Love Garden

September 16, 2012

Yesterday I went up to Nagoya for my artist friend, Ema Shin‘s exhibition, Love Garden, at Gallery ACS. Ema’s work, a mix of Japanese woodblock print, water base pigment, collage, digital print, hand cut rubber stamp, Nepalese lokta paper, Korean hemp & embroidery, is a sumptuous combination of botanical images and human biological organs – it is often difficult to distinguish between them. Ema’s use of colour reflects her Korean heritage, as well as her residencies in Kenya, Spain and Mexico.

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Kyoto weaving

September 12, 2012

How fitting it is that I am researching Japanese textiles while staying in what was an old weaving workshop in Nishijin. When S & A bought this house, S said it was full of the old looms and they were unsure whether or not the looms were to be taken away before they moved in (they were). The only thing remaining from that period is an old oil bottle that must have been used to oil the power looms.

On Sunday we could hear bumps from the house next door. They were dismantling the weaving looms after over 60 years of weaving. The weaver (81) and his wife (77) decided that it was time to stop. They came to the door on Sunday afternoon to give us boxes of soap, a gift to apologise in advance for the noise that would occur on Monday when the looms were taken away. They said that the industry has been hit hard by the Tohoku disaster, that they have lost a lot of business from up north. It’s ironic that I am here to document the way in which young artisans are taking the traditional techniques into the future and this couple are giving up their business. They have no one they can pass on their business or skills to—a refrain that has been heard throughout the industry since the Second World War.

However, as I sit here I can hear the rhythmic clacking of the weaver a few doors down, so there are still a few weavers producing material. It’s so hot that everyone has windows open in order to catch the slightest breeze. When I walk along the narrow neighbourhood streets, I can peer in to see people at their looms. I get much more of a sense of Nishijin than I have on previous trips. It really is, or was, a whole community devoted to weaving. I had a short chat with the workman next door who was clearing the looms. I said it’s a shame that they have been weaving more than 60 years and are now retiring. He thought for a minute and agreed. He chatted to me a little about it but he said the other man I could see working in the gloom of the interior knew a lot more about the business. They were busy and I didn’t want to disturb them too much. The pieces coming out are cogs and spindles, and some twisted and ripped pieces of what looks like composite metal—they won’t be used again for weaving.


April 29, 2011

Last week I attended a tsutsugaki workshop at the Australian Academy of Design. Tsutsugaki yuzen (tsutsugaki dyeing) is a 400-year-old Japanese dye-resist technique, a little like batik. Tsutsugaki utilises a rice paste to create designs on the fabric. The workshop was taught by Kobayashi Shumei, a tsutsugaki artist based in Kanazawa, Japan.

First, we use a weak dye made from the blue flower, aobana, to sketch the underdrawing onto the fabric. Then we apply the rice paste (tsutsunori) with the tsutsu, a cone-shaped bag like a cake piping bag. It’s not easy to use and takes a lot of practice to get straight lines, even though the fabric is stretched out using special bamboo poles. Once we have outlined our design with the rice paste on one side, we flip the fabric and have to apply it in exactly the same place on the other side, otherwise the dye will bleed and ruin our pattern. Usually, kimono makers don’t apply the pattern to both sides, but we do this to make the pattern more durable. The rice paste is made from rice flour and rice bran, kneaded to the consistency of ‘your earlobe’ and then steamed to turn it into a caramel-like consistency. In the past, if any of the mixture was left over the artisans grilled and ate it.

After the rice paste is dry, soybean juice is washed over the fabric with a deer-hair brush to smooth inconsistencies and because it helps to fix the paste. It smells like tofu.

Once the pattern is applied, the fabric can be coloured with dye (irosashi). We mix our choice of colours and apply washes or colour sections of our patterns in. My design has many sections so I can dye all of them in one go and don’t need to mask and over-dye. It also means I only need to steam it once. Kobayashi-sensei helps us with different techniques, teaching us how to graduate colours.

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Once my work is steamed, I can wash the rice paste out and fix the dye.

Kobayashi Shumei carries out all parts of the tsutsugaki dyeing process himself. In Japan this is rare as usually different individuals do the different steps in the process. As he says, ‘how can you call a piece of work your own if you haven’t done all of the processes yourself?’

