Layers of Lacquer and of Ice

The stacks of Renaissance prints that were held in the Arctic ice for three hundred years (see previous posting), led me to think about the possibility of using of Japanese lacquer (urushi) as a medium for new drawings. This was for a number of reasons –

At about the time that the attempt was being made to carry the prints to the Far East, cultural artefacts in the form of export lacquer were being brought from Japan to Europe. With the exchange of such objects, came the beginning of an ongoing dialogue on aesthetics between the East and the West.

It has been suggested that Japanese craftsmen of the past understood that their black lacquer with gold ornamentation should be seen in dark spaces. (Ironically, lacquer objects are actually damaged by too much light, despite their highly reflective nature.) The idea that a light source might be radically reduced in order to fully understand the aesthetics of an object, is intriguing both in terms of the installation and viewing of contemporary drawing. The prints, on the other hand, had been subjected to extreme lighting conditions – held in the translucent ice through numerous Polar winters and summers. With these ideas in mind, I plan to travel to Kyoto later this month in order to see lacquer objects and architectural features within the spatial context of temples and rural farmhouses.

Piles of single sheets of the prints that were held in the frozen environment of the Arctic gradually turned to papier maché blocks over time. So too is Japanese lacquer transformed by a moist environment, albeit a humid rather than a frozen one. Only in a moist and warm environment, can lacquer harden. Numerous dark, translucent layers are applied – the drawn images are “trapped” between layers at late stages of production.  This again echoes the way in which the images of the prints were “trapped” as they lay, one on top of another, bound in ice. The polarity of light and dark, has been a recurring theme in my work – and is implied by the whiteness of the ice, the extreme depth of the darkness of lacquer.

The V&A holds some of the world’s finest examples of Japanese export lacquer. Currently a major conservation project on one of these objects, the Mazarin Chest, is underway. Last month I was fortunate enough to be able to work in the museum’s lacquer studio with Shayne Rivers, who is the lead conservator of the project. I was able to experience some of the remarkable qualities of the medium and experiment applying it to a range of supports such as vellum and Japanese handmade paper.


The Mazarin Chest, about 1640. Museum no. 412:1-1882

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