Last weekend was Golden Week in Japan, aptly named for the string of public holidays that make it the busiest time of the year to travel. Travel and lodging are booked months in advance as people take advantage of this time off. I went to Tokyo for the four day weekend, and despite preparing well ahead we weren’t able to get reserved train tickets for the journey there. That meant standing in the centre aisle practicing my snowboarding stance and thinking enviously of those sitting around me. Lucky for us though, the train ride is actually pretty fast and we got to Tokyo in about four hours.
The weekend itself was a lot of fun, and maybe the most random assortment of activities I’ve experienced in a weekend. Saturday we traveled, checked out some shopping, and explored Shinjuku area. We ate dinner at a pretty great Thai place that made me realize how much I miss Thai/Vietnamese/Cambodian food that used to be a staple in my week.
Sunday we strolled around Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, which was free since it was “Greenery Day” holiday, and went to “Happy Cakes”, which is a make-your-own pancakes restaurant. You pick your batter and toppings and cook everything at your own personal grill, exactly like okonomiyaki.
Then Harajuku for some fun which was insanely crowded. Around two in the afternoon we made our way over to Tokyo Dome, for the main event of the weekend, the YG Family concert. YG Family is an entertainment company from South Korea that parents many pop music groups, most famously PSY (though he was not at the concert). Without being too dramatic, I have to say this was one of the best experiences of my life, but I’ll save that for later.
Monday was very rainy, so we went to Ueno park to the Metropolitan Art Gallery. This was a great decision and we spent about 4 hours there. We happened to be there during the Shinkseiki Art Exhibition, which has since left the museum. It was cool to see contemporary art from so many Japanese artists. In the park we also ran into an awesome guy who was celebrating his 20th birthday (legally adulthood in Japan) who was asking for strangers to write messages all over his white clothing.
Last Friday was my school trip to Takayama, about a two hour drive from Toyama city. I’ve heard it called the “Little Kyoto”, because of its old streets and buildings. Our time there was pretty quick so I hope to go back soon. While I was there, a teacher and I decided to make our own Sarubobo dolls! These little dolls are good luck, originally meant for women and are named “Sarubobo” after baby monkeys. Now, they have several colours to pick from, and choice for the clothing fabric that you can decorate yourself. I wrote the word “strong” on mine. The dolls are meant to bring you things like good health, friendship, love, and success, and to me being strong is the overarching component to feeling you have these things.
Some cute Sarubobo doll souvenirs
All the materials- you can choose the colour of your doll’s clothing.
My colour choice, practicing the positioning of the cloth square.
Practice kanji and flowers with different coloured markers.
Our two dolls together.
The finished product! My little sarubobo doll in all its lucky glory.
The first day in Osaka I went to the National Museum of Art, Osaka to catch an Andreas Gursky exhibition, a German photographer known for his hyper-realistic photographs. His work is usually large scale, capturing large areas and scenes with minute detail. It was a rare opportunity to see such a huge amount (51 photographs from 1980 to 2012!) of one artist’s career, and particuarily exciting since Gursky himself was part of the selection process.
National Museum of Art, Osaka
The exhibition pamphlet
Throughout the exhibition, there are a few ideas from Gursky’s work that seem to stick out: consumerism, crowded and empty spaces, reality; and visual characteristics like saturated colours, minute details, as well as unique composition.
Gurksy focuses a lot on “modern” life, creating images of large housing complexes, office buildings, and many images of various stock exchanges around the world. One of his earlier images Tokyo, Stock Exchange, 1990, captures a frenzied environment. I liked looking at all the different people in the scene- some moving so fast they are complete blurs of white, others still and quiet. It’s a photograph that makes you think about photography as a mechanism- and how this environment is transformed into a still image.
Tokyo, Stock Exchange, 1990
With the development of digital processing, Gursky began creating images that used a wider field of view and with minute detail. Hong Kong, Shanghai Bank, 1994 shows an office building from a high angle, giving a glimpse into the actions of those inside while still keeping them separated.
Hong Kong, Shanghai Bank, 1994
What I find interesting about Gurksy’s work is the composition of his images. It seems he uses photography to create images- not photography to capture an image that exists. In this sense he acknowledges that there really is no reality in the visual world- only what we see and perceive.
In Frankfurt, 2007, the scene is one that we can accept as real- technically everything looks correct, yet the glossiness of the surfaces and the stillness of the environment makes this look entirely false. It’s almost too perfect.
One of my most fascinating photographs was the photograph taken of Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm, 1950. This was a) the only image of another artist’s work and b) the only image of grainy quality- practically pixelated. My mind just churned trying to process the image of a painting I have seen in person in a grainy photograph surrounded by the hyper-realistic images.
Untitled VI, 1997
Then, some of his works are truly visually stunning leaving me in awe, like this image of a massive water tank in Gifu Prefecture.
When I was leaving there were books on sale with images of every photograph featured in the exhibition. Flipping through, I noticed that while the photographs were beautiful on paper, there was something very important about seeing them in person. Their full size lets you see tiny details, and their large size swallows you up letting you get lost on the photograph.
The exhibition ends on May 11. National Museum of Art, Osaka: website
I had the pleasure of seeing the Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Art’s touring show of Hokusai prints in Nagoya. The exhibition features many early works as well as his most well-recognized The Great Wave off Kanagawa, 1832, and Red Fuji, 1832.
