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Focus features two in-depth reviews each month of fine art, architecture and design exhibitions and events at art museums, galleries and alternative spaces around Japan. The contributors are non-Japanese residents of Japan.

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image image Drunk on Beauty: Sake Vessels at the Seikado Bunko Art Museum
J.M. Hammond
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Tea bowl, Yohen Tenmoku type known as "Inaba Tenmoku," Jian ware, Southern Song Dynasty, 12th-13th century, China

Two blue rings on the bottom of a white ceramic sake cup glistening beneath the swirl of nihonshu; the golden glow of the amber nectar in a chilled beer glass -- the joy of drinking has long been enhanced by the visual component. Now, a new exhibition at the Seikado Bunko Art Museum in Tokyo gives us a taste of the aesthetic dimension of the culture of drinking.

Intoxicated by the Charm of Wine Vessels brings together cups, pots, ewers and other vessels that people in Japan and elsewhere in East Asia have used to store, pour and savor alcoholic drinks. In total, close to 100 items are on display, including paintings of scenes depicting how sake, or rice wine, has been enjoyed over the centuries.

Curiously, the star of the exhibition is a piece of pottery designed for drinking tea, not alcohol. On display is the museum's prize possession -- the Yohen Tenmoku tea bowl, one of only a few in existence. The bowl, which is usually kept under wraps, will be discussed here later.

The focus of the show, however, is sake. One of the very first items on display here is a painting by Kawabata Gyokusho from Meiji-era (1868-1912) Japan, the right-hand screen of a pair (unfortunately no longer on exhibit). Banquet at Peach and Plum Garden alludes to how some elite members of classical Chinese society enjoyed their drink.

The painting shows some clean-shaven servants preparing refreshments for a group of bearded scholars in the center of the frame. Other staff prepare ink for the gentlemen, who are engaged in a sake-fueled evening entertainment of composing and reading poetry together. A selection of rolled-up scrolls sits by the group, and one member holds a pen in his hand. The painting hints at how the cultured classes drank sake not simply for refreshment but as a social lubricant, and as a way to free up the mind for creative inspiration.

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Ancient ritual bronze vessel Zun with Taotie design, Yin Dynasty, 14th-13th century BCE, China

The practice of using rice, grapes or even ingredients such as honey to make alcoholic beverages predates recorded history, and one early use of these drinks was as an offering to the gods. Believed to have been used for this purpose is a ritual bronze vessel of a type known as Zun on display here. It dates back to 14th or 13th century BCE China.

Many Zun are made in the shapes of animals, but this is not -- rather, it features a motif called Taotie resembling a type of zoological form. On the side of the main body, and also in relief, is a bird design. It may be a little more difficult, however, to recognize the motif on the curved top part of the vessel as that of a dragon.

About a thousand years ago, when the vessel was rediscovered after a long sleep underground, its earlier intended purpose had been forgotten. However, it was considered perfect for the display of flowers, and became a blueprint for one shape of vase that grew popular in China.

One of the mantras of modern design is that form follows function, but such examples show how, conversely, function can also follow form. Viewers will see other elegant vessels in the exhibition that we recognize today as classic vase designs, and are labeled as such on the exhibition's caption cards. Yet what we consider vases often began life as containers for sake. As with the Zun vessel, early Chinese and Japanese ewers lacked spouts for pouring. Later, as spouts were added, the older vessels became less useful for this purpose. But familiarity and emotional attachment inspired people to give them new uses.

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Keg-shaped sake bottle with design motifs in circles in overglaze enamels, Arita ware (old Kutani type), Edo period, 17th century, Japan

  Sake bottle with phoenix and paulownia design in overglaze enamels, Arita ware (Kakiemon type), Edo period, 17th-18th century, Japan

Humor also played no small part, especially in the vibrant milieu of Edo-era (1603-1867) Japan. The shape of an Arita-ware sake bottle on display here references the wooden kegs used to hold sake for occasions of celebration. Richly decorated with a pattern of heart shapes in deep red and pictures of birds and other scenes, it has a luxurious, exuberant feel.

Another Arita-ware sake bottle here is notable not least for the way its shape works so well with the design painted on it. A phoenix spreads its colorful tail feathers across the bottle's broad, rounded white body, which is further dotted with paulownia flower patterns.

Various sake cups, or sets of cups, are also on display, including a pair that are unusual for having handles fashioned in the shape of dragons.

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Celadon-glazed wine cups with dragon-head handles and design of water bird in lotus pond in inlay, Goryeo dynasty, 13th-14th century, Korea

The object the Seikado Bunko Art Museum is perhaps best known for, however, is the Yohen Tenmoku. The decision to display it as part of this exhibition may not be thematically consistent, but is designed to please members of the public who often request the museum to take the dust sheets off this legendary tea bowl. It one of only three extant bowls made in 12th-13th century Southern Song Dynasty China with the same distinctive iridescent oil spots on a black glaze. This unusual glaze offers an experience akin to gazing into the deepest mysteries of the universe itself. Despite various attempts, a number of which have come somewhat close, no potter has been able to precisely replicate the manufacture of this precious bowl.

All three of the surviving examples of the bowl are to be found in Japan, and one popular explanation for this posits that the rainbow color of the spots was considered unlucky in China, and the bowl was shunned. However, fragments of a Yohen Tenmoku uncovered in recent archaeological digs at a Southern Song Dynasty imperial guesthouse in Hangzhou suggests this is probably not the case, as it was likely used to entertain foreign high-ranking visitors.

As other examples in this exhibition also prove, Japan has a long history of acquiring whatever it finds beautiful from China, Korea and elsewhere. Whatever the reason it was not valued enough for China to keep hold of it, the Yohen Tenmoku caught the eye of aesthetes in Japan and has been treasured here ever since.

Whether they hold tea or sake, the beauty of the vessels and containers on display at Intoxicated by the Charm of Wine Vessels will likely ensure that visitors stagger out of the museum under the influence.



All images courtesy of the Seikado Bunko Art Museum.


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Intoxicated by the Charm of Wine Vessels
24 April - 17 June 2018
Seikado Bunko Art Museum
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J.M. Hammond
J.M. Hammond researches modernity in Japanese art, photography and cinema, and teaches in Tokyo, including as a faculty lecturer in the English department at Meiji Gakuin University. He has written about art for The Japan Times for over a decade. His essays include "A Sensitivity to Things: Mono No Aware in Late Spring and Equinox Flower" in Ozu International: Essays on the Global Influences of a Japanese Auteur (Bloomsbury, 2015) and "The Collapse of Memory: Tracing Reflexivity in the Work of Daido Moriyama" for The Reflexive Photographer (Museums Etc, 2013) [reprinted in the same publisher's 10 Must Reads: Contemporary Photography (2016)]. He has given various conference papers, including at the University of Hong Kong and the University of Oxford.
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