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Archive for the ‘Buddhist art’ Category

For the final week of my crazy jaunt around Japan this past summer, I enjoyed the privilege of taking part in a “graduate summer school” run by Kyoto University. It was a great program, introducing us to the university’s great collections, and presenting just a tiny glimpse into how archaeological research is done, how medieval documents are read, and so forth. I was certainly blown away by the items in the collection, the opportunity to see such things up close is always such a pleasure.

Still, I feel bad to say so, but while I think it would have been a fantastic program for students earlier in their programs, I’m at a stage right now where anything not directly related to helping me improve and finish the dissertation just doesn’t grab me right now. I must admit, I spent much of the week thinking about how “I could/should be working on my dissertation right now.” Especially after two weeks of just travel, even though that travel included archives and libraries, I was feeling guilty for not just buckling down and getting back to work. But, still, I’m very glad for this program as it (1) gave me an opportunity and excuse to spend a whole week in Kyoto, easily one of my most favorite cities in the world, and (2) allowed me to meet a whole lot of new people, make new friends/acquaintances/colleagues.

Yasaka no tô (Yasaka Pagoda), as seen from a small street near Ninenzaka.

At the end of it, I am sad to leave Kyoto. I had a really fantastic time. Even after all the rest of the traveling, I can tell that Kyoto, more so than Fukuoka or Kagoshima or Tokyo, is a place I could really enjoy being for a real length of time. I wish I had another week, or a year, to sit in cafes and just write, interspersed with going out to dinner with friends, going to theatre, visiting historical sites… I suppose that having friends around makes a whole lot of the difference, that that’s a part of what made this week in Kyoto so great. Without friends it wouldn’t be the same. But even so, it would still be such a wonderful city. I love exploring Kyoto, the shrines and temples and historical sites and cafes and restaurants and everything. I love the particular aesthetic and charm of so many Kyoto cafes. And I love how just historical and cultural everything is.. You can feel it, it’s in the air.

On my first trip to Kyoto, I remember writing in my LiveJournal (haha) that it was a small city with just enough of the modern city amenities. I remember that I was thinking in particular of Harajuku, and how you can in fact get cool fashion and other “modern” city experiences in Kyoto, but that it’s much smaller. That if you want the ultra-modern X, Y, and Z of Tokyo, you have to be in Tokyo. (Or Osaka, I suppose, but I still have never spent any time in Osaka). But, I’m not sure I feel the same way about Kyoto anymore. I know it’s because my interests have changed – I don’t need the anime stores of Ikebukuro anymore. And because Harajuku itself has changed, too. What once was, is no longer, even in Tokyo. Now, I’m more interested in history and culture and theatre and cute cafes and so on than I ever was before.

A view along the Kamo River.

I think I would really love to live in Kyoto for a year or so. Or even just for a few months. It’s not a city with too much direct relation to my research, unfortunately. So much talk all week about the Heian court and such… very far from my studies. But who cares, right? … And there are plenty of universities in Kyoto, hopefully one of them might be looking for a postdoc or something.

After this trip, I really do feel I could stay in Japan long-term. Maybe not indefinitely, make my whole life and career here. But certainly for a few years. It’s just such a good place to be, and with so much great stuff to see and do. Life is clean and good. It’s not dirty and falling apart like NY. It’s not a society pulling itself apart at the seams over politics like our own. Japan has its problems, to be sure, and in certain respects all the moreso as a foreigner. But sometimes I just really want, need, an escape from the insular, local, problems and politics of home. I feel like Kyoto is such a city of possibility. Not that one can’t say the same thing of any other big city, but there’s somehow something that just grabs me about Kyoto, that makes me feel like there is such a wealth of experiences to be had. That if you met the right people, made the right contacts, heard about the right opportunities, you could get into just so many incredible spaces and experiences. From Noh to Butoh, from tea to Zen, from shamisen to Nihon buyô. From dozens of cool or cute cafes to amazing temples, archives, seminars. I would love to live such a life.

Apologies for the disjointedness; for the rest of this post, I’m just going to share my thoughts-at-the-time on a couple of sites I visited in Kyoto.

The Ninomaru Palace at Nijô castle.

