Turner and Tohaku

June 25, 2010

I watched a documentary on JMW Turner recently and was surprised to learn that he left his collection to the British nation – that is, 300 paintings, 3,000 watercolours and 20,000 sketches. Turner was accepted into the Royal Academy as an apprentice at the tender age of 14. He made a name for himself from a young age, travelling around England, often on foot, to draw and sketch. Even though he started painting and drawing professionally at such a young age, and lived until he was 76 years old, 32,000 is still a shockingly large number of works to bequeath. This is not even his life’s work, as it doesn’t include all of the works he painted on commission or sold in his lifetime.

During Turner’s time (1775–1851) it was common for artists to begin by copying the Old Masters until they had, well, mastered them. I can’t help comparing this style of education to the Japanese way of learning. Even today, to become competent in shodo (calligraphy), ikebana (flower arranging), or chanoyu (tea ceremony) you begin by copying your teacher’s work over and over. This repetitive form of education, while tedious, is meant to instill the skills deep within, until they become muscle memory and something akin to instinct. It is only after you have spent years learning the rules that you can break them and experiment. This style of teaching doesn’t appear to align with contemporary society. In fact, it seems to have been lost in contemporary Western culture completely. People want to master skills as quickly as possible and I think this is to the detriment of art as well as other areas of life. As head of the Honnoji ikebana school told me, “You can do a short course in ikebana, one or two years. But it is like fast food – it is not good for you.”

Turner continued to work until late in life, and in his later years he experimented more and more with style and technique. His works focussed on atmospheric skies and became more abstract. Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway is a good example of his depiction of ephemeral light. It is as if he is attempting to paint air. I can’t help but compare this to the work of Japanese artist Tohaku Hasegawa (1539–1610) who was painting almost 300 years before Turner. In his famous work Pine Trees he deploys empty space to depict the mist – what Tohaku called “expressing without painting”. It seems that both artists came to the conclusion that less is more, and they appear to be striving for similar things – depicting that which is beyond our reach, something we can’t quite grasp.


Exquisite offerings

June 5, 2010

Set back a little from the bustling crowds of Sannenzaka is an unprepossessing building which houses some of the most superb examples of Japanese craftsmanship ever produced: the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum. It’s the first museum to hold as its permanent collection metalwork, cloisonné, lacquer and Satsuma ware created for the Meiji Era International Expositions.

1867 was the final year of the Edo period. The new Meiji government wanted to show the world its power and ability in the industrial arts so works were created for the international expositions in Paris and Vienna. Few of these works remain in Japan. In fact, Director of the museum, Masayuki Murata, first came across Meiji art in New York City. He began collecting about 20 years ago and these works form the basis of this museum. As so many of these pieces were bought by foreigners, Japanese people have few chances to see works from this period. The artefacts represent artisans both from the Imperial Household as well as complete unknowns and Murata believes they show a ‘world of transcendent technical finesse that no one can now produce’.

Pages from the museum catalogue

There are censers the height of people; intricate cloisonné incense burners; lacquer furniture rich with gold leaf laid over black; vases dripping in cherry blossom, chrysanthemums, peonies and wisteria; ceremonial sword hilts and scabbards decorated with reeds and butterflies; boxes covered with spiders webs spun with gold; lids topped with insects made of silver; and human figures flying on cranes that spiral around a pair of Satsuma vases. Gods, demons and mythical beasts abound but the scenes of nature are just as spellbinding. One of the most splendid pieces is a folding screen, unsigned, with a design of wild geese and reeds. The geese are inlaid with ivory, bone and stag horn, the feathers illuminated with mother-of-pearl.

Satsuma ware from the museum catalogue

If you visit one museum while you are in Kyoto, get to this one.

Yesterday I was wandering around in the back streets near Shingyoku-dori when I stumbled on quite an incredible sight. A new shop has opened (in fact it only opened yesterday) called Pink Latte. It stocks a range of ultra girly clothes and accessories with a predominantly pink theme as is no doubt obvious by the name. The staff member told me it was aimed at the junior high school market. The extraordinary thing about the shop is the building. The overall image is of a Japanese temple – a pink Japanese temple. It has the pagoda-style roof, the temple posts and lanterns. Then, inside the wallpaper, a cool goth black, sports an outrageously eye-burning pink mon motif. I wandered around with my jaw on the floor. Plus I’m sure the whole building didn’t exist a week ago – they seem to have constructed it in record time.

Art flower workshop

April 25, 2010

Yesterday I did an art flower workshop at my favourite Kyoto clothing designer, Pagong. There were only three of us in the class. I arrived early, having cycled across Kyoto to get to Pagong’s head office in the southern part of the Nishijin quarter, so I had time to shop – dangerous! The two other women for the class came slightly early too, and when one of them found out I was intending to do the class she said, ‘Kowai’ (she was scared). I’m not exactly sure what she was scared of – perhaps I have more of a presence than I think.

