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    Photogravure etchings at http://kamprint.com/ & http://kamprint.com/xpress/

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Peshawar

One day in 1998 with friends in Washington DC, a call came in. ‘Would you like to go on a Silk Road trip’, to Pakistan, Hunza, Gilgit, Xinjiang China, Kyrgyzstan, Almaty Kazakhstan? It took me about two seconds to decide yes. Ten of us — seven Americans, one each Canadian, Filipina, and French — met up in Pakistan for the journey northward. Islamabad with its vast avenues of Saudi-financed buildings was government territory. Neighboring Rawalpindi with its incredibly lively street life was its market-appendage. Amid the rubble-strewn sidewalks and buildings leaning at odd angles, the hustle and bustle of daily life radiated irrepressible energy. To experience this enthusiasm is to understand the overwhelmingly young demographics of Pakistan.

We stopped in Mingaora, a village on our way north. There I noticed an old man sitting on a pile of bricks. He seemed to be passing the time of day, thinking. In fact, he was guarding the bricks. In a country where cow dung is rationed for use either as fertilizer or construction material, bricks are a scarce resource valuable enough to steal if no one is looking. Somewhere in the back-country around there, a goat-herd played the flute. Our guide explained after the serenade that this was a payable event, which we didn’t mind much, the music was lovely.

mingaora

Mingaora

The gateway to the Swat Valley was marked with vast jacaranda trees filling the sky, flowering with a luxuriant perfume that could have inspired the Shangri-la of Asian mystique. The fertile and prosperous valley teemed with the life of a people peacefully tilling the fields and living in harmony with the world around them.

In the more arid foothills approaching Peshawar, we noticed a long line of trekkers on a far-off rocky trail. They were so far away they looked like a procession of ants. Binoculars revealed them to be people carrying refrigerators, ovens, and electronic goods strapped to their backs. These goods had been smuggled into the port of Karachi and were carried by human mules for sale in the remote back-country. Though electricity was scarce there, one road had power lines that stopped abruptly at a huge compound. Alone in the dry rocky landscape stood this oasis of greenery and electricity. It was, we learned, the home of the ‘King of the Smugglers’, the employer of the trekkers we had seen earlier. The wealth of the country belonged to him and to people like him who controlled whatever commerce was allowed to exist.

Peshawar, near the legendary Khyber Pass, was defended in ancient times as it is now by fierce tribes anxious to keep intruders out of their sovereign territory. No invader, from Alexander the Great to the British and Russian players in the 19th-century ‘Great Game’ to the latter-day Americans, has ever been able to impose its rule on this region. In cities and villages like Peshawar, I walk around early, right after sunup, to watch vendors setting up their street-stands, children going to school, office workers, teachers, women shopping. There were no other tourists besides me. The unmistakable look on everyone’s face wordlessly expressed: ‘Why are you here?’ It was not an unfriendly inquiry, merely one of curiousity, similar to my own curiosity. I found that if I stayed still for ten minutes, I blended into the background and could frame some spontaneous scenes in the camera without being noticed.

tea

Tea stand, Peshawar

For some, the question ‘Why would you want to come to this hellhole?’ appeared in the form of incredulous stares. Did my presence mock their aspiration to get the hell out of there? A few took the opportunity to practice the English they had learned at school, leading to lively and mutually interested conversations. Our entire group was invited to an Afghan wedding, a warm celebration that extended well into the night. The couple and their families and friends were among the three million Afghan refugees living in and around Peshawar.

An expedition to the Afghan border above Jalalabad took us to a town populated, so far as was visible on the street, entirely by Kalashnikov-carrying teen-age boys. Women were not to be seen anywhere except a very few in the dark interiors of shops. Even in the 40 (C)-degree heat, they wore head-to-toe black robes, which must have been stiflingly hot. In several shops open for business, you could buy a Kalashnikov for about $14.

The mountain roads zigzagged across numerous stream beds toward Hunza. The roads and bridges had all been built by the Chinese. These transportation routes would be of use to both the Chinese and Pakistani armies in case of military conflict with India. The Chinese, as is their custom, had placed lion-sculptures for good luck at both ends of the bridges. Local people had systematically lopped off all the lion-faces, as graphic depiction of animals or humans was incompatible with their beliefs. With such fervent beliefs, why didn’t they build their own bridges? They could have chosen motifs from their own rich graphic tradition more to their liking.

Hunza was a lovely mountain outpost with terraced rice-fields, views of mountains in every direction, and rough-hewn architecture of a style with echoes of Tibet and Mongolia. The surrounding area was a hotbed of 19th-century ‘Great Game’ intrigue as local tribes played the British, Russians, and Chinese off against each other to maintain their own jealously guarded control. Feats of incredible fortitude were played out in these unexplored and practically impenetrable mountains. I was determined to come back and explore further.

hunza

Hunza Terraces

Our entry into China was guarded by young soldiers recruited from far-off coastal regions to enhance the Han-Chinese presence in Xinjiang, with its 20 million Uighurs. Noting the variety of nationalities in our group, the passport-control officer asked suspiciously ‘Why are you traveling together?’ This was so totally outside his limited experience that the question seemed perfectly natural to him. None of us knew what to say, so we asked him to stamp the passports and get on with it.

The road to Kashgar was lined with graceful poplars, as all cities of any consequence in central Asia are. Kashgar was then a wild-West town with a chaotic market in all kinds of livestock including women. Kidnapping of girls to sell as brides was not uncommon. The price might be as high as 20 camels or more, and camels were more valuable than Chevrolets in the trackless wastes of the neighboring Taklamakan Desert. ‘Taklamakan’ means ‘You go in, you don’t come out’. Kashgar had a thriving Uiguhr community, largely self-governing and not subservient to the Chinese authorities. The Uiguhrs lived in cave-like structures honeycombed throughout one large district of Kashgar. Since then, I have read that the Chinese government bulldozed these out of existence to make way for ‘urban renewal’ that no one wanted. Kashgar then was a polyglot mix of Uiguhr, central-Asian, and Chinese nationalities, ethnicities, and eccentricities, all of whom appeared to be co-existing peacefully. Each had its own particular foods, colorful textiles, and other products, in which a lively trade occurred in the central market.

kashgar

Inside a Uighur house in Kashgar

The crossing into Kyrgyzstan was like flipping a switch from Orient to Occident. Suddenly the houses looked European, picket fences sprang up around yards, Western foods appeared in the markets. Peter the Great had seen to it long ago that the furthest outposts of the Russian Empire had a European feeling to them. Forested mountains and abundantly flowing streams made it clear why Kyrgyzstan is called the Switzerland of central Asia. At one stopping-point, a Kyrgyz tribesman allowed me to wear his tribal hat and ride his horse. I was hooked — I wanted to join the tribe, or at least come back for a longer experience of the country than possible with this brief journey.

Almaty, then the graceful capital of Kazakhstan, lived up to its old name of Alma-Ata, ‘Old Apple’, with its broad tree-lined avenues and abundant markets. Wandering into a Russian-Orthodox cathedral, the purest, clearest a-capella singing I have ever heard kept us entranced for an hour or more. As Almaty was the last stop on this trip, a visit to the market scored a kilo of fresh caviar, which, wrapped in old newspaper, made a much-appreciated present to friends in Geneva only a few hours away by air.

Back home in Japan, I mapped out several excursions to the Central and South Asian areas I wanted to see more of. A vast territory, it would need several trips, some by car, others with more foot- or camel-trekking. It took me a couple of years to get various obligations out of the way before I could schedule the proper amount of time. The arrival of the new millennium proved epochal in unexpected ways. The much-publicized Y2K problem turned out to be a non-event, but the pervasive anxiety around it foreshadowed in a skewed way a more ominous turn of events. Like the panic induced by the 1938 ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast, portents of widespread system failures caused by a computer glitch reflected seemingly unrelated real-world conflict.

In March 2001, people motivated by religious sentiments, similar to those that caused the lion-faces on Chinese-built bridges to be lopped off, blew up the monumental Buddhas at Bamiyan. This required considerable ingenuity in setting up the explosive charges to reduce the entire monument magnificently carved into the mountain to rubble. The bombing was universally condemned, but the general consensus was that no action need be taken because the bombers had ‘only’ attacked a sculpture without killing people. Perhaps they would stop there.

Later that year, as the summertime of long days and lazy heat was slowly winding down, my thoughts again turned to how to go about the Central Asian quest. I decided to eliminate the things I disliked — long hours cooped-up in vehicles without a stop, long-winded guides discoursing on history I would soon forget, shopping, and not enough free time to walk around and spontaneously enjoy the surroundings. September is always a time of renewal, of new plans, of quickening activity as the yearend is in sight; a harvest-time, a time for giving thanks for the bounty of nature, a time for reckoning-up gains and losses, making budgets which carry with them our forecasts, really our hopes and dreams, for the year to come. Shaking off the summer torpor, the pulse quickens, the vigor of autumn animated by the end of the sense of endlessness, the feeling that now is the time to start whatever we hope to do — before it’s too late.

The television was absent-mindedly on one morning, even though nobody was watching it. I saw in passing what looked like a movie, a burning building, people running in panic, firemen running toward the smoke. Smoke and dust obscured the ground-level view, which seemed strange — the movie director should have waited until the smoke cleared. The handheld cameras were unsteady, they kept shifting from the narrow streets to a vaguely familiar-looking bridge, to the view from across a wide river, to an aerial view from a traffic-monitoring helicopter. The TV picture shifted to the Pentagon, part of which seemed to have caved-in. What did that contribute to the story? The sequence was chaotic, it made no sense. Finally an announcer made it horrifyingly clear this was no movie. A passenger airliner had flown into the World Trade Center in New York. How could that happen on a clear day?

