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A Dutch Japanese Connection

After being forced at the Rietveld Academy to confront her truth, Sayaka Abe is now exploring why it was so difficult to perform in Holland's design education system.  Just what is a national identity, or are such notions in the end merely superficial?

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 26-11-2009

During the recent Dutch Design Week, Sayaka Abe exhibited her Rietveld Academy  graduation work in De Krabbedans in an exhibition of top graduates arranged by Items magazine.

Life at the Rietveld was tough for Abe who, like many Japanese, found the European education culture so stark a difference as to be sometimes impenetrable.

“In the beginning it was really shocking,” says Abe.  “In Japan the relationship between student and teacher is completely different.  There the teacher is the master of everything, you can’t be rude, and you can’t say anything bad to him. By bad I mean anything that he doesn't like to hear.”

Under the tutelage of jewellery makers Manon van Kouswijk and Iris Eichenberg, Abe struggled to come to terms with different expectations.  “At the Rietveld, you have to really speak out and if you disagree with anyone, you have to say so and properly fight your case.  Everybody kept telling me I had to present and explain things clearly … but I didn’t know what that meant.  What does clear mean?  To me I was being clear.”

It took Abe five years in total to graduate and at one point she even considered switching to the Konstfack in Stockholm where she did a six months exchange.  “Compared to the Rietveld they have a beautiful facility,” she says.  “It is open twenty-four hours and there are two tables for each student.  The Rietveld is too small and materials are hard to come by … but in the end I chose to stay, mainly because of the superior critique.  In Stockholm I was told that everything was good, but at the Rietveld they kept telling me that my work didn’t feel like mine yet.  That attack really ignited my fighting instinct and made me search harder for a unique expression.  I knew I was in the best place to achieve that.”

As a former butoh dancer, Abe’s design fascination lies in the relationship between people and objects which to date she has explored via the jewellery faculty, albeit not in a traditional or wearable sense.  For her graduation “Pocket Series” she used illustrations and textiles to explore the idea of the duality within – the chasm between what’s inside and what’s outside a person as well as the baggage – both emotional and physical – that we carry around in our pockets.

Most recently Abe was one of the four initiators of the “Stamppot met Rodekool” project. The title refers to something that doesn’t really exist – a “national” Dutch dish of mashed potatoes topped with red cabbage.  “We wanted to say that we understand Dutch culture, but also misunderstand it,” she says.

The added twist is that the big red blob on the potato-white background represents the Japanese flag, and if served on a Delft blue plate, captures the essence of the Dutch flag.  The point is to explore how Japanese design has influenced Holland, and how Japanese design might be appropriated by the Dutch in their daily lives.

The project now has eight participants, all tackling this subject from different angles.  For her contributio, Abe chose to spend time with Maria, a sixty eight year old Dutch jewellery designer who lives and resides in Amsterdam’s north.   “I visited her often and drew aspects of her character directly onto large strips of white cotton sheeting while she told me stories about herslef, jewellery and the world,” she says.  

As the weeks went by, Abe’s drawings started to gain meaning and as her trust in Maria strengthened, she started to leave her work at the woman's house. “One day I left it all hanging and when I came back Maria had added pictures, a hat, feathers and accessories,” she says.  “I was shocked because usually people do not touch other people’s work, but in another way it was great because this project is really about people and their reactions and interactions with design.”

The first chapter of the “Stamppot met Rodekool” exhibition just closed in the Lloyd Hotel in Amsterdam.  Now it moves to the Living Design Center Ozone in Tokyo where the eight designers will repeat the exercise albeit inside Japanese homes.  They are also making a documentary of the process.  In May next year, all eight designers will return to Holland to present their cultural conclusions at SieboldHuis in Leiden.

“Our work will hopefully capture the differing reactions of the Dutch and Japanese to design,” say Abe.  “And it will maybe help us all to understand more about the Dutch and the Japanese. I suspect that all eight of us will come back with something quite different and from there the viewer can decide …. of course it’s hard to say what is typical Dutch and what is typical Japanese.  All of the designers in this exhibition have been constantly told while studying and working in Holland that our work is ”so Japanese”, but what does that mean?  When I drew Maria, I discovered so many different faces and realized that I had been seeing the Dutch in a really clichéd way.  I never looked at them specifically.  I think in the end what I found was a human, just one person.” 

Images: top page and large at top from the "Stamppot met Rodekool" exhibition, Abe, three images from her "Pocket Series", Maria's different faces in "Stamppot met Rodekool" and the "Stamppot met Rodekool" logo.

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