You are currently viewing The Japanese art of lacquer on the Costasera label

by Kumiko Yamada

My first meeting with Yasuhiro Asai was a chance affair. A photographer who has been a friend of mine for 30 years now is part of a group of young artists and occasionally brings one of them to our house for dinner. Asai arrived one evening the day after holding a solo exhibition in Tokyo. I was struck by the way his eyes looked straight ahead and never wavered.

The art of lacquer making is a field in which most artists are of a certain age, whereas he is one of the youngest. My photographer friend, on the other hand, specialises in shots of people in motion, particularly Kabuki theatre actors. He has also photographed famous actors and athletes, but his main subjects are craftsmen engaged in manual labour using traditional techniques. Asai is one of them. After the first meeting, he came for dinner several more times, and while at first he did not drink much, he now loves wine. Many of his works are small in scale and his tailor-made maki-e designs are delicate and modern. The most attractive aspect is the light they emit. Asai made a name for himself very quickly, winning numerous awards. The decorative motifs he uses are modern, but reference those handed down from antiquity in Japan, representing a fusion of tradition and innovation, which is a key concept also common to long-established wineries.

The work selected for the ‘Costasera Contemporary Art Project 2023’ is an ‘Incense Burner’. Talking about this, the artist states that “making an incense burner is like a prayer in itself. Delicate parts are die-cut, flattened and glued together. All this work, which is repeated for more than eight hours every day, is focused on vibration and breathing, it’s almost emotive. It leads to a state of mind similar to meditation.”

Full of respect for the person, I have enjoyed the moments we have spent together over a glass of wine, which has happened quite often now. So when Masi and their Japanese importer asked me to recommend an artist for this project, his face came to mind immediately: he would be perfect for the Masi philosophy. From the very first moment when he was selected, his response and the rapidity of his work have been excellent.

Asai was born in Tottori, in the northern region of Chugoku facing the Sea of Japan, a place famous for growing Japanese Nashi pears. His father and grandparents cultivated a large orchard, but uprooted all the Nashi trees and replaced them with lacquer trees. Urushi, now used for lacquer, is a varnish made from the natural resin of the lacquer or Urushi tree (scientific name: Toxicodendron Vernicifluum, part of the Urushi Anacardiacea family) found in Japan, China and Korea. The sap from which it is extracted is called urushiol.

Today, about 90 per cent of the lacquer used in works of art in Japan is imported from China, and it is very rare that pure Japanese lacquer is used. But the amount imported has steadily decreased in recent years, as has the number of lacquer tappers, which makes it difficult to keep this cultural tradition alive.When Asai told me about his decision to stop cultivating the Nashi orchard, tears came to my eyes. Lacquer trees do not produce sap immediately after planting, one has to wait about 10 years. Exactly the same as for the vine.
I got to know Masi shortly after my entry into the world of wine, and I can’t help but be impressed by all the encounters that took place thanks to my photographer friend and how they intersected with my adventures with wine.

Maki-e and raden (mother-of-pearl inlay) are key elements of Asai’s work and are used in a variety of traditional arts. For example, in the world of the tea ceremony, they are often used in the making of natsume, or tea caddies. Japan is also famous for its swords, and even parts of swords can be decorated with maki-e to demonstrate family status. Maki-e, in short, is an inseparable part of Japanese culture. Asai’s works have earned him an excellent reputation in Japan and beyond: they were exhibited (and sold at high prices) at Christie’s in New York in 2021 and 2023. And one of the incense burners, different in design from the one selected for Masi, will be kept at the British Museum.

Find out more about the Costasera Contemporary Art Project