Stitch by Stitch @ Metropolitan Teien Museum


If there is one show that makes me wish I was I was sweating it out in Tokyo this summer, it is the “Stitch by Stitch: Traces I Made With Needle and Thread” group show of needlework-inspired fine art that has opened this weekend at the Metropolitan Teien Museum in Meguro. It’s a rare occasion that contemporary art has been seen at this famous art deco museum. The crossover of fine art and textile or clothes design is an area we should be seeing much more of from Japan. Its avant garde clothes designers, of course, are already massively famous internationally—ever since the so-called “Japanese revolution” in Parisian catwalk fashion back in the late 80s and early 90s, where Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo, and others pioneered totally new shapes, lines, materials, textures and forms of drama on the catwalk. They practically invented the notion of “fashion show as art” that has come to dominate this world in the 1990s and after. Yet fine art in Japan has never really connected much with this opening to the world. And, despite the high end cool of Japanese fashion design, or the image of Shibuya and Omotesando as global trendsetters, the fashion market in Japan remains overwhelmingly driven by foreign imports, not Japanese exports. Where it has had commercial success internationally, is in the high priced, specialist, craftwork end of designer fashion—a good example being the phenomenal global success of the Evisu jeans brand, which has made a name for itself by its dedication to piece-by-piece, individualised, rough, hand-stitched production methods and use of natural indigo dye processes, combined with the impeccable aura of Japanese design. It is this combination that gives a clue to how some characteristic forms of Japanese contemporary art could have more impact, if the same key elements could be forged and presented as a pointer to where Japanese fine arts are at their most original and outstanding.

This is my principle interest in the exhibition at Teien Museum, which showcases artists with whom I am familiar alongside others with whom I am not. All of them cross the dividing line between art and textile or fashion design, but in a way that does not attribute everything new and exciting to the technological design side—unlike, say, the vision promoted by Issey Miyake’s 21:21 Museum in Roppongi, where cutting edge designers experimenting with technology have been presented as if they were just artists in a gallery context. But there is an alternative creative relationship being pioneered by artists, such as those on show here, who were trained to think and work in a contemporary fine art context, but whose methods and conceptual goals incorporate particular, needlework-based forms of craft or production. I take some of these cues from the artist Satoru Aoyama who has recently been picking up some noteworthy attention in these pages and elsewhere (see the interview currently on the home page of ART-iT). What kind of fine art is appropriate in age where art is increasingly submitted to the hegemony of more advanced design practices and innovation driven by new technological possibilities (an example being Murakami’s whole notion of “superflat”: of art as no more than mass producible commercial branding exercises designed on computers)? In Aoyama’s reading of the socialist utopian writing of 19th century British author William Morris – whose famous works reflected on the meaning of art and culture in a society being transformed by industrial revolution – Aoyama seems to suggest that fine art might want to position itself, not like contemporary design and those that chase after it, at the cutting edge of technology, but rather in a sometimes nostalgic, sometimes utopian place where art can do something with possibilities that might otherwise be lost in the relentless march of progress and development. Aoyama makes abstract and figurative art from older, now defunct technology – using an industrial post-war sewing machine that imposes a method, discipline and enforced slowness, but which also opens up a new reworking of the representational development of art through a kind of physically reinvented form of “digitalisation”—with stitches as pixels.

Aoyama is not included in this show, but these ideas resonate well in this context. Kei Takemura, for example, was like Aoyama part of the Yokohama show, THE ECHO, last year. For Takemura, the creative step backwards is in terms of memory and renovation: fine silk binding and reinventing everyday objects that might otherwise be junk; or her spectacular, translucent tapestries on to which objects and memorabilia are stitched, often as a back drop to some remembered performance. The art is a pause out of time—and space, since it stitches together memories gathered in Japan, and across Europe and Asia, The second stand out artist for me, is Ruriko Murayama, who has been highly profiled to a wide audience through the Neoteny show recently, as well as a solo show in May at her gallery Yamamoto Gendai. The quilt shown above, meanwhile, dominated "True Colours", the 4th Fuchu Biennial last year, eventually being bought by the Mori Museum.

Here, she has startling new work that is beginning to combine even more directly fashion and stitchwork as an artistic medium: with gothic cloaks, shoes and other items stuffed full of her characteristic multicoloured beads, flowers and frills. It all might be misunderstood as a kind of happy and easy kitsch, until the intensity of the colour and textures starts to be seen and felt again, with the haberdashery spilling out of the clothes like exposed animals’ innards. It is above all consistent method and the enormity of the task taken on by the artist in making these items, piece by painful piece, which in turn provide the conceptual base. The extraordinary investment in hand stitching and hand dyeing all these meticulously collected and matched items couldn’t be further than the mass produced Koons’ style art factories that were supposed to be the future of global art until recently. The physical processes and the infinite care put in to the work are small gestures of resistance and individuality against commercial hegemony; the intensity and perfectionism of production techniques that could – superficially, flatly, blandly – be executed on computer, by automated processes, or by many hands—but weren’t. There is for sure something of the traditional values of Japanese textile arts and design about all this – but the work looks like nothing like traditional, full of tactile and visual surprises. Above all, too, the work is very beautiful, something that seeing it in this museum will emphasise.







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