STORY and PHOTOGRAPHS by FRIDERIKE HEUER
mo sakeru ya hon no hana no haru
Shinchu- to miru yamabuki no iro
The golden flowers
have also bloomed!
The true flowers of spring.
They look like brass,
The color of the gold coins.
— Sequence from: Crimson Plum Thousand Verses (Ko-bai senku, 1653)
At the exit of Portland Japanese Garden stands a sign that I am all too happy to comply with, over and over again:
This time there was a twofold incentive to return. For one, the rains had finally set in, and my hopes for a garden washed clean from the drought’s dust were met. Light reflected from water drops, pond surfaces, and glossy leaf and needle trees.
Green, embedded in fall colors of higher wavelengths, gleamed as saturated as one could wish for.
The second reason for my return visit was the opening of the exhibition Takahiro Iwasaki: Nature of Perception, featuring work of this season’s artist-in-residence at the garden, a stay made possible by the Japan Institute’s Global Center for Culture and Arts.
Takahiro Iwasaki was born and lives in Hiroshima. He received his Ph.D. from Hiroshima City University in 2003 and a Master of Fine Arts from the Edinburgh College of Art in 2005. Many of his installations can be subsumed into two large bodies of work, Reflection Model and Out of Disorder. The work has increasingly found international audiences and collectors, including well-received exhibitions at NGV (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia) in 2015, and as representative of Japan in the Japan Pavilion at the Venice Biennial 2017, Venice, Italy (2017).
The newest Reflection Model is presented at our own Pavilion in the garden, and an installation that fits the second category is on view at the Calvin and Mayho Tanabe Gallery, with a title that invites us to see things anew. Let me describe them in turn.
Iwasaki’s early reflection models were scaled-down versions of some of the most famous architecture in Japan, seven Shinto shrines. The breathtakingly detailed and accurate representations of these architectural marvels are handmade of wood, some as large as 8 x 8 meters (26.2 x 26.2 feet). They are suspended from the ceiling, and have a 3-D mirror inversion that simulates reflection in water, as many of the actual shrines are located near bodies of water that reflects or even immerses them with the tide. For many of the larger structures, individual parts nestle into each other with slot and tenon joints that avoid complete rigidity, allowing strength through flexibility, as do so many of the building techniques in a nation prone to earthquakes. The wood is untreated cypress that will eventually fade to silver. (I photographed the model first at 8 a.m., when we had not quite figured out where the lights were in the Pavilion. The images have a grey tone that probably comes closer to faded cypress than those taken when my friendly host found the switch.)
The model on view is a re-creation of the Rashomon Gate, at the entrance to the city of Kyoto, that played a central role in Akira Kurosawa‘s 1950 film Rashomon. Kurasawa himself had the gate fashioned as a set piece from historical drawings and literary descriptions. Iwasaki, in turn, looked at images from the movie and recreated the design to scale, with every piece cut by hand, with the sole exception of the the sign that spells the name of the gate. The sign Rashomon (羅生門) was manufactured by a laser cutter and is also depicted as a mirror reflection of each kanji character.
My first reaction was incredulity that someone could make a detailed model of this size by hand: it must take the patience of a saint, the visual acuity of an eagle, and the steady hands of a brain surgeon. Never mind the vision of drawing the plans. Nothing but respect for the craftsmanship.
My second thought was focused on the word reflection. In English it has, of course, at least two meanings: the mirroring of a visual object in a reflective surface, and the contemplation of an idea, or some careful consideration or meditation. The suggested mirroring via the inverse doubling of this sculpture puts us in a perceptual quandary: Reflection in real life is visually associated with the slightest distortion, the shimmer of a mirrored surface, the undulations of water moved by a breeze. Here, static solidity rules, and that sense of an object with its inverse twin frozen in time and space is completely at odds with the seeming lack of gravity. That structure is floating in the air, yet unmoving, the doubling so unnatural that you start distrusting your eyes. The nature of perception: It can be fooled.
Reflection on all that this sculpture invokes beyond perception provides further challenges. The flyer and other signage that is provided to the visitor stresses the art’s connection to the concept of mono no aware (もののあはれ), defined as the understanding of the ephemeral nature of things. For Iwasaki’s earlier shrine sculptures the historical impact of war and nuclear destruction was obvious. For the current installation, the dilapidated nature of the gate points in that direction, as well as the background information that it was reconstructed from images in the film, with the set piece itself no longer existing. One step further into the past, we know that the actual historical gate into Kyoto has long been destroyed.