NIJÔ CASTLE

Nijô castle was built in 1603 to serve as the base of Tokugawa presence in the imperial city. Though as it turned out no shogun visited Kyoto for over 200 years from 1634 to 1863, representatives and officials continuously occupied the castle, overseeing goings-on in the city, handling various administrative matters, and so forth. Today, Nijô is of particular interest (at least to people like myself) because it’s the chief surviving site that might offer some sense of what the shogun’s main castle in Edo was once like. (The main residence and administrative buildings of Edo castle having never been rebuilt after an 1863 fire) Here are some thoughts I had at the time while visiting there for the first time in 15 years:

When you really think about it, it’s so weird, to walk around these rooms, these very rooms where these events really took place, and not be able to enter them to experience the space more directly. On one level, sure, it makes perfect sense, and I don’t need to enter the rooms at Independence Hall, for example, and to sit at those desks, to get a sense of what happened there and its gravity. But, somehow here it’s different. Walking through the honjin at Futagawa, and actually sitting in the room, you really get a sense of the space that you don’t by walking around only in the corridors. There’s just this incredible disconnect I feel here. The whole building becomes such a completely different space when the chief areas become unused, and the corridors become the main areas in which any human activity takes place.

The Ôhiroma, or Grand Audience Hall, of Nijô castle, arranged with mannequins to show how lords would have sat or bowed before the shogun. Sadly, obnoxiously, no photos allowed inside the building. This photo from Hananomichi blog.

I don’t know why, but somehow it just feels weird to me that a building of such great importance should become so empty, so dead, just put on display like this. I know that’s the very essence of the historical house as museum and I’m glad it’s preserved and open to visitors – neither destroyed nor kept limited to official business. I’m glad I get to see it. But somehow, more so than all the other castles and historic homes I’ve seen, this one struck me somehow. I somehow really wish we could engage with it more directly, or more extensively somehow.

Of course, there are simple practical reasons why you can’t let people walk on the tatami – it would get ruined so quickly. But, I wonder if some replica experience could be produced somehow. So people could experience these rooms not only from the outside, but from within the space, surrounded and immersed in the effect intended by the designers, and experienced by the people of the time.

TÔJI

Somehow, in my previous visits to Kyoto, I had never actually been to Tô-ji, one of the oldest temples in the city, and home to the tallest pagoda in Japan. I guess part of the reason I’d never gone was because Buddhist sculpture has never really done much for me. But somehow this time was different. To see them all arranged together, in 3D space, in context, and especially the grand size of these works, I think one really can sense the impact, the feeling of peace and spirituality that’s being evinced.

You can really feel / sense the deities looking down upon you. You can really imagine them being not sculptures buy actual deities manifesting before you. And the smell of the statues, of the wood, and of the incense also makes a big difference.

I think, at least in my own personal experience, that for a lot of Japanese arts, one just needs to be in the right mood, or catch it from the right frame of mind. I’ve been so moved by Buddhist sculpture two or three times, even when dozens and dozens of other times it didn’t really do much for me, and there have been a handful of times that I became truly taken in, entranced, moved, by Noh, though so many previous viewings I never managed to cross that mental or emotional divide. And the same for paintings – seeing paintings in person, with no glass or anything, is almost always a breathtaking experience, but seeing them on display, it’s really not so often that a piece takes me in. So, maybe it is just the timing, or just catching me in the right frame of mind.

Photo of the interior of Sanjûsangendô from the Nikkei newspaper, because god forbid they should allow regular people to take photos of some of the most famous examples of beautiful, masterful, Kamakura period artworks in all of Japan.

We also visited Sanjûsangendô, a very long hall containing 1001 medieval (c. 12th c.) sculptures of the bodhisattva Kannon. I had been there before, but this time we happened to arrive on a (slightly) historic day. These sculptures were long designated “Important Cultural Properties,” but were very recently upgraded to “National Treasures.” In connection with this (I think?), they moved many of the sculptures back to an earlier Edo period configuration just today (August 1), rearranging the exact arrangement of the auxiliary figures surrounding the central larger Kannon, as well as switching the Raijin and Fûjin (Gods of Thunder and Wind) sculptures at the very ends of the arrangement.

Today’s Keihan [train line], feels good.

Finally, I guess I’ll end this post with just a few thoughts on Kyoto as a tourist city.

Are some parts of Kyoto getting Disneyfied? Absolutely. And it’s a shame to see. But I would be curious to know the numbers, the statistics, regarding tourism – is this gentrification, this “touristification,” this Disneyfication, primarily in connection with appealing to great numbers of domestic (Japanese) tourists, or foreign tourists? But, then again, does it matter? Does it make a difference in how we think about it, does it make a difference in whether we are critical of it or not?