Suddenly the flaming building collapsed in on itself. In seconds, office workers, secretaries standing at Xerox machines, executives in their corner offices, messengers delivering urgent messages, were incinerated in the skies above New York and reduced to smoke-filled rubble. The building instantly became the tomb of thousands. Before I could take in the enormity of this mass death, another airplane flew directly into the other tower. This was no accident. That building too collapsed in on itself soon after. As the broadcasters began to piece together the gruesome details — the attack on the Pentagon, the planned attack on the White House foiled by courageous passengers who downed the plane in southwestern Pennsylvania, the demented religious zealots who had carried out the attacks — the president of the United States urged Americans to go shopping. (His advisers feared an economic meltdown, and that was the best they could think of to prevent it.)

world trade center

World Trade Center

Together with the 3,000-plus lives snuffed out on that day and the destruction of symbolic commercial buildings, the sense of a shared destiny in the world was also shattered. The divisions exploited by warlords and politicians were already there, of course, but this wanton act of mass murder deepened them immeasurably. Since then, self-appointed spokesmen for ‘the world’ or ‘the international community’ have proliferated; their hollow calls for ever-more foreign aid could neither comprehend nor mask the fact that that world of shared destiny had been obliterated.

I realized my Central Asian idyll was over before it could start. For a long while to come, that spontaneous camaraderie that is the essence of international travel would give way to mutual suspicion and fear. Large swaths of the world would become war zones or no-go zones. Visitors would be advised to practice ‘situational awareness’, a heightened threat sense always on the lookout for possible attackers.

Afghanistan, the home of Ghandaran art that mingled Roman, Indian, and Central Asian motifs, would become even more of a war zone than it had been in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion, when I caught only a dusty glimpse of it from the border town outside Peshawar. The verdant Swat Valley of Pakistan had already been taken over by one of the competing death cults spawned by a twisted religious faith, the same one that had harbored the absentee leader of the attacks on New York and Washington. And the newly independent Central Asian nations became staging areas for strategically flawed wars on their borders.

My travels were never burdened by the illusion that my passage would ‘make a difference’ in the lives of the people I encountered. That desperate desire to intervene unasked in other people’s lives is the last vestige of Imperial do-goodism, against which the aid object’s desire NOT to be improved is impervious. Giovanni di Lampedusa’s observations about the Sicilians apply equally to other unwilling aid recipients:

‘The Cardinal of Palermo was a truly holy man; and even now after he has been dead a long time and his charity and his faith are still remembered. While he was alive, though, things were different; he was not a Sicilian, he was not even a southerner or a Roman; and many years before he had tried to leaven with nordic activity the inert and heavy dough the island’s spiritual life in general and the clergy’s in particular. Flanked by two or three secretaries from his own parts he had deluded himself, those first years, that he could remove abuses and clear the soil of its more flagrant stumbling-blocks. But soon he had to realise that he was, as it were, firing into cotton-wool; the little hole made at the moment was covered after a few seconds by thousands of tiny fibres and all remained as before, the only additions being cost of power, ridicule at useless effort and deterioration of material. Like everyone who in those days wanted to change anything in the Sicilian character he soon acquired the reputation of being a fool (which in the circumstances was exact) and had to content himself with doing good works, which only diminished his popularity still further if they involved those benefited in making the slightest effort themselves, such as, for instance, visiting the archepiscopal palace.’

Some people may incidentally benefit from the ministrations of well-intentioned official and unofficial bureaucracies. Infectious disease may be temporarily reduced, projects aimed at food and water self-sufficiency may help as long as the ability to maintain them persists, schools may be built and perhaps even maintained without outside help — all this is commendable, but the place of such activities in the moral sweepstakes is not necessarily superior to all other efforts. The aid organizations’ self-congratulatory reports first of all perpetuate themselves and their lavish fund-raising parties and gabfests, their stratospheric executive salaries, and their rampant corruption, while transferring wealth from the poor of rich countries to the rich of poor countries. Their record of actual effectiveness is often considerably less than advertised.

The artifacts and monuments of ancient civilizations bear powerful witness to their endurance. When savage zealots destroy them, the goal of their rage is to eradicate all memory, to start over. The same desire, to impose mass amnesia, produces mass murder and genocide. There is therefore some survival value to humanity in remembering its past glory in all its various cultural manifestations. When these artifacts are converted into icons of wealth, though, then their civilizing influence is lost. Such is the modern antiquities trade, which has become a criminal enterprise rivaling in its size the drugs and weapons trade. More valuable than the objects themselves is the viewer’s response to them, that sense of being transported through deep time and across vast distances into the world that created them, and to experience that world anew. Whether ancient or contemporary, whatever evokes such a response has inestimable transformative value.

Therein lies the best hope of rebuilding the shared destiny that has since 2001 been subjected to repeated attacks. We cannot restore the pre-2001 world. By recognizing these attacks for what they are, as attempts to destroy memory, to induce amnesia, to substitute fear for love, we can, through person-to-person interaction, create a new sense of what connects all of humanity. Like art, that new sensibility is a creative act. We are still in the midst of imagining it.

Distraction

Saul Bellow on maintaining internal order amid a mass of distractions:

‘The modern reader (or viewer, or listener, let’s include everybody) is perilously overloaded. His attention is, to use the latest lingo, ‘targeted’ by powerful forces. I hate to make lists of these forces, but I suppose that some of them had better be mentioned. Okay, then: automobile and pharmaceutical giants, cable TV, politicians, entertainers, academics, opinion makers, porn videos, Ninja Turtles, et cetera. The list is tedious because it is an inventory of what is put into our heads day in, day out. Our consciousness is a staging area, a field of operations for all kinds of enterprises, which make free use of it. True, we are at liberty to think our own thoughts, but our independent ideas, such as they may be, must live with thousands of ideas and notions inculcated by influential teachers or floated by ‘idea men’, advertisers, communications people, columnists, anchor men, et cetera. Better-regulated (educated) minds are less easily overcome by these gas clouds of opinion. But no one can have an easy time of it. In all fields we are forced to seek special instruction, expert guidance to the interpretation of the seeming facts we are stuffed with. This is in itself a full-time occupation. A part of every mind, perhaps the major portion, is open to public matters. Without being actively conscious of it we somehow keep track of the Middle East, Japan, South Africa, reuinified Germany, oil, munitions, the New York subways, the homeless, the markets, the banks, the major leagues, news from Washington; and also, pell-mell, films, trials, medical discoveries, rap groups, racial clashes, congressional scandals, the spread of AIDS, child murders — a crowd of horrors. Public life in the United States is a mass of distractions.

'Only U'

‘Only U’, photogravure etching, Peter Miller (2014)

‘By some this is seen as a challenge to their ability to maintain internal order. Others have acquired a taste for distraction, and they freely consent to be addled. It may even seem to many that by being agitated they are satisfying the claims of society. The scope of the disorder can even be oddly flattering: ‘Just look — this tremendous noisy frantic monstrous agglomeration. There’s never been anything like it. And we are *it*! This is *us*!

‘Vast organizations exist to get our attention. They make cunning plans. They bite us with their ten-second bites. Our consciousness is their staple; they live on it. Think of consciousness as a territory just opening to settlement and exploitation, something like an Oklahoma land rush. Put it in color, set it to music, frame it in images — but even this fails to do justice to the vision. Obviously consciousness is infinitely bigger than Oklahoma….’

— Saul Bellow, Afterword, in Collected Stories (Viking, 2001)

Thanks to Pair Systems and WordPress

Views of The Kamakura Print Collection (this blog) and Xpress were off-line during October and most of November, due to the time it took me to update WordPress. I had deferred this task until the old version had become a security risk. I am grateful to my Web-host, Pair Systems, for guiding me through the recovery of both sites. This involved some sensitive understanding of what I was able or unable to do, and flexible adjustment of hosting parameters to enable the updates to reside comfortably on the Pair servers. In cyber-space as well as on the ground, protecting sites from harm requires constant attention. It’s good that the folks at Pair Systems are on the job 24/7.

We are living in a golden age of software. WordPress makes this blog software available completely free and then thanks me for creating with WordPress. Numerous enhancements also supplied free by a community of developers add to the appearance, usability, and reach of the site. Updates to WordPress and to these ‘plugins’ are now about as effortless as they can be. Aside from websites, numerous other apps and special-purpose applications are available free or nearly free from programmers whose recognition in the user community helps them start their own companies. The ecosystem whereby individual software developers discover and correct an operating-system flaw, or provide a new extension, is extraordinarily efficient.

Thanksgiving, the American harvest festival, gives us a chance to thank all those who have made these sites possible, and all who have added so much to our common culture.

Asia Everywhere

ASIA EVERYWHERE

From the time of Marco Polo’s first journey to the Orient, Europeans have been fascinated with Asia — its strange customs, its alluring women, its spices and jewels and colors, its markets where everything could be had for a price, its vast expanse traversed by caravansaries buying or selling silk, its fearsome warriors, the persistence of its pre-Christian animist religions — the list is endless. One could explore Asia for a lifetime, and many have done just that.

Marco Polo

Marco Polo

Missionaries were among the first, followed by traders, explorers, and the advance guard of European sovereigns seeking to extend their political domains. The British and Dutch East India Companies sought the riches of the Orient, one of the products of this search being the lure of the exotic. As imperial colonies were established, legions of outcasts found a second home in Asia which over time became their first home. Such were the younger sons of the British elite who became colonial administrators, populating the stories of Maugham and Kipling, with their easy acceptance of Asian ways shocking their metropolitan cousins, who wrote them off as having ‘gone native’. The quaintness of the phrase reveals its irrelevance today.

Perry's Second Fleet

Perry's Second Fleet

The Victorian / Meiji period (mid- to late-19th century and early 20th-century) saw an influx of Western visitors different from their antecedents. They were, in a way, missionaries in reverse. Soon after the forcible ending of Japan’s isolation in 1853, there arrived in Japan a cohort of visitors less interested in bringing Christianity than in seeking enlightenment via Oriental Wisdom. These prominent Bostonians comprised literati (Ernest Fenollosa), archaeologist-collectors (Edward Morse), connoisseur-collectors (Sturgis Bigelow), historians (Henry Adams), artists (John La Farge), explorers (Percival Lowell), enlightenment-seekers, curiosity-seekers, and afficianados of the exotic (the erstwhile low-life Lafcadio Hearn, who rose from nowhere to become an honored sensei in Japan). Their pioneering role is described in Christopher Benfey’s excellent Great Wave book. They forged the template for all who later found their way to Japan and Asia. Even before reaching Japan’s shores, their fertile imaginations conjured a semi-mythological Japan. The modern Western enchantment with Japan then embellished the Japanese home-grown myths of national identity.

