|April 19-June 15, 1997
Junichi Arai: Glistening Fabrics
tempered with traditional ideas forms the connective tissue for Japanese
textile designer Junichi Arai's fabrics. Drawing from both ancient Japanese
textile traditions and sophisticated computer-based technologies, Junichi
Arai creates fabrics that transcend conventional ideas about textiles,
surface design, and garments. Arai's textiles suggest comparisons with
the human body itself, for cloth and the clothing it makes shroud, protect,
decorate, costume, inscribe, and house our bodies like our own skin. Delicate
yet tensile, Arai's fabrics seem to undulate and breathe like organic
beings. Arai engages complex technology to produce his fabrics out of
the most natural earthly elements-silk, wool, cotton-just as we use the
most sophisticated technologies to care for our bodies' largest organ-our
skin. Like human skin under a microscope, the surfaces of Arai's textiles
all differ-they crumple, shrink, expand, and curl, changing as the light
travels across their surfaces, illuminating their evolving textures. However,
unlike conventional human tendencies toward the care of our skin, Arai
often deliberately rends the fabric, leaving jagged, fraying openings
and splits in the cloth. These rips and tears produce an imperfect and
aged effect, yet because the fabrics are highly technical and contemporary,
Arai suggests the dynamic between old and new, imperfection and perfection.
Cloth, before and after it becomes clothing, may be understood as a system of signs by which we often assess the wearer's social status, customs, heritage, and aspirations to or rejections of same. The way fiber touches our bodies, whether through ritual, art, high fashion, or plain garments, holds meaning for ourselves as wearers and for others as observers. We sense fiber primarily through touch, although how it looks certainly affects our aesthetic sensibilities. Most of us enjoy tactile experiences with fabric, whether it is expensive or inexpensive, handmade or highly processed. For instance, we usually put on clothes, sleep on sheets, and dry our skin with towels after bathing. In addition to the symbolic and visual gesture of dressing, how material strokes our skin or brushes across our body imparts information to us about how we feel about our own bodies and how we like to cover or expose them. Junichi Arai's textiles, from the soft wools to the glistening heat-transfer fabrics, allow us to imagine our bodies wrapped and decorated in ways which trade not only on our own memories of feelings-warmth and nurturing, glamour and high-style-but also on fiber's memory. For fiber has its own memory; it can reshape itself after being manipulated, and can retain its original essence. Arai's knowledge of and sensitivity to fiber and its various meanings have been noted by designers. According to Ann Sutton and Diane Sheehan in Ideas in Weaving , "Issey Miyake is said to have asked Junichi Arai to make fabrics evocative of other substances or of emotional states ('make me a fabric like poison') as a means of inspiration." 1Arai recognizes the depth of complex emotion that may be drawn from fiber's conception and design.
Arai's fabrics, often stretching a swath 30 feet long, may inspire us to flights of wild imaginings because the designs and textures are so utterly singular. For instance, Ki No Ne (Big Korean Carrot) , 1985, gray wool and cotton, is a trail of textile woven so that the fabric has feisty gray "dreadlocks" incorporated on the surface of the material. These "dreadlocks" move and tangle like so much hair, and seem to jump off the surface of the fabric, reminding us of the textile's relationship to our bodies, and how fabric can be an extension of the body itself. The warmth implicit in the soft wool and cotton of Ki No Ne contrasts with the glittery effect of Big Wave , 1995, transparent nylon and wool, in which white and silver radiance produces a tsunami of translucent grace. The elegant effects Arai achieves in many of his fabrics mine the rich tradition of Japanese textiles, whose abstract patterns and designs, especially those on formal kimonos, seemed to transcend the idea of mere garment.
Junichi Arai was born into weaving; six generations of his family have made kimono and obi fabric. Like his father, Arai learned to weave kimonos and kimono sashes, however, he wanted to travel beyond the boundaries of traditional Japanese textiles. While continuing his work in the family business, he joined the Puk Puppet Troupe, hinting at his innovative nature.
