The ancient history and enduring appeal of flying a kite
ONE NIGHT about two millennia ago, a Han Dynasty general sent a square assembly of bamboo and cloth into the air over enemy Chu territory at Weiyang Palace in central China; he was trying to gauge how much ground his men would need to dig to break through the line of defense of their opponents. This is one of the most famous early kite stories. Similar devices were later used by other Chinese armies, who launched them after dark into high winds, hoping the noise would frighten their enemies, or launched threats via missives attached to their tails. In 1232, according to Sinologist Joseph Needham, Chinese military kites dropped propaganda pages inside a Mongolian prisoner of war camp, inciting first a riot and then a massive escape.
Today, of course, these delicate planes – constructed from light wood or metal frames shaped to create lift, covered with a thin material such as paper or silk, and piloted by long strings – are seen like toys, not tools of military warfare. And yet, they have captivated adults and children for centuries, serving a range of practical and spiritual functions in cultures around the world. In Singapore and Borneo, Malaysian fishermen have long dragged lures from kites attached to the sterns of their boats. In Japan, washi-printed versions, often depicting scenes from legends and fairy tales, have been stolen for good luck since the Edo period. On Good Friday in Bermuda, people gather on the country’s beaches to watch huge, multi-colored reel-like kites fly through the clouds in homage to the ascension of Christ. And in parts of Bali, villagers build cotton kites up to 13 feet tall – shaped like leaves, birds or fish – which are flown in competitions during the dry season to show their gratitude. for a successful harvest.
Despite their ubiquity, kites have rarely been the subject of serious study. Even their origin story seems uncertain since the discovery in 1997 of a prehistoric Indonesian rock painting of what appears to be a floating rhombus. It seems likely, however, that the kites originated in China or Southeast Asia and were brought by merchants, missionaries, and soldiers to Korea and Japan and, later, Myanmar and India, where they can be seen in miniature Mughal paintings from the early 17th century. It is less clear how they got to the West – some sources suggest Marco Polo, who traveled through Asia along the Silk Road in the late 13th century, observed Chinese sailors using devices blown by the wind to gauge incoming weather conditions and brought an assortment back to Europe with it – but tailless kites, modeled on medieval pennant-shaped military banners, appear in early-1980s English and Dutch designs 1600. Over the next century, kites – often made in the shape of a bow or pear and made from silk with ornamental tails – became a popular pastime for children in Europe. From there, the kite traveled to North America, where it informed two of the defining advances of the modern era. In 1752, Benjamin Franklin attempted to harness electricity by sending a kite hanging from a thin wire – an old-fashioned lightning rod – into a thunderstorm. Beginning in 1899, the Wright Brothers’ exhaustive trials with gliders and man-lifting kites paved the way for the making of the first powered airplane in 1903. Skinner, 68 years old. “And yet, no museum has its kite. Once they invented the airplane, this is what became important.
IN FACT, VERY FEW major cultural institutions have deemed kites worthy of research or preservation. But in the ’90s and early’ 90s kite flying saw a boom in the American West and parts of Europe, in part because of the popularization of kite surfing and kitesurfing groups – who gathered in word-of-mouth encounters in windswept places like Maui, Seattle and the French Atlantic coast – began to take an interest in its tradition. It was around this time that in 1995 Skinner founded the Drachen Foundation, a Seattle-based nonprofit that sought to reframe kites into historic art objects through youth residency programs. creators and educational workshops. “The idea was to elevate the kites above toy level,” Skinner explains, adding that he chose the name Drachen, the German word for “kite”, because he “wanted to something with gravity, so people feel compelled to ask about the job and take us seriously. Skinner, whose intricate, large-scale patchwork designs marry Japanese kite-making patterns with a long tradition of American quilting and often take the form of birds or fish, is part of a generation of established craftsmen – which also includes the 71-year-old former Japanese master of kite maker Mikio Toki , known for his fantastic hand-painted Edo-style designs, and Chinese-American kite artist and Disney animator Tyrus Wong, who died in 2016 and renowned for his 100-foot-long kites in the shape of centipedes – which inspired a wave of young artists to invent new forms.
In Kärnten, Austria, Anna Rubin, 48, conjures up surreal bamboo and paper creations that are designed, she says, to look like “things that shouldn’t be flown on a kite,” including pockmarked charcoal-black meteors, striped hammocks and jute rugs, whose frayed edges make them look like tall, grassy rays of sunlight. Rubin produces three or four of these special kites, in addition to over a hundred smaller models that she sells and uses for art installations, each year, often employing ancient Japanese methods, including splitting by hand the bamboo for its frames and using hand presses. natural fibers to cover them. She wants to carry on traditions that she fears will be lost by a forward-looking culture, but she is also inspired by the sheer joy of work. “Everyone should, once in their life, make a kite and fly it,” she says.
In Brooklyn, Emily Fischer, 41, founder of design studio Haptic Lab, collaborates with Balinese artisans to make whimsical airborne objects from colorful ripstop nylon and bamboo that she describes as Trojans: fashioned after everything from ghost ships to wide crane wings, his kites comment on issues such as gender inequality and the climate crisis. The Flying Martha, for example, is a winding flying bird, or ornithopter, which can also be used as a kite and was designed to match the exact dimensions of the homing pigeon, a species once endemic to North America that was hunted to extinction by 1914.
And in Ossining, NY, Colorado-born visual artist Jacob Hashimoto, 48, makes massive installations from dozens of hand-assembled kites the size of a palm; the finished works, which hang from the ceiling of his studio or gallery, look like three-dimensional paintings. He inherited his interest in making kites from his father, whose own father taught him the techniques he learned as a child in Japan, and today the artist is inspired by a range of different traditions, but especially the history of the circular kite. , who is probably from Weifang, China. For Hashimoto, who is one of the few kite artists to have entered the world of traditional art, practicing this craft is a way to honor his heritage and his cross-cultural education. To look at his works, such as “The Eclipse” (2017), which features around 16,000 black and white disc-shaped kites that form a plunging cloud evoking the texture of a bird’s wing, is to feel momentarily surrounded by a herd. creatures floating or carried away by a greater collective upward movement. “The fact that kite-making is one of the most cross-cultural practices that exists makes it a beautiful and democratic thing,” says Hashimoto. “In many ways it’s global property – we all own the relationship between us and heaven. I think in a sense it’s only a matter of time before more people start exploiting this. His work is a reminder that, especially after a period when so many people were forced to stay anchored in place, kites offer us a way to defy gravity. In the hands of a volunteer aviator, they give us a way up – and out.