Just a couple of articles today from the Mainichi Shimbun.
*Kyoto temple hires 25-year-old painter to restore ancient art practice – I have posted before about contemporary Nihonga (neo-traditional) painters being hired to restore, or to create new works to replace, paintings at Buddhist temples. It certainly makes sense. Someone has to do it – the tradition has to continue, we can’t just stick with what we have and watch as it slowly gradually decays, not for all cases. And basically everyone who is a painter in traditional styles and/or traditional media is termed a “Nihonga” painter, so, that’s who it is.
There is something really interesting, and wonderful, about contemporary artists stepping in to a long-standing tradition; essentially, stepping across a historical threshold, from the present into the past. Or, to put it a better way – and more accurately – to think of these temples and their traditions being long threads that exist in the present, and engage with the present, but which extend back centuries into the past. I am sure that someone more well-versed than I in theoretical jargon language could articulate some really fascinating argument about the discursive implications of this connection between contemporary artists and a centuries-old tradition of the town painter commissioned by a temple, or of the painter who lives within the temple and practices Zen practice. Kennin-ji in Kyoto, and Kenchô-ji in Kamakura, roughly ten years ago, had gorgeous new ceiling paintings of dragons produced by artist Koizumi Junsaku. But Junsaku was born in 1924, making him a later generation of Nihonga artist as compared to those active in the 1880s-1920s, for sure, but still much more closely connected to the traditional past.
By contrast, 25-year-old Murabayashi Yuki, a recent graduate from a graduate program at Kyoto University of Arts &
Design, is about as young and contemporary as one can imagine. This article doesn’t say much about her work, or about her personality or character – for all we know she’s really involved in traditional culture, and not very involved at all in modern, contemporary, pop culture – but, still, the combination is very interesting. Murabayashi will be doing, essentially, something not too extremely different from what artists like Sesshû did in the 15th century, or what various town artists (machi-eshi) did in the 17th-19th centuries, living at the temple, engaging in Zen practice, and just generally immersing herself in the world of the temple, while she paints new screen paintings for them over the course of three years.
As the article says, she was at first nervous, intimidated by the weight of expectations of this long line of centuries of great temple painters before her (not to mention how her paintings will continue to be viewed, and to be present and associated with the temple for many many years into the future, becoming an integral part of the history of the institution). However, encouraged by the abbot that she does not need to adhere to the styles and expectations of the past, the article says she has regained confidence. I am curious to see what sort of works she ends up creating.
Meanwhile, Ôshiro Tatsuhiro, the author of “The Cocktail Party,” which I posted about some time ago, now compares the disaster-struck areas in northern Japan to Okinawa, framing the two places within a conceptualization of sacrifice for the sake of the center. What defines the success or prosperity of “Japan”? Is Tokyo the barometer? People in Tôhoku, Fukushima, and Okinawa are sacrificing, every day, continuing to sacrifice, to gaman (endure) and to ganbaru (keep trying), for the sake of the country. Yet, are they not themselves part of the country? Who is benefiting by their sacrifice? How is the health or prosperity of Japan measured? By the health and prosperity of the metaphorical Center? Or by the health and prosperity of its worst-off areas? Or by some more holistic approach, taking into account everything?
Especially after seeing his play, “The Cocktail Party,” and hearing him speak about it, I cannot help but see Ôshiro as a bitter curmudgeonly old man, kvetching and complaining, and most likely quite literally shaking his cane in the air. I would love to see him standing outside a US military base in Okinawa shouting “you damn kids, get off my lawn!” That would pretty much encapsulate his attitudes entirely. Which is not to say that he’s entirely wrong in what he says.