The reverence for and connectedness to history clearly informs the choice of subject for both artists, Kurosawa and later Iwasaki, almost defiantly reconstituting a dissolute architectural object back into existence. Yet both gates remind us in their dilapidated states of the ravages of weather, time and human impact. (In the film you see early on how someone breaks apart the wood of the slatted walls to build a fire.)
Mono no aware, I learned, can also be translated differently: It can be a feeling of emptiness, or, literally, the pathos of things; or, in literature and film, it is often associated with “a lack of resolution.” In other words, a story without a clear-cut ending.
That brings us to Rashomon, the film, which has become a cultural icon signifying the lack of resolution to a mystery, because one single truth cannot be discerned among many truths that are voiced. Let me pause here for a moment and introduce the warning given by Portland Japanese Garden in multiple instances.
Portland Japanese Garden cautions potential viewers of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon to be cognizant of the gender inequities and dismissive portrayal of the nameless samurai’s wife. Part of Rashomon’s lasting influence is in how it perpetuates stereotypes about women, and discredits female voices, experiences, and testimonies while upholding the “conventional wisdom” of conservative patriarchal society. Alongside its cultural impact and cinematographic beauty, the film has been described as “unsettling” and “disturbing.” Takahiro Iwasaki, our featured artist, used the image of rashomon purely as a lasting cultural metaphor and did not intend his work to be a validation of the specific content of Kurosawa’s film.
I appreciate the sensitivity to issues that might concern or upset viewers. But if you give a veiled trigger warning it should not be cloaked in generalities. The film’s central action is the killing of a man who witnessed the rape of his wife. In subsequent court proceedings eyewitnesses to the crime(s) are heard, and they tell completely different versions of how things unfolded. These versions are cinematically provided by flashbacks that play the scenario out in different ways, depending on the perspective of those involved: the accused perpetrator who accosted the woman and perhaps murdered the husband, the wife who might or might not have fought valiantly enough against the rapist and who might have killed her husband after he scorned and rejected her for being defiled, and the dead man himself, through a medium, who might have committed suicide to spare his wife shame or because he could not bear his own, due to the stipulated accusation that she gave in to seduction. Another layer of potential misinformation is added by the fact that the court proceedings are related to a bystander by two people who had tangential or not so tangential involvement with the main narrative.
It is important to know these facts, because they concern the significance of Iwasaki’s choice of subject to be created, the gate. For this viewer, at least, he links questions that were enacted in eleventh century Japan and asked by a filmmaker in the 20th century to a historical point in time, now the 21st century, where the Me Too debate has reached a feverish pitch and created a significant backlash. Who is to be trusted as an eyewitness where accusations and denials are offered not just dependent on perceptions, but on motivated shaping of truths to achieve or escape justice? The lineage of artists who wonder if there can ever be a discernment of truth, or if we need to stress the fact that illusion can be created (just as he creates the perceptual illusion of a mirror effect) now includes Iwasaki.
The point is not that there are no truths — there are. However, they can be obscured by external manipulations of reality, including societies’ misogynistic value systems that often disbelieve, ridicule, or even blame female victims, or overrule female witnesses or try to dial back the clock, depriving women of rights that they and their allies fiercely fought for. (As an aside: I read Kurosawa’s narrative as a potential acknowledgment of frequently abused women’s fury that can no longer be contained, since he allows her to voice several truths. The preponderance of evidence speaks to the likely resolution that the wife killed her husband with a dagger when he calls her a whore for having been defiled against her will.)
All of this is additionally connected to a second Japanese concept, mitate (見立て), to see things with fresh eyes, but which can also mean a radical re-contextualization of things that link the past to the present. This approach is exemplified in the other two small installations in the Pavilion. Iwasaki made miniature cranes out of threads pulled from discarded materials, fortified with glue, and stuck them into books related to Kurosawa’s art. It is as if they are lifting the filmmaker and his work out of the (not-so-distant) past into the present, reigniting or continuing a debate about the dangers of relativism, and the importance of skepticism. These miniatures are displayed in acrylic containers, like artful keepsakes that recall traditional Japanese netsuke, and lit in a fashion that multiplies their reflections. This doubling and quadrupling echoes, of course, the Rashomon theme of various perspectives.
