Friday, September 7, 2012

Time is for spending...the amazing Tema Hima Exhibition at Issey Miyake's Design Sight Museum

All images are from the Tema Hima exhibition: Photos: Yusuke Nishibe,
 and stills from filmmakers Tom Vincent and Yu Yamanaka 

暇 "Hima' is free time. 
Time to do as you please. Or the time that weighs heavily upon you as you wait indoors for the snow to melt, through winters that are long. 
手間 'Tema' is the 'hands-on' time and labor it takes to get something done.

Which would you like more of? 
For most of us mega-city dwellers, the answer comes quickly, without needing to think.

If you had the chance to experience 'Tema Hima: The Art of Living in Tohoku', your answer might slow down, become less certain.
The images of daily life in the North Country fall into your mind with the soft determination of snow. 
A way of life and labor that we have feared starts to look like it might hold happiness.  
Or might we even use a word as big as 'salvation'? 
Looking into the low-energy future we are about to create, I think that word fits just right.

Visiting the 21-21 Design Sight Museum, Roppongi

There are four founding directors of  'Two-one Two-one Design Sight', including Issey Miyaki, the fashion designer, and two highly successful product designers. 
As the name hints, the intention of this museum is to be a place we can take a step back, and re-envision the future, from a design point of view.  
After all, 20/20 vision isn't perfect vision, its merely normal vision, how much you can see from 20 feet away, compared to everyone else. 
We can all become more perceptive, we can become more closely involved in what makes daily life work, now and into the future. 
The museum is very well-financed, very well-attended.  Its as if the the directors have already had their success, and can afford to present exhibitions with no ulterior, strategic career plan. Its a nice reward for a lifetime love affair with design. 
To surprise and delight is one of their goals.  It is possibly also their method, the 'How' part of powering us into a re-think and re-design of our own world.   

The exhibition unfolds over three main rooms. Let me take you though.
Entering tall foyer-room, with its triangular floor plan, we wander through a jumble of interviews, of  printed stories, and photographs. Only four or five photographs, townscapes and snowscapes, but we are given the feeling we have entered a strange land, one that has been there all along. We read everything, because every word is fresh and unexpected, and feels like the key to something we need to know. 
"Why don't you use modern techniques to save time?" was one question. 
"Save time? Well, I wouldn't want to force things" was the puzzled craftsman's reply.  
The photographers & curators write down what has touched them about this world, as they put together the exhibition.  The items are mundane, food and tools,  but the spirit behind them is extraordinary.

Hanging from the distant ceiling is a 3 meter-high, 3 century-long family tree. The dynastsy of a warlord?  No.  Its the heritage of the daikon, or giant radish, that grows so well in this cold land.  
Another hanging board traces the evolution of the slow-growing 'sugi' a strong, prized timber conifer, unique to this land.

Special freeze dried daikon. Photo: Yusuke Nishibe

When you reach the great-room, you will see the actual goods made and used in daily life, the preserved food and tools and household items, made the way they have always been made. 
There is a special tofu, freeze dried to crunchiness. According to the fondly-written explanation sheet, there are many many steps in its creation, that cannot be skipped, over weeks: taking it from the river at the same time each evening, hanging in the cold night air each night, using with certain knots, with not one step missing. 
Salted fish, mallet-squashed soybeans, and traditional children's sweets, all daily, lowly items to people from up north, but to the people of Tokyo, objects from another realm. 

Visiting the worskshops of the people of Tohoku

The heart of the museum is a large, dark room. 
A video screen brings us right into the workshops of 7 craftspeople of Tohoku, shadowy rooms lit by weak rays of sun.  
Most of these workrooms hold the trail of the days and the years they have been occupied: bits of string, old clocks and thermos flasks, offcuts of the materials the masters have been working with, or might use one day.  
Other workrooms are scrubbed pristine for each new day.
Entering every one of these rooms is entering a multi-stop time machine. A 1950's renovation sits in a  hundred-year-old farmhouse. This is further interrupted by a blue plastic bucket recently nabbed from the supermarket, all watched over by a digital clock-radio from the 70's.  

