Whether it comes from the T lurching over an antiquated track or a toy in the hands of my hyperactive niece, rattling is a constant sound in my life. Like most people, I naturally tend to tune out the noise after a few minutes, or put my headphones on to expedite the process.
Since working on the exhibition “Toshiko Takaezu: Shaping Abstraction” this past summer, I’ve been hearing rattles anew. A ceramicist, painter, and weaver, Takaezu was a pioneer of three-dimensional abstraction. Once, while she was trimming the rim of a pot, a piece accidentally broke off, fell into the vessel, and miraculously didn’t stick to the base or sides during firing. This clay fragment transformed the previously silent form into a rattle, enrapturing Takaezu. From then on, the artist began wrapping small pieces of clay in paper and dropping them into her pottery on purpose, experimenting with their quantity and size to produce novel sounds.
Closed Form (1990s) is one of these innovative objects. At about two feet tall and ten inches wide, it’s an unwieldy instrument, combining noise with strenuous physical movement. You have to engage your entire body to create sound from the object, and pressing it against your chest makes you intimately aware of how the rattle reveals the vessel’s interior. The sounds the clay fragments make as they bump and slide across hidden ceramic plains allow players and listeners alike to essentially see without eyes. In another sense, Takaezu granted her vessels voices to define themselves, an anthropomorphizing effect that speaks to the artist’s symbiotic relationship with clay.
During a meeting with MFA conservators a few months ago, I had the immense pleasure of experiencing Takaezu’s rattles firsthand. Although I was unable to shake the pieces myself due to preservation concerns, the sensory experience still moved me, for inherent in the hollow cacophony of a rattle is a unique connection to a shared humanity—one we can trace through the MFA’s collection.
In ancient Greece an unknown artisan inserted a pebble into an intricately painted miniature ball. Likely suspended in a tomb as a grave gift, this rattle could have been used to ward off malevolent otherworldly forces.
A similar spiritual connotation is echoed in a vessel from more than two millennia later. Depicting a raven, a frog, a reclining figure, two faces, and a hawk, the intricately carved form and its enclosed stones were activated in dance and healing rituals by the Haida people of the Northwest Coast.
The very act of creating a rattle can be part of a ceremonial process, as evidenced by a 20th-century Luba rattle from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The object’s makers inserted substances believed to have magical qualities into three calabash gourds, then they shook the entire object to produce a noise. Only at the end of the ceremony did they close the vessel.
Outside religious practices, rattles were also prolific in the domestic sphere. An 18th-century Dutch infant’s rattle, a 19th-century Chinese rattle ball (shouqiu), and an ancient Egyptian goose figurine all soothed, distracted, and entertained children. A simple yet effective instrument, the rattle has fascinated humans across cultural, temporal, and situational boundaries. Takaezu’s Closed Form is part of this long legacy.
Recordings of Takaezu’s rattles are integrated into “Shaping Abstraction,” demonstrating the complexity of Takaezu’s work without compromising its safety. Thus, in the galleries today, you can also relish in an almost cosmic link to the billions of people that came before us, people who similarly halted at the whisper of a clink.
Experience “Toshiko Takaezu: Shaping Abstraction” on the third floor of the MFA’s Art of the Americas Wing through September 29, 2024.