We were shown upstairs and greeted by Endou-sensei, a glamorous woman with carefully curled locks, perfect make-up and decorated nails. She told me her husband makes lacquerware for the temples.

My classmates had obviously done workshops there before as they got into selecting their fabric straight away. Nishimura-san calls herself a ‘wa-designer’ (‘wa’ means Japanese-style or peace and harmony). She was the more vocal of the two, asking me questions and arguing with the sensei. In fact, Nishimura-san was such a chatterbox that I never discovered the other woman’s name.

After selecting our fabric, in this case silk printed by Pagong, we started bending our wires into our desired petal shapes. Then we chose a centre bobble and glued it together. Using a little glue, we had to stick the wire petals onto the fabric and cut them out, leaving a 5mm trim to be folded under and glued. The gluing and cutting took the better part of the lesson. Once that was all done we had to arrange the petals in a desired configuration, glue them altogether, cut off the stem and hot glue it to the corsage pin. They all praised me on my good taste and told me I had a Japanese sense but I think they were just being polite. Still, if you see me wearing a large flower, be kind.


April 19, 2010

Newly formed Studio HeadSpace held a one-night arts and music festival in Osaka on Saturday night. Studio HeadSpace is an artist-run non-profit gallery in Nara whose mission is to ‘promote and support artists based in Kansai.’ Saturday night boasted no less than six bands, eight DJs and the involvement of over 30 artists and performers. Cafe Absinthe hosted the event in their Yotsubashi premises. The event involved art installations and artworks in progress – the artists adding to their works as the night progressed. There were projections on the walls, live music, drums, jugglers, saxophonists and dancers walking through the crowd. Diane Orrett, well known in Kansai for her rakugo (Japanese story-telling) and other event performances, danced through the rooms announcing each event. Takeshi Araki, of Design Festa Gallery in Harajuku, came from Tokyo especially for the event. He appeared surprised at the size of the event and asked if this kind of thing happened often in Osaka. By all accounts the evening was extremely successful with all proceeds going to the participating artists and musicians.

Dancer in an art installation at the art and music festival

Studio HeadSpace has also just initiated its international residency programme, hosting David Shillinglaw from the UK. I caught up with Shillinglaw at the festival and asked him how the past two weeks had been. ‘I’ve been treated very well,’ he said, delighted. He is well-versed in the international residency scene, having already completed residencies in China and Turkey. His artwork at the event covered one wall, a large face painted on cardboard boxes, its huge eyes watching over the whole event.

Shillinglaw, a friend of Jamie Goodenough (Director of Studio HeadSpace), was clearly an obvious choice as first artist-in-residence. He runs Nowhere North gallery in London and had been discussing a collaboration with Goodenough for a while. He was a good choice in that his charismatic personality added to Saturday night’s event. He flitted through the crowd talking to strangers about his work with ease, exuding energy,  joking with people and handing out hand-sewn booklets of his work.

David Shillinglaw adding to his artwork

Shillinglaw’s initial response to what influence Japan has had on his work was slightly disappointing. ‘I’d be doing the same thing wherever I was,’ he said. ‘ But I can’t get the paints I usually use so I have to use what is locally available.’ Then he pointed to a corner of his painting where some of the unpainted cardboard showed through, revealing a word. ‘That says cabbage.’ It was written in katakana. Obviously, he initially didn’t know the meaning and, after people mentioned it, he said it started to make him think. He feels his inability to read Japanese has been an advantage because it has made him see things differently. ‘Everything is a graphic to me.’ He feels that in Japan the commercial graphics are of a higher quality, that even the images on the side of trucks are interesting. ‘The lines are so clean.’ His artworks are graphic representations of Picasso-like faces with words inserted, labels of face parts, arrows, blocks of colour, stripes and patterns. Words and wordplay appear integral to his artwork so his inability to read Japanese must have a significant effect. To give Shillinglaw his due, he has only been in the country for two weeks. Perhaps he needs time to digest the experience before it comes out in his work.

Artwork by David Shillinglaw


April 11, 2010

On Friday afternoon I visited the famous Kaboku tearoom run by the Ippodo Tea Company on Teramachi-dori in Kyoto. I had to wait for about 20 minutes just to be seated as it is peak season in Japan at the moment. Ippodo has been around for about three centuries so I decided it must be worth the wait. Most foreign visitors won’t be able to experience true tea ceremony in Japan as it requires many years of study, but there are some options that give a glimpse of chado (the way of tea). Some temples and gardens serve tea in a tea ceremony style. Teashops offer a more relaxed way to experience Japanese tea.

