Can there exist objects that are not designed for practical use, yet are not simply decorative pieces?
That is the question Keiko Masumoto‘s exhibition “Kitsch Kogei” at the ICN gallery in London is asking.
Masumoto’s pieces, such as this octopus pot, take a look at the blurred boundaries between fine art and craft. Is this piece, a pot, a useful vessel, or a decorative art piece? Can an object be both?
Take a look at this flowered plate:
What would be a simple piece of craft – a decorative plate – has been turned into something else by the flowers which seem to climb from the plate’s pattern itself and break the boundaries of the craft object.
The pièce de résistance of the exhibition is this pagoda pot:
The pagoda would have been a very familiar sight to Masumoto as she lived, studied and worked in Kyoto. But she’s taken this familiar, traditional object, mixed it with a simple pot or vessel, and twisted it into something new.
The first time Japanese art was exposed to the West was at the 1873 World Expo in Vienna. This Japanese art mainly consisted of pottery, craft and ukiyo-e. There wasn’t really any contemporary art in Japan at the time, and in fact there wasn’t even a word for “art” until 1873. After the expo, influences of Western art began to show in Japan, and art was taught at universities there. The development of art and craft were parallel at that time, and the word “kogei” became an ambiguous word because the boundaries between art and craft were blurred.
Keiko Masumoto sits somewhere on the border between art and craft. Inspired by artists such as Kozan Miyagawa, who wanted to use traditional Japanese techniques and bring them to the West, Masumoto takes elements of craft and moves them into the world of fine art.
(Image source: V&A)
The piece above reminds me a great deal of Masumoto’s “Kinkakuji/Plate”, which was exhibited at the ICN gallery last year:
Masumoto was also influenced by the traditions of the Japanese tea ceremony, and she tries to incorporate the values of Japanese culture into her work. Tea ceremony teaches the value of aesthetics and beauty, and so do Masumoto’s pieces. On the one hand, tea is just something that is drunk every day, but through the tea ceremony the bowl, the instruments, and the tea itself are valued and respected as almost sacred items. Masumoto’s plates and vessels are, on the one hand, simple craft objects. However, the beautiful, kitsch twists she has added, make them something else entirely.
I’m not in a position to purchase art but, if I were, I would buy art like this. In particular, I have my eye on the octopus/pot piece. This piece is so much more than I realised on first glance, and it’s thanks to the Curator, Hisami Omori, that I now understand it better. At a gallery talk, I heard Omori explaining that the pattern on the octopus piece is actually known as “octopus arabesque” or tako karakusa”. This pattern is a typical Japanese pattern from the Edo period.
Also, when octopuses are caught in Japan, they use a kind of vase or pot to catch them (know as a “tako tsubo”):
So here, in Masumoto’s octopus/pot piece, you have a three-fold play on meanings: it’s a pot, like those used to catch octopuses, covered in octopus arabesque, with actual octopus tentacles bursting from the edges of the pot. This idea of collecting “three” could also be said to have come from the traditions of the tea ceremony.
Tomorrow – 31st March – is the last day of the exhibition. Make sure you squeeze it in to your Saturday if you can!
Keiko Masumoto (b. 1982; Hyogo, Japan)
After completing both undergraduate and graduate ceramic programs at Kyoto City University in 2007, Masumoto was an instructor at ceramic studio Fumosha in Kyoto for three years. From 2010 she has been an artist-in-residence at the University of Arts (Philadelphia, USA). She has won numerous awards including the Grand prix at Tokyo Wonder Wall (sponsored by Tokyo metropolitan government) and has work in the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art’s collection.
(The ICN’s next exhibition, “What is Ukiyo-e?” part 1, will run from 5th to 28th April.)