Excuse me while I get a little theoretical and ranty here. The idea of flatness in Textiles has been on my mind a lot recently.
Having entered the Master’s program at Kyoto Seika this year, I have had to also start taking some compulsory Art theory courses. I was actually quite glad to get back into some academic art subjects because the practical courses at Kyoto Seika (I might get in trouble for saying this) and probably other Japanese Art universities too, are not so concerned with critical art analysis or having concepts as the foundation of your art practice.
One of these courses is run by a very charismatic (let’s call him) S-sensei, who is a researcher into Art criticism and an absolute fountain of knowledge concerning Western Art, Contemporary Art and the Philosphy of Art. The students in this particular class were from various specializations within the Arts faculty; Western-style Painting, Printmaking, Ceramics, Video, Japanese Painting and of course me and one other in Textiles. In one of our rambling discussion sessions in class, S-sensei got onto the topic of how Textiles students at Kyoto Seika often make their work flat, stretched around a panel, as if to make it a painting.
When I first came to Kyoto Seika as an exchange student over 5 years ago, I remember being taken aback by this same thing. The students in the first and second year classes all owned a wooden panel about 90x60cm that they reused for each set project as a base to stretch and pin their dyed fabric works on for critique. They will make the same sized work in wax-resist dyeing, hand drawn resist and katazome stencil dyeing. Some students continue to make panel-stretched works into 3rd and 4th year. Amongst those students studying dyeing techniques, I feel this is the majority.
|A critique for Seika 2nd year Textiles students where they all presented their works tautly pinned to wooden panels.|
It only takes a quick look at the works of the current dye technique Professors and their pre-decessors’ works to see that flat works are the order of the day.
|Toba Mika, ‘Kagerou’ Hakusan Tsumugi Silk, Katazome, Acid Dyes. 198 x 340cm|
|Ichimura Fumio, ‘Phase’ Fuji Silk, Silkscreen print. 180x270cm|
|Asadu Shuji, ‘WORK D2’ Cotton, Pigments and Stencil. 197 x 324cm|
|Takaya Mitsuo, ‘Coexistence’ Shinshu Silk, Acid Dyes, Mixed Dye Techniques, Wax Resist. 140 x 160cm|
|Kawata Koro, ‘2002・MITTIE -Wall-’ Silk, Paper, Acid Dyes, Ink, Stencil Resist, Collage. 210 x 340cm|
I’m not saying this is a bad thing, I’m just intrigued by why this is.
Afore-mentioned S-Sensei, being the inquisitive person that he is, is famed to have attended a Kyoto Seika Textiles critique and posed the very same question to the head of the department; ‘Why go to all the trouble of dyeing fabric only to stretch around a panel and make it flat?’. The story goes that the Textiles head Professor let rip about how panels were a tradition in themselves in dyeing and presentation and how S-sensei couldn’t possibly understand the complexities of the contemporary dyeing field. Needless to say, that’s not much of an answer.
I have some theories and they take us into tricky territory about what is art and what is not.
My first theory is this. Japanese art has long made use of the folding screen as an artistic surface. Great painters of the Rinpa movement or Yamato-e for example, used the folding screen format often. This form is so familiar in the field of Japanese art and perhaps those making panel and folding screen works today see no disparity at all.
|Sakai Houitsu of Rinpa School, ‘Summer and Autumn Grasses’ 「夏秋草図屏風」Collection of Tokyo National Museum|
|typical Japanese Folding Screen Paintings|
These old examples of folding screens were painting on the panels. For this new textile folding screen category to have arisen, then it must have been concluded at some point and in a certain stream of the field that textiles can also function as painting. I feel that this was probably around the 1950’s when many textile dyers were starting to make these big abstract panels that were a split from the tradition of ‘functional textiles’, instead treating them as modern art. Today I think this ‘flat textiles as modern art’ idea still exists.
|I’m thinking of people who were working at the point when functional textiles crossed over into artwork textiles such as Miyosawa Motoju. His works shown here on display in Kobe.|
|Also, from the 1950’s, Minagawa Taizo. A work based on sketches of traditional homes in Hachijo, East Japan.|
The second theory, or perhaps a contributing factor, is that of public entry juried exhibitions. These are the sort that are held by the “Such and Such art society of West Japan” or the “Something Something New Artists Association” where anybody can pay a fee to enter a work for consideration. These exhibitions most often split entry into categories; paintings, sculptures, craft objects, glass etc. The organisers usually specify that only artworks within certain size limitations will be accepted and some formats may be ineligible.
|You know the sort of exhibitions I mean. This is a lesser one, the annual Shinshokougeikai Exibition.|
Could it be that when this split occurred between functional textiles and modern-art-piece textiles that textile dyers wanted to enter their pieces as ‘art’? Perhaps they saw that to enter into the art category (and therefore the art sphere) as opposed to ‘craft’, they need to make their textiles look like what was commonly thought of as ‘art’. That is, art=flat, craft=object.
The Dyeing course in Kyoto Seika’s Textile department leans both ways, both towards this “dyed flat panel textiles=art” approach, and towards the traditional “dyed textile as kimono or functional object” approach. Which makes it a confusing place to ponder what textiles is.
|Textiles Student’s graduation works, Kyoto Seika 2008|
|Textiles works at the 2012 Graduation Exhibition, Kyoto Seika|
Whether you call your textiles a piece of craft or art is probably not important. Perhaps it is both. These terms maybe do not even apply to a Japanese understanding of art and craft. What I am currently most interested in out of all of this is things like:
Are you just sticking your dyed artwork on a panel because that’s what everyone does? Or is the flatness of the panel important to the work you are making? Are you dyeing your fabric and then making a panel for it because you like it that way or because you think it needs to look like a painting otherwise it’s not really an ‘artwork’. Are you making something where its textile-ness is essential or could you just paint it?
There may not be answers because everyone’s approach is different and textiles is difficult to define as a field. Ultimately I just hope that people will maybe recognize these tendencies in the dyeing field and be aware of why they are making things the way they are making them. It would be great to see more diversity within Textiles in the traditional textile dyeing capital of Kyoto.