Unveiling the Hidden Meaning behind Takashi Wakamiya’s Lacquerware
by Paola Caronni
Among the many activities organized by the Italian Women’s Association, there are cultural events and gatherings. In particular, there is an on-going cooperation between IWA and the management of the Hong Kong University Museum and Art Gallery (HKUMAG). Through the Museum’s Director Dr. Florian Knothe and Ms. Elena Cheung, the Association is often invited to take part in private guided tours of the HKUMAG’s exhibitions.
We have recently been attending ‘The Art of Takashi Wakamiya – Contemporary Japanese Lacquer’, a small exhibition worth a visit for the refined beauty and high quality of lacquerware on display.
Japan’s lacquer industry flourished during the Meiji period (1868-1912) and greatly helped promoting Japanese export at a time when Japan’s traditional objects began to attract foreign countries’ attention. Numerous artists started operating in this field and nowadays Takashi Wakamiya (born in 1964) is one of the most renowned contemporary lacquer masters. The artist’s studio, Hikoju Makie, promotes the return to the traditional form of workshop production that went partially lost once, in the second half of the Meiji period, a westernization of the Japanese concept of art took over. Artisans had been required to become individual artists rather than being allowed to contribute with their specific task to the creative process. Due to this, the high standards of lacquerware production could not always be achieved.
In Wakamiya’s studio, each lacquer object is the result of the combined expertise of around forty high-skilled specialists who, in the last thirty years, have been crafting contemporary objects (for decorative or everyday use) that blend innovation, tradition, high quality and attention to detail. What is surprising of this lacquerware is that it is often made to imitate other materials. The visitor’s eyes are fooled by the artefacts’ appearance and it’s hard to believe that what looks like bronze, ceramic or clay has been in reality obtained with layers of lacquer finely applied on wood.
The beauty of Wakamiya’s creations lays also in their hidden meanings, personal story and in the specific role and identity that they acquire. During our visit, it has been fascinating to unveil the artist’s soul through his artistic expressions.
The ‘Sai No Saisenbako’ (Rhinoceros Offertory Box) got its inspiration from Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut ‘Rhinoceros’.Wakamiya’s art piece includes an incense case, in the form of an offertory box that can be inserted into the animal’s belly by opening its head. It is my favourite piece and one of the highest expression of how great artistic skills can deceive the eyes. The lacquer’s patina makes us not only believe that the material utilised is bronze, but that the object belongs to an ancient past: we are treasuring its everlasting presence in the limitation of man’s life.
Another very refined object is the ‘Gourd Sake Decanter’. Six gourds symbolize the wish for health and strength. The object can be opened – like the majority of Wakamiya’s creations – and the painting of nine horses adds to the decanter’s beauty. Horses have been always highly treasured by the villagers because it was believed that they would bring good fortune and protection to those who owned them. Furthermore, the word ‘horse’ in Japanese is ‘uma’, which sounds like umaku iku’, meaning ‘many things go well’. Again, an unexpected and auspicious wish for luck and happiness is revealed once discovering all the single parts of this decanter. The lower side can also be opened, showing the representation of a traditional Japanese village.
The ‘Seido-Nuri Temple Bell Container’ seems made of aged copper, but it is lacquer. It represents a Buddhist temple bell – inspired by the big bell of Chion-in Temple in Kyoto – clenched by a dragon’s claw. The bell with claw is related to a Noh play, the Dōjō-ji that – to summarize the story – tells us of a woman who falls in love with a monk. As the monk rejects her, the woman’s anger turns her into a snake-dragon, in perpetual search of the monk hidden under the bell. The shape of the bell symbolizes the passing of time.
The ‘Bear Yatate’ is a portable brush-and-ink case in the shape of what, at a first glance, looks like a cute teddy bear that can be stored inside a hand-knitted pouch. Taking a closer look, we notice that the bear’s tail is bitten by a salmon and his head is full of bee stings. This ‘revisited’ portable brush-and-ink case, commonly used in the past by the Japanese warriors, represents resilience amidst life’s hardship and it’s the expression of the artist’s thought: despite the many sufferings that man experiences in life, there is always the desire to go on and never give up.
Besides displaying amazing objets d’art and allowing us to uncover the hidden idea or meaning behind them, thanks also to Kikki, our docent, this exhibition provided us with information about the process of sap extraction from the lacquer tree and the making of lacquerware in its various elaborate stages. A video (with Chinese subtitles only, unfortunately) showcases the complex work that takes place in the artist’s studio.
(‘The Art of Takashi Wakamiya: Contemporary Japanese Lacquer’ runs until the 19th of June 2016 at the University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong, 90 Bonham Road, Hong Kong. http://www.hkumag.hku.hk/exhibition.html )