Two musical notes echo throughout the space. Slow and sombre, they create the atmosphere of a sepulchre or a shrine. We are here to admire the beauty that Japanese artists create from one of the simplest and purest of materials – paper. It is amazing what a few precise folds, some careful cutting and limited but careful ink figures or colour can achieve from this most underappreciated material, remnants of which are overflowing from the recycling bins outside in the street. Paper is such a ubiquitous material that millions of tonnes alone are used in packaging in the UK each year, of which around 80 percent is recycled. Like wine, it has a wide variety of ages and qualities from cheap and cheerful mass produced paper that fills our supermarkets to the refined hand-made papers used for special invitations, calligraphy or proclamations.
Upstairs at Japan House, three dimensional works in paper in the window, curated by Hara Kenya, and across the ground floor space, many of which were available for purchase, provided the overture to ‘Subtle’, an exhibition in the gallery downstairs on the subtle dexterity of paper in the hands of 15 different Japanese artists, floating in the centre of the room against the backdrop of large photographs by Ueda Yoshiihiko.
The exhibition flew off on Christmas Eve, and colourful kites flew into the ground floor. Kites have a long history in Japan, thought to have been introduced from China in the 7th or 8th century AD as ‘paper hawks’ and, as an art form, reached its peak in the Edo period (1603 – 1867) when Japan was closed to foreigners.
Constructed from hand-made paper on bamboo frames, with around 130 different designs, many kite designs are unique to particular regions of Japan, the colourful decorations typically depicting figures from Japanese folklore, mythology and religion.
Two more of Japan House’s excellent exhibitions, the next will be entirely different, with a focus on technology and innovative modern design.