Sunday, August 1, 2010

"Boro", for Want of a Blog Post Title - Part 2

EDIT: As I learned from Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada, when the Japanese word "asa" is used, previous to early-mid 20 century, it meant bast fiber. Most all items collected by Mr Tanaka would, therefore, have been bast fiber, from hemp, remy, nettle, linden, wisteria or mulberry.

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Mr Tanaka wrote of things I did not know, or was surprised to read.

In the Nanbu region, (See the link to the map in the previous post), because of the strong spring wind, rice did not grow easily, so farmers grew beans, vegetables, wheat, Japanese barnyard millet (Echinochloa esculenta) and the like, whereas in Tsugaru to the west, where rice grew, farmers were able to buy cotton fabric soon after The War. Generally, we Japanese (from lower south) think of the Pacific (east, or right) side of the country to be warmer, and the Sea of Japan side colder, so this surprised me. When they talk about antique/vintage fabric from the Nanbu, or Tsugaru until the 1950's, it always meant linen. Both linen and cotton were sometimes, but not always, dyed with Indigo.

I don't remember Mr Tanaka mentioning what the floors of the houses were made of, so I don't know if it was wood or tatani mats. At night, they spread straw and dried grass on the floor, then this sheet, made of layers and layers of tiny linen scraps quilted onto each other, and even linen threads too short to sew with. These sheets were used also at childbirth; women held on to straps hanging from the rafter and squatted above the sheets.

The rag-quilted jackets were worn indoors, and to bed at night. On cold nights, folks stripped off their clothing and crawled under these jackets, children with grownups, so everybody could keep everybody else warm. And apparently, these were seldom/never washed, so wearing antique pieces of clothing meant that not only the cloths were old, but the garments contained the blood, sweat, tears and amniotic fluid of one's ancestors. And these garments were so stiff from the layers of linen and accumulation of body fluids that they could stand up on their own. (To a post-War generation who had everything laundered almost every day, these stories gave me the heebie-jeebies.)

The indigenous Ainu people once live all over northern Japan, but were pushed further and further north as the "Japanese" (and we don't know the origins of the Japanese as yet,) expanded northwards. Historically, in most areas, they were brutally treated, discriminated, and lived in tiny mountainous villages in hiding. However, people in Tanaka's regions liked the Ainu garment designs, and even after the Ainu left, the Japanese carried on the Ainu techniques and motifs, so some of the Ainu-themed garments not as old as initially thought to be.

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I'm also considering the (historical) museum vs. art museum/gallery distinction, and the revitalization/transformation of old craft techniques and aesthetics. As a Japanese reading historical backgrounds of the contents of Mr Tanaka's collections, I feel mighty uneasy "Boro" is another fad, cut off from the harsh, cold realities of origins of the cloths. (And the top of Honshu is really cold, and some areas were very poor.) That part of me thinks these garments and equipment used to make them should be cataloged and housed in a historical museum, viewed with respect, and God forbid, never sold online for pittance with no reference to their hisotry. At the same time, I know that old style archival treatment kills the cloths, that they will then belong to "the past", and not the present, and eventually forgotten. These cloths are be better off circulated, cut up, redeployed, but still admired in whatever form. And the styles and techniques copied and further developed. Even in n different parts of the world.

I don't have a conclusion. I just feel sad to see old Kimono being sold for nothing, even in Japan, and yet I didn't want to keep them with due reverence and in storage in my house, and brought some to a stash sale myself.

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The larger catalog in the photo on the previous post is the 49th Japan Crafts Exhibition catalog Mom sent me recently. I love the aesthetics in between these pages; it's like "coming home" where the objects and their designs feel familiar. Many are clean, simple and tidy works of ceramics, textiles, (including "just weaving" handwoven cloths,) woodwork, furniture and jewelry; some are earthy and "traditional", nothing "out there", and all functional. I feel reassured my cloth does not lack oomph nor are "bad" because they are "not edgy enough"; iti's good to know there are a bunch of people making and appreciating beautiful handmade things that don't challenge but are easily loved. This catalog lets me sigh big sighs of relief every time I study the pages.

The small book on the left, and five others, are by Yanagi Sohetsu; this one is "The Nature of Folk-Crafts", originally published in 1941. For a while his books had been on my reading list, but I finally got some in January.

Even back in 1941, Yanagi felt strongly that non-utilitarian visual art was gaining too much respect among critics, academics, and the market, and this book is his case on behalf of craft. Among other things, he cites individualism (bad) of visual art and artists vs. the community (good) background/ownership/heritage of craft and he thought it was vital objects and artists are strongly connected to a place. I wonder what he would make of the Internet.

I've only just started on this book, but I have two views on what I've read so far. First, I feel vindicated my gut feeling of craft being superior, (whatever that means,) to non-utilitarian art is probably typical of post-Yanagi Japanese, even though I, we, may not have read his writing. Second, I disagree with his view, (or what I understand to be that after reading only a few pages,) that craft and art is mutually exclusive. I myself see it more as a continuum; I am interested to learn more about his definition of craft, (which seems narrower than mine,) and if he discusses makers and works that elevated, (I can't believe I'm using these words!!) craft into art.

It's been a gray, misty, OK, shitty weekend, and an unproductive one. I want to put on some cheerful music now.

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