From geta to Gaga and beyond
He's become known as the Japanese artist who designed Lady Gaga's heel-less shoes, but Noritaka Tatehana is more complex than that.
The 34-year-old designer, who studied textiles at Tokyo University of the Arts and has a passionate interest in traditional Japanese crafts, made a modern version of geta, the 18th-century, Edo-era platform shoes worn by courtesans. They were spotted in 2010 by superstar Lady Gaga's stylist and the rest is herstory.
With their gravity-defying structure, they resemble pony fetish shoes and, like Gaga's famous meat dress, they have become a talking point beyond her 79 million followers on Twitter and 37 million on Instagram.
"Noritaka Tatehana: Refashioning Beauty" was conceived by Christina Cacouris, a journalist and curator based in New York and co-curated by the Portland Japanese Garden's art curator, Dr. Laura J. Mueller.
As Tatehana's first-ever North American solo exhibition (through Dec. 1) opens at Portland Japanese Garden this weekend, the Portland Tribune talked to Dr. Mueller about the breadth of his art and his attempt to rethink traditional craft.
On top of the 15 pairs of sparkly platforms on display, the exhibition pulls back the screen on the rarefied world of Japanese craft, where apprenticeships are humbling and long, and where skills are handed down over multiple generations. (Tatehana employed the help of a 15th-generation sword maker in this show.) It also links the old world to contemporary conceptual art. Tatehana's Tokyo gallery, Kosaku Kanechika, is the kind of Kubrick-like white space where his non-shoe art shines.
Mueller said he wanted a temporary wall in the Pavilion Gallery to show off a stunning piece of minimal installation art. It consists of 54 lacquered pieces that look like glossy red tiles, each with a slightly different geometric design. They are placed on the floor and continue up the wall.
They're inspired by "The Tale of Genji," an 11th-century classic novel by the female author Murasaki Shikibu, about the exploits of a prince.
A big theme is scent and incense. Each of the 54 chapters is headed by a type of logo or genji-mon, based on the game Genjiko. It was played by courtiers who had to guess scent combinations from incense samples. Tatehana's tiles play off these genji-mon.
"It's a set of five lines, and how those five lines are intersected will denote an individual scent. As part of the game, the participants would smell the incense and then they would use these five lines to connect them in certain ways that would denote a specific scent. That's how they would give their answer," Mueller said.
They are like works by Donald Judd with an overlay of craft from another dimension.
"He's using these individual logos to represent, in a poetic way, this idea of the cultivation, sophistication and the knowledge of the scent. In religious ceremonies, the smoke of the incense would rise up to communicate with the afterlife and with Buddha," she said.
Mueller added: "It has a very spiritual, religious connotation to it, but it also has a sort of secular importance. Prince Genji had many lovers, and he would recognize a lover by her scent."
Tatehana is passionate about takumi or master craftsmanship. He learned to make shoes for his geta project. (If you want a pair now you have to wait two years then spend a week with him learning their meaning. And $15,000.) It's not just a luxury good a Guinness girl can buy. It's supposed to be a life-changing cultural experience. But with other crafts there is no way to simulate what takes a lifetime to learn.
One of Mueller's favorite pieces is in the Void Series. Tatehana takes a traditional sword and encases it in clear acrylic, like an art object trapped in glass or an insect in amber. But he carves a void in the shape of the sword's sheath, so it seems to be suspended in its own shape or design history.
"Tatehana wants to find a way to create a market so that sword makers can continue for generations to craft swords. And of course, you can't really hang out with swords anymore. You know, walking around with them. So, he's looking for ways to make that longevity to that art form. He's encapsulating the sword in acrylic to keep it for future generations, which is this metaphor for keeping the art form alive."
The works are very different from each other, showing the artist is still experimenting. He remembers the camellias that grew in the temple gardens in his hometown Kamakura.
Camelia Fields is circle of bronze chameleon flowers, painted in acrylic paint. With camellias the petals don't fall off, the full whole buds will fall.
"To the samurai, who meditated on them, they represented the belief that the full head would fall."
They create bright rings on the floor under the tree.
"It was like the strength of the flower. You oftentimes associate this idea of the fleeting life with the cherry blossoms when they scatter in the wind, but in the samurai community as the entire bloom would fall to the ground it would be very masculine. The red color represented, of course, blood and the death of the samurai."
"There was some hesitation with him about doing the exhibition. He came here with his team for a site visit this past April and after spending just a short time here realized what an amazing setting and what a treasure we have here in Portland at Portland Japanese Garden."
Other objects in the show include a four-foot high copy of a traditional lacquer hair pin, like the geta platforms, traditionally worn by high ranking courtesans.
"He likes to take these symbols that have representations of sophistication, beauty and cultivation, and he removes them from their historical context. He then refashions them to appeal to contemporary audiences."
Then there are two dimensional paintings, on canvases cut into new shapes, bearing cloud motifs. They look like Pop Art or like a Damien Hirst side project. They combine his love of patterning, from his textiles background, with the symbolism of text illustration in maki scrolls, where a cloud symbolizes a time shift in the story. In this case, Tatehana does the painting by hand himself.
"He wants to be defined as an artist. Now that he shot onto the international stage as a designer of shoes, he doesn't want to be thought of simply as a shoe designer. He's really working to show all the different creative work that he does, and how diverse it is."
Tatehana will give a lecture at the garden, Crafting the Art of Japan's Future, October 5 at 5 pm.
Noritaka Tatehana: Refashioning Beauty
Oct 5 to Dec 1, 2019
Portland Japanese Garden, including garden entrance $13.50 to $18.95
Noritaka Tatehana was born in 1985 in Tokyo, into a family running a public bathhouse, "Kabuki-yu" in Kabukicho in Shinjuku, an entertainment district located in the center of Tokyo. His mother is an instructor of Waldorf dolls, used in Waldorf or Steiner education. His parents raised him in the historic city of Kamakura, where his creativity was cultivated. At the Tokyo University of the Arts, Tatehana studied fine arts and Japanese crafts, and later majored in dyeing and weaving. While at university, he was engaged in the study of "Oiran" or the courtesans in Meiji period. In the meantime, he created kimono and geta using Y?zen-zome, the traditional Japanese dyeing method. In recent years, as a contemporary artist, Tatehana has taken part in exhibitions around the world and has created works that incorporate handicrafts of the Japanese traditional craftsmen that had been passed on for generations. In March 2016, he directed a Ningyo-joruri bunraku show which was performed at Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain in France for his first time. Tatehana's works are held in the public collections of museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Victoria and Albert Museum.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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