From the Far East to the North West, Manchester Art Gallery celebrates Asian craft

By Mark Sheerin | 09 April 2015

Exhibition review: Eastern Exchanges - East Asian Craft and Design, Manchester Art Gallery, until May 31 2015

Colour photo of a small teapot with a gold patina
Gyokusendo, gold teapot© Courtesy Manchester Art Gallery
With its rich displays of Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian art, Manchester Art Gallery reflects the tastes of the city’s richest inhabitants at a time when industry was heavy and the painting a touch bombastic.

But what you might not expect to find at this repository of cultural kudos is an extensive collection of East Asian crafts. These too were collected in the imperialist heyday. And in a new show they are given context and contemporary points of comparison.

It begins with a sedan chair which hasn’t been out of the vaults since 1985. With its fine covering of lacquered wood, kirikane (cut gold) and gilt bronze it was never ideal for the rainy, sooty streets of northern England.

Applying and cooking the lacquer in layers would have taken months, so even on the secondary market (with the Tokugawa family as previous careful owners) the acquisition of this artefact represents a Mancunian’s significant commitment to the arts of Japan.

While sedan may no longer be the most PC way to get around, the chair has competition for the title of most anachronistic work. Not so far away is a two-foot ivory tusk, with fine carvings of eye-watering detail.

Colour photo of a pastel blue bench made from a grid of wires
Shin and Tomoko Azumi, Wire Bench (2006)© Courtesy Manchester Art Gallery
The fact that its donor was shot in 1874 is surely the elephant in the room. But if you can get past the cruelty, the Chinese workmanship is a marvel. The tapering white cylinder is cut away to reveal scene upon scene of locals packing tea. While the tusk may be exotic, the tea couldn’t be closer to home.

Indeed, tea appears to be the greatest common ground between the UK and the Far East. It was expensive at one time and as a result tea-pots were small. In addition to liquid refreshments, tea breaks were an occasion to display and enjoy some of the world’s most beautiful craft objects.

It’s a tradition upheld to this day and the most commanding pot in the current show is contemporary. Japanese artist Gyukosendo would have you pour your drink from a patinated copper vessel and store your tea in a no less luminous canister.

While you might struggle to showcase the past 150 years of any other artform, there is something ageless about East Asian craft objects, which allows for the complimentary display of old and new.

Skills die out, but technology evolves and the artefacts remain masterful. The narrative thread here is of trading imperial powers, influencing one another and finally making work for a sophisticated global market. These exquisite objects may use craft techniques but are, in their occasional uselessness, surely art.

As if to make that very point, Koichiro Yamamoto has blown up a solid glass jug with an illusionistic interior handle. You cannot fill it, nor can you pick it up, but trapped air bubbles set the whole piece in motion.

Lei Xue meanwhile makes crushed drink cans from porcelain to reflect the popularity of canned tea and self-heating coffee. The German-based artist is commenting on tradition or the loss of it, rather than putting his ceramic skills at anyone’s dining service.

Colour photo of a richly embroidered orange robe
Silk Dragon Robe, Chinese (1800)© Courtesy Manchester Art Gallery
But when craft behaves itself, one would very much like to get hands on. There is a reversible wire bench here by Shin and Tomoko Azumi. It is light blue and light weight, thanks to shopping basket principles of design.

It casts delicate shadows, but looks as if it could take your weight. And if you so wished you could flip it over and use it as a chaise longue, where time spent reclining would surely lead to serene reveries.

Interestingly, there are a number of British artists in the show, since for more than a century homegrown craftspeople have looked East for inspiration. Some, such as Bernard Leach, have even been given prestigious cultural awards in Japan.

Others are content to borrow from East Asian craft to supply the demand for chinoiserie in the UK. Christopher Dresser combines a Japanese motif with colour from China to create a Moon Flask which, in 1879, was postmodern ahead of its time.

The black and turquoise vessel depicts cranes flying past the moon; we have neither cranes nor a certain poetic relation to the seasons, so let's be thankful we have at least Asian crafts to bring us a glimpse of these things.

  • Open 10am-5pm. Admission free.

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Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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