Christina M. Spiker

Christina M. Spiker

Art Historian | Professor | Digital Humanist

Exploring Chirimen-bon in Yokohama

I am incredibly thankful for having been invited to give a paper by Mayako Murai at Kanagawa University’s symposium “ちりめん本と女性の文化” (Chirimen-bon and Girl’s Culture), which celebrated the opening of an exhibition of Japanese crepe-paper books in their library. The trip was a whirlwind (I stayed for 5 nights in Yokohama because of my teaching duties here), but I’m grateful for the chance to travel and meet new colleagues who are interested in these quaint, but fascinating works of material culture. I was also introduced to Nanae Otsuka, a librarian who is retired from the National Diet Library, who was an amazing guide and a fast friend.

Me and Otsuka-san at the National Children’s Library in Ueno.

On my first full day in Yokohama, I took the train into Tokyo to meet up with Murai and Otsuka. Together we explored the National Diet Library on a tour with Librarian Yokota Shihoko, who was truly knowledgable about the resources and the space. It was fortuitous timing, because the library was hosting a memorial exhibition featuring some of their rare printed works! I was shocked at the architecture of the building, which was a particular issue during the 2011 earthquake. When we entered the space, we all wore “booties” on our feet to protect the surfaces. It was great to see how their institution processed material, and I was even shocked to learn about the amount of manga they had on their shelves — a true resource for any scholar of popular culture! When Murai left, Otsuka and I ate some delicious eel before making our way to the National Children’s Library in Ueno. It was my first time there, and the building was fascinating. In a nutshell, it was constructed in two halves and you could see the Meiji architecture coexisting with later Showa and Heisei additions. Later, we wandered the streets to find a paper shop that created their own chirimen (crepe paper) and to a historic tofu restaurant that I will not soon forget. I owe Otsuka many thanks. Wandering around with her was a great way to orient myself back in Tokyo — it has been some time, since I avoided it on my last venture to Japan.

On the day of the exhibition, I met up with Otsuka and we made our way over to Kanagawa University. She gave attendees a personalized tour of the space. Not only was I able to see various examples of chirimen-bon in person, but I was also able to learn more about the process and meet others interested in the books, from scholars to collectors. My own presentation dealt with the connoisseurship of these books by Western women who were friends with publisher Hasegawa Takejiro. I also discussed Minnesota artist, Evelyn Goodrow Mitsch, whose family donated her copy of The Smiling Book to St. Catherine University. It was a rare chance for me to see our book in conversation with works existing in Japan, and listening to Otsuka’s paper made me realize that there are new avenues that I need to pursue as I continue this work.

I had very little downtime during the trip, but I did find a day to visit the garden at Sankeien. The site is interesting because many historical buildings from other places have been relocated here. But it was peaceful to walk around on a beautiful autumn day. It was amazing to me that the leaves had not yet changed in November. They happened to be having a flower show on the day I was there. I also explored Yokohama’s Chinatown with Otsuka and even went on a ferry ride with her around Yokohama Bay.

The trip was quick, but certainly memorable. I am excited and even more energized to keep moving along this path. Many thanks to all of the amazing people I met on my trip (especially Murai, Otsuka, and Yokota).

Lessons Learned: 2nd Annual Art Historians of the Twin Cities Symposium

Thank you to Amy Hamlin for taking this great group photograph of both panels!

Many thanks and congratulations to the Art Historians of the Twin Cities for a second year of fascinating presentations! I was so honored to be a part of this event for a second year running. My paper on crepe-paper books (chirimen-bon) went over better than I had anticipated, and I left with so many new avenues to consider. It was great to hear the work of the six other presenters: Curt Germundson (Univ. of Minnesota, Mankato), Gretchen Gasterland-Gustafson (MCAD), Frenchy Lunning (MCAD), Christopher Tradowsky (St. Olaf College), Damon Stanek (MCAD) and Maria Zavialova (Museum of Russian Art).

With symposia such as this one that are purposely constructed to be inclusive of a wide variety of work, it can sometimes be difficult to find themes that unite multiple papers aside from the fact that we are all connected to art history or visual culture in one way or another. But there was one concept brought up by Gretchen Gasterland-Gustafson that I kept seeing throughout our papers. Citing Nicholas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (1998), she discussed the artwork of Chris Larson (particularly his recreation of Marcel Breuer’s Kacmarcik House as the “Daylight Center” in Kapenguria, Kenya). She said that Larson’s work was more concerned with the processes of formation, rather than the finished form. Form, she argued, is concerned with what is desired, while formation is concerned with what is possible. Gasterland-Gustafson related this to the collaborative possibilities inherent in Larson’s art. The crucial moment is when the artist’s initial ideas about a project meet the local constraints of environment, workers, and eventual inhabitants. She explained that form served as a blueprint of sorts, with participants bringing the work of art into being.