The Bostonians’ dissatisfaction with the post-Civil War money-grubbing America of their day supplied the negative image from which their positive notions of the Orient were fashioned. It was no coincidence that New England-style transcendentalism, restraint, and nature-worship were attributed to the Japanese. To these admirable qualities others were added: alluring women, exquisite craftsmanship, disciplined warriors, oracular brevity, charming village life, respect for tradition, and quiet savoir-faire. Upon arrival, the visitors sought out artifacts corresponding to their notions of the Orient, thus launching the lively export trade that grew up to satisfy this demand.

Harunobu, Fidelity

Harunobu, Fidelity

The Mysterious East, especially Japan, was only too happy to oblige, making itself into a major exporter of exotic cultural artifacts. Once the Japanese learned what was expected, they lost no time in producing it. To the Oriental tendency of providing whatever it was that was sought-after, was added, especially after the ‘Black Ships’ had arrived in 1853, the necessity of cultivating friendly relations with would-be Western imperialists until Japan might be better able to defend itself. From the mid-19th-century onward, Japan produced a prodigious number of woodblock prints for export. These pictures of courtesans, simple country-folk tilling idyllic golden fields of rice set in green landscapes, rural villages, ghoulish monsters, dragons, animated seascapes, colorful temples and shrines, and numerous other exotica catered to the Western desire for contact with exotic Japan. The land conjured by these images was neither wholly imaginary nor quite real: Fantasies, like dreams, must have some basis in fact to carry conviction. These woodblock prints poured out of Japan unceasingly, finding their way into every museum in Europe and America. For many public and private collectors, ‘Japanese art’ means woodblock prints, as if nothing else existed. Ukiyo-e today retain much of their original fascination, as waves of Japonisme sweep over the lands to which they were first exported.

Hokusai, Fishing

Hokusai, Fishing

The simplicity and novel perspectives of these charming prints influenced Monet, Cezanne, Whistler, Frank Lloyd Wright, and many others. Where the West was driven by the cult of efficiency and machinery, Japan in their view revered wabi/sabi and the softer virtues. Their favorite sensei, Okakura Kakuzo, hit upon the idea of using the Bostonians’ love of tea to popularize cha-no-yu. It, and he, worked their charms largely on women like Isabella Stewart Gardner (of Museum fame), in whose polite society he cut a broad swath.

Zorn Anders, Isabella Stewart Gardner

Zorn Anders, Isabella Stewart Gardner

The narrative of the Mysterious East survived every disappointment that the facts on the ground could throw at it. The rigors of travel in Meiji Japan, dodging cholera epidemics, typhoons, foul-smelling agricultural fields, noisy bathers at an inn, and excessively elaborate etiquette, tried Henry Adams’ patience no end, yet did not discourage his artist-friend John LaFarge from training his eye on charming village scenes.

John LaFarge, Ueno

John LaFarge, Ueno

As Japan’s intense drive to modernize gathered momentum, though, even affcianados of traditional Japanese virtues found it hard to direct their gaze exclusively on the past. Around the turn of the 20th-century, they realized their time was up — they could neither live with nor deny what they saw as Japan’s ruin. Yet the narrative survived Japan’s industrialization, militarization, and even the deadly conflict of World War II.

Enami, Love at First Sight

Enami, Love at First Sight

As much as tea parties and flower-arranging appealed to those favoring the yin virtues, the complementary yang virtues of adventure attracted others. No less a Rough Rider than Teddy Roosevelt practiced Oriental martial arts (spurred on by Sturgis Bigelow). The ‘Great Game‘ in Central Asia attracted those who were anxious to test their mettle against some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet — the barren unexplored Himalayan plateau and mountain passes. Explorers and soldiers-of-fortune dressed in native garb mapped these seemingly impenetrable regions, paving the way for the hardly more regular troops to follow. For a century they fought native tribes and each other for King and Country, or Czar and Country – for this was a contest between Britain and Russia, two empires which the emirs and khans did their best to play off against one another, knowing this was the only way the latter could keep their independence. The great prize of the ‘Great Game’ was India, the pearl of the Orient, and the brightest star in Queen Victoria’s crown. With every advance of the Czar’s forces toward Herat, the Khyber Pass, Gilgit, Chitral, or the unnamed route through the Pamirs, London and Calcutta trembled, yet held the high ground until it was time for India itself to become independent. The ‘Great Game’ is still being played out in Central Asia today, under a different guise, with America inheriting the British role, and local tribes still jockeying for position by playing the imperial powers off against each other.

Through the enormously varied cultural interchanges wrought by trade, war, migration, and travel; from sleek consumer electronics and fashion models, to manga, cuisine, and minimalist architecture, Asian influences now permeate the lives of Westerners without their ever leaving home. With the declining salience of antiquarian purity in Asian art, and the inability of contemporary Western models to fill the gap, the ‘mysterious East’ will likely re-invent itself again, in the hands of those artists and viewers for whom Asian traditions are second nature.

_/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/

This essay is published in the exhibition catalog for the Asia Everywhere exhibit held at the National Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow, Russia in September 2015.

'Asia Everywhere' exhibition catalog

‘Asia Everywhere’ exhibition catalog


The catalog is available from the Oriental Museum, 12a Nikitsky Blvd, Moscow 119019; tel: +7-495-691-0341. ISBN 978-5-903417-64-3.

The New Shape of Work and Play

Work, according to convention, is labor performed in factory, office, shop, or farm in exchange for money. By similar convention, leisure occurs at home or on vacation as a respite from labor. Yet the structure of work is changing, with more people working at home (up from 9.2 million in 1997 to 13.4 million in the United States, according to the U.S. Census), more mobile 24/7 workers, more part-time work, and less secure or well-paid formal employment. Automation is reducing jobs, or more accurately redistributing them. Meanwhile more people seek an opportunity to practice workmanship and a sense of belonging among those who appreciate it. For those who achieve this ambition, the spontaneous element of play animates the duty of work.

Work as a Refuge From the Self. If leisure is where we amuse ourselves, work is where we serve others. Modern society generates intense self-involvement – just scan any university catalogue or free-lance outfit, and find uncountable numbers of references to self-improvement, self-development, self-advancement, self-healing, and watch people taking selfies with more self-absorption than the most narcissistic of even a few years ago would have dared. And yet, following a dialectic worthy of Newton or Hegel or Marx, all this self-absorption generates an equal and opposite reaction, driven by a compulsion to serve some entity higher than oneself, to find a refuge from excessive self-involvement, a chance to participate in some higher purpose. Increasingly this takes place outside formal employment.

Derek Thompson cites economist Lawrence Katz’s observation that factories whose sole reason for existence is their ability to produce custom-made goods cheaply are obsolete. With the spread of 3D printing and design software, new-style artisans are custom-designing and manufacturing everything from coffee mugs to printed circuit boards almost as cheaply. Katz thinks the 19th century artisanal economy of blacksmiths, silversmiths, and woodworkers is re-emerging in updated form, using information technology and industrial machinery to make things that would be un-economic for mass-production factories. ‘Makerspaces’, which have evolved from art spaces like the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria Virginia, bring together a variety of these artisanal skills under one roof. The Columbus Idea Foundry, for example, includes shops offering product design, prototyping, engineering, and fabrication, CAD automotive design, hydroponics automation, mobile apps for sales field staff, out-of-the-box ready 3D printers, programs to help students think, create, and develop their ideas, among many others. Unlike a 19th-century style factory that brought people together for central coordination of their labor, these places serve as a place for independent artisans to gather, exchange work, and make outside contacts. They combine the functions of union hall, social club, and innovation-incubator. Markets for spot employment are also growing, thanks to Internet-matching of skills with needs by firms such as TaskRabbit, Craigslist, eBay, Uber, and others.

The 24/7 wired workday re-integrates personal and professional life, enabling time by oneself to generate novel ideas, then turning them to good account if they contribute to communal well-being. A typical Internet session mixes messages from friends, family, business associates, seekers of sympathy, and purveyors of goods, services, and ideas, with social media news, gossip, useful and useless information, images, videos, events of personal significance, and random observations. Through such media, the nexus of mutual help expands and diversifies beyond traditional employers and families, toward people of similar interests and likes regardless of where they live, what their formal jobs may be, or what demographics allegedly define them.

Remember that this now-pervasive virtual world was brought forth in the name of efficiency and productivity. Far be it from the American paragons of efficiency to live in this new virtual world merely for fun. No, it has to enable us to work better, faster, smarter, more connected, and with, as always, more and more information at our fingertips. But something unexpected happened on the way to this greater productivity. It turned out to be immense fun. Worries about the unskilled being left out of the computer revolution proved to be vastly overdone, as billions of people around the world eagerly acquired the skills to navigate cyberspace, find information they need, and even receive academic instruction remotely. And in a world that mints job titles like web designer, applications integrator, user interface engineer, not to mention ‘chief visionary officer’, the overall amount of work to be done is if anything increasing.

Conspicuous Consumption Yielding to Conspicuous Work. Not so long ago, the idle rich sought to distinguish themselves by their consumption – sailing at Hyannis, golfing at Pebble Beach, gambling at Monte Carlo, partying in the Hamptons or on the Riviera, riding to hounds in Virginia. Nowadays, those who indulge in such pursuits are conspicuous by their absence from the top levels of social esteem. Work of a particular kind has become the new mark by which the successors of the idle rich seek to distinguish themselves.

