Inanimate objects are those that sit motionless. Their figurative representation can be seen in still life paintings or still life photography. These inanimate objects sit alone, quietly. Nothing ostentatious, yet there is something unique about them. “I am quite busy lately crafting a series called, Still Life, that is minimal in terms of form and functionality.” The work by Japanese woodworker Yosuke Urakami presents itself with a sense of tranquility and quaintness that, somehow, withstands the passing of time. The beauty of still life objects exudes amidst the stillness of time.
Wood is used as the major material, and there is the addition of lacquer and foil, as well as proper sanding to create a quaint yet rich texture in his work. They are like antiques with perfect traces of time. Sometimes the surface is a little rotten, rusted, or even cracked, adding a sense of vibrancy and liveliness to the work which is already warm and elegant. “Foil, to me, is like cosmetics. It gives the right finish to wood and lacquer. The use of foil is also an emotional transfer because it leaves a footprint of the creator.” Recently, Yosuke Urakami held his solo exhibition, Sliver Lining, at the Contemporary Craft Centre that centers on foil.
Applying a shiny foil to the wood pieces can better reveal the grain patterns; sometimes the patterns are stronger, sometimes less pronounced. At times, the foil falls off. To Urakami, foil makes a sensible presence. “I think through ‘decoration’ a part of my sensibility can be revealed.” Where and how to place the foil, and how much sanding and polishing is required is all about intuition and the sensible understanding of the object. “When it comes to practicality and decorating, a wooden board can be used as a utensil or a decoration, and even as a divider for a bookcase.”
Such ambiguity can be found in the tea set created by Urakami. “I don’t know much about sado (which literally means “the way of tea”), but I believe my work shares some similarities with it. There is this concept of Mitate in sado which is about seeing one thing as another thing. My work has a characteristic just like that. Such belief has become a comfort when I create. After all, I think the distance between a piece of work and the user matters a lot.” Inspiring the users to think about the use of an object through the object itself might well be a form of art.
Whether it’s the big bulky beech wood tray or the paper-thin cushion made of bark, traces of meticulous craftsmanship can be easily spotted. For when they sit still and quietly, it’s as beautiful as if it’s a still life painting. Boxes can always be found in Urakami’s collections. But why boxes? “The same vessel can serve different purposes in different countries and occasions. I want to create a box that is not bounded by national borders. Also, a box is a testament of my skills and a kind of emotional carrier.” Whatever that is placed in the box created by Urakami must be something deeply cherished by the owner.
It was an encounter with a master craftsman that took place when Urakami was studying in Tokyo that inspired him to become a woodworker. “I was deeply fascinated by wooden furniture and the meticulous techniques of craftsmen.” The apprenticeship had a great impact on Urakami and the knowledge and skills he learnt from his master deeply influenced how he handled wood in the years to come. “At that time, I often thought about how wood affects the earth and human beings. The idea of it keeps my creative process going.” Urakami spent ten years as an apprentice before debuting as a solo artist, and instead of making big furniture, he opted for small items such as boxes and utensils. “Because of the limited space in my studio and also a lack of materials, it wasn’t possible for me to make big furniture; and it so happened that I made boxes and utensils when I was still an apprentice, it came kind of naturally for me to focus on them. “It’s the kind of woodworking that is least hectic that fits my current situation perfectly.”
Born in the Goto city in Nagasaki Prefecture, Urakami chose to set up his studio in the Tohoku region because of its proximity to trees. “There are many customs and festivals related to forests and trees in the Tohoku region and a profound culture centered on wood. Since moving to Tohoku, I’ve learned a lot about lacquer and woodturning.” For Urakami, lacquer is indispensable in utensils making and suitable for the Japanese climate. As a matter of fact, lacquered woodwork is commonly found in Japan.
Urakami believes that his work is not only loved by the general public, but also deeply treasured by a few. “I hope that my work can make an indispensable existence in some people’s lives in a way that they can touch people’s hearts and be unique to them.” With such a hope in mind, Urakami continues to create work that is compelling and thoughtful. As if in a still life painting, the inanimate object will always catch your attention no matter how complex its surrounding is.