A Bridge Between Britain and Japan: through the surface

Through the Surface

The phrase “through the surface” refers both to an investigation of the surface and concerns which go into and beyond the surface. The very premise that a simple phrase can capture a multiplicity of meanings is at the heart of “Through the Surface” a collaborative project between Japanese and British textile designers conceived and directed by Lesley Millar from Britain with project coordinator Keiko Kawashima from Japan. Millar’s previous exhibitions include “Revelation” in 1998 which presented British textile artists in Japan followed by the fantastically popular “Textural Space” which brought Japanese textile artists to Britain and toured England in 2001. Work on these earlier projects created the foundation for the ambitious concept behind “Through the Surface,” a collaborative venture between fourteen established and emerging textile artists from Britain and Japan.

Millar referred to the pairing of participants for “Through the Surface” as a marriage brokering of sorts, a nerve wracking process of match making which attempted to pair sensibilities and interests rather than obvious similarities in technique or material of existing work. Each of the seven pairs included one established and one emerging textile artist, the latter travelling to the country of their mentor. As a result some level of linguistic displacement was experienced by half of the participants. Daily schedules varied widely, from partnerships that shared living and studio space to those who worked independently with a set schedule of meetings. Travel and work in a foreign landscape understandably generated both inspiration and tension for the artists who travelled to their mentor’s country. For those in the position of mentor, the responsibility of establishing dialogue and the fine line between giving and receiving was a balancing act carried out more successfully by some partnerships than others. Both British and Japanese culture cultivates a level of anxiety around the prospect of offending others. This concern as well as simple language barriers created a challenging ground upon which the partnerships had to evolve within a short timeframe.

Nonetheless, the results revealed that fantastic collaborations did indeed flourish. Naoko Yoshimoto travelled to Britain and spent several months touring the country with her mentor Jeanette Appleton. Appleton’s final installation of meters of felted wool evokes the distance and natural landscape the two artists covered in their time together. In contrast, Yoshimoto amassed a collection of cloth from the various charity shops the two visited. Born out of the distance she sensed between the cloth and its original owners, Yoshimoto began a process of painstakingly unravelling the woven thread and winding it into a ball. The final works are starkly different in substance, but the impact of travel, not only between Japan and Britain but also the constant movement for the pair within Britain, is apparent. Other collaborations, such as Machiko Agano and Anniken Amundsen used the same material, fishing wire, to reflect their mutual interest in the organic. The synthetic material transcends cultural reference, and a beautifully integrated collaborative piece was created through the insertion of Amundsen’s small woven forms into Agano’s large knitted web. While the concept for the work developed during the time the two spent together in Japan, its fabrication took place after Amundsen return to Britain. Installation at the gallery was, for the artists, a true test of the dialogue they continued in the months between working with each other.

Artists articulating thoughts in their own language often find pause to search for the right word, or even conclude that language is insufficient for the concepts they wish to express. Working in a second language presents what seems to be an almost insurmountable burden of translation. But as Jeannette Appleton observed, this process of translation can in fact be a positive part of communication: “Translation can create subtle changes because of the different sentence structures, highlighting a new emphasis to an idea.” This sense of positive slippage is apparent in Junichi Arai and Tim Parry-William’s catalogue essays. Arai’s observation that “materials are words” and Parry-Williams comment that “words alone seemed insufficient” to describe the experience of their collaboration manages to voice both a contradiction and synchronization of thought between the two artists.

Beyond the superficial boundaries of language and translation are fundamental differences in the way each culture approaches the textile. While both island nations have a long history of textile production, British and Japanese textile practice shares few other similarities. Theoretical and conceptual concerns are perhaps strongest in Britain were the education system, either as a result or because of Britain’s leading practitioners, places great emphasis on conceptual and theoretical elements of practice and the ability to articulate such concerns. British artist Maxine Bristow noted, “I am wondering whether the relationship between theory and practice that we now almost tend to take for granted is something that crosses the cultural divide.” This sort of reevaluation of the standards and systems of work has to be one the greatest benefits of the project: a realization that work you admire and respond to can be created through working processes foreign and even antithetical to those you have been taught and successfully applied to your own practice.

Participants also noted differences in working networks textile practioners have access to in each country. While both Britain and Japan are currently experiencing a downturn in industrial textile production, artists noted that the contacts and connections British designers developed were far less integrated and far more individual than in Japan. The benefits of centralized areas long known for specific types of textile production allowed Japanese practitioners access to resources and knowledge that in Britain develops through far more fragmented and individual pathways. One can only hope that general interest in this project will raise awareness of the innovation of contemporary textile design in both Fine Art and industrial contexts for both countries.

Each artist’s journal played an important and public role in the project. An extensive website (www.throughthesurface.com) listed monthly written entries from participating artists and those of project director, Lesley Millar, as well as a selection of sketches and collected reference material. The various touring exhibition spaces and evolving installation sites are also documented on the website. As many of the works are large in scale, a record of the installations at each site illustrates how many of the works evolved and adapted to the surroundings. Web documentation allows those that have seen only one version of the exhibition, or even nothing in person, to chart its progress as it moves to other locations in England during the remainder of 2004 and Japan in 2005. Alongside journal entries available on the website, the seven collaborations are documented in a cleverly designed exhibition catalogue shaped like a sketchbook complete with a spiral bound spine and heavy, textured paper. While one is acutely aware that the sketchbook is an intensely private space is not for public viewing, this sketchbook-catalogue offers vital insight into the development and filtering of ideas, captured with a texture and weight that alludes the computer screen.

To conclude that the works speak for themselves is to dilute the variety of environments under which many of the textiles were created. Travel can, of course, be both a highly energizing and debilitating experience, with resulting emotions manifest immediately or with deceptive delay. Venturing into new environments exposed these artists to new working conditions and materials, made available new tools and made unavailable the familiar. In addition, the emotional pressures of collaboration whether physically played out in the challenge of creating a single artwork to which each partner contributed or in other cases the burden of admiration and expectation could have easily stymied provocative dialogue and exchange. It seems as though the textile bridged this possible divide, with the majority of the artists balancing prior practice with an open minded engagement with the new situations they found themselves facing. In reality it is more than likely that the impact of these working partnerships only touched the surface in the time available and that their impact will be felt by this group of artist for years to come.

Surface Design Journal (fall 2004: 36-41)