Sharjapan: a century-long journey through Japanese books

We speak to the curator of a new Japanese book design exhibition that takes viewers on a journey through art, architecture, cosmology and philosophy, as well as words

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On the site of the old fruit and vegetable souk in Hamriyah – a sleepy fishing village in an enclave of Sharjah, nestled between Ajman and Umm Al Qawain – stands a strikingly contemporary building. Al Hamriyah Studios, part of the Sharjah Art Foundation is unassuming, low-rise, is sleek and modern. It is precisely its understated presence in an otherwise fairly isolated spot that makes it so alluring.

Currently, the content that fills this pristine and minimalist building aligns perfectly with the exterior. Sharjapan: The Poetics of Space, curated by Yuko Hasegawa (who also curated the Sharjah Biennial in 2013) is an exhibition focused on book design in Japan from the early 20th century to present day. 

'An invitation to explore'

While it may seem like a niche subject, Japan’s history of design permeates nearly every aspect of its modern culture from the grandness of architecture, to the minutiae of book-binding. As such, Hasegawa chose to address both these subjects in this complex and wide-ranging exhibition. “Typography and book design are part of daily life in Japan as is architecture. This is an invitation to explore both these macro and micro subjects,” says Hasegawa, who is artistic director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, as well as a professor in curatorial studies at the Graduate School of Global Arts in the Japanese capital.

She took her cue for the exhibition's concept from a 1957 text by French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, also titled The Poetics of Space. Bachelard was interested, not in the physical dimensions of architectural structures, but the promise of the void they hold. He wrote of inhabited space becoming a kind of existential space, fuelling experience rather than simply housing it. "He theorised on what the term poetics means and how large and complex ideas can come from within a very small space," says Hasegawa.

“This is in line with Japan’s characteristic interest in cosmology where we can see the whole universe through a small object. To the Japanese, every small detail matters; you could say that we see an ocean inside a fragment of stone. I have applied these ideas to my exhibition.”

Therefore, the book transcends its status as merely an object and, perhaps, becomes the small fragment from which oceans of imagination pour out. Or, another way of putting it is that the book is the architecture and its contents are the poetics.

There are more than 100 tomes on display, published from 1908 to 2018 and the show is divided into six sections to lead viewers across this century-long journey.

It begins with a presentation of some of the most interesting works of the 20th century selected by Culture Convenience Club, one of Japan’s largest bookstore chains. Several of the books are open for viewers to peruse freely, but others are so rare that they are laid open in display cabinets. One such volume is a collaborative poetry collection produced by Shuzo Takiguchi and Joan Miro in which text and image dance across the page like a poetic ballet. Takiguchi was an experimental artist and poet; a key figure in the post-war Surrealist movement in Japan who also wrote the first published monograph on Miro in 1940. The Spanish painter’s contribution to Takiguchi’s poetry is a wonderful visual accompaniment to the Japanese text, even for those who can’t read it.  

A galaxy of possibility

In the central section, the exhibition reaches its peak with Arcades of Light – Piazza San Marco (1981), a 40-metre-long folding photo-essay, which comprises numerous facets of the arch corridor of Piazza San Marco in Venice. "This is ­almost an architecture installation," says Hasegawa. "We put this together to recreate the artist's journey and inside is like a galaxy of possibility. This is cosmology contained here."

While this spiritual interpretation of what some of the books represent may not be something everyone can grasp or even agree with, Hasegawa is reaching for her explanation through the philosophy that the humble book, sometimes small and often delicate, is a space for possibility, knowledge and imagination to flourish.

It is true that the intersection between books as objects and as art is blurred. In some cases, the book itself becomes the medium and the very pages act as easels. In the series, Our Story from 2016-2018, Asami Kiyokawa has selected fictional works that she has fond memories of and produced embroidered images upon the pages. The threaded patterns and shapes, sometimes identifiable and sometimes not, could be described as visual renderings of her mind. This particularly charming collection of pieces also includes a new work commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation, where the artist has sewn figurative drawings into the Arabic text of One Thousand And One Nights, as well as upon its Japanese translation.

Her work is in a section of consecutive rooms where books are presented as art objects. Here, the practice of Shinro Ohtake is introduced. The artist’s most famous works are scrapbooks made of hundreds of glue-encrusted pages literally weighed down by their contents: matchbox labels; public transport tickets; found objects; scraps of paper and photographs. An extensive collection was shown at the 2013 Venice Biennale and the presentation here is similar, with books displayed in vitrines so as to underline their role as sculptural objects as much as artefacts.


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Also in this section is Yoshimasu Gozo, one of Japan’s leading poets whose many series include poems engraved upon copper plates, as well as multiple-exposure photographs and a giant 12-metre manuscript dedicated to Takaki Yoshimoto, a prolific writer and critic.

The exhibition continues through rooms that show tomes in their more traditional role as conveyors of content, with walls covered in enlarged images from photographic books. There is also a comprehensive study on bookmaking techniques from the past century, with publications made from somewhat bizarre materials, such as umbrella paper, seaweed, bagworms, mosquito nets and bamboo skin.

The exhibition closes with archival copies of Front, a large-format photo magazine published in 1942 to circulate Japanese propaganda. Its avant-garde and sophisticated design places it decades ahead in terms of design and it is also a thoughtful culmination, asking us to question the impact of book-design and what, indeed, can result inside the simple space of those pages between two covers.

Sharjapan: The Poetics of Space is on show at Al Hamriyah Studios, Sharjah Art Foundation until January 15, 2019. For more information, visit