I love the Jomon period – it’s so ancient (it began over 16,000 years ago, back in the dawn of prehistory) and yet Jomon craftsmen made amazing pots that are indisputably works of art. So when Yannick suggested a trip to Bethnal Green to see photographer Tsunaki Kuwashima’s new exhibition, The Eternal Idol, at the Union Gallery I was keen to go. What’s the connection? Dogū – the mysterious clay figurines that were made by the same prehistoric craftsmen as the pots.
We know very little about dogū – just that they were made in Japan (mainly in the North East) in the Jomon period (about 12,500-300BC) and that they have recognisably human or animal features. Some of them were quite large – over a metre tall. They were probably used in ancient rituals and have spiritual significance. An odd thing is, many seem to have had a leg or an arm deliberately broken before burial and nobody quite knows why. One theory is that they were used in sympathetic magic – the illness was transferred to the dogū and then destroyed.
We were a bit nervous when we rang the bell at the deserted-looking Union Gallery. But the door was opened by the artist himself, giving us a great chance to chat to him about his work and Yamanashi Prefecture, where he has his own studio not far from Mount Fuji.
Kuwashima is originally from Tokyo, but studied at Central St Martin’s in London. He started off doing advertising and magazine photography but then began producing his own work, focusing on little-known aspects of Japanese culture like the bullfighters of Tokunoshima or fighting dogs. How had he moved on to dogū? I asked.
He told me his work was about the culture of ordinary Japanese people, who in the hierarchical societies of the past had no power. They engaged in dog-fighting not to gamble, but to show their honour, and the dogs were valued members of their family. Kuwashima felt that it was the same for the Jomon potters and their dogū – things they had made and valued as spiritual expressions of themselves.
Kuwashima engages with the culture of ordinary people today and explores notions of survival and eternity through the images of the dogū. As in this mannequin, whose head has been replaced by a picture of a dogū’s head.
Other pictures of dogū are enclosed within installations of untreated steel cubes. The steel will eventually rust though the dogū survive.
Kuwashima also contrasts the dogū which have survived for so long with the photographs of them, which are ephemeral. He emphasises this by printing them on different media – ranging from ordinary inkjet printing which loses its colour quite rapidly, to platinum palladium on paper that is out of production and so is ‘extinct’, to collotype prints – a top quality printing process used for archival material.
One set of photos is hung in a heart shaped formation, expressing Kuwashima’s image of broken dogū as fragments of the human heart.
It’s quite a small exhibition, but as we left Yannick and I agreed we were glad we’d come. Over tea at the English restaurant in Spitalfields I opened the little package the artist had given each of us, which included a paper fan. Such a nice souvenir!
The Eternal Idol is on at the Union Gallery until 28th August. It’s open Wednesday-Saturday 12-6 pm.
If you want to know more about Jomon pots, have a look at my post about last year’s British Museum exhibition.