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2014.02.11 Tuesday, 文 /
Mingei are you here? at Pace London


Mingei are you here?

Pace Gallery (6-10 Lexington Street, London) Oct 15, 2013 – Jan 18, 2014

“[Contemporary and ancient art are as] oil and water: seemingly opposite poles. Yet for a long time now, I have found the two melding ineffably into one – more like water and air.” Hiroshi Sugimoto, L’Histoire de L’Histoire: Hiroshi Sugimoto (Tokyo: Rikuyosha, 2004), p. 7.

An elegant, thoughtful show curated by Nicolas Trembley, “Mingei are you here?” surveys and juxtaposes the local and international influence of the Japanese Mingei folk design movement, which was founded in 1926 following European arts & crafts movements, and continued into the 1970s. It is now enjoying a revival, helped by the attentions of artists such as Takashi Murakami and Hiroshi Sugimoto. The list of artists, designers, architects, potters and other craftspeople included in this exhibition is very international: Anni and Josef Albers, Ruth Asawa, Mark Barrow & Sarah Parke, Valentin Carron, Trisha Donnelly, Simon Fujiwara, Naoto Fukasawa, Shoji Hamada, Kawai Kanjiro, Tomimoto Kenkichi, Bernard Leach, Sgrafo Modern, Jasper Morrison, Isamu Noguchi, Charlotte Perriand, Stephen Prina, Willem de Rooij, Keisuke Serizawa, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Kenzo Tange, Lee Ufan, Danh Vo and founder of the Mingei movement, Sori Yanagi.

Mingei installation view (image Pace London)

A good review of the exhibition appeared in the New York Times: “‘Mokojiki Fever’ endures” (December 23,2013), although the author, Alice Rawsthorn, had difficulty seeing the relevance of including Anni and Josef Albers, besides the obvious (Pace represents the Albers estate). A little more research may have changed her mind. As Trembley remarks in his catalog essay, “This was a complex time in the history of art. Such new movements [like Mingei] were utopian: they longed for mass appeal and cultivated a democratic outlook, wishing to eliminate distinctions between high and low art, artists and craftspeople.” (p.1)

In Europe, similar movements emerged from the fin-de-siècle cauldron of industrialism, nationalism, imperialism, colonialism and finally the cataclysm of the First World War. In England and Scotland, there was the Arts & Crafts Movement (e.g. Charles Rennie Mackintosh), in France, Art Nouveau, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Jugendstil (which was influenced by Japanese style, e.g. Wiener Werkstätte) and post-war Weimar Germany produced the most radical and influential of all these movements, the Bauhaus, among whose leaders was Hans Albers. With the rise of the Nazis in Germany, the Bauhaus was closed and many of its leading members moved to America. Some took positions at what was to become the most influential art, architecture and design college of the time, Black Mountain College in North Carolina (established in 1933), including Anni and Josef Albers and Walter Gröpius. At their most humanist, all these movements encouraged design that was beautiful but also practical, useful and reflected local traditions and history.

It was at Black Mountain that the Albers researched native American engraving techniques. Ruth Asawa (1926-2013), born to Japanese immigrants, became famous for her delicate woven baskets informed by native techniques (an example of which appears in the exhibition) studied at Black Mountain for three years. Her teachers included Josef Albers, the dancer Merce Cunningham and the architect-polymath Buckminster Fuller. These connections are far from trite. But for the Bauhaus, Black Mountain and Ruth Asawa, it is questionable whether and how we would now appreciate artists like Cambodia’s Sopheap Pich and Australian Aboriginal artist Colleen Mundy. Their relevance is very much contemporary (and as confirmed by the last documenta show). The blurring of national(ist) boundaries and high and low art are among the many strengths of the show, and even made me recall the inclusion of pottery works in the last documenta. Trembley, as well as being a noted curator (including since 2009 of the private Syz Collection), is also an expert on post-war European ceramics, and in his essay refers to Müller Brothers’ Sgrafo Modern studio, renowned for their ‘coral’ pottery (on display here was a group of their white vases).

Mingei installation view (image Pace London)

But aspects of the exhibition are problematic. To start with, there is the issue of colonialism. In her catalog essay, Yukio Kikuchi acknowledges this, commenting “Mingei includes objects from “primitive” or peripheral cultures, examples of which came from Japan’s occupied territories and colonies of the time (such as Manchuria, Korea and Taiwan). Presented as part of Japan’s culture, Mingei is inevitably embedded in the politically-explosive issue of imperialism.” (page 7) Furthermore, the shifting asceticism of these various movements, which have roots in both Protestant and Chinese San Sui traditions, has repeatedly shown a weakness for fetishism and self-obsession, and, sometimes, horrific violence resulting from sociopathic dissociation (it would have been nice to include a little Kurasawa, just as a tonic). The optimistic humanism of the Bauhaus quickly gave way to the more dictatorial mien of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, which remains with us now. Yet Sōetsu Yanagi, Founder of the Mingeikan (Japan Folk Crafts Museum) said we should value what is “useful, honest with regard to its intended use, authentic, safe, modest, durable”, rather than that which is “luxurioius, expensive, subjected to the whims of fashion, vulgar, frivolous or amoral” (Mingei no Shushi, 1933). It almost sounds socialist, except that we are standing in one of the fervidly consumerist-capitalist cities on the planet, in an outpost of one of the world’s leading (biggest, richest, most powerful) commercial galleries. How practical or affordable the iconic items on display really can be is anyone’s guess.

It is ironic. On the other hand, a trip to the MUJI shop, while affordable and practical, probably won’t give you pause to contemplate the traditions and ideals behind the brand (無印良品 Mujirushi Ryōhin—”no brand”).

The diverse objects—kettle, window-blind, chairs, sieve, prints, paintings—are displayed at Pace un-hierarchically on two long steps and the backing-wall, with only a few understated objects (jar, mat) set on low, understated plinths. It is high-class shopping—in addition to Albers, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Lee Ufan are Pace artists—but disarmingly the display also says “home”—quite an achievement for a museum-quality exhibition.

“Mingei are you here?” catalog

The slim catalog deserves special mention. Designed by Nadja Zimmermann and with texts by Trembley and Yuko Kikuchi, and riffing on Mingei principles, it is one of the nicest publications I have browsed this past 12 months, putting to shame larger, weightier, more self-important tomes.

Mingei installation view (image Pace London)

Most importantly, the exhibition brings one to contemplate not only the use of objects practically and historically, but also philosophically. They have social, political and historical functions, but also anthropological—which is to say, personal—purposes, whether as sign-posts for our memory or that of others. We see this in Bernard Leach’s “Fluted bowl” (c. 1950), which recalls Song dynasty celadon wine bowls, and Danh Vo’s “Untitled (flag)” (2012), a cardboard box with a gold-leaf ‘Africa’ motif on its side. It is a utopian search for meaning predicated upon a method, meditative and respectful, that can be adopted by anyone. The search is the purpose.

Charlotte Perriand “Low chair”, c.1950, Bamboo, 72.5 x 77 cm x 61.5 cm (image Pace Gallery)

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Mingei installation view (image Pace London)