Barbara Hashimoto's Books
by Nancy Baker Cahill

"Midiabai's Attempt, 1998 | ceramic book, encaustic, dye |80 x 100 cm (framed)
Collection of Robert Goldschein, Los Angeles.

Barbara Hashimoto’s innovative approach to ceramics has earned her critical praise both internationally and locally. She fires books in clay. Applying slip to books or individual pages, Hashimoto's works are subjected to single or multiple firings in the kiln where the materials react to one another in unexpected ways. Her books are fired bound, stacked, or split. The resulting pieces are re-worked through drawing, sculpture or collage to further articulate their content. These surprising compositions blend poignancy, violence and meditative tranquility. She chose a path less traveled to pursue her creative dream. In 1988 Hashimoto journeyed to Japan and Thailand to study ceramics. Prior to leaving she happened upon a book installation at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Though she was untrained in ceramics at the time, the separate realm of book art sparked a nascent interest and haunted her.In Japan she apprenticed to ceramicist Junko Yamada and saw the work of Takako Araki and Yohei Nishimura. Hashimoto's apprenticeship with Yamada culminated in a two-person show in 1990 at the Masada Studio Gallery in Tokyo, where Hashimoto exhibited her earliest books. Hashimoto believes her on-location training engendered her passion for ceramics and ceramic technique. During her seven-year tenure in Asia, she traveled to Thailand five times. She lived in Dan Kwain, a traditional pottery village with a centuries-long history of ceramics making. She worked with villagers mixing clay with their feet, then firing their work in ancient, wood-burning kilns for two days. In Japan she participated in firings of an anagama, a kiln she stayed with for an entire week, feeding it wood in an around-the-clock vigil. In this living classroom, she developed a spiritual reverence for the kiln, treating it as a mysterious, creative force.

While a traditional potter knows exactly what is needed to produce objects in a predictable pattern, Hashimoto experiments widely with clays and colour. She prefers to integrate "mistakes," such as cracks, into the total composition of a piece, so they become line, texture and landscape all at once. At times, she fills gaps with encaustic, just as one would caulk a bowl with gold epoxy. Despite these non-traditional methods, Hashimoto nonetheless adheres to many formal Japanese principles of ceramics, including asymmetry and a roughness of surface texture. But functional ceramics, whatever its designation, did not adequately address the conceptual ideas Hashimoto needed to express. Thus, her own art was born, although at first through an unexpected forum: installation.

"Pink Tatami", 1990 | installation, Okuruyama Memorial Hall, Yokohama, Japan

A consideration of her early installation work is essential to appreciating the conceptual strength of Hashimoto's ceramic books. Of Pink Tatami, one of her first installations in Japan, she wrote: “The idea for Pink Tatami first came to me after I had spent the entire day cleaning the 24 tatami mats in an old, uninhabited wooden home in Tokyo. I pulled the tatami up out of the sunken floor into which they fit so snugly, and piled them up inside the room that was soon to be my new home and studio. I had never seen the underbelly of tatami before, nor the guts of a traditional Japanese room left exposed by their removal. It was a beautiful, vulnerable image.”

As a Westerner, her choice of subject matter was radical, since the fragile tatami is considered an almost sacred feature in traditional tea rooms. Hashimoto painted the top sides of the tatami a shocking, bright pink. Foreshadowing her later book series, which featured manga -- the often pornographic comic books common in Japan -- she wrote: “Tatami is shibui, a Japanese word expressing a quality of beauty which is unassuming, unpretentious and humble. In Japan the "Pink Industry" is the industry of pornography and prostitution. It's the colour often used for the pages of manga. And in a nation of women who cover a laughing mouth and speak in an artificially high, softened tone, pink is another image of "cuteness" used in presenting as diminutive and unthreatening a package as possible.”The impetus for her installation work spilt over into her desire to fuse ceramics and books. Ever observant of the world in which she was immersed, she was attuned to Japanese popular culture -- its icons, packaging, and subtexts. Subway riders in Tokyo discover that manga are as ubiquitous as newspapers. Unsettled by the graphic content of the books encased in their anonymous pink covers, Hashimoto began fashioning her own method of sealing and consequently revealing texts by firing ceramic-coated manga, as well as unrelated tomes.

