Frottage, Takuhon, and the Gyotaku Methods
In 2019, I was invited to create a workshop at the Noguchi Museum in connection to the exhibition Changing and Unchanging Things: Noguchi and Hasegawa in Postwar Japan. The show demonstrated (and I tried to demonstrate in my class) how printmaking deepens our understanding of objects that surround us, and their function in the environment. This was true for Hasegawa and Noguchi, the exhibition makes clear. In each work, you can see the bones of traditional craft, and imagine the artists’ conversations about modernity. The exhibition was organized around Noguchi’s concept of “the true development of old traditions.” In an essay for the exhibition, Dakin Hart and Mark Dean Johnson write that Noguchi and Hasegawa “had been thinking deeply for some time about the balance between tradition and modernity, and the role of indigenous and foreign influences in the development of traditional cultures.” The balance is there in the show, of course, the vision of possibility, but when I look at the prints I also sense a desire to keep all tension intact, to remind, and to remain.
Hasegawa’s prints are made from frottage (rubbing), Takuhon (another kind of texture transfer technique using an inked pad), and Gyotaku (a direct ink transfer using a natural object as the matrix). Hasegawa deploys these techniques to investigate tradition and pry apart. They are tools instead of pictures.
In one print, a readymade block of wood, the notched end of a bench perhaps, works inside the composition like a crowbar, pushing apart a larger heavy object to make way for … nothing. In another, small blocks of wood, maybe offcuts from some construction site, are arranged like a musical score. The prints seem kinetic in their composition, put to the test, relics of culture repurposed in a new era. In my workshop at the Noguchi Museum, we sat with the objects for a while, talked about how the prints were made, and then we made our own. I asked everyone to bring something from home that they would like to print in the Gyotaku method. But, as I usually do when I introduce this technique to students, I also brought some extra materials, a bag full of garbage that I found on the beach.
The flotsam always works way better than peoples’ household things for this method. Something about beach plastic makes perfect Gyotaku, the sand abrades the surface a little, the sun and salt break down the plastic to reveal a porous under-layer, ready to absorb. Beach plastic is like a seashell or a stone, it has reached a balance, if you will, with its surroundings. If Gyotaku is a “nature print,” then this beach plastic is, of course, our new nature. It is our contribution to the natural world, and as we suffocate under its mass, it becomes our retribution too.
I also like the way that the process of making Gyotaku from flotsam makes us value the trash. As I walked around to check in with students, I heard people say, “Where is the red bottle cap? Do you have that drinking straw now?” An absolutely dejected piece of trash, forgotten and washed away, comes back as a punctum in some new masterpiece.
So how does printmaking change our process? Not just the artist’s process, but the process of the viewer as well? I can’t help but tell one more story of a print, or a group of frottage works actually, made by Francisca Benitez between 2008 and 2011. “Property Lines” is a series of rubbings that Benitez made using New York City’s famous brass property line markers. They are beautifully situated graphite works, scratched into existence on the page, they show the line, a strange geometry of edges. The brass markers often have text too, inviting and warning at the same time, announcing the property owner’s total control over the sidewalk. They basically say, “You are welcome until you aren’t.” In my mind, another artwork exists alongside the rubbings, an almost invisible, implied artwork. That is the artwork of Benitez making the rubbing, kneeling, touching, transgressing, pausing, and causing the commuters around her to pause. Because I am not constantly surrounded by the works on paper, the unseen version stays with me as the indelible part. How did she stop traffic, to steal the thingness from the thing? What did people think when they saw her do it?
There is something immediate and understandable about a rubbing, you can feel exactly how it was made. You are there with the artist, touching the sidewalk, blocking traffic.