Wadaiko Rindo

March 26, 2011

Tuesday night I attended my third fundraising event for Japan so far—a benefit concert held by Melbourne taiko group, Wadaiko Rindo. It was held in their usual practice venue, St Philips Anglican Church in Abbotsford. When I arrived there was standing room only, and they eventually had to open up more folding doors and turn pews about face as the audience continued to swell. The audience was made up of Japanese and Australians, from toddlers to grandparents so the atmosphere was very much a family one.

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The program for the evening consisted not only of traditional taiko drumming, but performances by flute and drumming trio Fuefukuro (albeit, missing one member who was back in Japan), extraordinarily talented shamisen musician Noriko Tadano who did both a group performance with the Shamys (Tsugaru Shamisen) and a solo performance, and koto player Yoshie Takahashi whose great skill created music that sounded like a harp, a guitar, and everything in between.

Noriko’s solo shamisen performance was a traditional piece from Fukushima but before her solo, Noriko gave a poignant speech to the audience about her family. She is from Fukushima and told us how hard it was not to have contact with them. They were finally able to talk on skype and she could see her grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins. The worry was etched on her face, very different from when I last saw her perform with George Kamikawa at the Japanese Culture Festival in November 2010 (the two can often be seen playing blues together on Bourke Street. But she also spoke of the support she had received in Australia and how it kept her going. It is heartening to hear.

Of the fundraisers I have been to the tallies so far are:

Japaneasy market: $8,326

Donations are going to Consulate-General of Japan in Melbourne (Japan Disaster Relief Fund) and New Zealand Red Cross 2011 Earthquake Appeal.

Horse Bazaar: $5,472

Wadaiko Rindo: $9,500

Contributions are going to the Japanese Red Cross.

Printing Ukiyo-e

March 25, 2011

I went to the National Gallery of Victoria International on Monday for a workshop. I had time before it started and decided to revisit the Asia gallery. I wandered the gallery, lingering in front of the beautiful negoro lacquer, its layers of black showing through the red. My mind was on the Japan disaster and it must have been visible on my face because as I left, the gallery guard, looked at me, hesitated, and then said, ‘Have a good afternoon’.

One of Hiroshige's 100 views of Edo

I did. The workshop I had signed up for was learning the art of printing an Ukiyo-e woodblock print using traditional methods. Thanks to the Consulate-General of Japan and the Sakai family from the Japanese Ukiyo-e Museum (JUM), it was a free one-and-a-half-hour workshop offered to the public. Printmaker Ito Tatsuya explained the process with the help of translator Yumi. The image we were colouring, one of Hiroshige’s 100 views of Edo showing Ueno Park, had 17 colours that each had to be added separately. We were going to try three colours only.

We were given the basic underdrawing, the hanshita-e on mulberry paper. One of the most important things to get right is lining up the paper on the woodblock so that each layer of colour is applied exactly where you want it. We were able to practice for a while before getting down to inking the woodblock.

Colouring the cherry blossom

Our first colour was a pale pink for sakura (cherry blossom).  Ito-san wet the woodblock a little, explaining that usually the paper would also be a little damp but was more difficult to work with like that. For beginners, it was better to keep it dry. Then he added a few drops of pink paint, a drop of nori (glue), and using a circular motion, spread it over the relevant area with a wide brush. Then he placed his paper onto the woodblock and pressed it down using a baren, a flat round instrument for that purpose. He lifted the paper and voila, the sakura had bloomed.

Adding the blue water

Ueno Park’s blue water pond was added using the same method but the yellow tint for the horizon was a little trickier. For that we had to add paint and glue in one spot, then sweep the brush back and forth so that it created a graduated colour.

Ito-san has been a printmaker for 26 years. His movements were deft and sure. As with Japanese calligraphy or ikebana masters, I could have watched him carry out his craft for hours. He patiently explained the process and answered our questions. He gave us feedback on our attempts, pointing out where we missed the placement a little, or where we might not have kept the baren absolutely flat, and praised our attempts. Considering it was the first time the workshop members had made a woodblock print, everyone did a very good job.

The graduated yellow horizon

Fundraising events

March 20, 2011

Yesterday Japaneasy Language School held a charity fundraiser for the earthquakes in Japan and Christchurch. Mountains of clothing and goods were donated for sale, as well as crafts and massages. The overall mood was upbeat which provided a short reprieve from the heavy emotional burden of worry that many Japanese and Australians have been feeling over the past week. The Christchurch earthquake has been overshadowed by the devastation in Japan but yesterday’s fundraiser was specifically for both countries.