Pebble Beach

Pebble Beach


This work has nothing to do with earning a living. While it shares many of the superficial characteristics of gainful employment, such as crowded schedules, deadlines, and meetings, the cash flows in the opposite direction. Unlike traditional philanthropy, where the relationship often ends with writing a check, the donors take an active part in the conduct of the non-profit enterprise. An opera company driven into bankruptcy by a profligate manager is revived by a wealthy financier. A school is built in a remote Himalayan kingdom, the donors assisting with construction and maintenance on-site every summer. Education, the arts, the environment, the unfortunate, animal rescue, political candidates of every hue, and myriad other projects and programs are supported, sandwiched in between appointments at culinary establishments of impeccably healthy organicity, and travel to exotic destinations.

These kinds of work constitute a new style of luxury, as distinct from the old-style frivolous pursuits. History is replete with examples of luxury consumption and practices being emulated by the less fortunate and thereby diffusing through the populace. Non-profit rewards are springing up everywhere, from the ‘cultural commons’ of free information-sharing to the barter-economy of consensual communities. The trend is driven by disenchantment with the money economy, with its fiat currencies, corrupt bankers, runaway government debt, and moral bankruptcy. For the vast majority whose livelihood is tied to a job – ‘wage-slaves’, in Marx’s eloquent phrase – informal employment is an increasingly attractive alternative.

The philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell proposed in a prescient essay in 1932 that modern society would best benefit from automation through an equitable reduction of work. The worship of work as an end in itself, he wrote in In Praise of Idleness, is a relic of the slave society where a few enjoyed leisure while the many worked overtime. What we really seek is not labor per se, but the enjoyment of goods and services purchased through labor, and above all the free use of our own time. As Russell wrote,

    The fact is that moving matter about, while a certain amount of it is necessary to our existence, is emphatically not one of the ends of human life…. We have been misled in this matter by two causes. One is the necessity of keeping the poor contented, which has led the rich, for thousands of years, to preach the dignity of labor, while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect. The other is the new pleasure in mechanism, which makes us delight in the astonishingly clever changes that we can produce on the earth’s surface. Neither of these motives makes any great appeal to the actual worker. If you ask him what he thinks the best part of his life, he is not likely to say: ‘I enjoy manual work because it makes me feel that I am fulfilling man’s noblest task, and because I like to think how much man can transform his planet. It is true that my body demands periods of rest, which I have to fill in as best I may, but I am never so happy as when the morning comes and I can return to the toil from which my contentment springs.’ I have never heard working men say this sort of thing. They consider work, as it should be considered, a necessary means to a livelihood, and it is from their leisure that they derive whatever happiness they may enjoy….
    Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle. Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.

Automation. Automation redistributes work, making some industries and jobs obsolete, raising others up to the heights of demand. In on-line commerce, for example, Web-retail sales in the United States amounted to $320 billion in 2014, growing at 20 percent per year since 2000. Asia-Pacific on-line commerce amounted to $332 billion in 2012, with China’s 220 million on-line buyers spending $110 billion.5 It’s driven by Amazon, Apple, Alibaba, and numerous traditional brick-and-mortar stores that have gravitated to clicks’n’mortar. There’s something about the letter ‘A’ here: apparel and airline tickets are among the biggest items. Maybe anonymity is part of the appeal. But music, games, banking, and movies are also big. And this is only retail, or B2C. B2B is even larger. Just-in-time parts re-stocking is now not only possible, but mandatory, and this is now done in the field, with mobile apps. Compared with snail-mail, the cost savings from this automation of order-taking is enormous. Yet while on-line commerce is removing legions of record-keeping jobs, it is creating other jobs in exception management, customer care, security and privacy, and website design catering to an increasingly mobile clientele, to name only a few examples.

Chaplin, Modern Times

Chaplin, Modern Times


Visualization tools, to take another example, have enhanced astronomical, biochemical, medical, geological, and numerous other practical disciplines of discovery (and video games and story-telling as well). This field alone employs thousands of computer programmers, user-interface specialists, chip designers, applications customizers, and numerous other previously unheard-of categories of workers.
Automobile factory robots

Automobile factory robots


Boring, repetitive tasks are automated not because they are boring and repetitive, but because (a) everything essential is known about them, (b) the savings in time and cost are overwhelming and undeniable, and (c) competitors are doing so, driving costs down and thereby gaining competitive advantage. For car assembly, a human spot welder costs about $25 an hour, a robotic one costs eight dollars. And the robot is faster and more accurate. Robots now perform 10 percent of all manufacturing tasks, according to the Boston Consulting Group; by 2025, that will increase to 25 percent. Everything from semiconductor wire-bonding to soup-can filling and sealing to shipping that can be automated is already automated or soon will be. Amazon alone relies on 15,000 robots for order fulfillment.

That the outcomes of boring repetitive tasks are totally predictable is what allows their functions to be ‘programmed’. Yet even what would seem to be creative endeavors are not exempt. Pop songs and movie plots are now composed by algorithms derived from what has recently sold well. Medical diagnoses are performed by algorithms similar to those that Amazon uses to tell you, annoyingly, what other books were purchased by those who bought the one you are looking at. Automated medical diagnoses are more accurate than those of the average GP. Automated visual analyses of X-rays and blood-test smears can detect signs of disease faster and more accurately than humans. A British robot named Eve has discovered a new anti-malaria drug. Closer examination of the human versions of these activities reveals, however, that they were already highly routinized. Technicians had reduced song- and movie-writing, medical diagnosis and drug discovery to standardized procedures that were only one step away from becoming programmable.

Even before some programmers submitted a computer-generated article to an academic journal of post-modern studies, it had become obvious that there was something formulaic about these articles. Using buzzwords like hermeneutics, post-modern, deconstruct, empowerment, oppression, and the like, the program they devised spit out an article accepted by numerous reviewers in this field and subsequently, was duly (or dully) published, and praised by many readers. Only later was it revealed that the ‘author’ was a circuit board acting under instructions of a few lines of code. (The original spoof article generated by Alan Sokal, Professor of Physics at New York University, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, was published in Social Text #46/47, pp. 217-252, spring/summer 1996.) Since then, academic journals have been farmed out to publishers in countries with nonexistent reviewers, where (purportedly) human authors can obtain publication merely for payment of a modest fee ($150 being the typical going rate). Climate scientists and pharmaceutical researchers have been among the most avid users of these ersatz media, a natural affinity since their algorithm-driven models are also highly automated. The latest wrinkle in this trend is that many stock-market analyses are automated, generated entirely by a few inputs from news sources, Fed mouthings, Labor Dept reports, and the standard economic indicators. This too seems fitting, as a great deal of stock-trading itself is algorithm-driven in response to the same signals as are contained in analysts’ reports. Many tweets on Twitter are now also automated. The creativity or spontaneity that had once generated such efforts having been drained from them, automating them was merely a logical evolution.

Why airplanes crash. An FAA investigation into the causes of airplane crashes, released in 2013, found that more than half resulted from the loss of flying skills brought about by over-reliance on the autopilot (Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us). Carr estimates that pilots now spend only about three minutes per flight actually flying the aircraft. The inevitable loss of skill, combined with uncertainty during critical moments as to who’s in charge, has often led to disaster. Exactly how this happens is shown in the TV program ‘Mayday Hour’, which recaps the detailed post-crash investigations. In one instance, mud-dauber wasps had built a nest inside the ‘pitot tubes’ that measure airspeed, blocking

Pitot tube

Pitot tube

them. Faulty airspeed data relayed to the autopilot caused the aircraft to slow down, and unable to maintain lift due to insufficient airflow over the wings, it stalled and crashed. The autopilot is a complex system, of which some functions may remain on while others are switched off, either by design or by accident. In one unfortunate case, overriding automated steering and banking left the autopilot still in charge of pitch and yaw. With the aircraft exceeding its 25-degree design-limit bank-angle, the autopilot increased engine speed to bring the nose up, resulting in a deadly tailspin. (This design flaw has since been corrected.) Even when pilots are actively flying the plane, over-reliance on faulty ground proximity detectors, altimeters, or storm position trackers have doomed flights that could have been landed safely had the pilots paid attention to the physical evidence.

The chain of command is another airborne hazard. The captain’s sacrosanct authority can be thought of as a kind of ’emotional autopilot’, short-circuiting human error detection. It has led in some instances to senior pilots using their airplanes as instruments of suicide, for religious reasons, due to financial troubles, or pursued by private demons. The problem for others in the cockpit is knowing, as with the computer-based autopilot, when to disable it. Flight crew training now includes watching for signs of instability, procedures for fostering open communication, and taking prompt action in an emergency.

The Dialectic of Artisanship and Industry. Artisanship and industry are by convention seen as opposed to one another. In fact, they are engaged in a dialectic. Just as the self-involvement ethic generates a desire to serve some superior entity, so automation generates its own artisanal improvements and innovations. The steam engine was invented by mechanics who knew from their own experience the power that steam can deliver when heated and compressed. Switchboard operators were long ago replaced by automatic exchanges, but society always needs people with communications skills. Even in the most massive of heavy industries such as steel, specialty steels with nearly hand-crafted alloy concentrations are among the fastest-growing products.

Where there is uncertainty, change, happenstance, unpredictability; where outcomes are indeterminate, the number of variables beyond comprehension, their properties of doubtful quantifiability, the environment one of constant change, there, artisanal work is essential. That is the real world we live in.

Workmanship, far from having been made obsolete by automation, becomes all the more valuable in an automated world. The inherent value of artisanal work is recognized in such institutions as the French Compagnons du devoir whose members enjoy the exclusive right to maintain cultural monuments. Germany and other European countries have similar institutions that maintain the requisite skills along with the buildings. Japan designates as Living National Treasures (人間国宝) practitioners of certain traditional work such as cormorant fishing, kimono-making, and calligraphy that embody national cultural significance.

