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Posts Tagged ‘mingeikan’

The exterior of the Mingeikan, in the Komaba neighborhood of Meguro. A short walk from the University of Tokyo, Komaba campus, and two train stops from Shibuya. Photo my own.

April 25, 2017

The Nihon Mingeikan (Japan Folk Crafts Museum) is an interesting place. It’s a terrible shame they don’t allow you to take photos, because the atmosphere is just wonderful. It’s a 1930s house, all in dark wood and just a very “rustic” Mingei appropriate sort of feel. Indigo-dyed textiles hang on the walls, and rough ceramic jugs sit in the corners here and there. Very little about the museum looks post-modern – the display cases are in dark wood, like handmade artifacts of cabinetry in themselves. The gallery labels are all handwritten. Few of the objects are really all that compelling by themselves, at least to me, but in contrast to many museums, where the idea is to contemplate or appreciate each individual object in a void, here the value is found in the total experience – seeing these objects all arranged together, as part of the total Mingei aesthetic of the overall space, along with the building itself.

I was sad to not see any Okinawa objects on display right now, but they do have rooms set aside for African pieces, and for Korea. The rest is all Japanese. There’s also something wonderful about how nearly all of the objects they have on display are worn, damaged. I don’t think you have to come into it with a particular eye for that aesthetic to be taken in by it, to quickly come to think about these objects as aesthetic, as beautiful, as capable of being appreciated, despite not being gorgeous, stunning, shining like-new works. Even though they are old, and worn, and damaged, still, (or perhaps all the more so) we can appreciate their aesthetic. Their colors, their textures. How they were made.

And while the museum is mostly ceramics, lacquerwares, textiles, I was pleasantly surprised to see some very neat artifacts – like an Edo period clock – and some paintings and woodblock books.

From the Mingeikan’s official website. If they won’t let me take my own photos, I’ll just have to use theirs.

I don’t want to get into a whole discussion of the pros and cons of Mingei thought here, but let’s suffice it to say that I think it’s a really interesting building, and an interesting art/aesthetic movement. Yes, Mingei is (was) closely tied in with a colonialist and patronizing rhetoric of “modern” Japan as more modern, more advanced, better, than the “twee” “quaint” Ryukyu, Korea, Ainu, and Taiwan. That Mingei appreciates these arts is intimately tied into a sort of patronizing “we’ll protect you, and protect your art and culture for you, because we appreciate it [better] and because we can protect it better than you can.” Not to mention the vast complexes of Oriental Orientalism, the ways in which Ryukyu and Korea were not actually appreciated on their own, but rather appreciated as signs of how Japan used to be, and as elements of what now was included within the Japanese Empire. The quaint, rustic, aesthetic and culture that modern Japan had lost.

But, you know, for all of that, while we certainly can’t ignore it, can’t forget about it or put it aside, at the same time, is there not value in appreciation of the rustic in and of itself? Yanagi and friends went against the currents of their time, and of our time, to say that these things, worn, old, damaged, many of them made quite roughly or crudely to begin with (as judged by certain metrics or value systems), were worthy of appreciation too. That “art” should not be limited to the more explicitly “beautiful,” and that we should be wary and careful of what we lose in the rush to modernity. Is that not worthy of praise, or appreciation, in itself?

There’s also an interesting question to ponder as to whether we should see the Mingeikan, as a whole, as an artifact of a past age, or whether we should see it as very much a part of what Japan remains today. I’m not sure I have an answer for that. Certainly, on the surface, it feels like it still very much fits in. Doesn’t look all that out of place amidst this suburban neighborhood… To me, the house doesn’t feel like stepping back into the 1930s, like many historic houses might be intended to do; rather, it feels like stepping into another side of, another part of, what Japan still very much is, today.

Reminds me of a talk I went to recently with the artist Yamamoto Tarô. Many of his paintings juxtapose traditional/historical motifs, styles, elements – sometimes entire historical compositions – with elements of the contemporary. Such as a copy of Ogata Kôrin’s “Red and White Plum Blossoms,” but with a Coca-Cola can pouring into the river, creating that same swirling aesthetic as Kôrin painted centuries ago. Or a Tagasode (“Whose Sleeves?”) painting of kimono hanging on a rack, but with the kimono replaced by an Aloha shirt and Hawaiian-style quilt. He told us he had the idea while sitting within the grounds of a centuries-old Buddhist temple, eating a Big Mac. I had always thought of his paintings as whimsical parodies. And I think he does intend some degree of humor. But, listening to Yamamoto talk, I realized his deeper point – that while the Big Mac does feel weird, does feel like a juxtaposition against the grounds of that medieval temple, in another way it’s actually really quite normal. The temple is a part of contemporary Japan, a part of contemporary life in that neighborhood, just as much as anything else. Contemporary life in Japan is not made up solely of the things invented or created or designed in the last century; tradition and history are very much here, and real, and really a part of it.

So, that brings us back to the Mingeikan. Many historical houses intentionally preserve the appearance of the past, in order to transport you there. There’s certainly a lot to be said about that, too, and how these historical houses are nevertheless inevitably also a part of real, contemporary life, contemporary cityscapes. There can never be a more complete separation – either it exists within the contemporary, or it simply doesn’t exist at all. But, still, to the extent that many historic houses, castles, and so forth very much explicitly intend to be a pocket of the past, separated from the present, I’m not sure the Mingeikan is trying to do that, which is quite interesting to me. Both in Yanagi’s own time, and today, I think Mingei is trying to say, appreciate tradition, appreciate the rustic, keep it in your modern life, don’t rush to become too totally modern too quickly.

At a former samurai home in Sakura, Chiba. (Photo my own.)

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