Although most people are familiar with Japanese haiku, the short-form poetry with its 5-7-5 syllable pattern, perhaps less known outside Japan is the traditional jisei, or death poem, written just before one’s passing as a kind of farewell.
A jisei can be either dark or hopeful, depending on the writer’s mood in these final moments, but traditionally, given its roots in Zen Buddhism, there is an element of acceptance, often enabled by acknowledging nature’s transcendent beauty. Here’s one example, by 18th century poet Seiju:
nokoru mono nashi
kigi no iro
Not even for a moment
Do things stand still—witness
Color in the trees
Another, by the early 19th century poet Senryu:
Hasu no ha no
tsuyu to kieyuku
On a lotus leaf
This isn’t a story about poetry. Yet given the title of Kanagawa-based artist Kenji Ide’s exhibit continuing through Feb. 19 at the Portland Japanese Garden’s Calvin and Mayho Tanabe Gallery, A Poem of Perception, featuring a series of small-scale sculptures that invite interpretation—coupled with the unexpected passing late last year of the show’s guest curator, Matt Jay—viewing these tiny sculptures makes for a kind of visual jisei-like experience.
The exhibit’s two principal wood sculptures at first glance look like evocations of Japanese gardens themselves, with thin, flat perpendicularly-placed pieces carved with simple geometric patterns, and a few tiny balls sitting atop the horizontal pieces, calling to mind the Zen garden that’s part of Portland’s and most all Japanese gardens. One of the sculptures includes on its vertical portion a pair of tiny stamp-sized pieces hanging from it by wire, which immediately brought to mind my visit nearly 20 years ago to the Jishu Jinja shrine in Kyoto, one of many in the country where visitors write their wishes, presumed to be delivered to the gods, on small ema plaques left to hang at the shrine.
Even so, it might be a mistake to ascribe direct representational meaning to the artworks in “A Poem of Perception,” especially its tiniest components, such as a curled piece of wire or different wood carvings, which could be said to resemble shrunken lamp posts or catapults or Scrabble letters. Perhaps the giveaway comes from the show’s title itself. Each of these works can conjure other things, yet it’s the delicacy of their placement and proportions, and their collective assemblage, that gives the work its immediacy.
A Poem of Perception is the modest accompaniment to the Japanese Garden’s larger feature exhibit, Garden of Resonance: The Art of Jun Kaneko (reviewed by ArtsWatch’s Frederike Heuer last October), featuring this world-renowned Japanese-American artist whose works are already part of permanent collections at major institutions like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Smithsonian. Here, Kaneko’s works have been located throughout the Japanese Garden grounds as well as its galleries. And they’re hard to miss, be it the stunning Bullseye Wall, a grid of glazed ceramic panels made in 2001 and featured prominently in the Kengo Kuma-designed Cultural Crossing building, or an untitled pair of striped, anatomic, glazed-ceramic 2002 sculptures from his “Heads” series, placed in the courtyard facing each other like interviewer and subject.
In the shadow cast by Kaneko’s large-scale, shiny, labored-over ceramic pieces, Kenji Ide’s artworks seem particularly diminutive, taking up one display case with seemingly plenty of room to spare. The pieces, which were created (unlike Kaneko’s works) specifically for this exhibit, were made from found objects, be it scraps of wood and wire, or a series of vintage postcards. Moving from Kaneko’s works to Ide’s feels almost like moving past a large-scale, warehouse-filling Richard Serra steel sculpture to view a vintage doll house in a smaller adjacent room. Yet that’s part of what makes “A Poem of Perception” so powerful. With apologies to a master like Kaneko, Ide wins on delicacy and subtlety.
When I last communicated with Matt Jay, he was excited not just about the Kenji Ide show but the future it represented, given how the Portland Japanese Garden is expanding to a whole new location, the former Salvation Army White Shield campus (about 3.6 miles away in Northwest Portland beside Forest Park), as part of its burgeoning Japan Institute, with expanded educational and cultural offerings.
“Ide is a young artist at the forefront of Tokyo’s innovative art scene, and for this exhibition he has created a series of beautifully poetic sculptures and installations.,” Jay wrote in an October 2022 email. This “Poem of Perception” show, he added, “is a bit of a teaser I feel, for the more in-depth contemporary art programming and commitment to art that Japan Institute will take on. I have been in talks to contribute where I can to the new organization as well, so I’m very much looking forward to that.”
Over the past few years, Matt Jay had come into his own as a curator, founding the End of Summer program that each August brought a handful of young Japanese contemporary artists to Portland. End of Summer was unique compared to most artist residencies in that the artists were not pressured to make and exhibit art so much as to recharge and find inspiration, in Oregon’s natural wonders and in Portland. That the Japanese Garden is beginning to embrace a new generation of Japanese artists has to be considered an End of Summer biproduct.
Even before his curatorial work gained notice, Matt Jay was a natural curator, with a keen eye yet also a modest presence: not one to let his ego get in the way. “Graceful and catlike – no fanfare or flourish — but quiet and unassuming,” wrote Jay’s friend Matt Edlen in an online tribute. “You notice Matt constantly observing — be it through a lens or crouched on the arm of the couch — through his stillness his eye was fixed on the world around him. He absorbed it all. He listened first before he spoke. Words mattered to him. When he spoke it was with intention.”
For “A Poem of Perception,” Jay didn’t just act as curator, but also as Ide’s in-person eyes and ears. Because Ide didn’t travel to Portland for the exhibit, Jay placed these objects in the display cases. And for an exhibit like this, placement was essential.
“He was very talented and was able to understand and capture the subtle and abstract,” Ide wrote of Jay in a December 1 Instagram post, just after Jay’s passing. “Everything he did in our Portland exhibit was flawless and precise. He took my vague thoughts and had a rich dialogue with me to bring them to life. And my ambiguous thoughts took shape through the dialogue with him. One of the pieces, “Would you take a night walk” was taken from the song ‘Would you take a night walk’ by Kiyoshiro Imawano. When I told Matt that I was embarrassed by the romanticism of the title, he said that he could understand it because he is a romantic himself.”
“A Poem of Perception” invites us to stop and ponder not just nature’s wonders, but the inherent lyricism in our everyday objects, even (or perhaps especially) that which we might discard. Ide’s show, like the genius of Japanese garden design, is a call to be vitally present: to recognize that life and our everyday realities are always more fleeting and ephemeral than we expect, yet all the more wondrously compelling as a result.
The act of viewing Ide’s artworks while mourning Matt Jay reminds me of something that legendary Japanese architect Arata Isozaki (who also passed away late last year) said about how different cultures perceive time. In the west, Isozaki explained, we see time as linear, which can be seen in the reverence we give to ancient ruins like The Acropolis in Athens. In the east, however, societies see time as circular, evidenced by Japan’s Ise Grand Shrine, which is ritually rebuilt every 20 years.
“A Poem of Perception” was fully formed and plenty meaningful on its own, before tragedy struck. Now, unwittingly imbued with grim circumstance, Ide’s work shows it is malleable in how we see it, for while the exhibit only runs through February 20, its memory and that of its curator is one I will continually return to: a means of coming full-circle. “A Poem of Perception” is, to those that don’t know the backstory, is a fun act of assemblage. Yet it has also become an invocation, a visual jisei, even: a delightful if tearful farewell.