Maria Kwong, director and primary curator for LATDA (pronounced lah-tee-dah), a toy museum dedicated to exploring and examining objects of play and their influence on culture, explained that kokeshi were "those traditional Japanese folk toys with the round head and cylindrical body." I nodded in an Oh yeah, those way—there was a foggy picture in my mind of something that seemed familiar, although I wasn't entirely sure if I'd ever seen the specific type of doll she was referring to. I headed up to the second floor of the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), a collaborative host site for the roving Los Angeles Toy, Doll and Amusements Museum's Kokeshi: From Folk Art to Art Toy exhibit. Billed as a three-part exploration of the kokeshi that spans traditional, contemporary, and custom art, I wasn't sure what to expect but figured it would be something cute and kind of cool. I like toys, old artifacts, and things from Asia, and this show promised all three.
The entrance to the Kokeshi show was flanked by two human-sized copper and tin scrap mosaic sculptures, roundhead and cylindrical body kokeshi forms by San Diego artist James Watts. Standing like guardians to guide me into the exhibit space that layed veiled behind an opaque screen, I felt like I was about to enter a makeshift temple, simultaneously serene and funky. Whatever it was these kokeshi were guarding, I knew I was in store for something more than just "cute."
Kwong says kokeshi are traditionally hand or lathe-carved wooden sculptures of the human figure in its most basic, stripped down form—a three-dimensional stick figure depicting a head and body minus the limbs, the bare minimum for an object to read as human-like. The exhibit began with a selection of over two hundred dolls from the private collection of Itske and Anthony Stern that presented the types of kokeshi and regional variations in design and shape. Informatively explorating the kokeshi's somewhat obscure historical origins as folk toy and souvenir item from Japanese hot springs, the exhibit also captured the transcendent, mystical qualities of these dolls.
Though not religious items, the achingly charming faces of these forms have an iconic, almost spiritual presence. There is a magical quality to their quiet, simple facial expression and decoration that might be described as a perpetually patient, contemplative gaze. Arranged in groups of similar designs, the traditional kokeshi dolls read as families, offering an element of gathering and ceremony.
Under the spell of kokeshi, I was transfixed by a video installation in a corner showing a traditional Japanese kokeshi artisan at work. An old manin a cotton robe cross-legged on the floor of his workshop turned a piece of wood on a lathe, slowly and carefully sculpting the curves of the body and head. A tea kettle over an open flame rested on the floor. The image depicted a lifelong commitment to a single craft and the repetitive return to the same form to recreate and perfect it, with a keen eye toward subtle variations.
Turning from the video installation, a four-foot tall crocheted doll greets me at the entrance of the second half of the exhibit that transitions to contemporary kokeshi culture. Tokyo-born but Los Angeles-raised artist Emi Motokawa's Krokeshi brings the traditional kokeshi form into the realm of cuddly plush. Motokawa's study of Buddhism is reflected in her choice of crochet, a technique that for the artist is a meditative daily practice itself. Her simplification of the face demonstrates a mastery of the golden-cuteness-ratio perfected by Sanrio: the proportion between two button-eyes and a big round face producing the optimum degree of adorable.
An interesting theme broached in the contemporary exhibit was the contemporary Western artist's relationship with cute culture with tendencies of playing with edginess or bite, avoiding a sort of non-ironic sweetness. Whereas Emi Motokawa's dolls fully embrace a cute-for-cute's-sake approach, Phoebe Washer's kokeshi are a vicious kind of cute—at first glance round and sweet, but upon closer examination appear to be baring tiny fang-like teeth or with runny mascara of an after-party cry staining their faces. An object about as edgeless and free from irony as you can get, the surface appeal of the contemporary kokeshi form is used to draw the viewer in, but surprise awaits in expressions with subtle, barbed twists that are at once endearing yet unsettling.
In conversation with Kwong, I tried to manifest into words this inability to explain the strangely resonant quality of the exhibit. She shared an experience in which one of the JANM board members who had given the exhibit a green light had approached her after the opening to tell her, "Frankly, I didn't know what to expect, I just thought it would be a bunch of these objects…" Kwong continued, "He couldn't even put into words what it was that was so powerful about it to him. It did make an impact on him, he was still thinking about it, trying to figure out. That's like being a kid and getting something, and you don't even know why you're so excited about it… you're just like Wow, I like this and I don't even know why…"
Wrapping up a successful three-month exhibition, LATD provided over twenty-thousand visitors the kokeshi experience. An organization ten years in the making, it was created out of frustration with museums' use of toy exhibitions strictly to reel in more traffic at Christmastime. Kwong observed, "A lot of times they didn't do a good job of using toys to tell a story.".Through the exploration of kokeshi at LATD, an ancient artform and its evolution into contemporary art was allowed a public forum.
I walked out of the Kokeshi show feeling a peculiar kind of peaceful agitation. From the perspective of an employee of the museum store, I witnessed countless museum visitors wander into the store in a blissful, post-kokeshi haze. Customers would attempt to describe their feelings to me about the show, often meeting with a frustrating inability to put their experience into the right words. They felt touched or moved somehow by a quality of their experience at the Kokeshi show that was much different from those at other museums or galleries. For visitors not previously familiar with kokeshi, an exciting curiousity piqued as they looked around the store for books, postcards, and traditional kokeshi they could purchase for themselves. For Japanese American visitors and patrons, nostalgia was triggered as they were inspired to dig up grandma's old dolls, salvage an old family kokeshi collection, or start a new tradition.
KOKESHI: From Folk Art to Art Toy ran from July 11th to October 4th, 2009 at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, California. More information, including a complete list of the contemporary and custom artists shown, can be found at http://www.janm.org/exhibits/kokeshi. More information about LATDA can be found at http://www.latdamuseum.org.