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In talking to people about the Japanese disaster, the damage is so great that many are rendered speechless. It is simply incomprehensible, but it is heartening to know that, even though the Australian public has been saturated with demand for charity donations in recent years, people are still willing to give generously.

The Japanese drumming group, Wadaiko Rindo, are holding a benefit concert for Japan on Tuesday night (22nd March) at St Philip’s Anglican Church, 144-148 Hoddle Street, Abbotsford from 6.30–8.30pm. Please go and show your support.

The good of the whole

February 16, 2011

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Recently I overheard an expat’s comment that the Tiananmen Square Massacre was justified because killing a few was “for the good of the whole”. I have to say I was gobsmacked by this comment. The good of the whole? My mind keeps coming back to the PLA image I saw at Ma Jian’s presentation last year of an individual after he had been run over by a tank. He was obviously not part of “the whole”. Nor his family, friends, or acquaintances. Nor the hundreds of thousands of other students and workers that took part in protests, nor the supporters in 400 other cities throughout the country at the time. And what about the tank driver? Was it for his benefit? Or his senior officer? Or the individuals ordered to clean up afterwards? Estimates of total deaths for the period vary dramatically from between hundreds to tens of thousands but surely the irony of an uprising of the people for political reform cannot have been lost on the communist old guard. More than 20 years on, the shock waves of this incident reverberate throughout the country, every year the date noted but shied away from. The literal and emotional crushing of a people was “for the good of the whole”? This justification of the massacre is as terrifying as the incident itself.

A few weeks ago I stood in Tiananmen Square. What did I feel? Nothing. A void. A vast empty space that sucks everything into it, an emotional black hole. It is the largest public square in the world, and, in the good tradition of socialist architecture, makes you feel as powerless and insignificant as a mere ant—wasn’t the revolution’s catch cry “power to the people”? I can’t help feeling that if a government is governing well, then it shouldn’t need to slaughter its own citizens.

Perhaps it is churlish to compare but it is hard not to when a similar situation has recently occurred in Egypt. How did they deal with it? Did they run over people with tanks? No. I’m sure that Egypt still has a long way to go as far as political stability and re-establishing peace for Egyptian people, and there will no doubt be rough times ahead, but surely the government’s actions come much closer to the notion of “for the good of the whole” than those of the PRC in 1989.

Beijing coma

September 6, 2010

‘You live in Asia but you are white. We are so close but so far apart.’ This is how Chinese writer, Ma Jian, speaking on the final day of the Melbourne Writers Festival, began his talk. I had to wonder what the portion of the Melbourne population that is not ‘white’ felt about this remark, but it is an interesting comment on the image outsiders have of Australia. Since I moved to Melbourne three years ago I have been surprised by the multicultural mix of the city. I can hear several languages in one day and I love that about living here. But Ma Jian’s remark brought back another discussion I had with a Korean friend of mine five years ago. She has lived and worked in Paris for 20 years but she said that she had always felt inferior to white people. This is a woman who is well-educated, has travelled the world, is fluent in three languages and teaches classical guitar at one of the Parisian music conservatoires. For me, her Korean ethnicity, her Asian-ness, is just another aspect of her character. In my mind, she is no different from any of my friends but am I kidding myself in thinking so? I am white but I live in Asia.

Ma Jian speaks in colours. He is known for his book, Red Dust, a travelogue that takes the reader around his country. His more recent novel, Beijing Coma, is about one of the defining moments in Chinese history – a moment that a young Ma Jian was there to witness – the confrontation between the people and the state in Tiananmen Square. In his story, a man who happens to be following his girlfriend into Tiananmen Square on 4th June 1989, gets hit by a stray bullet and enters a coma. It is a tragic tale alleviated only by Ma Jian’s black humour. ‘You call it “black humour”. For me, I call it “red humour”,’ he tells us. Perhaps Ma Jian speaks in colours because he began his career as a photojournalist, or perhaps it is because of the images he has seen since, covertly passed to him by PLA soldiers. These images are shocking – there is a massive irony that communism is associated with ‘red’. The most horrific image is that of a man after a tank has rolled over him. I would not have recognised any part as human – all that remained was a smear like strawberry jam on the road. A squashed bug. ‘No matter how absurd things are in my writing, you can find more absurd things in reality,’ Ma Jian says.

