Interview: Katsura Funakoshi

Two Heads are Better than One.

What distinguishes an artist from a craftsman? Well, an obvious difference is the pricing of their work. Whereas craft products can sometimes be expensive, this usually reflects the time and trouble taken to make the piece. Art prices, however, are arranged on an exponential scale starting at almost nothing for unproven artists, but quickly accelerating towards infinity for those lucky enough to escape the market's gravity. One such artist now in free float is Katsura Funakoshi, who makes highly-prized figurative sculptures of legless mannequins in painted camphor wood.

Visiting his atelier, a former barber shop in Setagaya-ku, I have a good chance to compare older examples of his work with the most recent examples on display at the small Nishimura Gallery in Ginza.

For most of us, wood sculpture immediately conjures up notions of cigar store Indians, heavily-painted Hindu idols, or Christian icons. Perhaps this is why the figure of a classically beautiful young woman with the suggestive title of Gate of Wings looks like an angel to me.

"This time no," he tells me in excellent English which he partially picked up during a one-year stay in London in the 1980s. "The title came from the model. She was very interested in wings and mon, Japanese gates."

Religious figures are products of the craftsman's art. Indeed, this is how Funakoshi got started carving wood figures – a church asked him to make a sculpture of the Madonna and Christ Child. So, perhaps it is just as well that Gate of Wings is not an angel. For an artist like Funakoshi, working in wood and producing the same basic form, the constant danger is that he will be regarded as a mere craftsman. I suggest to him that the thing that separates the artist from the craftsman is originality and the ability to change.

"Right," he replies, "We can see that some painters and sculptors are closer to craftsmen, and some craftsmen are very close, or are really artists. Anyway, I have to change because I am changing everyday. I want to keep finding new things and to make it in my sculpture."

Compared to the pieces he made several years ago, the most general difference is the new freedom he shows in treating the body. You and Your Quavery Lips, a figure with arms intriguingly reaching for its crotch, shows tensed musculature under a polo necked sweater. While the body of Gate of Wings represents a mountain. Blue Ruin, a figure with a beautiful pained expression, actually has architectural features built into its body in the supports at the back.

The two most radical innovations at this exhibition, however, show mixed results. Memory Being Supported Once is his first two-headed sculpture.

"I want to keep changing little by little, but I wanted to stay in the area of figurative human sculpture, so this time I tried two heads on one body, and the dancer on the floor."

The first piece is a powerful evocation of the spirit of human comradeship. He tells me that the inspiration came from a rugby game he saw more than 20 years ago where his favorite Meiji University player suffered concussion.

"After the game one of his teammates supported him walking back to the locker room. Being supported - that was such a beautiful scene, I felt at that time."

The squatting figure of the dancer, Dancing as a Pupa - Homage to the Dancer, the last piece to be finished, is an equal thrust away from his usual forms, but much less satisfactory. When I first encountered a Funakoshi sculpture at the office of a friend several years ago, my initial response was to cuddle it. Although it may well be the beginning of an interesting road, Dancing as a Pupa confounds this basic urge to relate to his work in an anthropopathic way. Perhaps this is why it is the last to find a buyer.

Craftsman or artist? That is the question still hanging over the finely-crafted, slowly-evolving art of Katsura Funakoshi. But why shouldn’t he be both? As Memory Being Supported Once so strongly suggests, two heads are often better than one.

New Works by Katsura Funakoshi runs until 3 March, 2001, at the Nishimura Gallery


Japan Times
25th February, 2001
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