Exhibition "Before cotton", Church Tower Haslach // 18 July - 11 August 2019
Eat. Dress. Protection. These three basic elements of human life have a special meaning in Japan, where life has long been a struggle for survival.
Many artefacts of the privileged class have been preserved in museums. The historical textiles of the aristocrats, feudal lords and warriors, as well as the costumes of the Noh actors are well researched and documented. Because of their wonderful patterns, complex techniques and fine materials, these Japanese textiles have become world famous, yet they do not represent the entirety of Japanese textile culture.
What is known about the clothes of common people, who had to manage their lives with simple means and materials from their immediate surroundings? Not much is known about their everyday life and only a few samples have been preserved, because these textiles were often used to the complete wear and considered by researchers as not very precious.
Often we assumed that ordinary people wore cotton clothes a long time ago, but in fact this material did not become available to a broader segment of the population until the mid-eighteenth century. Although cottonseeds are said to have been imported from India to Japan for the first time in the eighth century, in the 13th and 14th centuries smaller quantities of cotton were imported from China to the island, but these rarities were very expensive and accessible only to courtly classes. It was only through the opening of Japan in the Edo period that the common population could cultivate and process cotton in a larger style from the middle of the 18th century.
So from which fibers did people produce their clothes and textiles for everyday use before importing cotton? The answer lies in the wild trees and plants that grow in the Japanese mountains and fields: paper mulberry, linden, elm, wisteria, banana bushes, hemp, ramie and nettle. These archaic fibers were demonstrably collected in Japan over 5,000 years ago and woven into fabrics. Their preparation took a lot of time, patience and dedication.
In various tree species, the trunk was peeled, the bast layer between bark and wood exposed, the raw material then cooked with ashes and fermented. Only then could the individual fibers be extracted. In different grasses, the stems either had to be cooked after cutting or the outer layer should be shaved off with a blade to expose the fiber bast. The individually extracted fibers were then spliced together or intertwined piece by piece to produce longer yarn. All of these steps were labor intensive, much like manual flax processing in pre-industrial Europe.
The textiles in the exhibition document how humans have been drawing from the abundance of nature for millennia in order to achieve their own lives, and with what respect they turned the plants into textiles. Each material has its own character and speaks its own language. Some of them are now completely gone from Japanese everyday life, others are still being processed in small quantities, in part by artisans who are state-funded as "Living National Treasure".
The exhibition in Haslach showed the diversity of this Japanese "Garden of Eden" with impressive examples from the gallery Kei in Kyoto, which is headed by Ms. Kei Kawasaki. It was presented in a special place, which fits the archaic, almost meditative pieces perfectly - in the church tower of Haslach. This impressive 14th-century building, formerly a fortified tower, has 8-level small spaces, each dedicated to a material that invites exploration.