Out of the Blue : Tamonten Tells his Story

Bon Voyage (NY) 2017 (Edition 2/3) Tomokazu Matsuyama
Dupont Renshape, Polyurethane Paint and Gold Foil
Artwork : 120 x 60 x 60 cm    Base: 81.25 x 83.75 x 51.25 cm

Imagine how I felt to be shoved in the corner of an antique shop in downtown Manhattan.

Once upon a time I lived in India, a Hindu deity, manifestation of Kubera, God of Wealth, elevated to such by Brahma who granted me great riches and immortality after I practised austerity for over 1000 years. As God of Wealth I guarded all the treasures of the earth.

Over time, I, and the teachings of Buddhism, found their way to China and from China to Japan. My story is long and varied, too long for this chapter, so you will have to accept what I say. I am worshipped in many manifestations and have many interpretations, often as an icon akin to the worship of the Greek gods. I am Commander of the Yaksha, fierce guardians of nature and its treasures and of Buddhist teaching; Commander of the Rasetsu, fierce guardians who feast on the flesh of the evil dead; and Commander of the Kinnara, heavenly musicians. I am guardian and patron of warriors and worshipped in Japan as Bishamonten, leader of the Four Heavenly Deva, King of the North, Winter, Earth and Wealth. The stupa in my left hand is full of treasure and can grant great wealth to the righteous and worthy. The spear in my right hand wards distraction and contamination. My messenger is a humble, but very special centipede, able to sniff out gold mines. As the manifestation Tobatsu Bishamon, I protect capitals and repel foreigners. (This is a sore point that you will appreciate as you follow my story.)

You will understand that I am important and wield power.

Imagine then how I felt to be shoved in the corner of an antique shop in downtown Manhattan.

It all happened out of the blue and is the most ignominious part of my illustrious biography. It was 1857 and those black ships arrived in Japan. I am manifested most often in black so was unperturbed by this foreign incursion. But then, out of the blue, the Shogunate gave in to the foreigners, and I was powerless to intervene. Buddhism was forbidden, temples, sutras were destroyed, and I lost many of my kin manifestations; some were rescued by illustrious foreign art historians. I, a relatively small manifestation, was thrown aboard a foreign vessel, a quirky souvenir for one of the ‘foreign devils’. This one looked after me for a while. Although the surroundings of my new secular environment were exotic and certainly not conducive to the worship to which I was accustomed, they paid me tribute as an alluring symbol of the Curious Orient. This was the late 19th century, and as the craze for Japonisme waned, I became an obsolete reminder of adventures and times past.

And that is how, eventually, I ended up being shoved in the corner of an antique shop in downtown Manhattan.

Until my resurrection and reincarnation by that young man, of Japanese origin, known in this time and life cycle, as Tomokazu Matsuyama. Out of the blue, my trajectory altered once again.  I think I was an object of curiosity for this de-japonized young man. He certainly is no student of Buddhism. But he saw beyond my small stature, beyond the dirt and the alien surroundings and took me home. ‘Home’ is an artist’s studio, and he is a pioneer I think. He is certainly unlike any of the artisans who put chisel to wood in any of my previous incarnations and manifestations. A child of his times, yet unconsciously continuing tradition, he clones me in strange materials, an ingenious mix of current technology and artisanal craftsmanship; gives stature to my physical limitation, and rebirths me with strange names unrelated to my essence yet strangely aligned to my nature and origins.

See, here I am in blue! My first clone is black, and is in an art ‘temple’ known as the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, its peers all ‘made in the USA’. I am usually black, but in keeping with my association with wealth, was sometimes yellow in Japan; but blue, this is a first. Unwittingly, he has captured the unexpected, out of the blue, spirit of my biography, certainly a long ‘Bon Voyage’. The spear in my blue manifestation is gold, and my now friend ‘Matzu’ has used gold foil to enhance my appearance, I guess, but also an unwitting acknowledgement of who I am and my associations with wealth.

From a given vocation of repelling foreign invaders, I now find myself amongst them. Yet in a curious turn of Fate, this land America that took me in, then threw me out, is going through a similar trajectory. A land of wealth and prosperity built on the backs and dreams of its travellers from abroad like me, in many ways worshipping icons of wealth, finds itself building walls and creating laws to keep them out, throw them out. I find myself confused as to my role now. Am I, in the 21st century, to revitalize my role as protector from foreign invaders, the one I failed at in the past, or is my ‘bon voyage’ pulling me in an opposite direction?