“Eastern Exchanges: East Asian Craft & Design” has opened at Manchester Art Gallery after three years in the making. The exhibition combines historic pieces from the gallery itself with some of this generation’s most exciting international contemporary design. It investigates 1,500 years of rich craft heritage from China, Japan and Korea, displaying everything from Imperial treasures to modern, minimalist furniture.
The exhibition consists of three sections, highlighted by different colour walls as you walk through. The first, “Distinctively Eastern,” explores each country’s distinctive style identity and their commonalities within East Asian craft. Highlights of this theme include a luxurious lacquered norimono, or Japanese sedan chair, Chinese Imperial robes and Japanese hand-chiselled iron tsuba or sword guards which are on show for the first time in 30 years.
All three countries have a long history of working with local materials and this is reflected in this exhibition with an eclectic mix of ceramics, metalwork, furniture, lacquer, textiles and sculpture. A number of objects also refer to East Asia’s past, with dragon robes and samurai armour taking pride of place amongst this theme.
The second theme, “East Meets West,” highlights the cultural exchange of a wide range of skills and styles between East and West through trade and travel. A stand out piece in this section is “Chinese Ladders.” This towering sculpture is awe-inspiring, as its stability at such a height just looks so improbable.
“East Meets West” looks at misunderstandings between cultures and how they influence aspects of life, design and fashion. It consists of European imitations of East Asian ceramics and fashion which, at first glance, could easily be mistaken for East Asian crafts, fuelling misunderstood stereotypes, and some wonderful hand blown glasswork by Kee Ryong Choi, called simply “Korean Glass,” which is decorated with intentionally meaningless and unreadable Korean calligraphy.
The third theme of the exhibition is “Future East” which showcases contemporary artists who are creating new directions in craft and design. Recent acquisitions include Fumio Enomoto’s elegant “Weave Stool” which won the Bronze Leaf Award in the International Furniture Competition back in 2011.
Inspired by bamboo baskets, the clever use of laminated bamboo in an unusual way and its minimalist structure and design are a sight to behold. The section also boasts a number of acquisitions including ceramics by Gwang Yeol Yu, Jin Eui Kim, Jin Ka Lee, Jung Hong Park, Jungwon Park and Yasuko Sakurai.
Many works look to bring back and encapsulate authentic, regional identity and use a variety of new materials or methods to make these crafts possible.
Evident throughout the whole exhibition is that East Asian crafts are not only functional, but expresses identity, philosophical ideas and spirituality.
“Manchester’s great 19th century industrialists pioneered business links with the East and collected some incredible works of art on their travels,” said gallery director Maria Balshaw. “We’ve mixed them with wonderful historic and contemporary international pieces to illustrate why East Asian design has been admired and imitated for centuries.”
“Eastern Exchanges” is at Manchester Art Gallery from 2nd April-31st May.