William Morris

William Morris

In Britain the Arts and Crafts Movement pioneered by John Ruskin and William Morris urged the superior integrity of hand-made goods of integrated design and manufacture. The landscapes of Gertrude Jekyll and architecture of Edward Luytens similarly celebrated a kind of designed wilderness. Adherants of this style were memorably lampooned by George Orwell as ‘every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, Nature Curer, quack, pacifist, and feminist in England’ (in The Road to Wigan Pier). Yet the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement continues to this day. In America it inspired the Prairie Style which gave rise to such distinguished architects as Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles and Henry Greene, and Bernard Maybeck. The Prairie Style in turn graced the early skyscrapers of New York and Chicago, massive steel structures symbolizing America’s industrial might.
Bois de Moutiers, photogravure etching by Peter Miller, of the Jekyll landscape garden and Luytens house

Bois de Moutiers, photogravure etching by Peter Miller, of the Jekyll landscape garden and Luytens house

Artisanship struck a resonant chord in Japan, where Soetsu Yanagi was already championing the mingei (folk-art) style in ceramics, textile-making, and other goods. The potter Shoji Hamada, having studied with the Hong Kong-born British ceramicist Bernard Leach, revived the Japanese wabi-sabi tradition of simple materials and rough design in a community that is still active today. Yanagi’s The Unknown Craftsman (Kodansha International, 1972 and 1989) reinforces the centrality of artisanal work to modern industrial society. Yet mass production also enables many to have otherwise unaffordable goods – a contradiction that discomforted artisanal promoters who preferred democratic to elitist taste. Economist and curmudgeon Thorstein Veblen dismissed wabi-sabi rusticity as ‘an exaltation of the defective’. Yet these very defects, whether they entice the eye of the beholder or not, are essential elements of the learning required to improve productivity.

Western economists typically described Japan’s ’emergence’ as an industrial colossus as a ‘miracle’, betraying their ignorance of the cultural roots of industrial development. Japan’s most successful industries did not ’emerge’ out of the Wharton School, they were grounded in native traditions of workmanship. Toyota, now the largest car company, grew out of a textile-weaving outfit called the Toyoda Automatic Loom Works. Experience with soy fermentation led to a vigorous biotech industry. Japanese workers were already familiar with miniaturization long before that became one of the driving forces of electronics manufacture, which the 14th-generation descendant of a soy sauce manufacturer used to advantage in founding Sony. Japan’s steel industry built on centuries of experience with metallurgy and sword-making. Japan’s real natural resource is its wealth of artisanal tradition that powered its industrial growth.

Amid the wreckage of post-WWII Japan, Donald Keene noted the strength of Japanese culture as a resource for industrial development:

    My main occupation in Kyoto was studying Japanese literature, but on one occasion I was asked to be a ‘reporter’ at a conference sponsored by the Institute for Pacific Affairs. My task was to make summaries of the statements made by the distinguished people who attended. About half the participants were Japanese; the rest were Americans, Canadians and British. The Japanese, mainly economists, were convinced that Japan’s future was dismal….
    The non-Japanese participants did their best to suggest ways for improving the Japanese economy. An American, after praising the Japanese for their skill with their hands, urged them to concentrate on making delicate objects like fishhooks. The Japanese delegates did not seem to think that their economy could be rescued with fishhooks.

    The general impressions of the conference, at least to an outsider like myself, were of resignation on the part of the Japanese and friendly but unhelpful attempts by non-Japanese to cheer them. I could not detect anything positive arising from the discussions.

    At no point in the discussions was Japanese culture mentioned. This was perhaps natural in a gathering of economists and politicians, but someone might have pointed out that, despite the hardships that the Japanese people had undergone, the postwar period was a golden age of Japanese culture. The extraordinary outburst of major literature was largely the result of the freedom that had come with the end of Japanese military rule.

Automation and Spontaneity. Automation, as noted earlier, generates a demand for spontaneity. One of the most enjoyable pleasures of walking around is listening to some unknown person practicing the piano. It’s best with an open window, but even in winter, muffled by intervening walls, wind, traffic, how delightful to just stop and listen. The occasional missed note, tempo slowed for a difficult passage, sometimes repeated until it flows better, the careful attention to dynamics – these are more charming than a note-perfect recording. A breath of air, the light glancing off a passing object, something seen only in peripheral vision, might convey the inspiration of the moment. We cherish spontaneity for the same reason we value our freedom — the outcome is unpredictable, unexpected, it cannot be determined by any algorithm, or by the owner of any algorithm. Nor is this just some whimsical preference; it is a vital resource for innovation, without which society cannot advance. With perfect predictability and hence zero spontaneity, innovation disappears (it is not needed).

The ‘perfect predictability’ delusion can occur when experts, those who have cornered the market in a particular intellectual discipline, persuade others that they have all the answers. Typically formulated as the output of computer models too arcane for the average person to understand, their claims to a monopoly of rectitude leave no room for alternatives. Such claims foreclose the possibility of experimentation on which innovation depends.

As Friedrich Hayek put it in The Creative Powers of a Free Civilization:

    It is only when such exclusive rights are granted, on the presumption of superior knowledge of particular individuals or groups, that the process ceases to be experimental and the beliefs that happen to be prevalent at the moment tend to become a main obstacle to the advancement of knowledge.

    It is worth a moment’s reflection as to what would happen if only what was agreed upon to be the best knowledge of society were to be used in any action. If all attempts that seemed wasteful in the light of the now generally accepted knowledge were prohibited and only such questions asked, or such experiments tried, as seemed significant in the light of ruling opinion. Mankind might then well reach a point where its knowledge allowed it adequately to predict the consequences of all conventional actions and where no disappointment or failure would occur. Man would seem to have subjected his surroundings to his reason because nothing of which he could not predict the results would be done. We might conceive of a civilization thus coming to a standstill, not because the possibilities of further growth had been exhausted, but because man had succeeded in so completely subjecting all his actions and his immediate surroundings to his existing state of knowledge that no occasion would arise for new knowledge to appear.

Hayek’s Creative Powers essay is fundamentally relevant to the expanding scope of social control that information technology enables. Society requires constant experimentation and free competition to advance, not only in the economic realm, but in ethical and aesthetic ideas as well. Interestingly the sort of freedom that is most productive for social advancement is not one’s own, but that of random odd individuals who by some unknown means come up with new and better ways of doing things. Stagnation resulting from the more extreme forms of totalitarian social control is obvious. With less violent means of social control, such as deference to anointed expertise, mass surveillance, or political-correctness, the stagnation is no less real. ‘Mistakes’, in the sense of variance from conventional belief or practice, are valuable resources for experimentation, creativity, and progress. As such, they are to be actively cherished and not merely tolerated. Of course not all mistakes will turn out to be useful, but that is for free competition to sort out. The environment, society, the self change unceasingly, this random variation being the very stuff of experience and innovation.

My printmaking experiences have taught me to value mistakes, and in this respect I have a wealth of opportunity. The resist can be under- or over-exposed, the shadows mottled by foul-biting, the highlights unreachable and featureless, the ink too viscous or too thick, too contrasty or lacking clear definition, the paper too wet or too dry to register the ink properly, and so on. A bad day might see a cascading series of errors, each magnified by the previous one. Rarely is there an etching session without surprise. One thing is certain, though: The etching is entirely the result of choices I made. My mistakes are not society’s fault, nor that of anyone else. And this realization is liberating, for it means I can discover the source of my error and correct it. In composition too, my efforts may be successful or not, according to how fully the graphic and extra-graphic aims may be coherently integrated.

As an artisanal practitioner, I suspect that my affection for the imperfect rusticity of the hand-made known as wabi-sabi is shared by many who find the ‘perfect’ precision of mass production to be anonymous, impersonal, cold, and distant. Artistic discovery involves a constant dialectic of observation and imagination, aesthetic experiments that work or don’t work, according to my success or failure in conveying graphically some state of mind, memory, or emotional and philosophical perception. The phenomena of everyday life, such as we all experience, are the raw material of this drama. A spontaneous awareness of the possibilities of design, perspective, line, form, and composition, visualized in the field, is required for an artistic experiment to be successfully realized.

hamada

Wynn Bullock, Revelations

From the American West came a group of visionaries who gave the American people and the world a picture of the grandeur of the North American continent. Much as the Hudson River Valley painters had done for the American Northeast (though they ranged westward as well), the photo-artists Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Wynn Bullock and others established the American West as a place of free-ranging imagination. Where the 19th-century painters explored a physical frontier, the mid-20th-century photographers explored a spiritual frontier. Through their visions this landscape came to symbolize for everyone the highest aspirations of humankind in nature.

Wynn Bullock brought forth these new dimensions of landscape most explicitly, and now a major retrospective of his work is underway at the High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A., in collaboration with the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona, through January 18, 2015. Just 20 years ago, a smaller exhibit of his work was held in Tokyo, Japan. I wrote a review of it for the Japan Times, and learned then that it had struck a responsive chord with the Bullock family. Just last week, thanks to Connie and Jerry Rosenthal of rfoto folio, Barbara Bullock-Wilson contacted me about reviewing the new Revelations book — and what a pleasure it will be to do so! As you will see from the 1994 review, I’ve been a fan of Wynn Bullock’s imagery for a long time. It has certainly inspired my photogravures, my way of seeing, and my sense of the dynamic relationship between the seen and the unseen. Here is the 1994 review:

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Making the Unseen Seen, Japan Times, January 23, 1994

The European surrealist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy asserted that photography can “make visible existences which can-not be taken in by the eye. “Far from being merely an inferior reproduction of human vision, it actually reveals something more than ordinary eyesight. The surrealists tried to represent such intangible essences by distorting the visual field — with dripping locks, time-lapse super-imposition, black/white reversals, and skewed perspective. Wynn Bullock, whose work is currently on view through Feb. 25 at Photo Gallery International, was an admirer of Moholy-Nagy and experimented along these lines in the 1930s and 1940s. But in ‘the 1950s Bullock came under another important influence: Edward Weston, the great practitioner of no-frills “straight photography,” who taught respect for the material surfaces of natural objects.

It was Wynn Bullock’s unique achievement to integrate these two radically different approaches without resort to gimmickry, to use ordinary scenes and objects to get to the unseen essence of things. His landscapes do not so much depict nature as personify it.

