Performance

Last Sunday afternoon, so as not to get too anxious while waiting for the election results to come in, I did something unusual for me: I was watching paint dry. This is not a joke, I mean it literally!

There was a performance by a young woman called Shintaku Kanako. Essentially, she covers her body with paint of different colors, waits motionless until it dries through body heat, which takes about 20 minutes, and then applies another layer of paint etc. That’s all she does throughout the performances, she just sits on a chair and uses her hands to put paint over her body. Sometimes she’s stretching too (I guess the chair is uncomfortable) but she does not speak or anything. And her performances are long, this one was 3.5 hours in total.

So… yes, that’s what I did last Sunday: watching paint dry for about 1.5 hours. The performance is rather boring to be perfectly honest, the other visitors were most interesting. Another artist from Hikone struck up a conversation, and there was the old guy who took about a gazillion of photographs of her – I found him rather creepy. That’s what is really exciting about the performance: the resulting photographs of her painted body are absolutely stunning. Something is in there that is hard to define, but I find it very compelling. My favourite one is at the main page of Shintaku Kanako’s website. Feel free to check out her other photos there or on instagram.

Nishijin Asagi Museum

As I mentioned in my last post, I fell down a craft hole last week, and one of the places I visited was the Nishijin Asagi Museum, one of the very small private museums that are often only accessible via prior reservation.

As the name suggests, this museum is dedicated to Nishijin weaving, an old Japanese handicraft where colored threads of silk are used to produce patterns in the final fabric. This technique is not unique to Japan, mind you, but Nishijin ori takes the whole thing up a notch – and has done so for centuries. Besides carefully dyed silk, the use of real gold, silver, or platinum is one of the hallmarks of Nishijin ori. This makes the coloring of the fabric last for a long time, but also prevents an obi or kimono from being washed.

Rimpa paintings - nishijin oriNishijin ori is known for its delicate images that are woven into the fabric, and the Asagi Museum has a large collection of fantastic pieces that look like painted. In fact, many of the pieces on display are recreations of famous paintings from the Japanese Rimpa school to Buddhist images to Western Impressionism.

It’s a bit hard to talk about the topic, so I will just share some of my images. If you want to know more about the museum, or see many more pictures, here’s their homepage (unfortunately only in Japanese…): http://asagi-museum.jp/

Rimpa school - irises - in nishijin ori

The above is a reproduction of a famous painting by Ogata Korin. These two folding screens “Irises” from the 17th century are a National Treasure and rarely exhibited; in the original they each measure 1.5 by 3.3 meters, and to be  honest, don’t look quite as neat as these here.

Van Gogh Starry Night in nishijin ori

Van Gogh’s Starry Night is a famous painting, and this is a reproduction in silk fabric. It was displayed in a darkened room with only fluorescent light, hence the interesting coloring of this image.

Clothing with Nishijin Fabric

This is taking Nishijin fabric into the modern age. Pieces of different fabrics were used to make these clothes. I did not dare touch them, but I am wondering how they would feel to wear; my impression of Nishijin fabric is that it is rather stiff. It’s probably okay for the jacket in the middle (I could see myself wearing this), but the dress, I’m not so sure.

Shibori

Shibori is the Japanese method of tie-dyeing, a type of resist dyeing where parts of the fabric are prepared (in this case: tightly tied with thread) before dyeing so that the tied parts of the fabric remain the original color.

Shibori, or rather: tie-dyeing or resist dyeing methods have sprung up all over the world and can be traced back to as early as the 2nd century. Simple methods of resist dyeing meant simply crumpling up the cloth before dyeing, but methods have evolved to include the use of wax or stencils etc. Tie-dyeing came to Japan from China in the 7th century and has been refined to create the art of shibori.

A multi-colored piece of Shibori

Shibori with its tiny and delicate patterns reached its peak in the Edo period, where shibori fabric was produced in many places of Japan. Especially farmers would work in the shibori industry – meaning: binding the cloth – during the off-season when there was not much work to do on the farm. Unfortunately, nowadays, shibori is only produced in Nagoya and Kyoto, and because it is still largely a very time-consuming handicraft, the number of craftsmen and -women who can do it is declining.

