Eastern Exchanges at Manchester Art Gallery

TNorimono - Sedan Chairhe norimono (Japanese sedan chair) that sits immediately to the left of the entrance of Eastern Exchanges is the curator’s inspiration to the collection of objects from China, Japan and Korea that is currently on display at Manchester Art Gallery. The exhibition has three themes: Distinctly Eastern, East Meets West and Future East. The wall colours in each zone helps to distinguish between each section.

As Friends of the Art Gallery we were given a guided tour. This allowed us to hear that stories behind the objects and have a deeper understand of the context of their origins. With so many unique items on display I have chosen three that particularly interested me:

– Norimono, early 19th century Japanese sedan chair
– Gyokusendo, golden tea pot
– Orb, white porcelain sculpture

In Distinctively Eastern, the blue zone, there is a focus on material and design elements and other aspects of creative aesthetics that make it different from the West. The norimono sits within this area and has not been on display at the gallery for over 30 years. It is a fine example of lacquerwork, a craft that requires the tree sap of a particular species of East Asian trees. The labour process is intensive: the wood must be seasoned, the surface must be flawless and the layers of lacquer must be cured in a warm and humid environment. Each layers would take two days to set. Objects would have a minimum of 6 coats, and the sedan chair is likely to have had 20-30 layers of lacquer applied.

The black and gold design of the norimono would have originated from China, where at one point it fell out of fashion but was adopted by the Japanese, who went onto create their own signature style. It was a common occurrence for each country to reinterpret crafts that travelled within the region. From the sedan chair’s surface design, the coat of arms (three hollyhock leaves) denotes that it belonged to the Tokugawa family. It was likely to have been the carriage of a female member of the family. She would have knelt on the ground to enter through the sliding door. The 10 stone sedan chair (not including the weight of the person inside) would have been lifted by two men holding the pole in front and two behind.

The inside of the norimono would have been lined with tissue paper. A fragile material that has unfortunately not survived the test of time and a mere 5% of it remains. This explains the closed door – which will help to preserve what little remains intact. It leaves us to only imagine the delicate and exquisite beauty it must have been.

Gyokusendo and Yasuko Sakurai

Image Credit: Manchester Art Gallery

In the golden zone of East Meets West, the exhibition examines how the cultural differences have influenced crafts from both sides of the world. The copper teapot is an object that we can easily relate to and at first glance may not seem all that remarkable. But on further inspection it emerges that it has been hammered by hand from a single sheet of copper – rather mind boggling method. But thankfully the designers at Gyokusendo have a set of videos to demystify their traditional hammering technique.

In the final section of the gallery, Future East, works of contemporary designers and the new direction of East Asian crafts are on show. Yasuko Sakurai’s white porcelain Orb sits in this area. During a recent Thursday Late, she shared the influences of Kyoto, the place she was born and a city of immense historical significance in Japan. It is famous for the landmark Tori arches and where old houses made with siding doors with paper-lined windows still stands. These windows were not only created to let natural light in, but they were also designed to create a crop of the outside world – a picture frame of nature. It is this influence and way of thinking that led her to embracing porcelains that lets light in but at the same time very interesting shadows are formed through the holes.

A quick thank you to Janet Boston, exhibition curator, for taking us on this Manchester Art Gallery Friends tour and for organising the related artists talks.

Eastern Exchanges: East Asian Craft and Design

Thursday 2 April 2015 – Sunday 31 May 2015
Manchester Art Gallery, Mosley Street, Manchester, M2 3JL

Japanese cultural elsewhere
I also recently visited Metamorphosis of Japan After the War, the photographic exhibition organised by The Japan Foundation. It is currently showing at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool until 28th April 2015. Further details are available from Open Eye Gallery website.

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