I’m frankly not sure how I feel. On the one hand, I can absolutely sense, feel, that Disneyfication, and it’s worrying. It’s problematic. No one should have to feel like their own home is no longer their own – that their own neighborhood is designed around tourists and not around residents. It’s something I’ve seen in Hawaii and Okinawa as well, and it’s no good. But, if there’s a silver lining at all it’s that a great deal of the city doesn’t look/feel like Ninenzaka or Hanamikoji, and it’s still vibrantly authentic, for lack of a better word. I know some people who say Kyoto’s too far gone already – they won’t come here, they won’t bother anymore, because it’s already gone to the dogs, so to speak. Maybe it’s just because it’s been so long for me since my time in Kyoto, and since my time this time around was so constrained; maybe it’s just because I still entertain fantasies of what it’s like rather than knowing how it truly is, but for me, it’s still very much worth visiting. I had a marvelous time this time, and an all the more astounding time the previous time around, and I think I would again, if I ever got the chance to live in Kyoto for an extended period again. I don’t think it’s time yet to write the city off.

Kyoto is still full of wonderful cafes, temples, universities, museums, theatre, and all sorts of other arts and cultural goings-on. And all of these, I am sure, sway with the winds that are blowing, feeling the impacts of increasing tourism and increasing touristification. But for now at least I think we can still honestly say that a great deal does continue to go on in this city in a relatively authentic fashion, disconnected from catering to what the tourists want.

I wonder if there is anything meaningful or worthwhile to say about the touristification of Kyoto regarding that it may date all the way back to the Edo or Meiji periods. That this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. After all, tourism in Japan really boomed towards the middle and late Edo period (18th-19th centuries), and during our workshop we saw some tourist maps of the city, pointing out Buddhist temples and other sites of interest. In the Meiji period, after some considerable debate and waffling and so forth, the government decided to keep Kyoto as a traditional, historical, imperial city, in contrast to the very modern city they were going to turn Tokyo into. Not that any of this is necessarily perfectly pertinent to the current phenomenon of what’s happening to Kyoto, but even so, context.

I wish I had anything more to say, more insightfully, regarding this interesting and important issue. But I guess I have to just leave that to those who are actually in tourism studies, unlike myself. I’ll just end this already very lengthy blog post by saying that “Let’s Make a Bus Route” (バスルートをつくろう) is a wonderful little board game in which you compete with other players to build the best bus route around Kyoto. No Japanese language ability required. (h/t to my friend Evan for introducing me to the game!)

All photos my own, except where indicated otherwise.

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Tenmyouya Hisashi’s “Rhyme.” Detail. I am sad to see that more of my photos from this exhibit did not come out better. This, sadly, is the best shot I got of the piece – and with the tiny screen on the camera, I guess I thought it was better than this.

Okay. I said I wasn’t sure if I would come back to write more about this exhibit, but, Odorunara’s fascinating insights on the Mr. show at the Seattle Art Museum right now inspired me to suddenly find myself thinking about this exhibit again, and put me into “writing mode,” to write out my thoughts on the second half of this exhibit, at Japan Society in NY only until Jan 11.

Tenmyouya Hisashi, like Yamaguchi Akira, Ikeda Manabu, and Yamamoto Tarô, is easily among the most prominent neo-Nihonga, or Nipponga, artists active today, each of them doing work that strongly draws upon the Japanese art history tradition in one way or another. Yet, while the mainstream of Nihonga art focuses on continuing a tradition of painting bijinga (pictures of beautiful women), ink landscapes, and other such works with the dominant aesthetic being one of subtle quiet beauty, Tenmyouya instead takes a rather different perspective on the Japanese artistic tradition. Think about contemporary 21st century imaginings and stereotypes of “traditional” “Japanese” art: Buddhist iconography and samurai war scenes don’t generally enter into it. Yet, these are the chief things Tenmyouya references. If you know something about Japanese art history, you know that he is drawing heavily upon styles and subjects of the Azuchi-Momoyama period, including Nanban-e (pictures of Europeans), kabukimono (street toughs with outré fashions), and the flashy, showy, bold aesthetic of basara, which emphasizes wealth, bold colors, lots of use of gold, and has been described as “the family of beauty that stands on the opposite end of the spectrum from wabi sabi and zen.”1

Tenmyouya’s “Baku.”

Thinking about it, considering his choice of referents, and his militant or violent alterations to those themes, I feel one possible way to read Tenmyouya’s works might be that he is seeking to tell an alternate narrative of Japanese (art) history, and identity. Pointing to serene Zen rock gardens, intellectual literati ink landscapes, and the boisterous & colorful but ultimately harmless atmosphere of ukiyo-e (or, the quiet, refined, restrained elegance, for that matter, of the geisha, courtesan arts, etc. depicted in the ukiyo-e), one typical and dominant narrative of Japanese art history and aesthetics is one of cultured, refined, intellectual pursuits, and of relatively peaceful aesthetics. After all, peasant uprisings aside, the Tokugawa period may be one of the longest and most peaceful periods of peace any part of the world has ever seen. But then Tenmyouya’s work – his Fudô Myôô holding a bayonetted rifle with a Rising Sun flag; his rock garden bathed in blood and covered in skulls; the war scene hung on the wall; and many of his other works outside this exhibit as well – reminds us of the role war and violence played in Japanese history, and in art, and asserts perhaps that the militarism of the 1930s-40s (and the decades leading up to that) is not an aberration to simply be forgotten about, but rather something more intrinsic to Japanese history and identity, that the Japanese as a people, as a nation, need to come to terms with.

