Eastern Exchanges at Manchester Art Gallery: Tradition and innovation

Polly Checkland Harding

Combining rarely-seen historical objects with cutting-edge design, Eastern Exchanges looks set to be an incredible exploration of East Asian craft.

The ideals of use and beauty are at the heart of Eastern Exchanges. Though Manchester Art Gallery’s major new exhibition spans over 1,500 years of Chinese, Japanese and Korean craft, this focus remains key. From hand-chiselled iron sword guards (or tsuba), which haven’t been exhibited for over 30 years, to modern Japanese teapots, hammered from a single sheet of copper, the beautifully decorated works on show elevate simple functionality with style. What’s significant is that the detailed craftsmanship behind objects such as a lacquered Japanese travelling carriage (or norimono), taken from the gallery’s collection, have transferred – if in a more technologically advanced form – to modern artisans.

This major new exhibition spans over 1,500 years of Chinese, Japanese & Korean craft heritage

Take Min Soo Lee’s ceramics: it took three years to achieve the meticulous casting process necessary to produce the set of nesting bowls on show, each made from seven sliver-thin layers of alternating white and blue porcelain. Traditional skills, protected over the years by Imperial patronage and cultural celebration of past masters, still inspire innovation – despite the addition of technologies such as computer-aided design. Equally, an ongoing conversation between East and West has also been fruitful – as artists like the astonishing Junko Mori (recently on display in Rochdale), whose metal work combines traditional Japanese hand raising with influences from a British education, demonstrate.

Perhaps this will be the central thrust behind the exhibition – to celebrate, with humility, rich and sophisticated influences from the East. Porcelain from China, the first East Asian country to trade with the West, was initially believed by Europeans to be a kind of glass, because of the contrast to the far cruder ceramics and stoneware made closer to home. Today, the exchange might be on a more equal footing – but I quite like the idea that the craft on display will still have the power to startle and astound.

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