There is a certain air of mea culpa about this for me….Lesley reminded me of her showing the work of Maio Motoko in Sydney a few years ago….in 2007 or 8 I believe, and that both Jackie Menzies and our then curator of Japanese art Khan Trinh loved them and quite rightly reckoned that the AGNSW should acquire a pair of screens. We didn’t; for the usual excuse that poses as a reason – lack of funds. And just to rub it in, I was looking at the pair of screens by Motoko that the Metropolitan Museum in NY bought, from Lesley (in 2013) – screens of uplifting presence with wonderful swirling and highly musical lines that drifted so purposely across the panels,appropriately titled Life’s Symphony.
It was in 1979, quite soon after I had arrived in Sydney to assume the role of director of the AGNSW that we established a proper curatorial department for Asian Art in Sydney…rather late in the day in my view. And even more mysteriously that department has now disappeared! As I understand it, consumed into what is called ‘international art’, which I suppose is some sort of deference to the notion that Asian art is now part of global art….now just a part of the great porridge of global art. I admit, it is to some extent, but of course it was not always thus, and I retain my rather traditional view that if one is to comprehend, understand, explore and explain the arts and cultures of Asia, then a fair degree of specialist knowledge is a minimum requirement.
And this raises the question about a contemporary artist like Maio Motoko in the world of contemporary art in the 21st century. What can we make of her art? Contemporary – yes; totally defined by her cultural heritage – yes; tenaciously loyal to that heritage – yes; and yet providing a cultural/visual/artistic experience that is not in the slightest constrained by time, place, culture by those commitments – yes again. And it is that universal sentiment about visual art that gives it such currency. It is something that has intrigued me. I think probably that the visual arts have greater general currency than other forms, forms such as literature, music, theatre. For example, the world will go to see the Mona Lisa, but only a select part of the world will go the Comedie Francaise or read Kafka; the world will go to see the dreaded entombed warriors of China’s First Emperor or King Tut’s mask, but a few only will go to listen to Stravinsky.
When I established our Asian department, I did have to deal with a Board of Trustees who, though interested and certainly believing in the initiative, were nonetheless not exactly familiar with the territory and were thus unable to convince themselves of the wisdom of the policy. We furthermore resolved upon a policy for those early years to focus on the arts of East Asia – China, Korea and Japan – and with an emphasis upon Japan. Japan was in our view not well represented in Australian art museums, echoing the relative absence of a substantive and embracing relationship with Japan. And of course we were hugely encouraged in that endeavour with the support of our friends Ken and Yasuko Myer who so wisely and generously diverted funds from Melbourne to Sydney in our quest to develop a serious collection of Japanese art.
But there was a bit of a journey in getting the Trustees firmly behind this policy; think back four or five decades and how was Japan viewed here in Australia: Go out into the street and mention Japan and most peoples’ instinctive response would be determined by thoughts of WW11, Sony, Toyota, of crammed full commuter trains and those daft roof top golf ranges.….certainly it would not be an image of the beauty and refinement and sheer eloquence of her material arts.
What I did was simple. I showed images of the arts of Japan. I showed an image of a particular pair of screens by Maruyama Okyo depicting a group of cranes, a pair of screens that was ultimately purchased by the Gallery with the support of various interests including of course Ken and Yasuko. You did not have to know about Japanese art to appreciate and to revel in the beauty of these screens; this was art as the great communicator, this was art speaking to people from different cultures, places, languages, times; even our ever interested but let’s face it somewhat uninformed Trustees of the time could look at these screens and see their universal beauty and appeal. The acknowledgement and appreciation of form, colour, composition is a human instinct that can work without knowledge. Those screens captured and stilled a fleeting moment; which is to my mind a special characteristic of the arts of Japan; so a moment or two about those special characteristics of the arts of Japan. What are they?
I think above all other considerations and conditions I would place the fundamental sensibility for material – for the peculiar and distinctive textures, hardness, softness, colours, tones and opportunities that each different material, from wood, stone, clay, metal, silk, paper etc, offers.
There is in the Japanese psyche an indelible instinct to see the beauty inherent in a material, and I see the opportunity of that beauty as one of the great and defining characteristics of the arts of Japan (even above the arts of other Asian cultures). This is one, and perhaps the most persuasive, reason why I consider the arts of Japan to be closest to nature.
When we look at the panorama of East Asian arts, we obviously see a lot of common ground, but those of China and its cultural client, Korea, hold persistent interpretative and subjective values which seem to me to be subtly different from the echoing ones of the arts of Japan. Right now there is the bamboo show at the NGV: whilst the individual works of articulated and much manipulated bamboo do have much in common with the exploitation of the opportunities of material that we see in the arts of China, there is a distinctive objectivity at work here. It is as though the Japanese artist is seeking to work as a very part of the natural world.
