New York

View of “Boro Textiles: Sustainable Aesthetics,” 2020.

View of “Boro Textiles: Sustainable Aesthetics,” 2020.

“Boro Textiles: Sustainable Aesthetics”

Let’s stop promoting the nefarious free-market myth that sustainability is a choice, as if it were something that could be plucked from a delectable buffet of options. The at-hand presence of resources that can be used—or exploited—is less likely to guarantee quality than perhaps to inspire overindulgence.

The Japanese folk tradition of boro—patched or mended textiles—and the contemporary designers and artists whose work adopts its spirit offer a timely statement on making do. Boro can be translated as “rags,” traditionally produced by the residents of Aomori, the northernmost prefecture on Japan’s central island. The practice of reworking or appending scraps of secondhand cotton fabric onto well-used hemp clothes or bedding elevates the tattered into the realm of the exquisite by extending the life of a garment or by making a comforter thicker and warmer for a harsh Tohoku winter. Instead of treating the degraded materials as useless, the area’s generally poor farmers and fishermen—who could afford such an attitude about as easily as they could afford imported cotton—repurposed them, and their everyday goods became weighted, physically and emotionally, over time.

At the core of Japan Society’s “Boro Textiles: Sustainable Aesthetics” was the American debut of the cultural anthropologist and Aomori native son Chuzaburo Tanaka’s collection, which features examples of boro dating from the early nineteenth century to the postwar period. Tanaka, who died in 2013, began assembling his archive in the 1960s, and more than fifty artifacts (merely a sampling from a store that includes tens of thousands of items) were displayed in the first of three distinct galleries. Large night robes (donja)—which resemble heavy padded kimonos but were functional as either wearables or bedding—along with short indoor jackets (tanzen) and other similar, practical things, were suspended from the ceiling by barely visible wires and so seemed to float in midair. Lit from within, the luminescent garments quietly spoke of the past—but their historical aspect in no way diminished their commanding presence in the here and now. Each piece’s display also incorporated a base covered in reflective Mylar, which afforded visitors a more detailed view of the clothes’ heavily wrought and stitched interiors. Reflection as both a visual technique and an affective mood was perhaps best articulated by the combination of indigo-dyed hemp leggings, or mataware, with similarly patchworked tabi slippers placed atop the mirrored plinth where the wearer’s reflection would have been, and optically doubled into an eerie, upside-down image of receding limbs.

The installation in the show’s final room, painted black, made a case for connecting these old blankets, mats, and futon covers to a recent vogue for reuse via juxtapositions of the boro with contemporary art and mannequins wearing runway pieces by Japanese fashion designers such as Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, and Yohji Yamamoto. Several ensembles were featured, but the items from Susan Cianciolo’s 2018 collection RUN 12: God is a Jacket and Christina Kim’s installation Kaya (mosquito net), 2020, seemed most at home with the antiques, due to the American artists’ wholesale embrace of the handmade and a slightly more diffuse approach to authorship. Kim’s work was a found textile that she had repaired with her students, while a fur coat from Cianciolo’s RUN 12 was marked up with duct tape in a crafty synthesis of graphic collage and ethically realized luxury. Consider fabulosity sustained.