Wynn Bullock, Stark Tree

Wynn Bullock, Stark Tree

In one of the most memorable, Stark Tree (1956), the form of the tree is silhouetted against fog-shrouded hills, its limbs along with those of other individuals stretched toward the sun. Clouds reminiscent of Ruisdael swirl about the sun, illuminating the hills and creating a medium of communication between earth and sky. Sun, clouds, earth, rocks, trees are all possessed of an animating spirit and made visibly interconnected. Big Sur Sunset features no glorious radiance, no surf crashing over jagged rocks; it’s not your postcard sunset. But the faint suggestion of motion in the gentle surf, the play of light over a swaying ocean, watched over by the sun, make these elements of nature appear as active beings in the drama of life. In a later work; Untitled (1966), the setting sun spotlights a gathering of rocks at the seashore, seemingly in homage. With these three pictures one seems in the presence of some Druidic rite of sun worship, or as a being newly arrived on the planet — like a child.

Wynn Bullock, Child in Forest

Wynn Bullock, Child on Forest Road

Bullock’s series on children in forests personifies nature in a different way, placing the animating spirit in the child and inviting us to recall its innocence and wonder. The Child on Forest Road: (1958), whose attention is caught by something at the side of the road, pauses while sunlight plays through the canopy above, as if all the world were made for her pleasure. Similarly, with the child naked and alone beneath an enormous redwood, or peering into a maze of thistles, or face down on a bed of vine leaves in the forest. These pictures invite us to become that child, naked and alone but unafraid, taking part in the wonder and recognizing kinship with the rocks and trees. Yet another aspect of nature is personified in the female nudes in various forest and rural settings, living testaments to the sensual pleasures of Bullock’s Edenic landscapes.

Although Wynn Bullock lived in a photographically fertile area — Carmel, Monterey, Point Lobos, Big Sur — the photographic distance from his mentor Weston became increasingly evident from the mid-1950s onward. Bullock found as much photographic interest under the wharves off Cannery Row as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and other illustrious neighbors found in natural forms. In The Mast (1958), Sunken Wreck (1968), and other pictures, artifacts of an apparently lost civilization project from a formless void of wispy shadows on slithering fog.

In later works Bullock returned to his earlier preoccupation with light and with dynamic abstract forms: Tree Trunk (1972) appears liquid, flowing; Wood (1972) the locus of multiple interacting vortices. Nature’s personification dissolved back into the elements themselves, foreshadowing the artist’s own death in 1975. As always, he sought the inner essence of things.

Wynn Bullock, Wood

Wynn Bullock, Wood

Also at Photo Gallery International is a selection of photographs from Imogen Cunningham, whose career spanned seven decades and numerous styles, from pictorial to f/64. Whimsical humor and a lively sympathy with her subjects pervade her portraits of the icons of 1920-1960 photography. Here is Ansel Adams standing on a rock with his right finger pointed skyward, earnestly delivering The Sermon on The Mount. Bullock, given to space/time musings, appears as a kindly philosopher. A time-lapse multiple portrait characterizes the surrealist Man Ray. Stieglitz presides in his gallery as the uncompromising judge, and Edward Weston peers with typically sharp focus. Apt characterizations all.

Portrait of Wynn Bullock by Imogen Cunningham

Portrait of Wynn Bullock by Imogen Cunningham

Primitive people, it is said, refuse to be photographed for fear something of their souls will be revealed. Visit PGl and see why.

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Let the last ‘word’ be this marvelously eloquent image:

Wynn Bullock, Old Typewriter

Wynn Bullock, Old Typewriter

What better testimony of the poverty of words before these visionary revelations?

Jacques Delacroix’ ‘I Used to Be French’

Of all the immigrants who washed up on America’s shores, few could be happier than Jacques Delacroix, who confesses in his autobiography I Used to Be French this love-letter to America. And in what does his happiness consist? The love of a good woman, the proximity of the sea at Santa Cruz, California, with free-diving and fishing, a respected though not exalted occupation as Professor of Sociology, and freedom from — from what, exactly? French women, French cuisine, French wine, French savoir-faire, French culture — what’s not to like? Here is the mystery of emigration. By the age of twenty-one, he had tasted all of these in great abundance during summers in Brittany.

Previous refugees from the Metropol had discovered their wild sides in Brittany: Gauguin and his cohorts lived by the Cote Sauvage before decamping to Tahiti and its dusky-skinned beauties (a preference the author shares). The flowering and near-deflowering of Delacroix’ youth occurred in that wild-West of France, where he discovered the many joys of rural life. There too he discovered the most constant love of his life, the sea, becoming an expert diver, swimmer, and sailor. And while the local Bretons specialized in either fishing or farming, young Delacroix did both, helping out with the arduous work of threshing, and not so incidentally finding more amorous opportunities. Largely unsupervised in his leisure hours, he and his confreres earned the reputation that he later characterized as the elders’ opinion of teenagers — as animals endowed with human intelligence devoted full-time to mischief. What glorious summers those were!

For answers as to why a young man might wish to emigrate, we must turn to History, which in France is neither remote nor distant. While Americans tend to regard anything before they were born as irrelevant, Biography and History are intertwined throughout Europe, but nowhere more intimately than in France. Delacroix, conceived in Nazi-occupied France, though in one counter-intuitive episode delivered to safety by a German soldier, his own life and that of the nation are bound together even more intimately than most. And so France, he writes, was gripped by three ‘great sadnesses’ as he was growing up.

The first ‘great sadness’ is the loss and disablement of millions of young men in World War I. This decimation of an entire generation left a gap that Delacroix experienced as an unspoken but ever-present mourning. No family in France was untouched by this loss, every child grew up with the memory of some relative who wasn’t there anymore. The young women who survived were deprived of all the intimate pleasures of domestic life that they and their families expected them to have. Not all reconciled themselves to permanent widowhood. Though the shortage of young males dimmed their remarriage prospects, they made do somehow. In one of the most astonishingly frank discussions imaginable between grandmother and grandson, Delacroix asks his grandmother how she managed, and she tells him! The fact is that the scarcity of young males made sharing them an acceptable custom, and the French reputation for casual adultery is revealed as a demographic by-product.

The second ‘great sadness’ in Delacroix’ telling resulted from the first — France surrendered so quickly to Nazi Germany at the outset of World War II that there must have been high-level collaboration. Despite the courageous role of the Resistance, Vichy compromised the soul of France, and continues to do so to this day, Delacroix asserts. Both De Gaulle’s nationalist followers and their Communist allies, each for their own reasons, preferred a make-believe reconciliation with the collaborators. In consequence, oppressive, silent evil was all around and inside French society. One prominent politician and gross World War Two criminal was unmasked, tried and convicted only in the 1990s, 45 years late, a lifetime late. This failure to come to terms with France’s collaboration, the vast silence that still surrounds the topic, cast a pall over all of French society.

The third ‘great sadness’ is the Catholic Church’s then-monopoly over public and private morality. Although Church morality rarely restrained our hero’s adventures with the opposite sex — and may have, like any restraint, enhanced them — it did interfere with a fateful life-choice. And from this experience Delacroix derives what is probably sound demographic advice: Let young people marry and procreate as early as they like (and from the evidence of this book, they like it a lot). Knowing as a sociologist that the number of children born to a woman is pretty much determined by her age at marriage, he calculates that if half of all French women were married only two years earlier than they do, France would regain its replacement birth rate of 2.1 children per couple. The demographic gap from World War I would soon be filled. If demography is destiny, the suffering from France’s century-old losses has been passed down from generation to generation like a malevolent heirloom. A simple rise in fertility would go a long way toward restoring the French nation.

Rarely has sociology served literature so well as in I Used to Be French. Anthropology has often informed literature, notably in Saul Bellow’s greatest novel Henderson the Rain King, but anthropology has the advantage of the exotic. Philosophy, law, and other learned disciplines have served as points of departure for other writings, but until now, sociology has not appeared to offer much to the literary imagination. Yet here, the characteristically French inter-weaving of Biography and History takes the reader on a Grand Tour of comparative national cultures, inter-generational transmission of customs, and family dynamics.

Delacroix gets an extraordinary amount of ethnographic mileage out of his growing-up experiences. Early on, he describes how he often got into trouble at school for ‘talking back’ (répondre), or worse, for creating a ‘bad spirit’ (faire du mauvais esprit), which meant, as he defines it, talking back in a way that suggested error on the teacher’s part. He was also often cited for ‘singularizing himself’ (faire du genre). Who knew the French language was so replete with terms for suppressing individuality? Just as Eskimos have numerous words for snow, the French, it seems, revel in words designed to put young independent thinkers in the wrong. Even on the way to and from school, our hero follows a wayward path, le chemin des écoliers, always an indirect path with diversions emanating from his own esprit. This book itself is an example of the style of thought that came naturally to him in childhood, exploring whatever digressions the matter at hand suggests. The reader, in my view, is better off for this, as the past or future context of every story is fully elucidated. Much has become clear to the author in hindsight that he had little awareness of at the time; this gradual awakening of self-consciousness, this éducation sentimentale in Flaubert’s phrase, is an integral part of the story of I Used to be French. The very things that got him into trouble at school became over time a guiding light for his later professional career, and a source of pride. He writes I wouldn’t mind if they wrote on my tombstone: ‘Il répondait; il faisait du genre; il avançait par détours.

Our hero’s tour of duty in the French Navy thus inspires sociological inquiry: How could a person harboring such strong (not to say rabid) resistance to authority find a welcome home in a military organization? For one very important thing, the Navy fed him well (this is France, after all). For another, it made use of his English linguistic skills, in one instance saving the Captain from what would otherwise have been an embarrassing (or worse) misunderstanding of NATO instructions. It enabled him to visit ports all around the Mediterranean, this at a time when individual travel was prohibitively expensive. The Navy also proved to be surprisingly accommodating to enterprise and initiative. Delacroix chalks up his Navy experience as a persuasive argument for hierarchical, formal, rule-bound organizations, in spite of his general distaste for bureaucracy.