In spite of their manipulations and eccentricity, these objects seem to me to be very much a part of nature in a way that distinguishes them from the more intellectual and interpretative methods of the Chinese. There is a different aesthetic at work here, the subtle observation of the Japanese artist in contrast to the more evolutionary and interpretative aesthetic of the Chinese approach. The Japanese artist is seeking to emulate, to praise, to honour nature; China is seeking to come to terms with nature. That in a sense is an echo of the Daoist sentiment that flows through much of the art of China. And whilst Japan did absorb and adapt certain cultural and philosophic values and traditions from China, Daosim did not travel there.
The concentration of perfect workmanship in a simple object is an absolute in Japanese art and craft. It is an article of faith. However, simplicity cannot be successful unless it is supported by craftsmanship, whereas complexities can often obscure imperfections. This again is something that I think defines, or helps to define and distinguish, the Japanese achievement. These are perhaps arguable ruminations, but I merely to seek to try and identify what I see as a fundamental distinction between the spirit of artistic expression in Japan and the spirit of artistic expression in China.
I actually think space, and its implication – stillness which in turn implies silence – is one of the defining features of the arts of Japan. In the classic arts of Japan there is more than just a tendency to arrange objects in a highly positive, as opposed to random, way which explains the Japanese likeness for compactness….the skilful arrangement of elements in a confined space is a feature, as is the need for sparseness so that people can at least sense space even if it is in limited supply.
And the haiku poem is another perfect demonstration of this aesthetic. So too Zen painting and calligraphy. I have to say that two of the most enjoyable shows I did at the AGNSW were devoted to Zen… Sengai: the Zen Master (Idemitsu) 1985, and then in 2006 Zen Mind Zen Brush (Gitter collection). In this show there was one calligraphy – big stomping black characters – the main one being de 德 in Chinese and toku in Japanese, meaning virtue, by Hakuin and the little poem reads thus:
If you pile up money for your descendants
They will be sure to waste it
If you collect books for them
They will probably not read a word
It is better to pile up secret virtue
Such a legacy will last a long long time
Now, this may seem to have nothing to do with Maio’s work – I think it does – in the simple notion that there is that mysterious but tenacious thing called “virtue” implied in the work. It may be hard to define ‘virtue’ in a work of the visual arts, but I will attempt to give it a meaning. Above all I think it has to do with honesty, and in a way a lack of deception. One more easy way to define the condition of ‘virtue’ in the arts of Japan is without doubt that reverence and respect for materials. Lesley sent me some of Maio’s own comments about this and this is one that caught my attention, “I place ‘now’ on the ever- changing canvas of the screen, transforming the mundane everyday space into the exotic” there’s a bit of artifice in that process of course,but it is an open ideal.
One fundamental thing about Maio’s work is the focus on the screen, that folding and unfolding panorama which hides and reveals. Maio became fascinated with this very special Japanese device and explored its opportunities not just as an indelible component of the Japanese art tradition, but perhaps even more so as a means for exploring the nature of the Japanese psyche. This is what Maio actually wrote following one of her shows about the screen, her signature work, the 13-fold screen:
“I was greatly encouraged and overwhelmed with the artistic and creative possibilities of the form of the Japanese screen. Constructed on the flat horizontal it can become three dimensional, and that shape too can be changed at will. It is a form that plays with the yin and the yang opposites of solid and fluid, flat and cubic, shadow and light. Truly it is like a supernatural form, one that has immeasurable and universal appeal. And there is surely nothing else which so aptly expresses the unique characteristics of Japanese culture.”
Now one could be forgiven for saying well, that is all a bit over the top- this almost spiritual eulogising of the humble, or not so humble after all, folding screen, but I can see the artist’s feelings here – sense of the screen being a metaphor for a culture and at the same time a kind of metaphor for a life – the folding and unfolding, the revelation and the retreat, the opening and the closing, the process and then the stillness.
In a short clip from a film, I saw the artist making another suite of screens, one that stretched out a bit like a lifetime, for around 30 metres (contemporary art does get big and unwieldy does it not), and she was using all manner of old bits of cloth, from kimono and obi etc, and she said that when one colour runs out she moves on to the next. This struck me again as one of those little truisms – that moments and circumstances pass and we must move on. There is in her work that balance between the contradiction of change and evolution, and the stilled moment. Her work is like evolution stilled, stilled for our enjoyment and contemplation and embrace. There is an austere exuberance to her work, and that contradictory thought is I reckon a true reflection of the Japanese aesthetic, which is surprisingly, in this well-connected world, still unique and instantly recognisable. The studied asymmetry of life is forever beautifully expressed in the great art traditions of Japan.