Thursday, 30 April 2015

Eastern Exchanges Exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery

I recently visited Manchester Art Gallery, with the Art Galleries and Museums group from Henshaws, for an audio described talk and tour of the newly-opened Eastern Exchanges: East Asian Craft and Design exhibition. This show creates a fantastic platform in order to display Manchester's historic collection for the first time in over 30 years!

The exhibition boasts over 1,500 years of the rich craft heritage of China, Japan and Korea, including works of ceramics, metalwork, furniture, lacquer, textiles and sculpture. Exhibits range from historical court treasures to modern pieces by contemporary art makers. While there is some overlapping of styles each country developed its own distinctive forms and specialities. These national craft traditions are sources of pride and identity, with highly specialised skills being perfected and used over generations to create such luxury objects.

Audio description was provided by Anne Hornsby, of Mind's Eye Description Services, with additional detailed talks provided by curator Janet Boston. The collection is supported by The Korea Foundation and The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, and sponsored by Kuoni and Shangri-La. Our visit was arranged and organised by Meg Parnell, Lifelong Learning Manager.

Eastern Exchanges is divided into 3 sections; with the first area focusing around items that are 'Distinctively Asian'. The majority of pieces here belong to the aforementioned historical court treasures. The first item we were audio described was that of a Japanese Norimon (also known as a Sedan Chair) made from beautiful black lacquer and decorated with intricate gold patterned detailing of flowers and leaves. The Sedan Chair was exclusive to royalty as their way of transport, with 2 or 3 men at either side carrying it at arm's length. The Japanese borrowed the concept of lacquer-making from China, developing and perfecting it even further, eventually becoming the frontrunners of beautiful lacquer items sold worldwide.

The second items we were introduced to, still among the court treasures, were two exquisite embroidered Imperial robes; one of the garments belonging to the Chinese Emperor himself and the other to his son, the Prince. Despite being extremely expensive and taking over 2 years of strenuous embroidery work, focused on the intricate elements of flowers, waves and dragons, they weren't even cut out of their original material and sewn together to wear! This really highlights the extravagance and wealth of the Royal Family at that time.

The next area consisted of more modern contemporary pieces, mostly furniture and decorative items, aptly named 'East Meets West'. The pieces within this section are hugely influenced by conventional Asian design and incorporate traditional techniques. The main item of interest, towering high above visitors, is the gigantic contemporary piece known as 'Chinese Ladders' by Felicity Ayleiff. Ayleiff herself enlisted the help of the Jingdezhen Experimental Porcelain Factory Nº2, a site of Imperial kilns with centuries of experience in firing large-scale ceramics, to create her own series of enormous works.

'Chinese Ladders' was created by using a technique called luting. This is created by joining together hardened clay structures with liquid clay, more commonly referred to as slip. The stacked form took great inspiration from bamboo scaffolding seen in building sites across China and integrates heavy strokes of traditional Chinese brush painting.

'Weave Stool' by Fumio Enomoto, commissioned by the award-winning designer specially for the Eastern Exchanges exhibition, incorporates aspects of functional with comfortable whilst still being of modern design. It is made entirely from bamboo and is a direct replica of its original. Bamboo is a widespread popular material in East Asia that can be spun, heated, shaped and glazed easily. This particular stool was created by using 12 strips of bamboo, weaved from the centre extending outwards, and was inspired by traditional Japanese bamboo baskets. It won the 2011 Bronze Leaf Award at the International Furniture Design Fair.

During the audio described talk, a thick piece of bamboo was handed around the group to enable us to gain a better understanding of how lightweight and flexible the material truly was. It's a shame we couldn't touch the stool itself to feel the weaved design and its exact pliability, but I appreciated the example we did get to touch.

The final area comprised of modern sculptures, vases and other decorative objects; pulling away from the more-traditional crafting techniques displayed in the previous sections, but still making their mark as Asian masterpieces sitting nicely alongside the other exhibits.

My favourite item of the wntire exhibition was housed in this area - the incredible 'Super Jumbo Nigella Wave' by sculptor Junko Mori. This was truly impossible to audio describe! I did enjoy the different interpretations though, and each provided me with a unique mental image of what it could look like visually. Inspired by the growth of living things, particularly plants and sea creatures, Mori incorporated various metal forms and materials into her sculpture to develop individual petal or leaf shapes that give her work phenomenal character. Each leaf / petal was assembled and welded together to create something that can only be described as 'uncannily organic'. The piece was originally inspired by Nigella, a cottage garden flower, but her work took a different approach and was propelled forward after the Tsunami struck Japan in 2011 - taking it into a more powerful, cataclysmic direction.

'Orb' by Yasuko Sakurai closed the Eastern Exchanges exhibition visit for the group. This piece is an elegant coral-like ceramic form, created by hand using a newly-developed technique by the sculptor herself. It was created using Seto porcelain and, as with Junko Mori's work, gives the impression of something organic and life-like.

After studying in the French pottery town of Liomges, Sakurai discovered her fascination of porcelain and invented the idea of piercing holes into it by amassing tube shapes, building vessels around them and then removing the rubes to create elliptical and rotund gaps within the work. She particularly engages with the idea of using light and shade in her ceramics, so incorporates minimalistic colour and design to interpret this.

I want to say a big thank you, as always, to Mary Gifford of the Art Galleries & Museums group for arranging the visit; it is always a pleasure to attend, and the exhibitions inspire my illustration work massively. Also thanks to my sighted guide, Mary Tantrum, who helped me to take the photographs and for taking me to the exhibition, to Janet Boston for the informative talk and tour, to Meg Purnell for organising the visit and to Anne Hornsby for her captivating audio description.