I’ve been going back through audio files of interviews I did with textile-dyers in Japan during a trip in October 2017. During that short trip, as well as having a solo exhibition in Kyoto, I managed to make time to go and meet with different artists and craftspeople for a chat and to see their work. Some were old friends, others I met for the first time.
Though each of them had different approaches to their work and “Dyeing” (somé) meant something different for each them, it was gratifying to find very real points of convergence with my our experiences: laughing about going to work with colourful stained fingertips after a night of dyeing, expressing our exasperation at tie-dye t-shirts, sharing a laugh over equally makeshift studio tools and sharing the same uncertainties about where our work may take us.
(There’s more to come from those interviews. I promise that they will all eventually find their way onto the page…)
Anyway, listening back to my visit to Shindo Hiroyuki’s Little Indigo Museum up in the village of Miyama, north of Kyoto, something he’d said struck me again. Shindo-san is a very generous and funny man who now makes a point of reminding people of his age (76, when I went to see him). We were talking about how I’d just had a solo show and not really sold anything and how that was pretty normal for the world of textiles.
We spoke about how people don’t really buy textiles anymore. Not like back in the 70’s or 80’s when textiles or fibre-art was really a contemporary and edgy artform. So there’s that. An image problem. But there’s also a battle in the choice of materials:
“Australia is a country with strong, harsh sunlight, right? Dyes aren’t like Japanese pigments or oil paints. Those pale dye colours are beautiful but in 30, 40, 50 years time, after being hung on a wall, how will they be? Dealers or galleries, when they hear a work is textile, they worry about the colour fading. It’s a tiresome thing to have to think about…but you can’t avoid it. It’s one thing to develop these technical skills but you also have to somehow overcome the weakness inherent in the materials that you are using”
And it’s a valid point to make. In textiles, the materials are a challenge to work with as it is, then add to that the Australian extremes and it seems a little foolish to try and transplant Japanese materials and dyes.
When you are made to write a business plan for an Arts course or a loan application or whatever beastly reason, you have to analyse the viability of what you’re proposing. Showing that you are using resources you have, combined with skills and talent you possess, to create something that the market lacks is pretty much business plan basics.
So why try and swim upstream?
Shouldn’t I be using materials readily available to me, mixing them up with some of my particular mix of skills and putting out unique end results? That would be the most efficient use of my circumstances and abilities. That would be the least painful equation. It might even, thus, prove to be the most enjoyable.
Soestu Yanagi, considered the father of the Mingei Movement (Japanese folkcraft) backs this idea up in ‘Beauty of Miscellaneous Things’ from 1926. Admittedly, his focus is on the qualities of folk craft objects but the message is the same; material should dictate a natural outcome.
Folk crafts are invariably the product of a local environment. When a certain location is rich in a certain raw material, that material gives rise to a certain craftware. It is these resources, the gift of nature, that are the veritable mother of craft work. The natural environment, raw materials, and production, these three are inseparable. When they are as one, the resultant craftwares will be natural and free-flowing…nature is unforgiving when materials are stretched beyond reason..
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One of the things that makes learning Japanese textile techniques so magical is the wondrous array of tools and materials and the roots they bear in Japanese culture. For example, katazome is brought to life with rice and bran, with bamboo and soybeans, with seaweed, persimmon juice and mulberry fibre. All kinds of exotic components that are, on their own, just humble ingredients in Japanese life. Rice is food, bran is for pickling. Soybeans and seaweed are in everything from miso soup to salads, to broth and hotpots. Persimmon juice stains wooden house beams, kozo paper is on the walls. They each have special qualities, but they are not hard to come by. They are, in fact, the ordinary building blocks of Japanese daily life.
Take them out of context, however and they are a very different story. In a land without a culture of making bran pickles, bran can be hard to find. Where we slather the walls with paint not paper, kozo is not a necessity. As for persimmon juice? Good luck finding that in a suburban Bunnings hardware store.
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I’m now a bit stuck in my artwork because I’m going around in circles on this idea: what I’m trying to make, here in Australia, is not honest. The artworks aren’t true to place. Imported silk and chemical dyes can be used anywhere, by anyone, and instead of adding meaning to my work, they may even be taking away – not insignificantly also in terms of environmental impact.
This is a big realisation and I’m not going to be able to resolve it for myself straight away but I am starting to work away from chemical dyes and silk and pushing more towards earthy local dyes, handmade paper, homemade ink, hemp…
The challenge now becomes, how to channel all my study and experimentation up to this point into a new Southern Hemisphere distillation of katazome and yuzen that is still sophisticated but reflects where I am: here, which is not Japan but a unique place unto itself.
And if pursuing a viable and efficient art practice means I can be happily making work into my 70’s like Shindo-san up in the Kyoto mountains (and with even half of his effervescence!) that will be a giant bonus.