photography by CHIKASHI SUZUKI
text by JEFF RIAN
all artwork by TAKURO KUWATA
all clothes by NOIR KEI NINOMIYA
from traditional craft to contemporary art: the bright, orgasmic, provocative sculptures of japanese artist takuro kuwata are captured here with the dark romance of noir kei ninomiya’s new collection.
Takuro Kuwata is a resident of Toki City, in the mountainous Gifu Prefecture, which is rich in clay, making it one of the largest areas for the production of ceramics in Japan. Having studied ceramics, he mastered traditional crafts, beginning in product design, one example being his signature cups with bands of three colors. He wanted to create contemporary objects and to use colors that reflected contemporary life, so he radicalized teacup design, moving from simple abstraction into asymmetrical forms more like molded clay than perfectly spun cups. Some appeared to be drenched in silver and gold, or in colors that reflected car culture or plastics. The cups became bright, orgiastic solids — more forms than a medium of containment, as if the objects were a mutant life, which startled even more as they began to grow in size and proportion. He began to create his own tools, using not only traditional wood or bamboo, but plastics as well — a material he associates with contemporary life. Objects were shaped like exotic flora or fish, or like a round SpongeBob SquarePants, with carapaces like SpongeBob’s friends, Patrick, Eugene, and Gary. Cups became solid objects, stand-alone artworks, which rankled Japanese traditionalists. Some were stand-up phalluses with tops oozing another color onto their form. His experimental ceramics caught the eyes of a younger generation, and soon Kuwata was showing at the Tomio Koyama Gallery, which also showed Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, leading to exhibitions of his work in galleries in the West.
Firing clay produces cracks and a fragmented surface, resulting in nubby, budlike protrusions, which he glazes in different but eminently blazing colors. He arrived at all this through trial and error, creating teacups that appear to be melded from two different ones, one atop another, one inside another, one form’s color emerging like buds within another, a cracked surface covering another one.
Japanese pottery, one of the country’s oldest kōgei or crafts, can be traced back to the Neolithic Jōmon era (10,500-300 BCE), making Japan one of the oldest producers of pottery in the world. By the fourth century CE, Japanese pottery was borrowing styles from China and Korea. In the ninth century, a Japanese Buddhist monk named Eichū brought tea from China: sencha, a type of green tea leaf that is steeped in hot water. In the 12th century, another Japanese monk returned from China with a powdered green tea called matcha and its seeds, which the Japanese used as the basis for its highly formalized tea ceremony. Vital to the ceremony are carefully styled ceramics, notably in the wabi-sabi style — wabi meaning simple, humble, and imperfect, and sabi meaning weathered but also referring to a spiritual awakening to emptiness, which leads to satori or enlightenment — which also derived from Zen Buddhism.
Confecting artworks from traditional forms is now common in global culture. Kuwata’s teacups became sculptures, despite the fact that with each new design, he tested their practicality, always aware of a cup’s function as a container to be used by tender mouths seeking the satori of sensory succor. Kuwata didn’t change Japan’s artful tea ceremony. It just happened that he was compelled to transmogrify a traditional kōgei form into contemporary art. His goal was to create ceramics befitting contemporary culture, using a firing technique that dried and cracked the clay, and adding stones into the mix that burst when heated, creating protrusions as well as cracks.
In the dawning days of the contemporary art world, in the 1960s, precedents in the ceramic arts included the California Clay Movement: Ken Price, Peter Voulkos, Ron Nagle, Robert Arneson, and Nancy Selvin, to name a few. They created figurative and abstract ceramic artworks to be shown in galleries. Their works were seen not as denigrating a tradition, but as expanding the materials of art.
Kuwata recognizes his own country’s taste for the wabi-sabi style and its preference for reticence. Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, a writer and 1964 Nobel prizewinner whose early works focused on erotic sadomasochism (a tattoo artist inscribing a giant spider on a young woman’s body), described the Japanese sabi aesthetic in his essay “In Praise of Shadows” as one that favored the power of candlelit shadows over the dazzling light of modern Western culture. For traditionalists, Kuwata’s ceramics evoke the lurid force of Western globalization, something that Tokyo city life, colorful Japanese manga, street fashion, and much of Japanese art openly avows: eroticism being a stark alter ego in Japanese culture.
Ceramics are born in heat and flame, roasted in a kiln, and fired. They are the descendants of the first human art that attempted solidity and imitated stone. Kuwata added stone into his mix, making it explode to form the nubbins that appear like coronae. The universe was born in cosmic sex. His ceramic art is erotic in every sense, born in heat and riddled with the excitement of color and the explosiveness of experience, and then created from the attentive attraction necessary in art. To have surfaces shatter engenders the éclat of physical satori. Such words are metaphors for transformation, like growing up or becoming an artist, or simply being one of those people who found themselves doing something that got the attention of others who want to see more.