Madeleine Thomas finds the embodiment of simple beauty known as Seikatsu Kogei in the presence of woodworker Ryuji Mitani from Matsumoto, Japan.
Seikatsu Kogei may well be an art form you’re exposed to every day, or it might be one that passes you by. But the age-old Japanese practice of lifestyle crafts is the carpe diem moment of the arts.
In an austere yet comforting exhibition space, Sydney’s Japan Foundation’s exhibition of 22 artists and their handmade objects for intentional living in February, served as an insight into how art and everyday life must come together. Seikatsu Kogei the exhibition brings a variety of Japanese crafts into focus, showcasing glass, ceramics, lacquer, metal, bamboo, paper and clay. Such beautiful pieces from each artisan present a paradox – each has a purpose to eat rice or store food while being almost too ornate and delicate to use day in, day out.
Both art and many facets of the Japanese lifestyle highlight an attention to detail, cleanliness and practicality, alongside a palpable sense of appreciation for daily minutiae, the exhibition created an atmosphere of intrigue and a desire to connect with each craft and how we might use them in our homes and our own lives.
Present at the Japan Foundation for an artist’s talk was woodworker and exhibitor Ryuji Mitani. Based in Matsumoto, Japan, a small township that feels like a village of hidden artisan’s studios, where snow-dusted mountains are within reach and stone-cobbled streets and soba houses are in abundance, Mitani has been making bowls and utensils out of wood for almost 40 years.
Struck by Mitani’s appearance, I immediately felt transported back to Japan, hearing him speak in dulcet tones that were then translated by a talented, expressive interpreter into English for the small audience in Sydney. Donning a grey linen jacket, white linen pants, matching socks and an assortment of rings, Ryuji Mitani epitomised his art, Japanese precision and attention to detail in his attire. A love of his craft was evident, as was the delight in nature’s processes – the way wood is the perfect material for a butter dish, as it absorbs and preserves the natural oils, one of many anecdotal examples.
Be it in one’s interactions with others, the organisation of public spaces, or the design of everyday objects, Japan is unique. The Seikatsu Kogei exhibition was just one example of the appeal of the Japanese aesthetic. Closely aligned with the idiomatic expression ichigo ichie, which describes a sense of an unrepeatable, once in a lifetime moment as simple as smiling at a passerby, the appreciation for lifestyle crafts as a way of life which values the environment, a well-balanced lifestyle. Such artisanal skills reinforce a concept in which one is encouraged to live in the present and share in the beauty of every moment as it is experienced.
The traditions of the Japanese are impossible to escape when you arrive in any city in Japan and the objects for intentional living on show demonstrated how Japanese culture incorporates art and design effortlessly into every setting. A far cry from mass-produced crockery, clothing or popular consumer products we are accustomed to, Japan’s cafes and shops are well stocked with handmade ceramics and lacquerware.
But it was Mitani’s voiced experience in conjunction with the exhibition that brought Seikatsu Kogei into the conscience of those visiting, allowing them to see how such an art might endure through history and generations.
Mitani’s woodwork is somewhat of a watershed moment for the Seikatsu Kogei practice, extending wood’s function to include tableware in the home. The combination of wood and lacquer, while creating a sealed object, also affords artists the opportunity to experiment with different finishes, colours and carvings. It is this variety that produces a myriad of objects we are not exposed to in commercial homewares…to me, they seem almost too beautiful to eat food off for fear of scratching its surface with a fork. Enter chopsticks.
Alongside exhibiting Mitani’s woodwork, the exhibition also demonstrated the variety of materials that are used in Japanese crafts. Porcelain, zelkova, lacquerware, and bamboo baskets all have roots in Japan’s art history and speak to the impact of Seikatsu Kogei on creating a sustainable market for such practices.
Not far from Mitani’s town Matsumoto, in Shigaraki, another exhibiting artist Tetsuya Otani shares a studio with his wife Momoko. Otani’s clean and delicate white porcelain vessels were a crowd favourite at the exhibition. Of a slightly larger scale, Otani’s profile suggests that his work is made to be functional, embracing a recognised Japanese minimalist aesthetic. The vessel’s shapes, and the teapots, in particular, are traditional while appealing to a contemporary audience with a striking finish and utility.
With much of ceramics and other artist’s crafts made to be sculptural and purchased by art-lovers, art collectors and fellow artists, Japanese artisans seemingly sell their wares to every walk of life, to use for their morning coffee, a donbori bowl or tempura in the comfort of their own home or local café.
Mitani, when prompted, touched on the importance of passing on his craft to the next generation—an endeavour that has scope to be developed and supported further. For now, such goals are seen in the form of apprenticeships and classes for those with a curiosity for the arts.
So when you next have your tea and cake, think about your experience and how it makes you feel. Just like the taste of chocolate, or the first sip of coffee instils a sense of satisfaction, a handcrafted knife and fork, or an ornamental turned instrumental plate can offer that in spades. That is the importance of Seikatsu Kogei for us all.
Seikatsu Kogei: Objects for Intentional Living, Japan Foundation (Sydney, Australia), 21 February – 23 May 2020
Francesc Miralles and Héctor García. 2020. The Book of Ichigo Ichie: The Art of Making the Most of Every Moment, the Japanese Way. Hachette UK.
Madeleine Thomas is a recent Media, Communications and Journalism graduate from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, who finds the most inspiration in film, design and architecture…and writing about it! Inspired by her mother, a ceramic artist, Madeleine hopes to pursue a career in research, publishing or editorial, and have her finger on the pulse of creative industries internationally, day in and day out. She spends most of her time writing in a dimly lit café by the beach, reading a good book or at the local cinema.