Shibori comes in many different forms, depending on the way the fabric is tied. The most delicate type of binding the fabric is called hon-hitta shibori, the finished tied beads are only 2mm in size; this is entirely handmade and an experienced craftsperson can make around 300 of these beads per day.

This was the standard type of shibori before the machine-type hari-bitta shibori was introduced, “machine” being simply a metal holder with a needle to help pinching the fabric before tying it. While the process is still a handicraft, this tool has sped up production to about 3000 beads per day.

Tool for needle shiboriOther methods that fall under the shibori umbrella are tie-dyeing with larger objects like plugs made from wood or acrylic; using wooden boards like a stencil; sewing patterns into the fabric with strong thread etc. Probably the most interesting one is where the cloth is placed carefully in and outside of a wooden tub, the parts inside the tub remain white while the ones outside will be dyed in the respective color. This so-called oke-shibori technique can produce very striking, large-scale patterns.

Tub shiboriThe shibori process is very involved and takes a number of steps, each of which is carried out by a specialist. First, a pattern is created and from it, a stencil is made. Using the stencil and a special type of water-soluble dye, the pattern is transferred to the fabric. Then, the fabric is tied according to the pattern. If there are different types of shibori to be included, each one is given to a specialist in the respective type of binding. However, no matter how large the piece is, one type of binding is always given to a single craftsperson because to achieve a uniform appearance in the final piece, the strength of the binding must be the same throughout.

Once all the fabric is tied it is called a shirome and now it is given to the person who is actually dyeing it. Again, this is a handicraft, and the color depends on factors like the type and heat of the dye and the amount of time the fabric stays in it. Only after the piece is completely dry will the fabric be unbound (again by an expert) and afterwards, it will be steamed to make it flat. With this method, a finished piece of shibori will never be completely flat but will retain a bit of a 3D structure, which is the hallmark of good shibori.

Simple Shibori FabricAs mentioned above, nowadays shibori is only produced in Nagoya and in Kyoto (and a few surrounding places). Nagoya shibori is made on various materials including cotton, but the kyo kanoko shibori of Kyoto only uses silk fabric. Because of the fact that they are still handmade, shibori items are rather expensive, but it does depend on the pattern and the dyeing. The more intricate the pattern, the more colors, the more expensive. Still, given that a whole kimono done in hon-hitta shibori can have up to 200,000 of little tied beads and can take years to complete, the prices are understandable.An affordable shibori kimono.For more information on shibori, visit the Kyoto Shibori Museum. Their exhibits are stunning and they also offer short classes to make your own (simple) shibori piece.

Yama-no-hi

Today is a holiday: Yama-no-hi or Mountain Day. The idea is to give the Japanese a (or rather: another) reason to go hiking in the mountains. The largest mountain ranges of non-volcanic origin in Japan lie in central Honshu, the main island, and encompass the Hida, Kiso, and Akaishi mountains. These mountain ranges include the highest mountains in Japan (except Mt. Fuji) with a height of more than 3100 m. Some of them even have what are called “active glaciers”, meaning their ice is flowing.

Anyway, the tallest mountain in Japan is Mt. Fuji. Since ancient times it has been the most revered mountain in Japan, and since 2013 it is on the UNESCO World Heritage list, drawing even more people to its top on a sort of modern pilgrimage.

Anyway, I’d like to share a picture of this fantastic gold screen painting of Mt. Fuji that was on display at the Saga Arashiyama Museum of Arts and Culture when I was visiting it for their last exhibition. It was painted by Shibata Gito (1780 – 1819) from Okayama, which means so much as “edge of the mountain”, which is quite fitting the theme, don’t you think?

Golden Screen with Mt. Fuji by Shibata Gito

Gotōchi Formcard

A modern post office goes beyond selling stamps and being a place where to send parcels and letters. Nowadays, you can also buy stationary, postcards, cardboard boxes to pack your stuff in it…

In Japan, every post office in a city that is frequented by tourists – whether Japanese or from abroad – sells special postcards called gotōchi forumukādo (ご当地フォルムカード). Literally that means “local formcard”, and these are fun postcards that depict some of the most iconic tourist spots or things of that particular city and are often shaped accordingly.