In video stories of 3 minutes each, we see the artisans doing what they have always done, and always will.
A blacksmith blasts and bangs out sharp pruning shears for the apple growers.  A whole day's labor results in only one tool, but a tool that will be used for decades.  He is good at this. He has generations of blacksmithing residing in his body and being, 33 generations.  The apple grower knows who the blacksmith is, each man's livelihood depends on the success of the other, in this remote and hard land.  His great grandparents probably knew and trusted the blacksmith's great grandparents.

A lady in a scarf whips up leaf-wrapped sticky rice treats for steaming, her hands precise and swift. As she works we overhear the muted, meandering conversations with her companion.  The filmmaker is skilled. His echoing recording of the ladies' words brings us back to being children again, where we dozed or marked time in rooms we found our small selves in, as the language of adults at work flowed past us like a steady, comforting river. 

My favourite of the seven filmed stories was the Basket maker. 
We see him in the Autumn, selecting canes from the mountains. 
We see him drying, sorting, stripping, using all the power of his arms, his back - the reeds don't give in easily. 
Like each of the other crafts we will see, months of detailed preparation go into creating one small, rather humble item.  
Now he is seated on the tatami, in his heavy work apron.  In one steady, powerful move, with one clever old implement, he slices each cane into 8 or so long thin strips. 

How did he do that? The audience are watching intently. 
One by one, snowflakes drift in the small window behind him. Their soft, glowing energy brightens the room. 

He starts weaving the square base, measuring as he goes, tapping stray bits snugly into place with home-made hooks. 
Now he starts weaving the round part, his rhythm becoming firmer, faster.  The pace of the video picks up, and we are carried along.  

Finished. He passes his hand over his work, to pick up any flaws or unevenness. 
There are none. 

'Sugoi! breathes the man behind me. 
I turn around and notice he is holding the hand of his son, who is also looking at the screen as if it where an action movie, rather than an old man making a basket.
"Sugoi ne!' I agree with him. 
We both know we have seen something special, and that either of us will look at a basket the same way again.

The next shot is of a lady using this basket, which it turns out is not a basket. She uses it as a tray for the buckwheat noodles she is serving to her granddaughter, and they are smiling.

Towards the end of the clip, the filmmaker shows us a portrait of the craftsman's two outspread hands. Like the softly falling notes of music, this is a tender moment that appears in each of the video stories. Blacksmiths hands, baker's hands.
We have just seen these clever and powerful hands at work, turning living plants into intricate trays, and only because of this, we can see that they are beautiful hands. 
Otherwise, we might have missed it.

The final portrait we see is of somebody who is defined by his work, work taught to him by his grandfather, work that very few people in the world can do. 

For all the craftspeople featured in the wordless Tema Hima stories, this is so. 
There is the baker who gets up in the early morning dark to make 'fu', the stretchy, fried gluten bread, unique to the district. The clock on his bare wall says 2.30 am.
There is the trailblazing young man who makes the special cured rubber boots that the local workmen require to do their work properly, resurrecting the old methods.
There is the confectioner conjuring up the traditional 'dagashi'.  Cheap candy, or 'daggy sweets' would be the translation,  confections made with unrefined sugar, in the shapes that haven't changed since grandpa used to race to the candy store after school, whenever he had a penny to spend on such a treat. 

Their work is absorbing, taking all their attention - there are so many ways they can ruin things if their focus wavers for the smallest moment. 
Their work connects them to the people in their village, the people they grew up with.  The work they do is hard, and the pay is not high. 
These people of the snow country seem to have decided that the work they do is a good way to spend the day they were given. Or the lifetime they were given.

Meeting Ms Kawakami

Today is my second visit, and its the closing day of the exhibition.  Over 4,000 visitors have come today, I am told. 
Mrs Kawakami  herself is giving the tour, telling the background stories of the items on display in the great hall.  

She is an elegant woman in a billowy, sculptural white tunic. She is the former editor of a design magazine, and the forth member of the board of directors.
One small lady amongst the three great designers. 

She trudged though the snow last winter, visiting 40 different family workshops, as the team gathered stories and items to show us. 
She clearly loves the way they have carefully laid out each of these hand-crafted, yet low-cost items. 
"These sweet are always come jumbled into a paper bag, eaten that way. The confectioner took much time to make them, but nobody ever laid them out like this before"
She expresses her relief that none of the food items have gone mouldy. She acknowledges that yes, if you get close, you can smell the dried fish, but you can also smell the cedar-fragrance of the wooden bowls.

