Photography by Yasunobu Kobayashi. Text by Chikako Shimizu
Echizen washi papermaking boasts a 1,500-year history. Now it is part of a collaboration with world-famous artist Theo Jansen in new works to be shown at a craft exhibition opening September 21.
Echizen washi paper is one of Fukui prefecture’s most admired traditional craft products—it was even used to make Japan’s first national banknotes in 1868. Now Echizen’s famous large-size sheets of handmade paper, normally applied to fusuma sliding doors, are finding use in a collaboration with Dutch artist Theo Jansen.
For some 30 years Jansen has been perfecting a series of windpowered sculptures that move as if they were living creatures. His name for these creations is “Strandbeest,” a coined Dutch word meaning “beach beast.” The aim of his work, he says, is “to create new animals that will continue to exist on the sands even after I have left this planet behind.” To ensure their durability he is particularly concerned with the materials’ resistance to wind, rain, and sand, so to date he has used parachute fabric for the sails on his creations.
Now, for the first time, Jansen is presenting sails made of paper in homage to Japan’s traditional crafts. Still, as he points out, “Paper is vulnerable to water and easy to tear. I was a little skeptical as to whether it would work.”
It was Echizen washi artisan Hideaki Taki who dispelled Jansen’s doubts. Faced with the challenge of making paper strong enough for a sail, Taki first tried layering two sheets together. “But when I looked at videos of Theo’s works in motion,” he says, “I realized that lightness was just as important, so I switched to making single sheets of light but strong washi.” He goes on, “I went through a process of trial and error, adding mitsumata pulp to the usual paper-mulberry base material, and adjusting the concentration of the konjac glue pasted onto the surface of the paper, a traditional method of increasing its strength.”
In autumn 2018, Jansen completed two Strandbeests using Echizen washi, Ordis Quartus and Ordis Quintus. The trial run took place on a beach in the Netherlands in heavy rain and wind. But as Taki, who had traveled from Japan for the occasion, watched over them, the beasts sped effortlessly across the sand. And despite the artists’ concerns, the sails suffered almost no damage. Jansen is full of praise for Taki’s efforts. “I was moved by the sails’ unexpected strength. Best f all, Echizen washi has a beautiful texture and is pleasing to the touch.” The two works are scheduled for inclusion in the Fukui exhibition, which will feature a total of 15 Strandbeests. After that, Fukui will become the first prefecture in Japan to own works by Jansen. What better reason for a trip to Fukui than to encounter these fascinating creatures firsthand and get a sneak preview of the future of Echizen washi with your own eyes?
Born in the Netherlands in 1948, Jansen studied applied physics at Delft University of Technology. He has been active as an artist since 1975. In 1990 he started creating Strandbeests, his name for wind-powered sculptures that move along the beach. He has held exhibitions in Europe, North America, Asia, and elsewhere around the world. Viewers are surprised and thrilled by the lifelike energy of his sculptures.
Born in Fukui prefecture in 1979, Taki graduated from Fukui University of Technology, then worked in a design office among other jobs. In 2005 he joined his family’s business, the Taki Washi Factory. Taki brings a new sensibility to traditional crafts in his production of various kinds of washi. He also works to invigorate the local economy and served as head of the organizing committee for an event that conveyed the appeal of Echizen’s traditional arts to younger generations.
Theo Jansen exhibition at the Fukui & Craft exhibition
September 21 to October 27
10 AM to 5 PM (last entry 4:30 PM); open daily
Sundome Fukui (5-1-1 Uryu-cho, Echizen, Fukui)
Admission ¥1,000; free for children high-school age or younger
Tel. 0778-22-6021 (International Hokuriku Kogei Summit Project Team)
Theo Jansen lecture September 22; tickets available from website (limit of 150 on a first-come, first-served basis)
Reanimation See the actual Strandbeests in action; five sessions per day at 90-minute intervals (times are subject to change)
The exhibition venue, Sundome Fukui, is 15 minutes on foot or 3 minutes by taxi from JR Sabae Station in Echizen.
From Tokyo to Sabae Station:
About 3 hours 10 minutes by Hokuriku Shinkansen and JR Hokuriku Line (change at Kanazawa Station)
About 3 hours 20 minutes by Tokaido Shinkansen and JR Hokuriku Line (change at Maibara Station)
From Osaka to Sabae Station:
About 1 hour 40 minutes by JR Hokuriku Line