When a dozen Americans visited Beppu, Oita Prefecture, in early October they weren’t heading for the city’s renowned hot springs.
They were on an art collectors tour sponsored by a U.S. gallery to check out an exhibition of works by the prefecture’s bamboo craft artists.
A number of works at the international conference hall were sold, fetching prices ranging “around ¥500,000 to ¥1.2 million,” according to an exhibition organizer.
Such handicrafts, called “kogei,” are not limited to bamboo articles. They include ceramics, fine “urushi” lacquer designs and silk fabrics.
Kogei has often been translated into English as “crafts,” and such works don’t fit exactly into the category of fine arts in the West. Against this backdrop, they have been perceived as occupying a lower station than that granted “art.”
But in Japan they form a class of their own, as an applied art, with some masters honored by the government as living national treasures.
At the Beppu exhibition, held Oct. 8, one of the works sold was a flower basket titled “Sazanamibashi” by Hajime Nakatomi, 36, from the city of Yufu.
The basket features delicate wickerwork patterns in the form of an arch from the bottom to the sides interlaced with crisscrossing fine lines of bamboo threads colored in green and black. Its form blends contemporary design and traditional artistry.
The 80-cm-long work could be used as a flower basket, but it carried a price tag more befitting a work of art.
Its buyer, who requested anonymity, described it as “gorgeous and strong” yet “elegant and modest.” Perceiving the work as a unique form of contemporary art, she said she fell in love with it at first sight.
Nakatomi said he starts out by making bamboo threads and typically needs one to two months to produce a basket, depending on its size. It is not something that one can make in large numbers over a short period of time.
He said bamboo is “a hard-to-handle material and is difficult to force into unusual shapes.”
“I sometimes think it would be much easier to use other materials,” he added.
Regarding bamboo kogei, “there aren’t many aficionados in Japan, but I feel I am allowed to live by giving life to bamboo,” Nakatomi said. “I am grateful to collectors from abroad who understand (my work).”
Kogei exhibitions have been held in recent years in London, Paris and other overseas venues, where they have drawn strong interest from collectors.
Joe Earle, director of the Japan Society, a New York-based organization promoting exchanges between Japan and the United States, said collectors who are used to paying tens of thousands of dollars for contemporary art pieces are surprised by the relatively low prices of kogei works.
He cited one of his acquaintances, an art collector, who mistook the $3,800 price tag for a piece of earthenware by a Japanese artist for $38,000. Once the collector was assured the price was in fact a tenth of what he thought, he snapped it up, according to Earle.
He said accomplished artists will definitely find success if they hold exhibitions in cities such as New York and Chicago.
Support for kogei artists has also been growing in Japan. The National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo is taking the initiative in promoting exhibitions and expanding marketing channels with the support of the National Museum of Art.
Apart from those central government affiliates, local governments are extending support to reinvigorate the kogei art scene. The city of Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, held its first contemporary art exhibition earlier this year, titled “First International Triennale of Kogei in Kanazawa.”
Kenji Kaneko, director of the Ibaraki Ceramic Art Museum, said kogei in Japan may be drawing renewed attention in the West because “traditions similar to kogei that harnessed materials and fabrics to exploit their features using sophisticated techniques are gone in large parts of Europe as a result of the Industrial Revolution, which replaced craft industries with machine-based manufacturing.”
“For contemporary art that places emphasis on concept, a good material is one that can be controlled and conquered to realize an idea,” said Misato Fudo, chief curator of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, located in Kanazawa.
“Kogei begins with materials. It’s probably the beauty of striking a balance between conforming to the nature of a material and exploiting its qualities that is enchanting Western people in the 21st century,” she said.