"Chichibu Book", 1990 | ceramic, book, rice straw |Shigaraki clay fired in anagama, Chichibu, Japan. Collection of Miriam Wattles, New York. Exhibited at Masuda Studio, Tokyo, Japan, 1990.

Her resulting book series concerns lost or unattainable knowledge, the passage of time, censorship, and the packaging of culture. To illustrate her experience as an outsider, she renders the specific content of the books unknowable. The walls she creates around the works are formidable, yet fragments of text are allowed to peek through, yielding limited passage. Their mummified quality suggests a frayed but resilient personal history. Every word or image that survives Hashimoto's firing acts as a unique memorial to its original, unsealed state. Her essentially destructive process is balanced by the work's resultant delicacy. Shadowy, singed spots echo the text's prior incarnation; she considers each book a living work, a metaphor for the narrative of our own fragile existence.

Her initial, reactive censorship of manga became more complex as the work evolved. Other texts crept into the series; a Los Angeles phone book, a dimestore romance novel, a Noh play, Shakespeare. She mediates meaning by transforming texts according to each book's individual content.

First exhibited at Gallery Soolip Los Angeles, her Sati Series forged new ground technically and conceptually. Inspired by a journey to northern India, the works’ colours convey the impressions of a culture and its past, such as the milky blues and chalky greens of the Brahmin houses in the old walled city of Jodhpur. Compositionally, Hashimoto shifts away from symmetry in favour of pyramid-like configurations or deliberately disordered groupings, inviting us to consider negative space as an integral part of the whole. The conceptual aims of the work developed from a chance visit to a wall of handprints at Fort Meherangarh. These prints were the final tributes of the Maharaja Man Singh's 15 widows, who threw themselves onto his funeral pyre in 1843.

Sati is a charged topic. In Sanskrit, the feminine noun translates as "good woman" or "true wife," and when applied to a widow, means "a woman who sacrifices herself on the funeral pyre for the love of her husband." Forbidden by the British Colonial Government in 1824, sati is, to many people, emblematic of the oppression of women in Indian culture. Widows who refused to become sati often were ostracized, while those who took the more dutiful path were sanctified. Isolated incidences of sati persist to the present day, and the subject remains a controversial issue for many Indians, whether they support the practice or not.

As a cultural outsider, Hashimoto resists facile judgment or didactic critique. She chooses instead to honour the women who died, and to reflect on the wall of handprints by creating her own manner of tribute. After researching Indian women who had become sati, she fired calendar pages of dates, and, in the case of a 1986 sati, a photo of its 20-year old subject, Roop Kanwar. Debate continues as to whether Kanwar went willingly to the pyre or was forced. Not all satis are known or recorded, and she leaves some book plates and the handprints on them unclaimed, treating those anonymous sacrifices with equal reverence. One of her templates came from a mendi -- a henna design within an outline of a human hand. The template, intended for any hand, became a universal every hand. We need only look as far as the imprints on Hollywood's Walk of Fame to recognize the ubiquity of this impulse to preserve memories.

"Thirsty Crow" (Moral stories series), 1998 | ceramic, book, encaustic, dye |70 x 125 cm (framed)

Hashimoto's most recent series features altered Hindi moral storybooks. From her original work with manga, the new work incorporates isolated storybook illustrations and phrases taken out of context. Despite their inscrutability, these ceramic, slab-like books are spread open to be "read". She tricks the eye into searching for a cinematic linearity -- each successive frame yields a trace of change. While our narrative expectations are thwarted, our focus grapples with the peculiar iconography of the singled-out frame.

Hashimoto's ceramic books address the mystery of cultural knowledge, the flawed nature of history, and the lost or hidden. She offers us clues to grasp among the remains: dates, clear patches of text, a corner of a photograph. By dissecting "story morals" and offering them up for reinterpretation, she reflects upon the nature of moral perspective. A dynamic tension thrives between the intrinsic violence of the firing process and the light, airy and delicate pieces which it creates. From Asian villages and Tokyo studios to Los Angeles cityscapes, Barbara Hashimoto has pioneered an unorthodox medium through which she expresses a dazzling multitude of passions and themes.


Nancy Baker Cahill is a writer and curator based in Los Angeles.

Photo credit: Yoshi Hashimoto