赤木造的椀（因為是由木胎製作，所以椀也是用木字旁），外表看來好像古時使用的碗，這是因為他喜愛研究古代器物的形狀。「我造的地久椀（Chikuu-wan），是參考江戶時代中期的奧能登的合鹿椀（Gouroku bowl of Oku-Noto），是古時用作供奉神明之用。神給人的，人給回神明，也是回饋的一種。器物不能失去原有的形狀，我做的是一種轉化。」赤木說許多舊物都內藏活力、深度，他以自己的方式，把它們呈現眼前，讓舊物不局限於自身的美，也成為了富現代感的漆器。他有製作模仿古代花瓶的藝術品、在漆塗的底裡貼上和紙的椀，也有加入礦粉製作出如金屬外觀的茶盒，呈現出不同的質感。「從前的漆器比較昂貴，只有皇室貴族和大戶人家才能擁有的東西，而且通常在特別場合才會用上。我希望把這質料優良、手工製作的漆器重新帶到日常生活中，讓大眾能夠感受到漆器的美好。」
In the book In Search of Tableware co-authored by Akito Akagi and his wife Tomoko Akagi, Akagi mentions that he once wanted to become a poet. For some reason, tableware has later replaced poems to become his medium of expression. In the book, he writes, “Poems from Taishō until the Shōwa period are mostly about sorrow. I have no idea why… perhaps sorrow is intrinsic to our life. I have been carrying this sorrow with me for all my life, but I still cannot grasp its true essence. Poems are sorrowful, but tableware is joyful. However, without the underlying sorrow of every existence, how can we feel the joy brought by tableware?”
Tableware is one of the most ordinary things we use all the time. Akagi’s words prompt me to ponder these commonly seen everyday objects, and began to connect them to Yanagi Sōetsu’s theory of the beauty of utilitarian objects. I guess there must be some poetic elements that come along with their utilitarian qualities. “I take a stroll in the woods near my home every morning. When seeing beautiful things, I would take a picture and write a poem. I have even started to write Chinese poems recently,” Akagi says happily. Akagi would share his photography of the woods in four seasons on Instagram; lately, he also adds poems as captions to his photos. Looking at his photography, I can easily associate him with a lonesome, bitter poet. Reading his poem, I suddenly think of how Akagi describes lacquerware as tableware that has a magically comforting power. Do poems live inside of the lacquerware? It feels like both poems and lacquerware have the same capacity to bring out peace, tranquility, and joy.
On the business card that Akagi gave me writes two characters in small fonts that mean lacquerware maker. “He is such a humble person!” I thought to myself. Akagi was once a magazine editor. He was overwhelmed by the beauty of lacquerware when seeing the ones made by Kado Isaburo, he then decided to leave his life in Tokyo behind and moved to Wajima with his family. In Wajima, he first became an apprentice of the lacquerware master Okamoto Shin, before he became a master himself. It has already been over thirty years since he first engaged in lacquerware. “As a lacquerware maker, attitude is the key. One has to be self-disciplined and humble because we can never overpower nature. All we can do is to follow the pace of nature and create lacquerware that exemplifies the beauty and uniqueness of nature.”
“Lacquer is written as 漆 in Kanji (Chinese characters used in the Japanese writing system). This character is a combination of three other characters — water, wood, and human — together it seems to imply lacquer is the gift from God,” says Akagi in a sharing session in his exhibition, “Living in the Oku-Noto mountain, the only time that I can extract resin from the trees are the three months during summer. One tree produces only around a coffee mug full, which is about 15 ml, of resin. This extracted substance needs to be left in the sun to have any excessive moisture evaporated. The artisan has to control the timing and temperature to get the best quality resin. The lacquer obtained through this purification process is also called refined lacquer.” Akagi describes lacquer as the blood of Mother Earth that he is always very grateful for and treats with great respect. Lacquerware is different from ceramicware in so many ways. It is lighter and is not conductive, so it does not get cold or hot because of the content inside. Lacquerware is also different from glassware for it is not fragile, with a surface that is also smooth to touch. Lacquerware has a natural layer of moisture like our skin. Putting your lips on the rim of a lacquer bowl somehow feels like touching the lips of another person. “The coating of lacquerware is merely 6 mm. It forms a protective yet breathable layer, functioning similarly as how the atmosphere surrounds and protects our planet Earth. Lacquerware is colored by the blood from trees. It has no negative impact on our environment since it is not produced with any chemical materials.
The lacquer bowls made by Akagi have the shape of the bowls used in ancient times, thanks to his passion for antique tableware. “My Chikuu-wan bowl was made in reference to the Gouroku bowl of Oku-Noto as seen during the mid-Edo Era. According to history, it was used as an offering to God. Using what God offered to use to make an offering back to God is a grateful gesture. The shape of tableware should not be altered, what I was doing was a mere transformation,” Akagi says, antique has impressive energy and aura. What he would like to do is to recreate the antique lacquerware to deliver its authentic aesthetics with a hint of modern tweak. Some of his works include a replica of an ancient vase, lacquer bowl covered with washi (traditional Japanese paper), and a tea canister made with a mix of mineral powder that gives a metallic touch to the appearance. His approach gives the objects a unique texture. “Lacquerware was once luxurious products that were only owned by the royal family, the noble class, and the wealthy ones. They were used only on special occasions. I wish to bring these handmade products of premium quality to ordinary people’s life so that the charm of lacquerware can be shared by the general public.”
Akagi writes in In Search of Tableware, “I believe there are things that can reconnect human beings with nature. These things can be poems, tableware, and food. Once the connection is built, aesthetics comes as a natural result.” This is perhaps why aesthetics can be seen as the awakening moment when one gets to connect with nature. The exhibition is showcasing most of Akito Akagi’s publication. In each of his books, there is always a page of his handwritten poem; it is not hard to see how seriously he treats everything he likes. I am very curious to know if the next book he publishes is going to be a poetry collection?