Christopher Tradowsky comparing the poetry of Wallace Stevens and La Monte Young.

After her paper, I began to see our collective preoccupation with issues of formation. In the first panel, Curt Gemundson explored the work of Carl Buchheister and his idea that copies could somehow liberate us from our obsession with the original work of art (7 years before Walter Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” mind you!) Despite his grand ideas, Buchheister eventually fails in this goal, as he still held on the original work of art, making art speculation possible and thus raising the price out of the price range of those he wanted to be able to afford it. Buchheister, in his own way, seemed to be engaging with these very debates over form and formation, and the problems that arise when we privilege form over the creative process more generally. In contrast, Christopher Tradowsky turned to Fluxus and imperative poetry, and challenged us to take poetry seriously. Over the course of his presentation, he spoke about performing a “Fluxus Festival” with students so that they could fully grasp the goals of this kind of performance. We saw a photograph of his students aggressively pushing a piano into the wall, following La Monte Young’s instruction. But this photograph reminded me that such acts require not only active participants to bring the work to being, but also an ability to relinquish control over a finished product. It is about the process, rather than the “finalized piece,” which could only be documented through the medium of photography (or video). And finally, Frenchy Lunning spoke about the gradual codification of an aesthetic called “hirahira” in girl’s ballet comics (shojo manga). The style derived its name from Japanese onomatopoeia for “flit and flutter.” While Lunning provided us with plenty of finished works to analyze, one of her main points was that ballet manga was, in a way, an act of adolescent self indulgence. At the same time that ballet manga strove to depict the perfection of form through the dancer “on point” at the height of lightness and thinness, the aesthetic itself was often a way of working through the identity formation of young girls defiantly standing outside the world of men.

Q&A for the morning panel.

In the second panel, Damon Stanek allowed us to think through the relationship between jazz and images that were projected on a screen in a gallery space. In a theoretical exegesis that moved between music and art, he asked us to consider the differences between presentation and representation. The question rattling in my mind was the striking contrast between the improvisation of jazz where music avoids the overdetermination of form, and the desire to create works of art intended to preserve that generative process in the gallery space. And finally, Maria Zavialova explored the collection at the Museum of Russian art from the perspective of the curator. She focused her talk on the collecting practices of Soviet Art, and it made me remember that collections go through their own formative processes that are subject to the whims of the market and history.

And with regard to my own paper, I actively chose to focus on how these crepe-paper books came into being, rather than offer an analysis of the final form (which is scholarship already being carried out by scholars more qualified than I). I find that by focusing on process, I am better able to account for voices and narratives typically left out of the history. The labor of women is typically invisible if we analyze these books only in terms of significant artists and publishers. What is infinitely more interesting is how these things come into being through a process of cross-cultural collaboration.

The way that I am seeing form vs. formation is likely a far reach from Bourriaud’s (and by extension Gasterland-Gustafson’s thesis), but it served as a productive way for me think through the variety of work at the symposium. What made the presentations interesting is that each person was invested in the collaborative possibilities inherent in the journey, rather than the destination.

Looking forward to next year!

Presentation at the 2nd Annual Art Historians of the Twin Cities Symposium

Very happy to be presenting some brand new work on Saturday, April 1 at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) for the 2nd Annual Art Historians of the Twin Cities Symposium from 10am-3pm. The Art and Art History Department at St. Kate’s is a co-sponsor of this event that showcases the current research of local and regional scholars of art history. This will be my second time presenting in the company of these amazing scholars. The event is free and open to the public, so if you are local it might be a fun way to see what art historians in the greater metro area are doing. I’m slightly biased, but totally looking forward to a presentation by my former office mate from St. Olaf College, Christopher Tradowsky. Students currently taking my course on Global Japan: Art, Anime, and Visual Culture should take note of the presentation by Frenchy Lunning.

I was so excited that the student designer at MCAD used some of my archival photographs of The Smiling Book for the symposium poster. Some readers might recall me writing about this discovery on this blog a few months ago. My presentation titled “The Texture of Crepe: Western Women and the Conoisseurship of Japanese Crepe Paper Books (chirimenbon)” will be a meditation on the value of digging locally and the medium of crepe paper in Japan as it pertains to the role of Western women in collecting and connoisseurship. This work is very new to me, and the first project in a while that doesn’t deal with race and representation in Japan. However, it does stick with the timeline of my dissertation (late 19th century).

Can’t wait!

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