I decided to order koicha as it was listed under matcha (green tea made of powdered tea leaves) on the menu. The young waitress, Sakata-san, asked me, ‘Are you sure you want to order koicha?’ Her question made me nervous so I asked for her recommendation. She said, ‘After you have koicha, we will serve you usucha. Would you like me to make it for you?’ I nodded vigorously.

Sakata-san brought a tray with a tea bowl, tea whisk, wagashi (a sweet), hot towel, and a thermos with hot water. She used a small porcelain bowl to add water to the matcha powder, explaining, ‘Koicha uses 4 grams of matcha powder. Usual matcha uses 2 grams.’

I’d always thought matcha was fairly strong but koicha (literally ‘thick tea’) turns out to be the espresso-version of matcha. I noticed that the whisk is used just to stir rather than whisk the koicha because it is so thick. Sakata-san expertly picked up the bowl and rolled it around so the bright grass-green tea coated the sides of the bowl. It was then ready to drink. The day’s wagashi was sakura-mochi (a cherry blossom sweet), as is fitting for the season. As is usual with green tea, the wagashi serves to complement the bitterness of the tea. However, the more expensive the tea, the less bitter it is. Koicha is so thick that you can’t actually drink it all because it sticks to the bowl, which is why they make usucha (literally ‘thin tea’) from the remaining tea. By adding more water, Sakata-san whisked it into the usual matcha froth. I asked her if most Japanese people know about koicha and she said no, that really only the people with an interest in tea know how to make it.

Kyo Odori

April 7, 2010

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be given a ticket to one of the annual spring dances, Kyo Odori. The Gion geiko and maiko perform these every year at five different theatres in Kyoto. I had seen the Miyako Dori before but the Kyo Dori was a little different. It is performed by maiko and geiko of Miyagawa-cho Kabu-kai. It is held at the Miyagawa-cho Kaburen-jo Theater and the dancers perform some short skits taken from places and things in Kyoto, as well as dances about the coming of the spring. Of course, the kimono were incredibly beautiful – in particular a rich teal furisode (long-sleeved kimono) with flowing water patterns down the sleeves. The geiko wore black kimono with waves lapping around their feet. The poses they struck during the dances, and the shapes they created were stunning. They made quick little running steps, kicking the length of their kimono out of the way with their tabi-encased feet, coyly hiding behind fans or slowly wafting them to depict the warm spring air. It was enchanting.

Before the dance, geiko and maiko served us matcha and a sweet. I was surprised that we could take the little porcelain plate home with us as a souvenir.

We could take photographs in the theatre before the performance but not during it. As always, when asked not to take photographs I respect the wishes of those that ask. Unfortunately the group of foreigners in front of me did not. They were asked to stop taking photographs at least three times during the performance, and still tried to sneakily take shots whilst looking over their shoulders for the attendants. Not only did this disturb other patrons, it is deeply disrespectful. They were so busy trying to take photographs it seemed they couldn’t even enjoy the performance anyway. When visitors behave this way it is hardly surprising Japanese hesitate to open their traditional culture to those from outside.

Sakura fever

April 5, 2010

Yesterday the cherry blossoms were at their peak and sakura fever definitely had its grip on Kyoto. The streets were packed with people and there were traffic jams throughout the city. It’s hard not to get caught up in it all so here is a photographic essay for just a taste of it.

Cherry blossom along the Kamo River, with the northern hills in the distance.

Along the Kamo River, Sunday 4th April.

Full bloom, Kamo River, Kyoto

Tetsugaku no michi (the Philosopher's Path)

Shirakawa Gion

Lights up at Maruyama Park

Hanami, Maruyama Park


March 29, 2010

March 2010 Osaka Basho


Last Friday I managed to catch some sumo at the Osaka Basho. In order to get a ticket, I got up at 6am and caught the train down to Osaka. The Basho is held at the Prefectural Gymnasium in Namba. The tickets for the day go on sale from 8am and I wanted to buy a general admission ticket. It’s only 2,000yen – cheap for a whole day of entertainment.

The tournament starts at 10:45am and goes on until 6pm. Many people only show up for the last couple of hours when the makuuchi (top division of professionals) are on, so the crowd was thin for most of the day. This was great for me because I sat up the front until then. The officials actually let you sit anywhere until the ticket-holder of the seats arrive.

The juryo division enter the fray

From the start of the day until about 3pm it is the amateur divisions, the makushita (literally ‘under the curtain’) who have all of their bouts. Things are often over in the blink of an eye and the amateurs don’t play up to the crowd as much as the pros. They are more perfunctory and get on with it. I was surprised that even some of them seemed to have some avid supporters amongst the crowd, and the big guys always get extra cheers.

Yokozuna Hakuho throws salt into the air

Yokozuna Hakuho put up a nail-biting fight against Harumafuji. He’s strong and the crowd seem to love him. He won all of his 15 bouts for this tournament.