There’s more: From personal experience in the French Navy and then later in the ranks of academia, he understands that all organizations need unimaginative management. And he understands himself well enough to see that managing unruly people like himself is really a thankless task. As Delacroix puts it, The basic problem is this: People who have a good time doing well whatever they are doing rarely desire the headaches that go with management positions. Who in the world would want to manage the likes of me, I ask myself? You would pretty much have to be a little stupid or neurotically engaged with the exercise of power for its own sake. Perhaps it’s both. So, within formal organizations, the not-so-great inexorably rise. Thus, in our world of organizations, competent, intelligent, sane individuals chronically find themselves bossed around by the professionally less competent. Voila! — the essence of bureaucracy unveiled.

Wisely, Delacroix chooses not to bore the reader with the petty disputes endemic in academia. Feminism he dismisses as a fraudulent cabal of upper-class women masquerading as a people’s movement [that] has accomplished little beyond making bad grammar obligatory. People who cultivate anti-Americanism and Francophilia, which often go hand in hand, exhibit execrable taste: If you placed small turds on their plates decorated with parsley and splashed with guaranteed organic raspberry vinegar, and called them ‘escarmerdes,’ they would profess them delicious and exquisitely refined. The title of this autobiography is more a reflection of the distaste the author feels for such people than a completely accurate statement of his nationality. In America one can be American without giving up one’s birth-nationality; though trading on one’s original nationality for political or personal advantage is another despicable practice that he wants no part of. Much of Delacroix’ professional career in sociology was devoted to documenting that leadership and management play almost no part in organizational performance; this, together with a disinclination to suffer fools gladly, complicated professional relationships in the business school where he taught for 20 years. How did our hero survive 20 years in the politically-correct jungle of academia?

The answer, in a word, is diving. That, and all it symbolized, together with a life on the idyllic California coast that expanded the summers of Brittany to three-quarters of the year. The abalone-gathering and fish-spearing skills honed in Brittany found welcome application in California. It is not only physical prowess that he celebrates, though he is not shy in this book about mentioning that. Underwater, matching wits with a fish or an abalone takes an entirely different sort of thinking than that prevalent in academia. Though Delacroix does not go so far as to say so, I suspect he would not credit his fellow-academics with intelligence superior to that of fish. But he has bigger fish to fry:

I claim that diving transformed me because it summoned forth a part of my mind that would in all likelihood have remained dormant without it. When you are 25 feet underwater (a modest depth), holding your breath while trying to spear a fish with a rubber-band gun, neither brawn nor brain matters much. The reality is that the slowest fish can out-swim you and it’s hellishly hard to think like a fish. Instead, instinct, or perhaps, intuition, must take over. Accordingly, thousands of hours of diving taught me to temper with intuition the skeptical rationalism that is my first inclination. That I cannot explain how, much less prove how, does not cancel out the fact that I speared that fast fish, located that single, hidden lobster, I tell myself.

Even more than the fact that no one else in his milieu had remotely similar skills or experiences, the exercise of instinctual, visceral, intuitive understanding gives tremendous satisfaction. If this book inspires readers to recall and develop their own visceral experiences, it will have served both a pleasurable and useful purpose indeed.

Catch of the Day, photogravure etching, Peter Miller

Catch of the Day, photogravure etching, Peter Miller

The enormously rich and varied culture of France has somehow produced a literature of astonishingly frank confession in unlikely co-existence with a literature of dogmatic rationalism. So it is with Delacroix’ I Used to Be French. How France produced both a Rousseau and a Voltaire, or, to take another unlikely pair, both a Flaubert and a Descartes, I cannot even guess. My only regret on Delacroix’ behalf — though it is not one that he shares, I hasten to add — is that he seems to have gone overboard on the rationalism. I say this because I believe the quest for self-understanding is unattainable, though there is some benefit in making the effort. He writes: While recognizing the useful part of intuition in my pursuits, in the end, I am glad I grew up a narrow rationalist: On a small number of indelible occasions, I was so strikingly lucky in my underwater quest for edible preys that I was at risk of becoming a fetish-worshiper. Ultimately, I might have persuaded myself that I was descended from some giant grouper, from some legendary spiny lobster, or even from some brainless abalone, and that the totemic ancestor was looking after me, personally! If the sources of human behavior, our likes and dislikes, our loves and hates, our ‘no-matter-what’ efforts, are beyond rational comprehension, then rational explanation will only take us some part of the way toward enlightenment. Where rationalism is most useful, as French history itself shows, is in restraining the excesses of religious or revolutionary zeal. As an end-in-itself, rationalism is not enough. Delacroix’ account of his life aspires at times to a sort of ethnography that is ultimately less than a full account, because it reposes too much faith in rational exposition. In an autobiography, of course one is obliged to present as honest a self-portrait as possible; fabrication would be out-of-bounds. I would only suggest that there is more to any life-story than can be encompassed in rational understanding.

Delacroix’ emigration story nevertheless provides an emotionally satisfying and realistic account of an extraordinary journey. ‘Brittany stamped itself into my mind, he writes, and into my heart early and deeply. It represented most of the part of life where good things happened regularly and frequently rather than occasionally. It was a topography of the heart. In California I was able to make a decent and pleasant living near the sea… and it’s spring and summer for nine or ten months in a row — that’s compared to the rainy or foggy non-summer months in Brittany. Only in hindsight does the move seem so well-calculated to please: I cannot brag that careful planning presided over this satisfactory transplantation of several thousand miles, across significant cultural hedges. Mostly, I just followed a powerful instinct reinforced by much intuition and by only a little knowledge, a little discernment. You might say that le chemin des écoliers took me here. The compromise is not perfect. For all its celebrated beauty, the coast of central California where I live (it includes Big Sur) is not as satisfying aesthetically to me as the Brittany shore. It does not offer the human scale of Brittany nor the subtle inter-penetration of sea and human settlements made of granite and slate. And there are few harbors here, one every fifty or one hundred miles or more. There is no chance to sail to the next small town harbor for a lunch of raw oysters as you can do all over Brittany.

Breton coast, early 20th C

Breton coast, early 20th C

Scenes like this would have been common in his grandparents’ day, and are probably not far from the memories of long-time residents of Brittany.

The world’s immigration flows include stories of far more extreme duress than this, from the Irish potato famine to people fleeing current-day wars, to boatloads of people risking death at sea to leave their countries of origin. Many will wander the earth for years or decades, a semi-permanent diaspora, others will wind up in temporary settlements dependent on unwilling hosts or charities. A few lucky ones will wash up on America’s shores, there to discover as Delacroix did that ‘you take what you have and make the best of it’. Not a bad fate, all in all.

I Used to Be French is available from Amazon. Due to Kindle’s unfortunate closed-system format, it cannot be copied to other devices without using invasive apps. The print edition is available from the author at iusedtobefrench@gmail.com .

A Case of Mistaken Identity

The perils of faulty scholarship of prints and seals

Scene: A gathering of the Moscow elite — oligarchs, actresses, writers, artists, a soupçon of French and Italian aristocrats. Fine wine flowed freely, like the décotellages of the ladies disrobed of their endangered-species furs. Political scandals and international affairs having been exhausted, the talk turned naturally to the Old Days. ‘I just adore medieval seals’, one of the most gorgeous paragons of Russian cinema let slip in a moment of inebriated abandon. ‘Particularly the double-eagle Sarwerden — fierce and gentle, soaring and grounded, at the same time’, she went on, as the guests abandoned their own lines of enquiry and tuned in, ineluctably drawn to the stunningly shapely woman’s surprisingly erudite repartee.

‘The Sarwerden is so simple, yet so much more elegant than the later Baroque versions,’ she said as she turned effusively in my direction, her Hermes 24 Faubourg wafting toward my nostrils and mingling with the scents of cognac and brandy. ‘Don’t you think so?’ And suddenly, her mischievous eyes, eyes that had transfixed every man within sight of them, turned to me imploringly as if seeking a cue to help her recall some lost lines, and declared, ‘You’re an artist! What exactly was the year of the Sarwerden double-eagle seal?’ ‘1145’, I said unhesitatingly, as if I were completely attuned to Larisa’s (for that was her name) infatuation with medieval seals. The look of relief that came over her face at this revelation was palpable. It expressed the completion of her most secret desires, and an instant command of History that excited the envy of everyone in the room (and beyond — word of such matters travels fast). And given the presence of several whose families could themselves easily be traced to that very date, this was no small feat.

Hardly had she had a chance to express her fondest gratitude to me than one of the menials pouring the drinks breathed a stage whisper intimating ‘Sorry, Guv’nor, it was 1185 — see here, this Byzantine style didn’t make it to Europe until well after the middle of the 12th century’. Larisa instantly turned her lovely back to me, as did everyone else, which was not easy to do, as they were all dispersed throughout a very large set of rooms. But so intense was their disgust at what struck all and sundry as a sort of fraud on my part, that it was as if I, theretofore an honoured guest, had suddenly become a non-person.

After the Party, photogravure etching

After the Party, photogravure etching

A silent parting opened up, with that exaggerated politeness that European aristocrats and Russian arrivistes use to express their uttermost contempt, enabling me to exit the scene without further embarrassment. And so, beset by a shame deeper than that of Raskolinikov after he took an ax to a defenseless old woman, I walked out into the cold Moscow night, my worn-out overcoat pitifully impotent against the icy wind coming off the Moscow River. I stared at the river below, which seemed to beckon me into its cold embrace, a vision of Larisa appearing just beneath its wavy surface…

Art As Experience: Three Islands in the Inland Sea

Art as Experience
Three Islands in the Inland Sea: Naoshima-Teshima-Inujima

In 1934, John Dewey wrote in Art As Experience of that feeling of exquisite intelligibility and clarity we have in the presence of an of an object that is experienced with aesthetic intensity…. We are, as it were, introduced into a world beyond this world which is nevertheless the deeper reality of the world in which we live in our ordinary experiences. This happens in particular when means and ends coalesce, when the artwork is merely a medium for conducting the viewer into this larger appreciation. If it exists solely as an object, for example as a relic or decoration that has lost its connection with lived experience, then whatever inspirational power it may once have had is gone. This vital truth of art as experience has been discovered and re-discovered by all artists who seek active engagement with the products of their imaginations.

