Japanese Artist Tomoko Konoike brought her wonderful dialogic textile art to an event co-organised by The Drouth for Glasgow International last year. Curator and translator Naoko Mabon first published this text on Konoike in the online version of the Japan Quality magazine (Tokyo: Fudosha Co.Ltd.) in February 2022.
Cloths and threads of various materials and colours are elaborately sewn together into a table mat. At first glance, it looks like a cute handicraft work, but something seems strange. It looks like a scene from the countryside. A house is on fire under a peaceful blue sky. A creature, a dog or a cat, is running out of the house with fire on their back. If we look closely, we can see a baby lying by an open hearth of licking flames…
This is a part of the Storytelling Table Runner project on which the artist Tomoko Konoike (born 1960 in Akita Prefecture) has been working since 2014, and is based on a story of Chioko Matsuhashi in Aniai, Akita Prefecture, from when her grandfather was a child. Leaving his youngest sister, who was still a baby, in a round basket called izumekko (*1), the whole family went out to work in the fields. It was a cold day, so they lit a fire in the hearth to keep her warm. The house later caught on fire, which killed the baby. The cause of the fire was not known, but the family realised that their cat had gone missing. “The cat must have run around and jumped into the hearth and started the fire. That must have been the cause.” The family came to believe so. That is the story. The soft touch of the work and its heartwarming quality particular to hand-stitched items somehow serves to emphasise the indescribable tragedy.
Storytelling Table Runner consists of a structure of: listening to personal stories – sometimes too personal to tell even to one’s own family – of people who Konoike meets while traveling both in Japan and abroad; Konoike drawing sketches based on the stories; the speakers themselves sewing handicraft table mats based on Konoike’s sketches; works being exhibited in venues such as art museums; and the audience viewing the works. The project began when Konoike was working on Mt. Moriyoshi in northern Akita for the Lodge the Art Museum project. Almost every evening, when Konoike and her team descended from the snowy mountain to the village of Aniai, local women prepared and served them meals to soothe their fatigue. Warm local dishes such as colourful vegetables, wild plants and bear meat were laid out on the table. Their hands moving around the kitchen and the table, preparing the food. The never-ending chatter. As Konoike watched the table where everything was brought to life together, an image of Storytelling Table Runner, which would take place not on a wall but on a table or dining table, suddenly came to her mind. Since then, with Yuko Shoji, who runs a handicraft workshop in Akita, and Mayako Murai, a fairy-tale scholar who teaches at Kanagawa University, as the main travel partners, the project has been developed with participants who Konoike met while travelling in Akita, Aomori, Okunoto, Oshima Seisho-en (national sanatorium for leprosy or ex-leprosy patients), Tasmania and Finland. The next travel destination is apparently Sydney.
Each Storytelling Table Runner takes place in a different location with different participants coming with varied cultural backgrounds, languages and skills, while listening to their personal stories that are almost too small to be written in history. The project uses handicrafts that women have long been forced to work on around the world, and which have been continually disdained by fine art such as painting and sculpture. The works of the project are often showcased, not only in dedicated art spaces but also in local gathering places or handicraft shops related or familiar to the participants. And yet, there is potent creative vitality and a certain shrewdness hidden within the mechanism of this project. There is a sympathy towards the cruelty and terror of everyday life that comes and goes, no matter how touching or tragic the events that happen, and a relief that comes with sharing these lived experiences. These qualities made it hard to fit the project into one single category of activity such as art, craft, feminism, placemaking, social practice or cross-disciplinary collaboration.