Fudô is hardly a common subject among the mainstream of neo-traditional (Nihonga) painters – throughout the 20th century, those working in the most traditional/conservative mode have often stuck to pictures of beautiful women in kimono, to ink landscapes, and so forth. Yet, one the earliest, and most famous Nihonga works, when Nihonga was first born in the 1880s, was a painting of Fudô Myôô by Kanô Hôgai. And, further, it was painted with the idea in mind that this represented (one part of) truly Japanese national essence and tradition. Admittedly, Ernest Fenollosa’s personal obsession with Buddhist art, and his personal ideas about what does and does not represent Japanese national identity, skews this somewhat, as he’s just one individual perspective, and a foreigner to boot. But, even so, it shows that at that time, at the end of 250 years of peace, the strong and frightening figure of Fudô, demonic in appearance, wielding a sword and lariat, and surrounded by flame, could be seen as an essential part of Japanese tradition and national character. By showing Fudô and Kannon armed with modern weaponry, Tenmyouya reminds his Japanese audience, perhaps, that Japan has /always/ been a militarist country, that it was ruled by samurai – by a warrior government, essentially a military dictatorship, in modern terms – and that Buddhism, and Buddhist figures such as Fudô, and Kannon (bodhisattva of compassion), have long been used in support of violent people and violent acts.

His two screens show a rather violent battle, but with no blood, and with a rather clean aesthetic to it overall. Violence in Japanese arts has grown quite aestheticized over the years, as seen perhaps most evidently in kendô, iaidô, and other martial arts, which today are so much more about forms, about meditative or spiritual aspects, distancing these arts from their actual violent origins and meanings. In short, violence gets aestheticized in Japanese art, and in Japanese memory of its own history, but, could this piece, along with the blood red rock garden, be saying that we need to remember just how violent and bloody Japanese history really was?

That said, I also think it is all too easy, and all too tempting, to ascribe anti-war sentiments and intentions onto any Japanese artist. While I would very much hesitate to suggest that Tenmyouya might be rightwing, nationalist, militarist, is it not possible that a Japanese artist is doing something that’s meant to address themes other than the country’s militarist past? Maybe he simply enjoys the rough, bold, aesthetics of Basara, and the “cool,” “awesome,” tough, characters of the samurai, gods like Fudô, and so forth? Plenty of people think samurai are cool without being militarists. Yamaguchi Akira does a lot with warriors on horseback, often riding horses which are actually half-motorcycle, very similar content in a way to Tenmyouya’s kabukimono/bôsôzoku stuff, yet, I don’t think anyone would ever even begin to think that Yamaguchi is militarist… Maybe Tenmyouya has some other intentions with his work. Life is complex. The world is complex. To assume that all Japanese art is about their relationship to the war is, actually, essentializing. American art includes works about just about everything (and many works about nothing at all) – why can’t Japanese art be just as diverse?

I guess I really should say something, too, about Tenmyouya’s piece “Rhyme,” and the questions it evokes as to media. “Rhyme” consists of two works which are mirror-images of one another. One is painted in acrylics, and the other is a digital reproduction, mirror-flipped and printed using a high-end artist’s inkjet printer. The iconography and subject matter is clearly Japanese. The use of gold leaf is very much Japanese. The horizontal format, evoking a folding screen (byôbu) is evocative of traditional Japanese art. But, Nihonga originally a hundred years ago was defined, essentially, by its use of traditional media (e.g. ink and mineral pigments on silk or paper, etc.), regardless of the subject matter, or style of depiction. Takeuchi Seihô did some gorgeous depictions of the Grand Canal in Venice, in a rather realistic (read: European) style, in inks on paper. Now, we have artists like Tenmyouya, Yamaguchi, and Yamamoto making works that reference and evoke and draw upon traditional Japanese art just about as closely as you can while still being outside of those traditions, and they’re doing so in modern/Western, or let’s just say non-traditional, media. Is it still Nihonga, or neo-Nihonga, or Nipponga? Especially if we use one of the latter terms, absolutely yes. But, is there something more to be said here, to argue for or against how to conceptually categorize these artists, and the trend or (sub-)genre they seem to represent? … Nothing that really comes to mind at the moment, beyond that I think it’s wonderful. Beautiful, powerful, and intriguing. Holes are beginning to be poked through the concrete, and traditional, or rather neo-traditional, Japanese culture, is beginning to sprout and grow up through those holes. Artists are turning away from feeling they need to prove themselves, and their country, as “modern,” and are turning back towards exploring, expressing, investigating, inventing, being Japanese.