Full gallery of images can be seen here.

Dances of the grotesque

March 22, 2010

Last night I went to see a Butoh performance by Ima-Tenko. It was my first (and possibly last) time to see Butoh. Before the performance I had a vague idea about Butoh dance – that it is esoteric, avant garde, surreal. I imagined something like Dadaism for the dance world – I wasn’t far wrong.

The performance was in the Gojo Rakuen Kaburenjo, a Taisho-period theatre tucked away in the back streets of Gojo that is famous in Kyoto for being the training venue of geiko and maiko. We were seated on zabuton on the floor and the proscenium-arch stage had additional stages running down each side of the room. I was seated on the right. The band, a traditional Japanese accompaniment of shamisen and percussion, began playing on the left. Suddenly, I realised that the dancers were all posed down the right side, whitened faces grimacing, eyes rolling, pretending to eat fruit in over-exaggerated actions. I hadn’t heard them appear and the intended dramatic result was effective. They slowly crawled off, still eating, twisting their arms and legs in grasping motions.

Next came a tall dancer in a long ragged gown holding golden balls in each hand that appeared to be magnetic forces, pushing and pulling her up, down, lifting her, dragging her body while she fought it. Then three large red pomegranates sat on stage. Heads started to peep out of the tops, and white hands pulled and ripped the pods until they emerged, the pod peeling down and becoming the lower part of the costume. Each dancer had red and orange balls sewn to their backs, perhaps supposed to be the seeds of a pomegranate but they reminded me of pustules. The dancers then began to eat, gorging themselves on imaginary things from the air and their own bodies. A dancer in a red fishtail dress fluttered a large black feather fan. Two other dancers joined her and they performed a semi-erotic mechanical wiggle. These were the only Western-style clothes; the rest of the costumes were based on kimono in royal blues and purples or tunics in oranges and greens.

A dancer jumped about the stage to music, doing wild leaps like a monkey, her mouth open in a gape of silent anguish and pain, stopping occasionally to pant and watch us. Three black-clad dancers stood in a line, only their white hands lit, disembodied and curled into witch-like claws. A pair of dancers stretched their feet out like vines searching for something, encountering each other and then struggling as if in sibling rivalry, their bodies rolling and thrashing on the floor. There were a few moments of comedy: one dance was followed by a dancer sitting on a squeaky scooter, following the others and laughing maniacally; Ima-Tenko lifted her ruffled skirt and flashed her bottom at the end of another dance, with a sly mocking leer.

The dancers were amazing. They gave the appearance of having out-of-control bodies by maintaining extreme control. They were very fit and the performance was obviously strenuous. What they do takes skill and dynamism. They have to know the capability of their bodies thoroughly and push themselves to the limit. Having said that, I couldn’t bring myself to like or enjoy the performance. When I finished school I did life-drawing classes for a couple of years. Our teacher once asked the model to strike the ugliest pose they could, in order to prove to us that the body is always beautiful. At the time I agreed, but that was before I saw Butoh. These dancers managed to put the human body into the ugliest positions imaginable. They twisted and contorted themselves, convulsing in fits while grimacing as if in pain. The dances were all about emerging, painful births followed by gorging sessions, appetites insatiable as they pretended to shove food into their mouths, bodies spasming and limbs jutting out at odd angles like bones. They rolled and flailed their bodies about the stage in a primordial arrhythmic motion. Their whitened skin, yellowed or blackened teeth and red eyes, seemed to accentuate the deathlike pall. The costumes, although in lovely colours, were ripped and ragged, giving the dancers the air of penniless travelling players. Their hair was teased into wild birds nests, adding to the impoverished impression.

Ima-Tenko’s solo dance left me confused and repulsed. She was wearing only a red fundoshi (the traditional Japanese undergarment for adult males comprising of a strip of cloth), her entire body painted white, her flat chest and prominent ribs accentuated by the lighting. She writhed and stretched, sometimes emitting yelps, staring at the audience like someone unhinged, her face pulled into a kabuki mask of angst. She turned her back on us and jiggled her not-so-young butt cheeks at us – was it supposed to be amusing, erotic, a mockery? I felt that, although an amazing use of the body, Butoh is one long complaint about the human condition, about our failing bodies, our base instincts, our worst fears about our own mortality. I’ve always thought that to dance is to celebrate life, but these performances show the repulsive aspects of human bodies. Butoh is the antithesis of a geisha’s dance. If Butoh celebrates anything, it celebrates the grotesque. Perhaps that is the point but I can’t help feeling that focusing on this is not enjoyable. What is the audience supposed to take away with them? It certainly made me think, made me feel uncomfortable, sometimes revolted me, and I’m glad I went but I can’t say I’d like to see Butoh again.