In June 2021, as part of Glasgow International, a contemporary art festival in Scotland, there was an online event in which Konoike and Murai had a dialogue with several Scotland-based participants. This event was informed by The Travel Dialogue Form, a film of a dialogue between Konoike and Murai, and works of Storytelling Table Runner, as a guide (*2). As a Japan-born curator based in Scotland, I was fortunate enough to be involved in this event as a translator. In order to bring “the sense of touch,” which is “the most lagging field that visual art has excluded, and the most important field for this particular occasion” (*3) back to the event which had moved online, and above all to continue travelling, forty works of Storytelling Table Runner were sent to Scotland from Akita by Shoji prior to the event. Some of the works were displayed at CCA in Glasgow, and some were delivered one by one to the participants of the event so that each of them could attend the event with one work in their hands. “What was the first thing you noticed about the work, and why do you think you noticed it first?” The dialogue began by asking these questions to the participants. “As soon as I saw this, I recalled my own grandmother…” “When I travelled by train with my father-in-law…” Participants had no connection to the original stories or their cultural backgrounds, but it was striking to see how easily they were able to correspond them to their own stories, almost pulling the stories towards themselves. Since the dialogue was mediated through consecutive interpretation by myself, there was a sensation as if the table runners in their hands were being overwritten – or rather over-stitched – by the intrusion of someone else’s story, containing some degree of misunderstanding.
The film The Travel Dialogue Form almost gave a precursor to this sensation. As an artist, Konoike has used the language of artworks and the form of exhibitions. Murai, on the other hand, as a researcher teaching at a university, has used the language of fairy-tales and the form of lectures, academic papers and presentations. Through having a dialogue while traveling with physical movement, these two different people gradually lose the grammar each of them is accustomed to using, and at the same time in their bodies, a new rhythm and more-than-human grammar – which Konoike calls “language of animal” – emerge. In this film, Konoike and Murai thus discuss whether the decomposition, reorganisation and transformation of grammar that occurs through the involvement of completely different grammar and forms is related to art, to the act of creation, and particularly to what is happening in Storytelling Table Runner. In other words, in Storytelling Table Runner, when the participants tell stories, there is already a creation, something like “Let’s sugar-coat this unpleasant part” or “Let’s make it a bit more dramatic here”. When a translator is involved, there is a creation through selecting and adjusting the nuance of expressions. When Konoike makes sketches, she creates by choosing and imagining the scenes from the stories. When the storytellers sew, while ruminating their own stories, this time as sewers, their creative process involves choosing materials such as cloths and threads based on convenience for the act of sewing, as well as the technical challenges of sewing. During the exhibition, the viewers create by interpreting, or rather overwriting/over-stitching, the original stories. Involving misunderstandings, misjudgements and feelings of discomfort due to the physical movement of travels, this process of going through several different forms repeats creations and transforms the work each time at each stage, as if it were a living thing. It is this repetition of creation and transformation that gives Storytelling Table Runner its potent vitality, its shrewdness and its cruel terror. And here we share a sympathy with each other, as human beings who hide a “language of animal” under the skin of human grammar.
“If anything is not created each time, it will not come to be connected to the breathing of an animal of a living person.” (*4)
These words of Konoike made me certain that I hear the breathing of an animal living covertly in me as a translator.
(*1) In the past, in the busy farming villages of the Tohoku region, it was customary to put little children in izume (baskets) that were used to keep cooked rice warm in winter. In modern times, these have fallen into disuse and instead, izumekko dolls have been made as folk art.
(*2) Glasgow International is a contemporary art festival held every two years in Glasgow, Scotland. Konoike and Murai’s event was part of a four-day programme of events entitled Neighbouring, co-organised by The Glasgow School of Art and Tokyo University of the Arts. The participants were Carol Dunn, Jessica Holdengarde, Megan Lucille Boettcher, and Stefanie Cheong, and the event was facilitated by Mónica Laiseca, Johnny Rodger and Alexandra Ross. For more information on the event and to watch the film The Travel Dialogue Form, please visit: https://www.thedrouth.org/tomoko-konoike-18th-june-10am/
(*3) Tomoko Konoike, from email correspondence with the event team, 2 May 2021.
(*4) Tomoko Konoike, from the original recording for the film The Travel Dialogue Form.