It was really interested in the use of dimensions in the prints. Art History education (at least in my experience in Canada) tends to emphasize (and praise) the use of light and dark, like the flickering light of French Impressionist paintings or the deep contrasts of Italian Renaissance chiaroscuro. It’s a shame that this emphasis results in overlooking a lot of really important art, like Hokusai’s, as my classes barely touched on anything outside of Europe. Print makers like Hokusai use light and dark in an entirely different way: creating shapes, areas, and outlines of different shades. I was really intrigued by his portrayal of clouds: flat white space with almost rigid black outlines. Not necessarily the image that comes to mind when thinking of fluffy clouds. Yet these images don’t leave any confusion as to what they are and, to me at least, offer a strong sense of cloudiness.
The museum itself as a partnership between Nagoya and the Boston Museum of Art- which sends pieces from its collection for two exhibitions a year. This was actually the first time I’ve been to a museum of this nature, where a permanent collection was not he focus of the museum, but rather dedicated to traveling exhibitions. It seems like a great way to give people the opportunity to see art they might not otherwise have. Although, I can’t imagine the stress these curators experience transporting so many works halfway across the world.
Some recreations of “Great Wave”.
The exhibition will continue to travel to Kobe, Kitakyushu, and Tokyo. The official website can be found here.
Last weekend I was feeling a little restless and needing inspiration, prompting a day trip to Ishikawa Prefecture. I was lucky enough to catch Tokyo-based Koji Kakinuma‘s exhibition “Exploring Calligraphy” at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Artin Kanazawa.
I say “lucky”, because this exhibition left me in awe. I hope to share why I found this exhibition so fascinating!
Kakinuma brings to Shodo a contemporary vision grounded in tradition. He probes the principle of calligraphy in an endeavor to see calligraphy as a contemporary art form. “Inhale, exhale—use the brush freely!” is the figure of calligraphy he aspires to.
The writing system in Japan uses Kanji, characters used to symbolize or represent words and ideas. In order for Kanji to be functional it has to have rules and remain consistent. The size, shape, spacing, and stroke-order really matter. It matters even more in Shodo, which is the artistic writing of Kanji (or Japanese calligraphy). There is great emphasis not only on the appearance, but on materials and the physical movement of the writer. Kakinuma’s background is in Shodo, and his work plays with the restrictions that surround the practice.
Kakinuma’s exhibition fills 7 rooms, throughout which he manipulates and distorts these Japanese characters and all the rules they entail. He often alters his arm movements which creates lines that are loose and distorted. In the image below you can see an example of varying strokes.
Koji Kakinuma, “Four Seasons in Manyo’s Ancient World”, 2005
Sometimes these characters become spontaneous and difficult to read. In this form they begin to look less like their practical selves and become more abstract. This work was not included in the exhibition, but it is an excellent example.
Koji Kakinuma, “Wind/Forest/Fire/Mountain”, 2007
In the above image, you might have noticed a small red mark on the left. All of Kakinuma’s works are finished with his Hanko, a personal stamp used in Japan equal to the functon of signatures (I myself have one for bill payments and signing contracts!). The Hanko, with it’s defined image, looks static next to the Kakinuma’s fluid characters.
The exhibition included one work in English: The phrase “You bring the light in” repeated over and over again in loose writing.
Koji Kakinuma, “You Bring Light In”, 2013
The longer I stared, the more the images in front of me looked less like letters and words and more like orderless markings. It was definitely helpful for me to have one work in my own language. It helped me understand the feeling of something visually familiar being distorted.
Kakinuma’s produces “big scale” works which are several meters in width and height. Big pools of ink collect together to form areas of progressively deepening shades, as well as ink bleeding into the paper. Droplets and drippings scattered around the overall clean strokes. The Hanko marking that I mentioned before was also present on the larger works, in an accordingly larger size.
Koji Kakinuma, “One”, 2011
During the few Shodo lessons I’ve taken the instructor explains: back straight, relax, move your arm not your wrist, feel the brush, breathe. The brush will move as you move.Kakinuma takes the physicality of Shodo to another level with his. In a seated area outside of an exhibition room, visitors to the museum are able to watch a video of Kakinuma’s process. Along with a bucket of ink, he uses a brush almost the same height as him (cue images of the “Borrowers”). His entire body’s strength is needed to move it across the paper on the floor. His feet, back, arms work together to produce the right strokes.
This isn’t the same video shown at the museum, but it’s also really cool to watch.
These oversized characters speak to the inexhaustible power of Kanji as symbols. This character, 山, is tiny on paper, but represents the gargantuan presence of a mountain, and brings to mind images of Japan’s endless mountain ranges, of their sublime power, of the feeling of spirituality that can come from being in the presence of these untouchable ancient entities.
The way these large works are presented can be very powerful, for instance in an enormous room with a ceiling as high as a gym’s and blindingly white walls. Hanging on opposite eachother, a few meters from the top of the ceiling are “Go Go”, 2013, and “Pheonix”, 2013, each spanning over 77 squared metres. The sheer size, space, and visual impact of this presentation left me in awe. It’s the same feeling I get when I stand in a towering Cathedral or look across the mountains: Completely overwhelmed and yet reassured by the beauty of these environments. A beauty that feels innately familiar yet out of grasp.
Needless to say I really enjoyed the exhibition and I’m glad I was introduced to Kakinuma’s work at this time. Had I visited after only a month or so living in Japan, my response would have been different because I would have had no familiarity to Kanji. In the last 6 months, Kanji has become a confusing part of my daily life. Seeing it distorted and manipulated by Kakinuma was captivating and oddly cathartic.