I don’t remember how I stumbled upon the existing of the Japan House in Kensington, London, but I am very glad I did. Apparently it is supposed to be ‘presenting the very best of Japanese art, design, gastronomy, innovation, and technology’ to deepen our appreciation of what Japan has to offer. It’s a really interesting and honestly incredibly persuasive initiative from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, especially when they put on some incredible textile exhibitions which you can enjoy for free.
It has been unsurprisingly disrupted by COVID, but the Japan House has been host to ‘Making Nuno, Japanese Textile Innovation from Sudou Reiko’. It’s a beautiful, very immersive exhibition but I have to say, it was not immediately obvious what it would contain or be about from the website. In essence, it’s a small collection of highly technical fabrics (in the sense that they are all feats of fabric engineering) and a series of videos about textile processing in several areas of Japan.
I would describe the overall exhibition as small and perfect. There are several textile pieces and samplers on display on the main floor of the shop, but the core of the exhibition is in a single room. It is beautifully done, with a few objects in cases and quite extensive documentation. The paper guide you get is also very detailed and informative and there are two things I love from an exhibition, one to feel inspired by the workmanship and two, to learn something new. This ticks both boxes very well.
The other key part of the exhibition is a series of six short films about textile production (the pieces you see in the exhibit) from different areas of Japan. They slip slightly into the surreal as each film about the different region has a similar ‘construction’ in terms of the sequences of events, so there is a disconcerting moment at the beginning of each when you’re thinking ‘…have I seen this before?’ This seemed to be a common theme for much of the audience who nearly left, realised it was something new, then came back!
The films though are beautiful. I love the exhibition of the shot of Japan’s natural beauty and these quiet, remote locations with the noise and intensity of the industrial processing. I don’t know if this is something unique to these projects or factories, but you get an excellent sense of how labour intensive a lot of textile production is. You can really see why fabrics can go for upwards of £100 a meter and not feel as aggrieved at paying it. What I love is that you really see in depth a lot of the process of creating the textiles. While the weaving is done mostly on Jacquard-type looms so there’s a limit to how much of the magic you are privy to, you see a lot of the off-loom processing steps, washing, dyeing and hand finishing and checking.
While nuno (布) means cloth or fabric in Japanese, Nuno as it is meant in this context is the name of a textiles company that prides itself on the interplay between the new and old. I cannot fathom where from but I swear I must have seen their fabrics before while I was in Japan as I definitely know their logo. You can find some of their fabrics for sale online and they are all gorgeous. If these films were propaganda exercises to make you love Japanese craftsmanship and art, then consider me converted – they have some gorgeous patterns and prints.
The main pieces in the exhibition are all stunningly beautiful and fascinating if you’re interested in textile construction. There’s a gorgeously textured piece known as ‘Jellyfish’ that looks as if it should be pulled thread work to get the layered, textured construction. It’s actually a clever chemistry trick making use of polyvinyl alcohol fibres with a thermoplastic polyester taffeta and using the fact that the polyvinyl alcohol fibres shrink on application of heat to create the structure. Apparently the experts at the Nakanishi Dye Factory figured out they could screen print the glue onto the fabric to achieve the same effect and it’s mesmerising to watch how the fabric ‘springs’ to life as it rolls through an oven.
The other thing that particularly caught my eye and heart, other than some beautiful kasuri-dyed silk ribbons, was the selection of Tango chirimen fabrics. Chirimen is a type of silk crêpe made from specific types of silk but covers a fairly diverse family of fabrics as it can be quite ‘flat’ (hitokoshi chirimen) or very textured. Good quality chirimen have something utterly ethereal and fascinating about them (maybe it’s the fact it’s a wrinkle-free fabric!) and some of the prints and structures you can get in the weave are mindblowing.
There was an utterly gorgeous piece that was a mixture of was silver printed washi paper, using a technique called yakihaku, that had been woven into the weft in a technique called hikihaku. The V&A have a fabulous video of the technique for a nishiji-ori obi. The example in the nuno exhibition didn’t have as ‘finely crushed’ leaf to make the very fine thread but was no less striking for it.
Overall, it was an excellent exhibition and the Japan House has a lovely, peaceful vibe to the whole place. It feels like a tiny oasis away from the bustle of High Street Kensington and the excellent air condition does help. They also seem to have a series of talks fairly regularly – many of which were textile related due to this exhibition – and I hope they will have something similar soon. I’m afraid the upcoming ‘Dog Architecture’ exhibition is perhaps one for which the wonders will be lost on me.
Unfortunately the exhibition is finishing at the end of this week (11th July) but if you’re about you might just be able to catch the end of it. I had some issues with trying to book tickets online as I would click on the booking dates and it would do nothing, but was able to drop in on a Saturday with no issues so you might get lucky! It doesn’t seem to be quite as elusive as trying to get tickets for some of the V&A exhibitions at the moment…