'Dagashi', the Cheap Children's Sweets from when grandpa was a boy

My favourite of her stories is of the weaving factory.

This district has long been known for a traditional striped cloth it makes, on clanking, whirring machines that have been in use from the beginning of the Showa era. Roughly, that is the days after the advent of electricity, but before plastic came along.
Each machine has its own quirks and needs. The workers have been there all their lives, and the atmosphere is like family full of pets, each machine-animal being coaxed into doing their best.

One of the looms was manufactured by Toyota, before they got around to making cars. 
In the last days of the Second World War it was in line to be melted down to make ammunition. The war ended just in time.
"Even the Toyota museum doesn't have one of these" Mrs Kawakami told me. 

Its the last of its line, the last one in existence, yet fully employed, and not about to go and languish in a museum, while the world needs what only it can make. 

Re-designing Japan

The Tohoku region is the area directly affected by 3/11, 'san-jyuichi' as the Japanese have named the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster.  
Everyone in the nation has been reminded of how important it is to be part of a community, and how uncertain is our future. 
In the spring this year there were unprecedented demonstrations, demanding the shut down of the nuclear-fueled electricity generators, structures that loom over many cities, casting a darker shadow than before.
Now it is the height of summer. As the sun hits the thinly-built houses, the people of Tokyo quietly turn on their nuclear-powered air conditioners, to be able to get through the day. 
They don't know what else to do. 
Many people go to jobs where they never get to touch what they make, or get to know the people who benefit from their work. Many make nothing really, except for some money. 
They don't know what else to do.

But there is another way of living that works well. 
This way of life is not powered by striving for a far off goal, or bettering your position in life.  Workers are carried along in cycles, of days and seasons and generations.  The fields and mountains keep on giving their gifts, the workers keep on turning them into food and tools for their neighbours daily lives. Their striving is for perfecting what their hands are doing in each moment. 
They always get it right. 

I am grateful that the directors of this museum had the desire and energy to show this life to us. There are no certain paths to being safe and happy. But there are paths out there we just hadn't thought of. Life and work can be much easier than we imagined.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

How Akira Isogawa got so successful - making a world of your own

I'm so attracted to people who find a way to say 'I will have something different, thanks', and make up their own culture. 
The other day I got to meet such a person, Akira Isogawa, at the Japan Foundation's Living Histories series. 

Akira Isogawa interviewed by Dr. Ian McArthur

Akira came to Australia at 22, not knowing what he would do with his life, working hard in all kinds of gritty kitchens to fund his dream. 
Which dream? Well, whatever it was, it didn't involve the bureaucrat's existence his dad had lined up for him
He gained fame for his filmy, floaty, fluttery garments, enough fame to get his image on the Australia Post stamp, and to get his work in an exhibition at the National Gallery in Victoria. 

Here is the question I really wanted an answer to:
"Every year, thousands of people graduate from fashion design schools. But almost none of them get to create their own vision.
Then there are even more architecture graduates, who often end up building things they are told to build. Yet you got to create your own world. There is only one of you, you have no competitors. What is is about you that allowed you to succeed in making your vision real?

He claimed 'being selfish'.
Akira, you have friends all over the place who adore you, I'm not going to believe that.

So extrapolating from the stories I heard on the night, here are three causes of Akira's Success:

1. Focusing on the process, not the end result.
Akira likes the creative act, of linking together unthought-of ideas. Thats why he can work so hard, for so many hours and hours, each day.  Even the way he answered each question sounded like he was thinking that thought for the first time.

2. Dancing. 
"You are a good dancer, aren't you' asked the interviewer.
"Yes' said Akira. Matter-of-factly.  It seems he got his start making party clothes for the hip dudes at RAT parties in the 80's.  Maybe when you dance with people in exactly the right way, you pick up their patterns, the 'DNA' of how they are.  Then they are part of you, your allies in the design world.
Or maybe that dancing, like designing dresses, is about abandoning yourself to be 'used' by an artistic vision, to bring something new, something transient and captivating, into the world.

3. Zen. 
Being tired, overworked, unpaid, yet quite undisturbed by all those outer things.  

He had been working non-stop for weeks on a collection to bring to New York.
His flight was first thing in the morning, he still hadn't had a minute to pack his suitcases. Yet he was relaxed,  sparky, and seemed to be enjoying himself, the interviewer, and the audience.

And we loved him.