Arai's textiles are a site where he merges traditional and nontraditional, simplicity and complexity-the past and the future work as one. Arai draws the structure of the weave with a computer. To obtain unusual puckers and pulls in the fabrics, he sometimes uses materials with different rates of shrinkage in the same fabric. Overspun yarns create areas of kink and relaxation in his textiles. Often Arai coats slit yarn with metals. The metals are then melted away, leaving a semi-transparent support system. According to Zsuzsi Dahlquist, "The slit yarns are the descendants of the pure silver and gold lamés that were woven in the Arai family mill. A film of nylon microfiber (20 denier, finer than silk) is bonded to aluminum, and the resulting airy silvery film is cut (slit) into fine strips of fiber, hence slit yarn." 2Arai uses transfer print machines on folded cloth to layer color onto the fabric's surface. "Arai uses a paper with dyestuff, which is transferred on wrinkled fabric by a press with heat. This results in a coloured cloth with permanent folds that remain coloured. ... By repeating, multicoloured effects can be achieved." 3By weaving polyester fabrics with metals such as titanium and dyed aluminum, Arai can create stunning sheaths of iridescent sheen. Because of his innovations, Arai's textiles are sought after by haute couture designers Rei Kawakube, Yoji Yamamoto, and Issey Miyake. Designers may admire his gossamer creations because they suggest living vibrancy, infused with movement and changeability, like the human body itself. What more appropriate material to drape and reveal the human body but fabrics that seem an extension of the body?
Like all histories, the history of Japanese textiles is discontinuous and disrupted, stepping back yet looking forward, appropriating and inventing. Japanese textiles and garments suggest collaboration between past and future. Historically, in the sixth century, Japan looked to China for influence in dress, then much later shifted and looked to Europeans for Western influence. Finally, Japan's dress influenced Europe at the turn of this century. Hence, Junichi Arai's commingling of synthetic and natural fibers, organics and metals, hand and machine, are in keeping with the co-opted and commingled history of his own country.
Japanese textile garments date back as far as the Yayoi period (200 B.C.-A.D. 250). Yayoi excavations have revealed that the people of this period wove garments on portable looms. Even then, the creation of the cloth was dependent not only on the size of the wearer's body, but on the movement of the body in concert with the loom. For instance, the weaver, whose portable loom was created by tying warp ends around his or her waist with the other end tied to a tree, created tension on the loom by leaning away from the tree. The weaver's body width also fixed the width of the fabric, hence most Yayoi textiles were twelve inches wide. Japan did not embrace clothing as a form of cultural distinction and social delineation until the Asuka period (552-645), after Chinese influences, customs, and social practices were instituted in Japan. Through the centuries, surface designs became more important as clothing became less complicated. In the 16th and 17th centuries, trade with Europe stimulated design, colors, and new fabrics even more. By the Edo period (1600-1868) textile arts were burgeoning. Layers of color, patterns, and resist dyes all contributed to the flourishing of textile design. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Europeans collected and studied kimonos. European fashion designers also became influenced by Japanese garments during this time, providing Junichi Arai with another link to the past. 4
Arai works in the interstices between the past and the future, traditional and modern, balancing Japanese traditions with Western innovations, customs, and dress. He capitalizes on the inherent beauty of fiber and our physical and emotional response not only to cloth, but to dress. Arai understands that textiles and clothing reverberate with ideas about how we clothe ourselves, how certain fabrics make us feel physically and emotionally, and how fabrics and clothing function in our culture. As Anne Hollander writes in Seeing Through Clothes , "this function, in the main tradition of Western dress, is to contribute to the making of a self-conscious individual image, an image linked to all other imaginative and idealized visualizations of the human body." 5Arai's textiles cross global and cultural boundaries, tapping into our intuitive and learned feelings about how we drape and reveal our bodies.