Mountain Passages: Art and Order in Japan

In his ongoing posts form the Land of the Rising Sun, Alan Stark

 

There are magical places all over this blue planet—then there is Japan.

As North Americans, and particularly as mountain people, we tend to thrive on chaos. Maybe it’s our weather that makes us a little nuts, or the mountain terrain or that dream that drove us to the mountains in the first place, but here in Japan it is all about order. Almost everywhere you turn there are examples of purposeful order, from the way Japanese interact with foreigners, to way food is served, to the gardens and architecture. And even in the large tacky cities where you would expect chaos, there is always order and often pockets of beauty.

People speak of the Japanese aesthetic. Millions of words have been written about this aesthetic. My words will add nothing to the definition. Save to say that if you watch a Japanese prune a tree you will see him use a small pair of clippers with which he will take off single pine needles at a time to attain the shape and texture that suits his aesthetic—or better yet, the Japanese aesthetic. North Americans use chain saws for tree pruning.

FullSizeRender-2Order is curious word that it can mean thirty other things including a command or a definable structure of things. Order in Japan seems to be an accepted mandate among a homogenous society just as a definable organization of things is an agreed upon aspect of Japanese life. I might have just gone off into a philosophical swamp here so let me give another example.  To my eye, the rows of raised beds in my Boulder garden represent order in spite of the fact that toward the end of the summer the tomatillos, tomatoes, and zucchini’s are a jumble of vines and leaves. I suspect that a Japanese would never let that happen, that under Japanese stewardship my garden would be neat and orderly throughout the season, not just in winter and spring when the ground is bare or when the seeds are just starting to come up in neat rows.

The large cities I’ve seen are perfectly in tune with North American chaos. Superficially, they appear to be totally unorganized as if the zoning department had been closed down early in the twentieth century. But if you look closely in the jumble of buildings you can find both order and small spots of beauty such as an open courtyard of stylized pine trees or well-tended plantings along the median of a street.

And the architecture? The inventiveness of Japanese architecture is something to see and marvel at. I just saw a building obviously modeled after the Taos Pueblo only much taller and larger. I note the architecture because of the building being done now in Boulder by architects who seemed to have been trained someplace in East Germany by blind people before the wall came down. This trip isn’t very much about cities except for Kyoto that will come at the end of these reports, but now on to some small, out-of-the-way places worth seeing in Japan.

We are on the Island of Naoshima in the Inland Sea that is essentially a contemporary art center, that is if you can call “contemporary art” ART.

Let’s not get me into a definition of art that will embarrass or possibly enrage some, or all of us. I’m probably among a minority who see contemporary art as a bit of a cosmic joke on those who build word piles of art obfuscating prose in appreciation of a stack of sticks in the corner of an expensive art space.

Here on Naoshima, take for example some of the work of Lee Ufan that involves large rocks and plates of steel arranged in a concrete bunker-like building. The building by Tadao Ando shows a great deal of imagination not to speak of ingenuity, superb design, and engineering with all sorts of curious angles and odd shaped rooms. Ufan’s rocks and steel plates, not so much.

At another bunker, James Turrell messes with our sense of perception but, to be honest, the installations felt like an elegant physiological psychology experiment. One room has semi-sloped walls leading to large square hole in the ceiling. That evening we came back to the room just before sunset and sat there watching the hole in the ceiling as light banks in the wall changed our perception of the color of the sky in the square hole.

“So what you guys do for cocktail hour yesterday.”

“We sat silently in a concrete room contemplating a hole in the ceiling.”

“And then what happened.”

“The walls and sky changed color.”

“And?”

“Please don’t tell the boys and girls at Nederland Fire that I was staring at a hole in the ceiling for 45 minutes.”

The Teshima Art Museum on the island of the same name is memorable. This huge, flat, water-drop-like structureIMG_1102 of white concrete covers a football field-sized area. The structure, with two large ports for light, is a stunning piece of work unto itself. And then I noticed droplets of water bubbling up from the floor that randomly formed larger droplets that either snaked across the floor or became pools of water. The droplets and drops seemed to randomly move across the polished concrete floor. The effect was calming, contemplative, possibly transformative, but certainly magical.

“So what did you think?”

My friend Linda looked at me quizzically for a second.

“I was relieved,” she said, “The randomness of it all reminded me that all was not lost in the last election.”

Maybe contemporary art is at the crossroads of chaos and order.

Nah.

We are due to for some travel tomorrow and will visit the sculpture studio of Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese-American—more a citizen of the world. Then on to what may be tourist trap called Shikoku Mura where 19th century Japanese houses have been relocated and end with a walk through a formal garden in Takamatsu on the northern coast of Shikoku Island.

Alan Stark is traveling Japan with this Blue Eyed person. He will be sending irregular dispatches for the next several weeks.

One thought on “Mountain Passages: Art and Order in Japan”

  1. Contemporary art would not be my FIRST thought when imagining what Japan is like. But it has its own kind of rigor there, doesn’t it? None of that Jackson Pollack slop. Rigor and discipline everywhere, as you have noted.

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