In Kyoto, these formcards of course have something to do with Geisha, and there are also a few of Kyoto’s most iconic temples and even tsukemono, which are pickles and the main souvenir from Kyoto, for Japanese tourists, that is. What do you think of these? Do you recognise the two places?

Gotoji Formcards from KyotoPostage varies according to size, but these cards can be sent abroad as well. However, the clerk at the post office suggested using an envelope for destinations outside of Japan, just to make sure they arrive unharmed.

Making a Katana

This here is a really interesting video about how to make a katana, a traditional Japanese sword. The guys from “Man at Arms” start out with getting and melting the iron ore, and then show all the steps necessary to forge a katana. I’ll leave it to you to discover the intricacies, I surely learned something new!

Don’t be put off by the Kill Bill reference, I guess they just needed an interesting hook for the video. 😉 The video is 18:40 long and safe for work. Enjoy!

Noh Costumes

All the way back in March, I visited an event called “Noh Translation”, an introduction into the ancient Japanese theatre form Noh. I wrote about it then, and tonight was another one of these events called “Discover Noh”. This time, the focus was on Noh costumes, in particular the ones worn at the play Hagoromo, which is a lovely little fairytale. Discover Noh flyerThe same three Noh actors were taking part again, and it was really interesting to learn in detail about the costumes, the significance of their patterns and their lifetime (about 50 years). We then saw an actor getting dressed – with the assistance of three people – and in the end, there was a short performance of the last bit of Hagoromo.

I am very busy these days, but I made a point to have this evening off to go to this event. I really enjoy Noh and would love to see more of these events, because it hardly ever happens that you can chat with a Noh actor about his job (and they are all very enthusiastic about it!) Maybe, I’ll talk a bit more about this at a later time, but I just came home and I’m quite tired and I have more work to do tomorrow, so…Good night!

Eight Views of Omi

The Eight Views of Omi is a series of woodblock prints from the Edo Period, depicting scenes from places around Lake Biwa. The Biwako is the largest sweet water lake in Japan, its southernmost tip is only some 20 minutes east of Kyoto. Historically, the province in which Lake Biwa is located was called Omi, and many little towns around the lake still have Omi as part of their name.

8 Views of Omi - all in oneThe idea of the Eight Views goes back to China, in particular to the 11th century paintings Eight Views of Xiaoxiang. Eight Views were considered the most beautiful or significant scenes of an area, and since many artists made images like that, these can be seen as an early version of visual advertisements. The idea came to Japan in the 15th century and inspired prince Konoe Masaie and his son Naomichi to a series of poems about eight scenic places on nearby Biwako. In the early 18th century, woodblock printer Nishimura Shigenaga took Konoe’s poetry and turned it back into images, his Eight Views thus becoming one of the first series of landscapes made in Japanese woodblock printing art.

From there on, many different artists took up the theme and produced at least one series of Eight Views of Omi. However, the most prolific of all artists was Hiroshige, who made at least 20 different series over a number of years. The topic was popular until well into the 20th century, when the modern shin-hanga style of woodblock printing evolved from the old ukiyo-e. For example, Ito Shinsui produced a series of Eight Views of Omi as late as 1917. Note that there is also a series of images called The Eight Views of Lake Biwa, however, this refers to a modern version with some different locations created in 1949 by the government of Shiga Prefecture (the modern name of the area around Lake Biwa).

The Eight Views of Omi are usually called by the following titles:

  • Returning Sails at Yabase Yabase is a former harbour on the east side of Biwako. Situated near the Tokaido (the main road between Kyoto and Edo), people could use boats to go down to Otsu, thus speeding their journey. Yabase harbour was abandoned when the first railway between Tokyo and Kyoto was opened. (Harunobu, ca. 1760) 8 Views of Omi - Yabase
  • Evening Rain at Karasaki Karasaki is but a small cape reaching into the lake, with a single large pine tree. The enormous tree has been replaced a number of times, the current one was planted in the 20th century. (Ryuryukyo Shinsai, ca. 1820)8 Views of Omi - Karasaki
  • Evening Bell at Miidera Founded in the 8th century, Miidera temple is home to one of the three great bells of Japan, with a height of more than 3 metres. (Hiroshige, 1852)8 Views of Omi - Miidera
  • Wild Geese Returning Home at Katata Rather than geese, the recurring image is that of Ukimido Temple, which stands on piles in the lake and is accessible by a bridge. (Nishimura Shigenaga, ca. 1730)
    8 Views of Omi - Katata
  • Clear Breeze at Awazu Awazu is famous for its pine forest. On some old prints the castle of Zeze can still be seen, however, it was dismantled in the early Meiji period.8 Views of Omi - Awazu
  • Autumn Moon at Ishiyama Ishiyama Temple is located a bit south of Biwako and was built into a steep slope, somewhat reminiscent of Kyoto’s Kiyomizudera Temple (Ito Shinsui, 1917)
    8 Views of Omi - Ishiyama
  • Evening Glow at Seta These images usually show the great bridge crossing the Seta river, which was once part of the Tokaido. The modern bridge is made from concrete, but its original Chinese style has been kept. (Hiroshige,1835) 8 Views of Omi - Seta
  • Evening Snow at Hira Mount Hira on the west side of Biwako is the highest mountain of the chain and in winter is always tipped with snow. (Hokusai, 1802)
    8 Views of Omi - Hirayama

The Eight Views of Omi were very popular, and many artists have taken the concept and transplanted it to other regions of Japan in what the Japanese call mitate. For example, there are Eight Views of Kanazawa, Samani, near Edo… Many of those prints copied the underlying ideas of the original images, like “evening glow” or “clear breeze” and transported them to suitable other locations. Yet other artists have taken the theme a bit further and produced Eight Views that parody the original, for example the Eight Views of Beautiful Shields by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, showing samurai, or his Eight Views of Wise Women. Isoda Koryusai produced Eight Elegant Views of Fukugawa, depicting beautiful women. In 1927, a set of modern Eight Views were introduced, showcasing scenic landscapes from all over Japan.

Izumi Miyazaki

Izumi Miyazaki

copyright: Izumi Miyzaki

Izumi Miyazaki, born 1994 in Yamanashi Prefecture, is a Japanese photographer. Her works are colorful self portraits amongst every day items – all with a surreal twist.

Izumi Miyazaki

copyright: Izumi Miyazaki

She started with photography in a highschool photo club, and later went to Musashino Art University in Tokyo, graduating with a major in Imaging Arts in 2016. Already during her student days, she took surreal pictures and posted them online on Tumblr, where she was almost an instant hit. Her first solo show Cute & Cruel, was in Luxembourg 2016, her first solo show in Japan followed (stand-in, in Tokyo, 2016). She was also invited to participate in the group show Give Me Yesterday (Milan, 2016–17), and her work is one of 40 photographers featured in the book Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze by Charlotte Jansen.

Izumi Miyazaki

copyright: Izumi Miyazaki

As Izumi Miyazaki says in an interview with CNN Style, she never liked to be catalogued or categorized, and doesn’t mind to be on her own. Her work is carefully crafted and designed, but even though she is the only model in her photos, she feels as if that person were somebody else. Again, when asked for her style, she says that she doesn’t really have one, only tries to work inthe moment. However, she hopes that the viewers approach her photos with an open mind.

Izumi Miyazaki

copyright: Izumi Miyazaki

Links:
Many more of Izumi Miyazaki’s surreal photos can be found on her Tumblr page.
The full CNN interview mentioned above.
Get the book Girl on Girl from amazon.

Izumi Miyazaki

copyright: Izumi Miyazaki

Japanese Calligraphy

Although most Japanese nowadays write with ballpoint pens or, worse, type their thoughts into their smartphones with a single finger, traditional brush calligraphy is still held in high esteem. All kids in Japan learn calligraphy in elementary school where it is seen not only as a way to study proper hiragana/katakana and kanji themselves, on top of producing nice handwriting, but also as a means to teach patience and diligence and to build character. Many people in Japan believe that a fine piece of calligraphy always reveals the character of the writer.