1) Patricia Graham, Japanese Design, Tuttle Publishing (2014), 37-39.

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The other major exhibit I was very glad to catch this winter at the Metropolitan Museum is one entitled “Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom,” featuring artifacts from the Korean kingdom of Silla (57 BCE – 935 CE), including a number of National Treasures.

The exhibit, located in a special gallery I don’t think I knew existed, off of the Greco-Roman galleries, begins with this expansive video screen, providing a beautiful view of the Hwangnam Daechong tomb mounds, in Gyeongju, a nod to the idea that you’re actually visiting this sunny, green, public park and entering into the tomb mounds yourself. This was surely expensive, and is only there for spectacle and atmosphere, but boy does it succeed in making the exhibit look/feel top-notch and cutting edge. I also appreciated, snarkily, how all the video screens in the exhibit were not only provided by Samsung, but included brief blurbs on the gallery labels explaining why Samsung’s technology is so amazing. You’d think you were at an industry show, or living inside a commercial or something. “Samsung’s newest such-and-such monitor includes the latest in swiveling, anti-glare, and touchscreen technology, making it the ideal device for any museum exhibition.” You can almost imagine the “wink” and plastic customer service smile at the end of it. Haha.

Tumuli Park (Daereungwon) in Gyeongju. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But, back to the artifacts. The exhibit begins with a brief explanation of the chronology and geography of the kingdom, and a short video clip showing how the tomb mounds were constructed. Prior to the introduction of Buddhism in the early 6th century, Silla’s royal tombs tended to be made of wooden caskets in above-ground wooden chambers, covered over in earth and stones, creating a mound with no direct passageway or entrance. Various grave goods, including pottery, objects in gold, and even glass imported from as far away as Rome (via the Silk Road), were incorporated into the mounds, meaning (I gather) that as one excavates, it’s not a matter of simply digging down to the burial chamber and finding things laid there, but, rather, that these goods are mixed right in with the earth and stones that form the mound. I don’t know enough about the details of kofun in Japan to draw a comparison, so I’ll have to leave that alone…

Right: National Treasure 191, Queen’s crown and belt from Hwangnam Daechong. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Most of the objects on display in the first portion of the exhibit were these sorts of grave goods, including some heavy, and extremely finely detailed & elaborate golden earrings, with huge, thick rings, and then finely intertwined and filigreed elements dangling from the rings. Perhaps most interesting for me was the queen’s golden crown and belt, each with pendants, altogether sporting tens of jade gogok, or magatama as they’re called in Japanese. My friend who studies shamanism in Japan could surely speak more informedly to this, but throughout the region (Korea, Japan, Ryukyu, though I’m not sure if anywhere else), this particular shape of bead, like a comma, or half a yin-yang, is traditionally, especially in more ancient times, a major spiritual item. One such stone, the Yasakani no Magatama, supposedly housed at the Tokyo Imperial Palace, is one of the Three Imperial Regalia of Japan – that is, one of the three most sacred artifacts associated with the legitimacy of Imperial rule. In Ryukyu, large magatama were the central pendant item on necklaces worn by priestesses and queens, and I gather from this exhibit that similar practices & beliefs were current in Silla as well. Having seen smaller magatama before, of a much more typical size for necklace pendants today (half an inch? just a very rough guess), though I can’t quite remember where, I was surprised at how large some of the gogok were in this exhibit. Those hanging from the queen’s crown were mostly of that smaller size, but the ones on the necklaces were serious hunks of stone, maybe half the size of a fist. I’ve seen pictures of similar crowns, one of the most classic or standard canonical examples of Korean style of that time, and of the similarities between Korean and Japanese styles especially of Japan’s kofun period. So, it was really nice to get to see such an object, and especially one in such excellent, almost complete, restored(?) or conserved condition, in person.

Once Buddhism was introduced to Korea from China, burial practices shifted to more closely emulating the Chinese mode. The tomb mounds became a thing of the past, and burials became much smaller, centered around stone caskets, in stone chambers, with definitive entrance passages, and “spirit paths,” rows of pillars, stelae, or sculptures leading up to the entrance on the exterior. Cremation rather than bodily burial became more common, and ceramic figures of servants, horses, mansions, boats, and the like, included directly in the burial chamber, much as in the Chinese fashion, became common. The exhibit includes a number of these figurines, as well as a few stone sculptures from “spirit paths.” The Chinese zodiac may have been introduced at this time as well, and it’s believed that it was relatively standard to have sculptures of each of the twelve zodiac animals (rat, cow, tiger, snake, monkey, dog, etc.) arranged along a tomb’s spirit path.

