Osaka-born artist Tetsuya Nagata has found a unique way to breathe new life into two time-honored crafts of Japan — washi (Japanese paper) and wagashi (Japanese sweets).
By pressing Nishinouchi washi into carved wooden molds that were originally used for shaping sugar, he creates delicate sculptural works that celebrate tradition with a contemporary flair. Nishinouchi paper, handmade using the best mulberry bark, is now a designated intangible asset, while the molds, shaped as propitious symbols including treasure boats, animals, fruits and seasonal flowers, were once used by wagashi artisans to create decorative “sugar art” for festive occasions such as weddings.
Having collected more than 2,000 molds, Nagata creates assemblages of artwork — fantastic groupings of sea breams, peonies, chrysanthemums, deities and more. His creations have won him acclaim, leading him to exhibit at numerous establishments, including Ozu Washi Gallery, Nagano Prefectural Shinano Art Museum, Chiba Prefectural Museum and the Kabukiza Theater. If you have been inside the elevators of the Andaz Tokyo Toranomon Hills Hotel or to the Japanese sweet shop Kugenuma Shimizu in Ginza Six, you may have also seen his works, which add a modern and quintessentially Japanese accent to these spaces.
In a recent interview at the Andaz, Nagata talked about his inspiration, how he came to use washi with wagashi molds and why he often uses the manipulation of “memory of time and space” as a theme in his artworks.
You’ve referred to the traditional wagashi candy molds you use as a “cast of characters” that reflect the seasons and represent a virtual world that you shape into three-dimensional objects. Can you tell us more about that?
When I go through the careful process of selecting the paper molds I’m going to use for my art projects, I begin by thinking about the stories and memories that make up the history of each mold and contribute to its uniqueness. Part of the beauty of these molds lies in the care that went into their craftsmanship, as well as in the simplicity of their design.
But why this particular kind of mold?
I realized in my travels in search of antique molds that there is something intrinsically rewarding in the process of encountering one for the first time. It almost feels like I am interacting directly with someone from the past. It is a scary and exciting feeling.
Whenever I visit new places and find molds, I’m always impressed by the local traditions and how they are beautifully expressed through crafts. The artisans who created the molds (I own) speak to me through them, and when I am holding one in my hands it is as if I am engaging directly with the artisan who put his passion into creating it. It’s so powerful.
Tell us something about your process. What’s your source of inspiration for creating these collages?
First, there is the integrity of the material. I use Nishinouchi washi from Ibaraki Prefecture, a craft that was designated as an Intangible Cultural Property by the Japanese government. Because of its strength and its pliancy, Nishinouchi washi is ideal for shaping in the molds.
The technique for creating washi paper was actually developed in ancient China and imported to Japan in the early seventh century. Washi paper itself is a designated Important Cultural Property, so the skills to make it are safeguarded to be passed on to succeeding generations of craftspeople. But there are currently only a couple of family-run operations that are still engaged in the production of handmade Nishinouchi washi, so it has become a precious commodity.
Then there is the particular theme I choose, such as water. Once I’ve decided a theme I pick out molds related to it, for example, running water, clouds, waves and fish. I then integrate them into a larger composition that tells the story of water. I think about the interrelationship of each piece as I arrange it within a composition.
You created a series of artworks titled “Kiokugami,” or ‘Memory Paper.’ What role does memory play in your work?
When we think about memories, there are both individual memories and broader social ones that contribute to history. Washi artistry captures aspects of history that are invisible to the eye, as well as those that are readily observable. By using the celebratory molds that were used to create sweets in earlier periods of history, such as the Edo Period (1603-1868), and the present, the artwork I create revives and recalls different spaces in history.
My contribution as an artist plays a part, too. My creative process combines my own memories with those of the objects I construct. Hence the name “Kiokugami” (“Memory Paper.”)
What are some of your current and upcoming projects?
My work will be for sale at special events at Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi Department Store (July 12-25), and at Shinjuku Isetan Department Store (Aug. 2-15). In January, next year, I’ll also have a solo show at Artglorieux Gallery of Tokyo in Ginza Six.