Not many interesting things happen in the small city I live near but occasionally either at the Virginia Museum of Natural History or the Piedmont Arts Association an exhibit will pass through that is worth seeing. One rolled in last week called “Theater of the Sky” so I dropped by on the opening night. It turned out to be a display Japanese kites and kite related uikyo-e (pictures of the floating world) woodblock prints. Uikyo-e refers to a school in 17th to 20th century Japan that sought to depict the life of the contemporary urban merchant class and their entertainments in an idyllic fashion. Along with the rise of large metropolitan areas this newly wealthy and influential segment developed and shaped an environment unlike any before. Not constricted by old class and social rules the term “floating world” was coined to describe it.
The show was sponsored by The Drachen Foundation which, believe it or not, is an NPO dedicated to the diffusion of kite knowledge and education. The exhibit briefly discussed place that kites and kite flying had in the uikyo-e. Flown at first to bring good fortune or ward off evil spirits they were decorated with symbols of prosperity, good luck, or fertility. Later they found use for communications, divining future harvests, and eventually for recreational uses. Large groups of enthusiasts would gather and populate the sky with these colorfully rendered kites especially in Edo (now known as Tokyo).
The display kites were made by the Japanese kite master Mikio Toki who has been constructing them since 1973. You can see his amazing talent with woodblock printed kites here at his site. The ones in this exhibit were commissioned to replicate an 1864 triptych (Kite-flying Competition in the Blue Sky) featuring popular kabuki actors by the ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Yoshiharu. The vibrant colors and beauty of the traditional Edo kites is astounding and seeing them fly would have been a wonderful spectacle. However, I had to settle with craning my neck to see them as they hung from the dropped ceiling. Oh well.
Click on the thumbnails for a larger image of the kites: