhibitions/12602/mingei-are-you-here

[10] Full quote:    “But prior to the advent of mass production, it made no sense to speak of craft as a distinct term―because there was no other way to make anything than by hand. Craft is itself a product of modernity, and has never existed outside its crisis–haunted narratives.”   Adamson, Glenn. “Goodbye to All That”, Crafts: The Magazine for Contemporary Craft, N. 240. (January/February 2013), pp. 38.

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Suggested Readings:

Yanagi, Sôetsu. The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty. Adapted by Bernard Leach (Tokyo; New York; London: Kodansha International, 1972.)

Kikuchi, Yuko. Japanese Modernization and Mingei Theory: Cultural Nationalism and Oriental Orientalism (London; New York: Routledge, 2004.

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Caterina Tiezzi –

Caterina graduated with a BA in Visual Studies from the California College of the Arts, in 2012. Having left the Bay Area, she’s been wandering through the land of History of Design, researching export sewing tables, and the design of payment cards. For her dissertation she is currently exploring the paths of fashion and dress history, with a focus on the design and production of clothes, in London, from the second half on the 19th century to the early 20th century. Yet her interests in technology and advertising are ever present.

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© Caterina Tiezzi, 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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