Korean National Treasure #83. Maitreya (K: Mireuk), c. 6th-7th century, bronze. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Moving forward, much of the rest of the exhibit consisted of Buddhist artifacts. The true highlight of the exhibit comes at this point. Situated in its own dedicated alcove, I feel so genuinely privileged to have gotten to see, in person, Korean National Treasure Number 83. A gilt bronze sculpture of Mireuk (Maitreya, J: Miroku) dating to roughly the 6th or 7th century, and roughly three feet in height, it sits in the pensive pose, with one hand up to its cheek, and one leg crossed over. An extremely similar sculpture, likely also originally from Korea, and today housed at the temple of Kôryû-ji in Kyoto, was (I believe) the first object designated a National Treasure of Japan. I do not know if I will ever get to see that sculpture, but to see this one is by no means second best.

I do not know whether it’s simply the fame, or something inherent in the sculpture, aesthetically or otherwise, but I found it truly breathtaking. My heart jumped as I gazed upon it, and I felt like I wanted to look at it, examine it, appreciate it, forever. I didn’t want to leave. I think part of the reason it had such impact was because I was surprised by its size, expecting for some reason for it to be closer to handheld in size – something so valued for its age but not for its size – when in fact it is a rather respectable size for a sculpture. I’m not myself Buddhist, but something in the design or aesthetic of the object, from the gentle curves of the bodhisattva’s body, to its gentle gaze through tiny slits of eyes, made me feel such a sense of calm, benevolence, and beauty. The following day, I was privileged to see Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring at the Frick Collection (up through Jan 19), but this did not provoke in me any special response at all. Intellectually, of course, I’m glad to check it off my list of famous paintings to be able to say I’ve seen, but, sadly, for whatever reason, the actual experience of seeing it felt like nothing special. It looks just like it does on the Internet. I was fortunate, too, to see many National Treasures and other stunning, beautiful, and incredibly historical significant objects this past summer in Japan, and eagerly look forward to doing so again.

The exhibition closes with a video showing the Seokguram Buddhist grotto, an incredible cave temple built in stone in the 8th century, and also counted among Korea’s National Treasures. A large stone Buddha is surrounded on all sides by stone slabs, which form the circular walls, floor, entrance corridor, and domed roof of the grotto, all of which where then covered over in earth to form a natural-looking cave. In the late 20th century, a wooden temple building was built before the cave entrance, expanding, or enhancing, the site. Though this grotto, clearly, cannot be removed from its location and brought into the museum, in the final room of the exhibit, they show a cast iron Buddha statue, all alone in that final room, evoking the idea, or the feeling, of the cave temple.

Between this exhibit, the one I saw at the Asian Art Museum a few weeks ago, and the comicbook/manghwa anthology Korea: As Viewed by 12 Creators, I am really eager to visit Korea… though I cannot imagine when that might come to pass.

Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom is on display at the Metropolitan Museum through Feb 23, 2014.

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*I posted a few weeks ago about a dispute between the Russian government and Chabad, over a collection of documents which Chabad claims Russia is refusing to return to them. A not-so-different situation has emerged in Japan regarding a number of Buddhist sculptures stolen by Koreans, who claim they were simply stealing them back, and who now refuse to return the objects to Japan.

Two Buddhist sculptures recently stolen from Tsushima and now in the hands of S. Korean authorities. Images from Japan Daily Press.

One such sculpture, the New York Times reports, was seemingly stolen right out of a Buddhist temple on the Japanese island of Tsushima. The statue, originally held in a Korean temple in the early 14th century, has been on Tsushima for centuries, and has been designated an Important Cultural Property by Nagasaki Prefecture. As the article relates, the statue was soon afterwards discovered by South Korean police, but then a Korean court judged that the object did not need to be repatriated to Japan, as its arrival in Japan may have originally been at the hands of pirates who stole it from Korea.

A model of a red seal ship, or shuinsen, on display at the National Museum of Japanese History (Rekihaku). Though the model is not explicitly, specifically, labeled as or intended to be a pirate vessel, but rather, by definition an authorized, legal, merchant vessel (the “red seal” being the official mark of authorization), this is representative of a typical seagoing Japanese ship of that time.