The Gakkiron written by Empress Komyo (744).Like many other traditions in Japan, calligraphy or shodo – the way of writing – came to the country from China, where the first pictograms were invented around 2800 BCE. The Chinese script was introduced to Japan around 600 CE together with Buddhism, and the first application of calligraphy was the copying of Buddhist sutras in temples. Some 200 years later, in the Heian period, writing had been introduced to the court and its bureaucrats, and a distinctive Japanese style of calligraphy began to develop, culminating in the hiragana script.

hiragana calligraphyThe hiragana script was invented as a kind of shorthand for the kanji, but over time, many of the hiragana were dropped and the script turned into a syllabary. For a long time, hiragana were considered the women’s script – in fact, women were even expressly forbidden to study kanji – but eventually, hiragana became widely accepted, and their combination with kanji created the typical Japanese writing system known today.

calligraphy toolsShodo is a relatively cheap hobby to start. As a beginner, you need a brush, paper, paperweight, and ink. Many beginners start out with bottles of liquid ink, but the more serious students will not get around buying ink stick and stone to grind their own ink. Practice paper can be cheap newsprint, but more elaborate works that are meant for keeping do call for Japanese washi paper, and at that stage, a personal seal to sign – or rather: stamp – the piece will be necessary. Many calligraphers carve their own seals in special seal script characters, by the way.

8 strokes of eternity

8 strokes of “eternity” taken from www.japanvisitor.com

When learning to write kanji with a brush, the kanji for “eternity” is probably the best starting point, since its eight tenkaku strokes are all the different strokes that there are to master. Technically, that is. Students first start out with what is called kaisho or regular script, which has clear aesthetic rules – for example, each character should be as square-shaped as possible. Some of these rules go back to Wang Xizhi, a 4th century Chinese scholar whose calligraphy was seen as an aesthetic benchmark in both China and Japan for a long time. Kaisho most resembles the kanji printed in newspapers and books.

Calligraphy by Muso Soseki "no meaning"The next step for the learner is gyosho or semi-cursive script, which resembles handwriting and works with a number of simplifications and abbreviations, so to speak. The last step is sosho or cursive, where the easy flow of the brush is paramount. It is very individual, and closer to art than to legible writing. Many people cannot read texts written in sosho they are not familiar with.

Not only the way each stroke is written is important, also the order in which this is done. Some people insist that only kanji that were written in the correct stroke order possess aesthetic merit and are pleasing to the eye.

Since shodo is a rather cheap hobby, many people in Japan practise it. It is a form of applied art deeply connected with Japanese spirit and culture. As already elementary school children learn the basics, they can take part in the popular kakizome ceremony, where people of all ages write down their wishes for the New Year. This often takes place in temples or shrines, for example in Kyoto, Kitano Tenmangu is very popular for kakizome. The best pieces of calligraphy are exhibited afterwards and may even win a prize. Also connected to the New Year are the nengajo postcards. Although nowadays, many of them are simply printed out, especially older people still write and address them by hand, thus showing off their penmanship.

Calligraphy by Bankei Yotaku.Zen calligraphy is a special form of calligraphy practised by Buddhist monks in particular. Since black ink on white paper is rather unforgiving and shows every mistake and even hesitation, the idea is that there is but one chance to get it right on a  particular piece of paper. In order to produce good Zen calligraphy, the writer must completely clear his mind and let his body and subconscious do the work. This spiritual state of mind is called mushi, and hitsuzendo means “zen way of the brush”.

Flower by Nakajima Hiroyuki.

Flower by Nakajima Hiroyuki.

Finally, calligraphy also stands at the beginning of each tea ceremony: The guests are invited to look at a piece of calligraphy before the ceremony begins (also as a way to clear their minds) and often, there is also a calligraphy placed in the tokonoma alcove of the tea room.

Modern Japanese calligraphy was developed in the 1930s, when many new schools of calligraphy emerged that advocated creating a new, distinct style of Japanese calligraphy, rather than adhering to old, pre-Edo aesthetics. There are stunning modern pieces that are more reminiscent of paintings than of writing, and are definitely worth checking out.

If you want to know more, especially about calligraphy history, see this page on Japanese calligraphy.