Since the Hokuriku region art and craft festival Go For Kogei was established in 2020, its main exhibits and collaborating events have been spread out in locations across three prefectures — Toyama, Ishikawa and Fukui. Far-flung shrines, temples and historical locations became venues, and the works all focused on the potential of regional kōgei (Japanese crafts) as contemporary art, including pottery, lacquer, woodwork, textiles, glasswork and washi (Japanese paper).
This year, Go For Kogei is surprisingly introspective, both geographically and thematically. Its exhibition, “Material Imagination and Etiological Narrative: Material, Data, Fantasy,” runs through Oct. 29 and brings together 26 artists’ works in a single area: the city of Toyama. Shrine and temple venues have been replaced with urban structures, while exhibits focus on the philosophical and playful, often to the point that they push the envelope of what defines craft.
For Toyama, a historically industrial city in the midst of contemporary revitalization and re-invention, the festival is an opportunity to promote its modernized infrastructure and new architecture as well as its old waterways and traditional townscapes. For visitors, the event is far more accessible than before. Its venues — Kansai Park, Nakajima Lock and the Iwase district — can be reached by boat via the Fugan Canal or the city’s updated tram service.
It takes a closer look at the slightly abstruse title of the exhibition to connect the dots between the art of craft and the new urban setting. “Material imagination” references French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s 1942 work “Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter,” which discusses the symbolic influence of elements, such as water, and other materials on emotions, psyche and the unconscious mind — their relevance to artistic thought and all forms of human creativity. As a city of canals and a man-made landscape of human activity, Toyama is itself an influence on and a product of the imagination.
Bachelard’s interdisciplinary approach to his work, which draws on philosophy, literature, psychology and science, also resonates with the overarching mission of Go For Kogei: to blur boundaries and explore intersections between craft, art and design.
Elements and materials
For French textile artist Audrey Gambier, the youngest participant at only 19 years old, the event’s concept is inspiring.
“In France, many works transcend disciplinary (sculpture, painting, performance) boundaries, but in crafts and design there is very little porosity,” she says. “One has to defend (their work) a lot if they don’t want to be considered a ‘designer.’”
Gambier’s wearable artworks are on show at the Toyama Prefectural Museum of Art and Design in the Kansai Park area, a 15-minute walk from Kuwata’s exhibit at the Rakusuitei Museum of Art. Vibrant, oversized textile shapes adorned with strange plush protrusions, they were designed to be worn over visitors’ bodies like surreal hoods and were partly inspired by the colorful and playful ceramics of another Go For Kogei participating artist, Takuro Kuwata.
Every piece was sewn by Gambier herself. “After my first entrance exam at the Beaux Arts (a fine arts school in France), I was rejected because what I was doing was seen as applied arts,” she says. “In Japan, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that form is as important, if not more, than content.”
Displayed in a tatami room of the nearby Rakusuitei Museum of Art, a former Japanese-style house from the Showa Era (1926-89), Kuwata’s installation is an otherworldly landscape of amorphous forms and rainbow-colored vessels dripping with silver, gold and milky white glazes. Composed of the artist’s unfinished works, the playfully misshapen cups and bowls offer insight into Kuwata’s creative process but also challenge conventional ideas of beauty.
His installation is one of five ceramic exhibits at Rakusuitei. These include Takahiro Kondo’s somber, life-size meditative figures of porcelain and glass; Kai Tsujimura’s rustic Shigaraki jars; a large, gold, one-eyed fantastical being by Riyoo Kim; and Kazuhito Kawai’s conceptual interpretation of his creative process, a darkened studio filled with memorabilia from his childhood and humorous candy-colored sculptures.
In the garden outside, Yuka Nomura tills the earth from morning to evening with a huge, tubular hand-operated device, gradually leaving a trail of soil behind her like a giant earthworm. Her performative piece brings the exhibition back to its water theme, drawing attention to the museum site’s history as reclaimed land that was once part of Jinzu River.
Just a short walk from Rakusuitei, a pair of majestic yamainu (Japanese wolves) by Hiroko Kubo seem to levitate over Fugan Canal in Kansui Park, one dipping its head as if to sip the water on which it stands. Their steel frameworks, wrapped in blue farm netting, reference the agricultural and industrial past of the Hokuriku region, while their mystical appearance is inspired by Kubo’s interest in folk art and cultural anthropology.
From here, visitors can board a boat to view Baron Ueda’s bold, manga-like illustrations installed on walls of buildings facing the canal — a sample of many more 2D works waiting at the Nakajima Lock.