People sure are obsessed over these pirates. I of course know nothing about this specific case, and cannot say whether the object was, indeed, brought to Japan by pirates who stole it from Korea, or not. But, I can say that contrary to popular belief, the so-called wakô (C: Wōkòu, K: waegu, lit. “Japanese bandits”) were not exclusively or even primarily of Japanese origin. A great many of them were from China, Korea, or Southeast Asia. Even if the object had been stolen by pirates in the 15th or 16th centuries, does that really mean that it ought to be returned to Korea? Is it still an outstanding case, an ongoing “wrong” that needs to be righted? Or is it just history? Where do we draw the line? Interestingly, the Japan Daily Press reports that the Chosun Ilbo, one of S. Korea’s most major newspapers, has published pieces by Korean scholars arguing both in support of the piracy theory, and against it, with the latter scholar suggesting the statue may have made its way to Japan as a gift, as part of diplomatic exchanges between Joseon Dynasty Korea and Tokugawa Japan.

Last year’s (2012) Tsushima Arirang Festival Korean Missions Procession, as recorded & uploaded by YouTube user syokichi0102.

Tokugawa Japan & Joseon Korea had rather peaceful and friendly relations for roughly 250 years, from the early 1600s until the 1850s or so, via Tsushima. A great many objects were given as gifts, in both directions, though the Korean authorities today (and in particular, representatives of the temple which originally owned the statue back in the early 14th century) seem dead-set on rejecting the idea that the sculpture could have possibly been gifted or sold willingly. The Korean diplomatic missions which passed through Tsushima in the 17th-19th centuries are celebrated and reenacted every year by the people of the island along with visitors from South Korea. Or, at least, they are normally. The festival has been canceled this year, in response to the Korean court’s decision, and the broader controversy/incident surrounding the theft of this sculpture.

Roughly half the residents of Tsushima have now signed a petition to be submitted to the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea, asking that the statue be returned. We shall see what happens. The Japan Times (in English) and J-Cast News (in Japanese) also have articles on this subject.

The Korean peninsula as depicted in Hayashi Shihei’s 1785 Sangoku tsûran zusetsu.

*Meanwhile, on a related note, while I fully admit that I do not know much at all about the actual content of Korean scholarship, I have always gotten the impression that it is rather nationalistic, and in particular, emphasizing a Korean cultural superiority & individuality, downplaying Chinese influence on Korea, and up-playing Japan’s cultural/historical debt to Korean cultural influence, while also emphasizing Japanese violence and militarism throughout history. To what extent, or in what precise ways, any of that is or isn’t true, in all honesty, I do not really know for myself.

But, given those rumors I’ve heard, given those impressions I’d been given, it is wonderfully refreshing to hear about best-selling S. Korean art historian You Hong-june, whose newest book not only goes against my impressions of what is typical in Korean scholarship, but also appears to provide radically new and interesting – genuinely valuable – perspectives on the history of Korean-Japanese interactions.

To give an example, during Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasions of Korea in the 1590s, in addition to the extensive violence inherent in any such war, a great many potters and craftsmen were also kidnapped from Korea, essentially taken as prisoners of war, and forced to teach their techniques to Japanese potters. Any art history textbook will tell you that many of the most famous Japanese pottery styles owe their origins in Japan to these Korean potters. Most English-language scholarship that I’ve seen has emphasized the kidnapping, the terrible wrongs inherent in those actions, and rightly so. I get the impression that most Korean scholarship emphasizes this violence even further, and while I don’t really know, I somehow get the impression that much Japanese scholarship might not take too different a position, acknowledging this as kidnapping, as a violent act. But, getting to the point, interestingly, You Hong-june is quoted as pointing out an additional, interesting, and important side of all this: “In a description of the area in Kyushu that produced the Arita and Imari styles of pottery, You writes that the potters brought to Japan by troops sent to invade the Korean Peninsula by the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the late 16th century were ‘of lowly status in Korea, but in Japan treated as skilled artisans.'”

Speaking of the origins of the Japanese state, and of “Japanese” culture in the 6th-8th centuries, You also writes that “foreigners [i.e. Koreans] who came to settle in ancient Japan exerted an influence, but what grew there should be regarded as Japan’s own culture.” Again, as I don’t read Korean, I can’t say what truly is said in most Korean scholarship, but I get the impression this is a relatively radical notion against claims of Japan’s origins being entirely a borrowing, or a stealing, of superior Korean culture, or something to that effect.

Stereotypes and misconceptions abound in any and every culture. That’s unavoidable. But, You seems to be encouraging Korean readers to take a fresh, new, open-minded look at Japan. “Knowing about Japan as it really is will further broaden readers’ understanding of Korean history,” he writes, encouraging a less nationalistically-centered view of Korean history and Korean identity, and instead one more engaged with regional exchanges and interconnectedness. Having only these quotes from today’s Asahi article, I can’t say what the content of his book is like through-and-through, but if it’s anything like what I suspect, it could be wonderful to see it translated and published in Japanese and English, providing a new, different, additional perspective on Korean attitudes about Japan.

