Japan Helps Artist Find Answers by Looking to the Past

Posted by: Mellany Artmstrong

Abigail Dangler ’18, a double major in Fine Arts and Curatorial Studies, traveled to Japan on the Sarah Peter Travel Fellowship in the summer of 2017. Below, she tells the story of why she chose to visit Japan and what the trip has meant to her and her art.

I went to Japan for a travel fellowship. I was thinking about how I related myself to art history when I was learning about art history here at Moore. I just didn’t feel like I was a part of that.

The reason I wanted to go to Japan was that it has a history in ceramics and a context that I could relate to, where art is in every aspect of life. It’s in the food that you eat, what your food is served on, and how you relate to your family and your surroundings. That was a context that I felt more comfortable with than I did with Western art history.

I was also really involved in an aspect of storytelling about culture and nature because I was so invested in history. I am also a double major in Fine Arts and Curatorial Studies, so I was able to see through Museum Studies the way that museums tell stories about culture and nature and the way that humans behave.

Beginning in 2017, I became more interested in ceramic history and ceramic function.

I started in Tokyo. I went up north for a couple of days to a national park. I took the train down to Kyoto. I then went to Hiroshima, then to Shimonoseki, which is where my grandmother was from. And then I went back to Osaka. I really went all around the country and I got to see a lot of different environments, urban and rural environments, which was definitely very important to the journey of the trip.

One of the first stops that I made was in Mashiko. It’s a town north of Tokyo and it’s a historic pottery town. I got to see a big part of the ceramic history and this is the largest anagama kiln in the area. I had been learning a little bit about Japanese ceramic techniques before I went to Japan and then I was able to see them in person.

While I was in Kyoto, I also went to the largest open-air pottery market. It was about a mile-and-a-half long down one street, and there were all these different contemporary production potters. I kind of got to see a reality of being an artist and just trying to make money off of your artwork.

I was also really pleased to see in the National Museum of Nature and Science the way that ceramics and art was a part of the narrative of technology. This museum kind of goes chronologically, it ends with all the technological advancements that Japan is really known for today. They place the relationship to ceramics and the food and nature as this keystone of that history.

Something that I thought was really cool was to see some of the oldest pots in the world, including Jomon pots from 2600-1500 BCE. It’s pretty prominent in the art historical canon, so I thought that it was really special that I got to see that in person.

Because I got to see some rural areas, I also got to see a lot of agriculture and that’s really important to what I would like to do post-graduation. It was just really wonderful to see the intersection of where clay and food and also the spiritual practices of Japan originate from because that’s what I really connected to.

Another one of my goals for my trip was to use a Yashica camera that my dad gave to me. He bought the camera when he was about my age. I wanted to tell a story through photos, investigating generational gaps between my grandmother, being in Japan during World War II, and the changes in culture over time. I felt connected to her experiences through the objects that were in her house, and had an external perception of Japan from the media and my education. I wanted to represent what I knew and learned about spirituality, family, land, and time, from the first-person perspective. I used the lens of the 35mm camera to make that connection.

I was really able to gain a perspective on some of the spiritual references and religious arts that I grew up with whenever I went to her house. I didn’t really understand or investigate what those meant until I got a little bit older and was in school. She had described to me a shrine that was in Shimonoseki, but she didn’t really remember what it was called or many details about it. But, I tracked it down because we have Google now. I was able to go to the shrine that she had described. It’s called the Akama shrine. It is the site of an 11th century child emperor, Antoku, who was being protected by his caretakers during a local battle. In order to protect him from war, they jumped into the river, which is right across from the shrine. It’s a pretty dark story but that was something that definitely influenced my grandmother in that she grew up with going to the shrine on a regular basis. I got to kind of close a loop of migration in returning to where she was from.

Because I was traveling around Japan, I was also able to form my own practice from that and also relate to what it might have been like for her to have a spiritual practice and be migrating and processing that.

In the fall, I came back and I expanded in my ceramics technique. I felt like I had a lot more references and just a lot more knowledge about the science that went into ceramics. I also was able to continue in my storytelling through texture and material, but I wasn’t really burdened or limited by the view that I had before. I had so many questions about where my impulses were coming from, and so I was able to resolve some of those questions and focus on what was happening right in front of me.