Surf’s Up At Mingei’s New Exhibit
Surf Craft celebrates design and culture of board riding
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Aired 7/14/14 on KPBS News.
KPBS art reporter Beth Accomando takes a tour of the Mingei's Surf Craft exhibit with guest curator Richard Kenvin.
Thanks to the movie "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," the first thing many people associate with surfing is Jeff Spicoli and his famous mantra: "All I need is some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine."
"I’d like people to come away maybe knowing a little bit more about that other side of surfing, that they’ll have a more truthful perspective or deeper understanding of how much is really behind surfing and surfboards," Kenvin says.
The exhibit explores board design in the context of Soetsu Yanagi’s mingei philosophy about the importance of craft and artistry in creating functional objects says director of exhibitions Christine Knoke.
"Initially people think that surfboards are kind of one-offs, maybe they come in three different sizes and you pick the one that you love, but obviously there’s a lot more to surfboards and that’s what this exhibition talks about — the design that really allows the surfer to ride a particular wave and that’s really what this kind of functional objective use is riding a wave," Knoke says.
Exhibit runs through Jan. 11, 2015
Mingei International Museum, Plaza de Panama, Balboa Park, 1439 El Prado
Through this lens, the exhibition shows that boards are both striking examples of functional design and an American art form. Kenvin says the exhibit provides insight into the evolution of the surfboard over the centuries. The oldest board on display is from the 1800s, a simple rectangular board with cracks at the nose and an exceedingly worn surface.
"It’s a Hawaiian paipo style board make out of breadfruit wood. Once it was done being used as a paipo board, they used it as a table to pound poi for probably a hundred years. So that is an interesting example of multiple use mingei," Kenvin explains.
A century later we have another example of a multiple purpose board, this one from Japan.
"This board is a itago board from Japan. These would be floorboards in the fishing boat and also used to clean fish when you came in, but then fisherman would use them to get from the boat to shore," Kenvin says.
But opposite this plain Japanese board is one that revolutionized professional surfing.
"Once Mark Richards created the twin fin for pro surfing, he was bringing back what [Bob] Simmons said about how boards work with fins on the rail; from 1979 to present day nobody ever won the world title on a board with just one fin ever again — it’s all been about boards that have the fins out on the rails, which is what Simmons defined as being like the machine for high performance surfing," Kenvin states.
Kenvin says that Yanagi’s mingei philosophy made him think about the whole craft and design of surfboards: "So he was saying industrialism is here to stay and we need to find ways in which hand craft and industrial craft can live together and have a symbiotic thing and keep hand craftsmanship alive and yet have mass produced items that are low cost for everybody."
"Big Wednesday" (1978)
"Step Into Liquid" (2003)
"Riding Giants" (2004)
The last board in the show exemplifies this. It was designed by Daniel Thompson and made in Thailand as part of a project by a group called Sustainable Surf.
"It has a recycled foam blank," Kenvin explains. "The skin is paulownia wood which is sustainable tree, it has no fiberglass or lamination on the outside, the wood is the lamination and it has just an epoxy seal so to me this board sort of represents what Yanagi was talking about, about going from hand craftsmanship to good mass produced design."
This could be where the future of board design is going says Kenvin but he’s also encouraged to find that it’s still important for surfers to craft their boards with their own hands.
"So this generation of surfers that’s in their 20s and younger have been exposed to a lot more history and a lot more design and they have empirical knowledge. They go out and ride the boards, they make them themselves and they are very open minded — they don’t limit themselves to one thing," Kenvin says.
Surf Craft hopes to open minds to both the craft and artistry that has gone into the evolution of these machines to ride the waves.