The other morning as I stepped into the shower I realised that a small moth was caught in the cubicle. It was waterlogged and drowning, trying to pull itself away from the water droplets on the corner edge of the bath. I thought, should I save it or should I put it out of its misery? If it was a butterfly I would definitely save it, and a moth is not so different from a butterfly. Why should it be killed just because it is drab and grey rather than bright and colourful? So I saved it. I do not like to even take the life of a bug. What thoughts went through the tank driver’s mind on June 4th? Who cleaned the road afterwards? It is hardly surprising that China suffers a collective amnesia in the face of such history. ‘June 4th’ is the most difficult internet search term in China’ Ma Jian tells us. ‘Collective amnesia is about survival,’ he explains. But it is writers like Ma Jian that China needs if it is going to develop beyond mere economics and escape from its own moral coma.


September 4, 2010

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About three weeks ago a new Japanese shop opened in Fitzroy. Ura has a distinctly Kyoto feel to it and is everything I love about Japan. The atmosphere is warm, relaxed and cosy with traditional tansu (chests of drawers) and wooden display tables. Owner Yutaka Matsuda’s concept for the shop is to stock ‘treasures’ that customers will discover and fall in love with, hence Ura sells a mixture of seemingly random items—pottery teacups, second-hand clothes and kimono, Japanese school badges, noren and tabi socks. But perhaps the most exciting product Ura will be selling from September are jika-tabi, the traditional Japanese-style shoes with the separated big toe. The jika-tabi are made by a company I know well, Sou Sou, from Kyoto.

Sou Sou prides itself on the fact that its goods are designed and made in Japan. The Sou Sou design concept is based on traditional Japanese clothingshirt collars influenced by the crossover kimono, wide sleeves, side ties and simple flowing lines. Designer Wakabayashi-san says that designs have to be useful so Sou Sou aim to retain the convenient aspects of traditional Japanese clothing but create something modern. ‘We want to upgrade the kimono, like you would upgrade your computer.’ The fabric patterns are modern Japan—funky flowers, hiragana letters, dots and stripes, mon, colourful stylised chrysanthemums. Wakabayashi-san says that Japan has a history of making things that suit the environment, designs that depict the seasons and the physical world. He also points out that Japanese are collectors, a fact very much reflected in the eclectic mix of contemporary Japanese fashion and style. ‘[You can find a] world museum in Japan.’

As a company, Sou Sou is not interested in being a fashion brand. As Wakabayashi explains, they see fashion brands as mostly short-term trends because 90% of fashion brands fold relatively quickly. Sou Sou is in it for the long-term, and have collaborated with other very well-established names such as Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Le Coq Sportif. However, for me, their best product is the jika-tabi. This kind of footwear have a mixed image in Japan. Often, the only time the young wear them is when participating in festivals. Older generations are reminded of traditional workmen’s shoes, especially construction workers who used the tread on their jika-tabi to help them climb the bamboo scaffolding poles on building sites. It’s still possible to see construction workers today wearing jika-tabi and the baggy genie-style trousers that go with them. The basic design of Sou Sou’s jika-tabi is based on these Taisho-period workshoes, but the fabrics and molded soles definitely give them a radical upgrade. So, if you are keen to get the iPad-equivalent for your feet, check out Ura.

28 Johnston St
Fitzroy 3065
Ph: 9416 4503

Last weekend I went to Cibi café in Collingwood for a Japanese breakfast. Breakfast at Cibi’s is always good but you have to get there early as they often sell out. Their traditional Japanese breakfast consists of rice, grilled salmon, tamago-yaki (Japanese-style omelette), potato salad, ingen no gomae (green bean salad with sesame dressing), and a miso soup packed with veggies that will have you tossing away your instant packets immediately. The soup is served in comfort-inducing Japanese lacquer-ware bowls. The open-plan kitchen sits in the centre of the café, an island of activity feeding the sleepy Saturday morning crowd.

‘Cibi’ (pronounced chibi) means ‘a little one’ in Japanese, and is the inspiration behind owner/architect Zenta’s concept for the warehouse space—a haven for childlike wonder and whimsy. After breakfast we browsed the beautiful goods in the other half of the space—designer tenugui, ceramic bowls and ergonomic condiment holders, bento boxes and cutlery. They are currently selling works by Japanese industrial designer Sori Yanagi, famous for his fabulous butterfly stool amongst other items.