Imagination and experience
A menagerie of tiny origami animals, each made from an oak leaf intricately folded by outsider artist Yoshihiro Watanabe, is the centerpiece of the Nakajima Lock Control Room plaza. Watanabe’s mother, Motoko, explains that he has been collecting fallen leaves and creating the delicate creatures since he was a child. He uses his own breath to make them moist enough to fold, blowing on them gently as he works. The pieces are like a window into Watanabe’s fertile imagination but also inadvertently reflect modern environmental changes. “It’s getting harder for him to do this,” Motoko says. “Global warming has affected the nature of the leaves — they have become drier and less colorful. You can see how his works are not as vibrant as before.”
Nearby, Dentaku, a former taxi service building and carport, houses the paintings of six artists and Sebastian Masuda’s “Gender Tower,” a colossal vinyl capsule stuffed with rainbow-colored toys and other objects collected from around the world. Within the covered parking lots, Hohzan Itagaki’s elegiac portraits of an unnamed woman who died in her 20s suggest an emotionally haunting relationship that left the artist pondering his own future.
In stark contrast, Kenji Kawakami’s art brut paintings in an adjacent space are vibrant, raw and expressive, featuring depictions of childhood superheroes, the antics of stray cats, and friends at the Kibo no Sono care home that he attended. More than 200 colorful oil portraits by Jusei Kawabe take up a third parking lot, creating an eclectic archive of historical figures, celebrities, artists and politicians. The project began with a painting of Russian President Vladimir Putin, after Kawabe first heard about the invasion of Ukraine. “They may all look similar,” he says. “but as I work on each one, something inside me changes.”
Inside the Dentaku office building, Megumu Cho’s whimsical paintings of cherubs are drawn from the artist’s memories of a Christian upbringing, while Asuka Yokono’s expansive imaginary landscapes showcase her technique of striped paint strokes inspired by the blue waters of Toyama’s Kurobe Dam. The last work, by Toyama native Yoko Jomura, turns Dentaku’s upstairs lounge and adjoining room into a 3D canvas. She blurs the boundaries between reality and imagination, drawing visitors to the Showa Era interiors by adding found natural objects — rocks, pebbles and driftwood — that are echoed in her imagined still-life paintings that hang on the walls. “The discrepancies between (reality and imagination) seem natural,” she explains. “That’s what I hope people will find interesting.”
Old town textures
Iwase district at the Fugan Canal ferry terminal was once a bustling port of call for trade ships traveling between Hokkaido and Osaka. Many of its 19th-century machiya (townhouses) still stand, now beautifully renovated and hosting local shops, businesses and eateries. Yuichi Hirako’s lively paintings and sculptures of quirky part-human, part-plant characters dot the windows of buildings. Other Go For Kogei exhibits can be found in the Masuda Sake Brewery and kura (storehouses) behind stores and at the historical former residence of the Baba family, one of Hokuriku’s wealthiest shipping merchants. Here, visitors will find Akira Sakurai at his easel painting scene after scene of the building and its garden. The performative work explores a new kind of realism, one that involves talking to passersby, which Sakurai says influences the way he paints.
Three installations at Masuda Sake Brewery play with scale and material. The brewery’s enormous sliding doors showcase elaborate illustrations of dragons, a symbol of the brewery, on what look like gigantic tiles of blue and white porcelain. Created by ceramicist Yuki Hayama, they are, in fact, super-enlarged high-resolution screen prints of his work on aluminum panels, a process that transforms his meticulously detailed hand-painted ceramics into expansive murals.
More dragons, this time sculptures by Takahiro Komuro, stand among Masuda’s giant sake storage tanks. Though made of wood, they appear like a row of massive, brightly colored and shiny sofubi (soft vinyl toys), inspired by the artist’s fondness of Japanese kaijū (monster) films and other creature features.
The third installation by Takahiro Iwasaki, transforms heaps of everyday disposable items — toothbrushes, duct tape, cotton buds and more — into a sweeping 3D landscape, a geological cross-section of Japan that highlights the fragility of modern civilization in the face of nature.
The resilience of nature and its role in creativity continues with Goro Murayama’s “textural paintings” of natural materials, such as twine and silk, displayed in two historical kura behind Shukyoraku Kuchiwa Soba shop. Natsumi Sasaki’s sculptural pieces in Kobo Brew Pub, meanwhile, imagine a new narrative of human existence as a hybrid being that possesses attributes of plants, insects and animals. At the farthest and final venue, Saseki Sake Bar, Haruo Furukawa’s experimentation with the man-made material of fiberglass to create fluid, organic forms are juxtaposed with Sansan Ou’s diaphanous installation of the most surprising natural material of all — a cascade of bubbled and twisted sheep intestines.
“I wanted to use a material that I was connected to and would find around me. So I chose sheep intestines,” says Ou, who was born in Mongolia, where sheep provide the essentials of life: food, milk, fertilizer and textiles. “I wanted this piece to capture the ambiguous boundary between life and death.”