Mitate as a concept of double vision, the past and the present, plays a major role in Japanese textural transpositions as well, often transposing old poetry celebrating high culture into something modern that is more plebeian, occasionally even amounting to parody. Sometimes these additions to verses of old happen hundreds of years later, with the referent not even contained in the new poetry: It’s assumed it is known to people. (Ref.)
This re-categorization is achieved by means of a visual symbol that turns the old meaning on its head. The verses I cited at the introduction are the perfect example for visual transposition.
The golden flowers
have also bloomed!
The true flowers of spring.
They look like brass,
The color of the gold coins.
I liked the idea of a beautiful flower, symbol of high culture, connecting us to all things Japanese garden, being subsequently turned into an image of quotidian mercantilism. Written, no less, 20 years before the Dutch tulip mania collapsed in 1673, leaving scores ruined from speculation with beautiful flowers. …
I bring this up because you only get the puns or re-contextualizations if you are familiar with the poets or visual artists of old. You have to be able to move in a cultural framework that requires familiarity with the cues, the connections; be part of a shared body of knowledge. (In Western art I can think of the interpretation of all the cues dropped throughout Renaissance paintings, for example, that allowed the educated viewer to derive meaning.) Knowledge of Rashomon the film, then, matters a great deal for the full appreciation of the art displayed in the Pavilion.
The installation displayed in acrylic casing in the Tanabe Gallery simply invites us to see things anew. No higher order of cultural knowledge required. It shows a miniature world of Portland’s bridges and other landmarks fashioned out of glue-stiffened threads pulled from the donated or found cloth that also provides the geological strata underneath. The use of discarded objects and household items to fashion industrial or other landscapes is nothing new in Iwasaki’s body of work; here it is geared toward familiarity with our city and likely generates the positive affect that recognition provides. The choice of cloth reveals no discernible pattern, and the display of the logo for Trader Joe’s, a chain of stores now owned by a German company, remains a mystery.
The current panorama above, and one from 2015 below, are from the Asia Society’s annual “In Focus” series, which was a series of collaborations between contemporary artists and pieces from the Rockefeller Foundation’s collection.
Looking at the miniature bridges certainly elicited pride of place as well as some idiosyncratic associations in my case.
The themes of ordinary objects viewed from a different perspective or scale, and of recycling and reusing discarded materials all matter, and can be used for educating us about perception. In fact, Portland Japanese Garden published a superb curriculum for Grades 6-8 to do just this, linking insights from the artist’s approach back to themes crucial to the garden. It allows a conversation about aspects of Zen philosophy and the possibility of recreating something big with something small, designing landscapes with miniatures, like bonsai trees, or gravel configurations resembling rivers. The artist’s early focus on Manga drawings in the context of new world visions likely informs what we are seeing here as well. This reminds me of a recent Art in the Garden exhibition of The History of Manga and the remarkable collection of materials related to senjafuda, held by the Special Collections and University Archives of the University of Oregon Libraries and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. There is digital access to many of these miniature works of arts.
Yet Iwasaki’s Out of Disorder (Thread through Time) 2023 is lacking the truly new conceptualization that evolved in the artist’s Reflection Model work, turning from shrines to an architectural site that has taken on extreme contemporary cultural significance, namely the Rashomon effect: the relativity of truth and unreliability of memory, with often contradictory reports suggesting biased encoding or motivated forgetting or simply lies in divergent witness accounts.
There is much innovative work going on in the miniature domain, from work linking artists past and present by Joe Fig, for example, who recreates artists’ studios in miniature detail,
to Simon Laveuve‘s apocalyptic visions of dwelling in inhospitable places,
to Thomas Doyle‘s Distillation Series about man-made and natural disasters.
It would be great to see Iwasaki’s creativity in ways we have not yet encountered. His invitation to see things with fresh eyes, however, remains inspirational. As I walked through the rain-splattered garden on my way back from the exhibition, my gaze was drawn to familiar constellations now altered by water. The bench at the Sand and Stone Garden looked almost like a rectangular puddle, the stairways ever closer to resembling a tumbling brook.
The Flat Garden pebbles glistened, raked into rice paddy patterns, and the arranged chairs for the moon viewing called for rain paints.
Contrasting trunk and foliage of the maples reminded of the transition from light to darker times,
and the raindrops put new patterns on bamboo and slate alike.
Fall has arrived. Just like the art on display, it brings new beauty to the garden, allowing for fresh perspectives.
This essay was originally published on YDP – Your Daily Picture on October 2, 2023.