An interview with Akito Akagi



     Making vessels 
     to the silent voice
     of lacquer trees and sap
     that stand in the forest
     speaking to me
     at what connects
     life and death
     Giving a form
     to the formless
     in my palm
     to them

These are the words that Mr. Akagi wrote for his solo exhibition at Ginza Wako in 2022. We had a talk with him about his thoughts behind these words because we believe that what he says here is linked to the core of what he does.

Akagi -
I think this kind of feeling was kept among people until recently, but it is rapidly being lost nowadays, and I would like to go back to the origin of craftsmanship. For example, there are many people who have never thought about death today, and a mere mention of religious matters is met with a climate of rejection. They say, "This world is only what we are experiencing, and that's fine.'' But the fact that many people believe that the experiencing world is all there and the fact that such essential issues are not even discussed anymore are, in a sense, the root cause of the loss of belief in crafts, I think.
Aratani (essence kyoto) -
I agree. I think the folk craft ("Mingei") of Muneyoshi Yanagi  also has a religious nature at its root, but I feel that this aspect is rarely discussed nowadays.

Akagi -
It may be true that Yanagi tried to connect religious truth with folk craft, but I am of the Kantian view that we should not talk about truth or mystery per se. I mean we should look at the mystery from this side. Many people think of mystery as something occult, but I realized from experience that it is not. I have mentioned before that when I walk through the same forest for decades, the forest scenes look like waves. Buds emerging from the soil, swelling and growing upward in search of light, and then at the end of summer they lose water, wither and shrivel, drop their leaves, and then the trees fall, rot, and return to the soil.  It looks exactly like a wave to me. When a phenomenon occurs, there is something behind it that creates that phenomenon, and I feel like I am right on the edge of touching it. I am sure that the Jomon people also lived in the forest and were aware that they were part of the forest's vibrations, or rather, that they were part of something that repeatedly swelled, shrank, and disappeared. I think Jomon earthenware is a modeling of this. Jomon earthenware has various motifs, such as the rope pattern, snakes, and water etc.  But to me, they seem to be pure intuition of the forest. Like the waves I mentioned earlier, they expand, contract, and disappear. So I think the Jomon earthenware is a sculptural representation of the growth and expansion of plants. In the fall of the same year, the Jomon people took earthenware vessels to the top of the mountain and sent them to another world. Then, they made earthenware again for next year. I think this means that humans and earthenware were all part of that cycle. This is probably at the root of human consciousness, and this is probably at the base of Japanese culture.

I have been with lacquer for 30 years now, and I am  even more confused about lacquer. What I know about lacquer is only on the surface, and I feel that there is a mysterious world under the surface. I find this is a mystery. I can't put it into words, but there is something lying there. I think that the work of craftsmen is to approach the very edge of what is there where it cannot be verbalized. So I don't know if belief is the right word... Mystique, I guess. Also, I think it's love for it. There is something unverbalizable, unexplainable but incredibly fascinating, and I want to look closely at it and bring something from it. Lacquer has a direction that it wants to be. It is the perfect state of the lacquer so I concentrate on bringing out that perfection without disturbing it.

According to Kant, God, the Pure Land, what I feel behind the forest, and the life force of lacquer are just things created by the imagination of the human brain. No one can determine whether they really exist or not. However, I believe that we can live a more spiritual and ethical life if we assume that such things exist and live in the world where we are today. Either way, we have many problems that cannot be solved in this world. For me, craft is one of the solutions to these problems.

Aratani -
You say that your black lacquer is aimed for a white black. It sounds contradictory in words, but when I look at it, I can certainly feel white in the black. Is that also what lacquer wants to be?
Akagi - 
I recently became able to verbalize why it looks white. It is because the molecules of lacquer sap are large. When lacquer sap comes out, it is a mixture of large and small crystallized molecules, but usually when it is processed, it is stirred and pulverized to make the particles finer and more uniform in size. Then, the size of the molecules become uniform, creating a glossy shine. In my case, however, we do by 
ourselves the "kurome" process which means stirring the lacquer sap to make the top coat, when we stir the lacquer with a wooden tool, we take care to minimize the coefficient of friction whenever possible. By doing so, we can transfer the lacquer to the top coat without destroying the molecules. In this way, the size of the molecules is random, which causes diffuse reflections and makes the black appear whitely. It can also be stronger. I think this is the true form of the lacquer material, and now that I am able to put such phenomena into words, my world has expanded a little, but there is still a vast, indescribable world of lacquer beyond that.

Aratani - 
You once said that, since ancient times, for Japanese people, nature has been an abstract and transcendent place where the life force comes from or where the dead return, and that facing such transcendent things is the starting point of craftsmanship. Nature as a mystery is invisible and cannot be described in words, but it can be felt as waves through the appearance of plants in the forest, or, as in the story of Kurome, it can be brought out into our world through technique and experience. The starting point of crafts is to work with nature, which contains such mysteries, while listening to its silent voice and gazing intently.

Akagi - 
Right. That is why I believe the essence of craft is faith, or love for the mystery. There is a book by Jaspers about "Philosophical Faith’’.  Philosophy, which is logical study, and faith seem to be contradictory, but I think philosophical faith is possible. In the same way, even though we can't speak about the existence of mystery, we can access it, then I think there is a possibility of faith in craft. For example, just as religious practitioners keep looking into their souls or minds, as craftsmen, we keep looking at materials not just as objects to be made and consumed, but as objects of mystery, which is the core of Mingei for me. I feel that there is something in the immense mystery of materials that saves human souls. Therefore, I realize the difference between craft and machine-made products is a matter of heart. I believe that craft is the work that saves human souls, and I would like to create something like that.

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