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The Art of Japan: Kanazawa is a beautiful new website which has emerged recently. It includes numerous pages about a myriad of aspects of traditional and contemporary arts and culture in and around Kanazawa, the capital city of Japan’s Ishikawa prefecture, and is constantly being updated.

Above: The tsutsumi-mon, or “drum gate”, outside Kanazawa Station. A beautiful example of traditional lacquer arts combining with contemporary architectural creativity & innovation to represent a city as wholly modern, but drawing upon a rich past. Something Kyoto Station entirely fails to do. Photo taken myself, during my one brief visit to Kanazawa, in January 2008.

Back in February, the Art of Japan Kanazawa staff collaborated with Japan Society in New York to produce what looks like an exquisite evening of traditional and contemporary culture – including displays of Ishikawa crafts (pottery, lacquerware, etc.), a butoh performance, and saké served by a professional geisha from Kanazawa, one of the few cities which still has an active geisha district. How I would have loved to be there for such an event.

Other posts focus on beautiful and interesting places in the city, local events, and arts.

Boy, I so wish I could be in Kanazawa (or Kyoto, or Naha, or half a dozen other places) right now, to have the opportunities to explore such a city, to attend these events, to be surrounded by and immersed in these arts and goings-on. But more than that, I wish I could work for a project like Arts of Japan Kanazawa. It may not be the most prestigious thing (like being a professor or a curator at a major institution), but who cares? How I would love to be constantly immersed, engaged, with a vibrant Japanese arts & culture community, and to make a living at it. I wonder how many other cities have similar projects, similar websites.

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Meanwhile, for sadly only a very short time, an incredibly major Japanese artwork is on display at the National Gallery in Washington DC. The “Colorful Realm of Living Beings” (動植綵絵, dôshoku sai-e), a National Treasure of Japan, is a series of thirty hanging scroll paintings by Itô Jakuchû (1716-1800), completed over the course of ten years. They are accompanied at the National Gallery by a triptych of hanging scrolls depicting Buddhas, on loan from Shôkoku-ji, a major Zen temple in Kyoto. The works are easily among the most famous of Japanese artworks, included in many if not all survey textbooks of Japanese art history; I don’t think it’s absurd to compare them to being a Japanese equivalent of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” but multiplied times 33, filling a room, and creating their own atmosphere.

Just seeing pictures of the installation, I can imagine the setting Jakuchû is said to have aimed to create – of the Buddha presiding before all the living beings of the world, and preaching to them. Standing in this room, you are surrounded by incredible images of a myriad of living beings, from roosters and peacocks described in exquisite detail, sketched from life, to fish, insects, and lizards in a variety of undersea and overland environments, and you feel that you too are in the presence of the Buddha.

One could easily write pages and pages about Jakuchû, his life, his art, but I’ll leave it for now. Check out my Samurai-Archives Wiki article on the artist, and the following:

As usual, embedding doesn’t seem to be working properly, but here is a link to a PBS has a wonderful brief video about the exhibition, including snippets of an interview with guest curator, Harvard professor Yukio Lippit: 18th Century Japanese Scrolls Make Rare U.S. Appearance.

I had no idea that a National Treasure could ever leave Japan – this is the first time that these works are on display, all together, anywhere outside of Japan, and it is incredible that this is happening. I wish I could be there.

The “Colorful World of Living Beings” is on display until April 29, in conjunction with the 100th anniversary Washington DC Cherry Blossom Festival.

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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.

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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.

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The American “Zen”-influenced artist John Cage apparently is said to have once commented that all of the stones at Ryôan-ji’s rock garden were in just the right place. And that any other arrangement would also be just the right place.1 Normally I’m not a big fan of American New Age misconceptions of Zen, and the art and philosophy influenced by them, but here Cage actually summarizes very beautifully something I’ve been thinking a bit about. We look at artworks and talk about them as if every single aspect of them is perfectly arranged, perfectly intentional. Sure, as art teachers or art critics we may consider some works more successful than others, more technically proficient, or more aesthetically moving or powerful. But when it comes to those works already judged by history, by scholars, by curators, by general consensus, to be “masterpieces,” we talk about them as if they have no failings, as if every aspect of them is perfectly just as it should be. Consider the works of Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Jackson Pollock, Ni Zan, and how they are typically discussed. Every brushstroke in precisely just the right place. Yet, if it were different, would we talk about that version of it too as being just precisely as it should be?

(1) Stokstad, Marilyn and Michael Cothren. Art History. Fourth Edition. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2011. p816.

Photo of the rock garden at Ryôan-ji taken myself, 18 July 2010.

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