Yoshihiko Takahashi’s messages in a bottle

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

The obvious property of glass is that it is transparent, but for Yoshihiko Takahashi this is only one of its essential characteristics. The prolific glass artist, whose career is being honored by a retrospective at the Crafts Gallery of the Museum of Modern Art Tokyo, clearly has several handles on the substance. For him glass is not only a refractor of light, but it is also a medium with which to explore mass, emptiness, shape and design.

Holding the exhibition at the Crafts Gallery serves a useful purpose by setting up comparisons with more conventional craft arts, most notably ceramics. Both glass and ceramic art derive from the manufacture of functional items whose incidental aesthetic aspect has then been extended into pure art with a concomitant loss of functionality. In both cases, the degree to which functionality has been dispensed with has effectively brought into question the old division between arts and crafts.

With around 100 works, the show includes pieces from the 1980s, shortly after Takahashi set up his own workshop in Kanagawa Prefecture, to extremely recent ones that were perhaps made with this show in mind. With someone as creatively restless as Takahashi, this ensures that wide variety of approaches to glass art is on display.

The earliest piece is the enigmatically titled “GS-O” (1986). This is displayed separately from the main exhibition in the gallery’s permanent collection. In this work there is no transparency. Using a fuming technique, the artist applied a membrane of metallic salts to emphasize the item’s form. Eschewing transparency in this way draws parallels with ceramics, where the plasticity and malleability of the material and its ability to hold color and glaze are dominant. In short, this work de-glasses glass.

But there are also insurmountable differences between the two materials, as ceramics are entirely shaped before they are fired, whereas glass only becomes malleable after the flame has been applied. This imposes a certain distance between the creator and the created.

The famous potter Kazuo Yagi who tried both mediums commented on these differences.

“With glass, design is nothing more than pointing out a path,” he wrote in his memoirs. “The traveler who walks that path and reaches the destination is the glass itself…. While it was soft, I could ask to have it indented there or made to swell out there, but I never felt the sort of satisfaction I experience daily when getting my fingers into the clay itself.”

While clay is tactile and intimate, glass is spiritual and remote. Much of Takahashi’s endeavors seem to have been spurred by the chaste nature of the material. This can be seen in his experiments with sand blasting, which can be read as an attempt to overcome the stand-offishness of a material that is first too hot to touch and then too cold to shape. One of his acknowledged masterpieces “Arc” (1993) presents a thick funnel of glass that has been carefully, almost obsessively inscribed with a honeycomb of holes through sandblasting, a method of carving in which a high-pressured stream of abrasive particles are propelled against a surface.

Later works, such as the “Bottle of White Dots” (2011) and “Bottle with White Arm” (2011), show a looser approach to sandblasting. Cursory expressionist strokes give such works a dusty opacity, like items left too long on a top shelf next to the cobwebs — although it would have to be an extremely large shelf as some of these measure more than 60 cm tall.

The scale of the glassworks is also revealing of the intentions of the artist. Many of the pieces from the earlier part of the previous decade are smaller works that reveal an obsession with taming glass by making it conform to preconceived designs and ignoring its transparency through the application of color. This creates works that almost seem made of plastic. But more recently, Takahashi’s restless muse has come to focus not merely on the outward shapes of his works but also on the space within. An essential aspect of glassmaking is the blowing that infuses shape and life into the hot molten blob the artist begins with. In a sense the void within the glass is its soul, hidden internally but influencing everything else.

Recent works such as “Inside Out” (2011) and “Feeling” (2011) restore the transparency and are like great jars or bottles that cannot be opened. To draw our attention to their interiors, he has created protrusions that hang down like stamens. Visible but safely protected inside the glass, these inhabit the void and make us aware of it. This is the latest of Takahashi’s many messages in a bottle.

“Takahashi Yoshihiko Goes to The Glass” at the Crafts Gallery, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo runs till May 8; admission 200; open 10 a.m.- 5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit ;www.momat.go.jp.