The Tadao Ando-designed Chi-chu (Earth-Ground) Museum on Naoshima stakes its claims of significance on this very precept. In opposition to the traditional role of museums as repositories of art objects, the Chi-chu Museum seeks to create, or actually impose, an experience. And in opposition to the traditional role of architecture to provide shelter, warmth, and a supportive environment for the art of living or working, the Chi-chu Museum offers instead a jarring and occasionally disturbing experience.

Chi-chu Museum, Naoshima

Chi-chu Museum, Naoshima

Tadao Ando’s signature brut-concrete design with its narrow corridors, sensory deprivation, courtyards of rock fragments contained by high walls, and absurd sequence of up- and down-stairs brings to mind nothing so much as a prison. The effect is accentuated by the arbitrary authority of officious wardens trained to herd visitors into dark corners where they must line up and wait to change footwear. This is necessitated by the floor tiles having been left ungrouted, another design feature that is undoubtedly part of Ando’s genius for removing any smidgen of comfort from the building. Within this sanctum are three hazy Monets.

Next up is a James Turrell light fixture. After another wait and footwear-change, one is ushered into a room with what appears to be a glowing lavender wall at the top of some black stairs. Suddenly from behind and through this lavender ‘wall’ appears the previous group of visitors. Then the next group ascends the black steps, and, like vestal virgins performing a Greek rite, or like characters in ‘Star Trek’, walks through the lavender ‘wall’. Bathed in an oddly soothing lavender light, suddenly a buzzer sounds loudly as someone inevitably approaches the invisible edge too closely. As the eyes grow accustomed to the pervasive lavender, the white wall behind turns an intense and deep shade of yellow. This is due entirely to an optical illusion created by the lavender-immersion. Descending the black steps, the wall ahead again turns white — a curious experience.

The third of the trio of light-artists, Walter de Maria, offers a 2.2-meter-diameter marble globe flanked by gilded wooden posts on either side of a sloping mini-ampitheatre of a room. A small rectangular skylight changes its reflected position during the day. As neither the skylight nor the door is large enough for the globe to fit through, the entire room must have been built expressly for this object.

Walter de Maria installation, ChiChu Museum

Walter de Maria installation, ChiChu Museum

With unlimited wealth, it says, you can do just about anything you please. The largesse is from Benesse Corporation, a Japanese company that owns Berlitz and various test-prep schools, and its chairman, billionaire Soichiro Fukutake. At a ticket price of 2,060 Yen — that’s about 400 Yen per artwork — visitors may be forgiven for wondering whether ‘Chi-chu’ should be translated as ‘Cheat-you’.

A row of Hiroshi Sugimoto photos

A row of Hiroshi Sugimoto photos

Sprinkled elsewhere on Naoshima are pieces from other luminaries of contemporary art. Complementing Ando’s signature slanted brut-concrete walls are Lee Ufan’s brush-marks, Yayoi Kusama’s polka-dot squash, and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s sea-and-sky half-and-half-tones. Each trademark has attained the readily recognizeable status of an avant-garde brand of remarkable longevity, despite or perhaps because of styles that are mannered to the point of obsession.

Yayoi Kusama squash, Naoshima

Yayoi Kusama squash, Naoshima

The Benesse Hotel, another Ando project, has a less forbidding aspect than the Museum, as a hotel must make some concessions to its quasi-residential purpose. Ando’s real forte appears to be walls built seemingly without purpose, like this one which is both monumental and curiously natural at once.

Tadao Ando, Staircase and wall, Naoshima

Tadao Ando, Staircase and wall, Naoshima

Neighbor island Teshima, 20 minutes by boat from Naoshima, has abundant natural-spring water and terraced rice-fields. Set in the midst of these is the Teshima Art Museum, which evokes this environment with a concrete-shell building by Pritzker-prize-winning architect Ryue Nishizawa, in which water bubbles forth and flows along a very gradually sloped floor to form little rivers and lakes, designed by the artist Rei Naito. Visitors sit on the floor or walk around in hushed silence, observing this for hours (as I did). It is a little like living inside a Lava-lite. As I got into it, I started wondering about the fate of this or that water droplet, where the slope of the floor would carry it, whether it would link up with others or go its own way, or end up with its identity submerged into the larger whole. It is clearly the most thought-provoking art experience on all three islands.

Ricefield, Teshima

Ricefield, Teshima

Situated on a remote corner of Teshima is an exhibit (for 510 Yen) consisting of over-amplified heart-beats in a dark room lit only by occasional blasts of a strobe-light, like a nightmarish rock-concert. Contained in a building with the obligatory wood-burnt-to-a-black-crisp exterior (symbolizing the distress within), the exhibit is accompanied by an elaborate volume of explanatory material, which can be skipped without detriment to one’s education (as could the entire exhibit). cb

Teshima’s unique wave-like style of rock wall construction, on view in the village overlooking the Museum, and the sea-grass in the ocean off Naoshima, are some of the most memorable ‘exhibits’ the islands have to offer.

Teshima wall of waves

Teshima wall of waves


Sea-grass, Naoshima

Sea-grass, Naoshima

The third island, Inujima, features yet another hyper-modern art museum. This one amplifies the customary dark-corridors-and-bright-lights routine with mirrors. Numerous corners are turned, disorientation ensues, yet the orange orb is visible at every turn, due to large mirrors mounted at 45-degree angles. But that’s not all.

Inujima Museum interior

Inujima Museum interior

The remains of a house that once belonged to Yukio Mishima were transported to these very premises and suspended in reference to the famous writer who had never visited the island. Note the toilet set in a faux-raked-sand garden, a snarky reference to Duchamp (get it? The Venice Biennale did, in 2010).

Remains of Mishima's house brought to Inujima

Remains of Mishima's house brought to Inujima

Next door is a former copper smeltery and power plant, victims of a sudden drop in copper prices long ago. Had the company survived to witness the current high prices for copper, it might still be providing useful employment for the island’s residents. Not to worry, though, they have acquired new skills involving abstruse explanations of the finer points of the smoke-and-mirrors, dark corridors, and disembodied real estate on display.

Power plant ruin, Inujima

Power plant ruin, Inujima

The Naoshima – Teshima – Inujima art complex as a whole succeeds in its apparent aim of moving viewers away from the notion of ‘art as object’, and involving, indeed engulfing, the viewer in the overall installation. This movement comes at a rather high price — averaging 400 to 500 Yen per artwork, many times higher than, say, the Louvre — and, more disturbingly, repeated exposure to dark corridors, flashing lights, over-amplified sounds, bizarre up-and-down routings, and similar manifestations of the post-modern mindset. The experience of sensory deprivation combined with arbitrary authority is more an exercise in aversive conditioning than anything else. But to what purpose? Are we being conditioned to accept uncritically the diktats of these purveyors of malevolence?

Surely it is possible to connect art with lived experience in more edifying ways.

Clairvoyant

This book — Clairvoyant — is the result of cooperation across vast distances that I am tempted to call miraculous, were it not for the consummate craftsmanship of all those responsible for it. Roman Kames, in Paris, is both an artist and book designer. He teaches art to students in Ladakh, and brings its elemental scenes of sun, moon, and mountain to canvas and paper. His dedication to this publication ensured that the printing, by imprimerie Daniel in Prague, would be done with the utmost fidelity to the original photogravures. Roman Kames’ design of the book is elegant and simple, a portfolio format with 200-gram Tintoretto paper that gracefully sets off the artwork.

Marie Parra-Aledo, who lives and works in Avignon, is a true philosophe, thoroughly versed in art-history, in the culture of Japan where she worked for six years, and in the deep connections between the arts and life. I first noticed her writing in a French magazine brought to me by friends in Japan, and immediately knew that she would be the ideal person to write the Introduction to this book. I confirmed this later when we met, and in every subsequent meeting. I, and more importantly my readers, are most fortunate to have this essay of hers.

She writes that engraving, making a mark on paper or on the ground, inscribes memory itself, linking the earliest gestures with our thoughts today:

Aussi loin que nous transporte notre mémoire vers les premiers gestes d’art, dans les temps les plus reculés de notre histoire d’hommes et donc de createurs, nous rencontrons les actes immemoriaux qui modelèrent la matière pour pérenniser la mémoire, avant la maitrise de la couleur et de la representation de la forme, que probablement les sillons pénétrant la matière révélèrent à travers un relief ou une transparence. Graver, marquer la matière pour inscrire la mémoire.

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Marie Parra-Aledo notes also how the engraved print merges with the scene that inspired it, realizing our dreams in romantic visions that evoke rather than represent the mystery of our existence:

Mais ici, loin de ces fonctions de répresentation, l’objet artistique est une vision romantique de la vie qui nous transpose dans le monde mystérieux de la reverie humaine, en osmose avec l’espace et le paysage naturels.

Second Spring, photogravure etching by Peter Miller

Second Spring, photogravure etching by Peter Miller

About Jean-Yves Couteau, Conseiller Général d’Indre-et-Loire, a mutual friend observed ‘Il aime les gens‘. ‘He likes people’ — one can hardly think of a better qualification for public office. And indeed he brings a great joie de vivre to his numerous official duties, which in the course of a day might include introducing me at the vernissage of my exhibit, performing several weddings, meeting with foreign diplomats, and working out a budgetary consensus in the Département. Public officials and visitors alike considered it perfectly natural that an American artist living in Japan would exhibit photogravure etchings in the Touraine, such is the international culture of the region. M Couteau’s preface to the book is as gracious as his remarks at the vernissage.

Vernissage, pavillon Charles X

Vernissage, pavillon Charles X

So this book, Clairvoyant, is a monument to the superb contributions of Roman Kames, imprimerie Daniel, Marie Parra-Aledo, and Jean-Yves Couteau, as well as being a beautifully printed collection of 14 of the photogravures from the exhibit.

22 x 22 cm, 20 pages, ISBN: 978-2-908120-25-7.

Clairvoyant can be ordered online at http://kamprint.com/clairvoy.html where the 14 photogravures included in the book may be viewed.

Clairvoyant cover

Clairvoyant cover