May 21, 2012  |  Intern Chronicles, Viewpoints
A Seamless Whole: New Conceptions of Time and Space in Japan

“The world is one, a seamless whole, for those who can see it; for those who can learn to observe, to regard, to understand.”—Donald Richie

The hallway leading into Kurenboh, a "meditation gallery" attached to the Chohouin Buddhist Temple of Kuramae, Tokyo

As I emerged from Kurenboh, a gallery tucked away in the Kuramae area of Tokyo, the words of Donald Richie, former Curator of Film at MoMA (1969–72), resonated in my mind. A few moments before, I had been sitting cross-legged, in silence, on the pristine white floor of the gallery. This miniature, minimalist space, run by Akiyoshi Taniguchi, is attached to the Chohuin Buddhist Temple where Taniguchi fulfils the dual role of priest and curator. It cannot be defined as a white cube, for every possible corner in the space has been rounded in the architect Makoto Yokomizo’s design. Standing in the gallery, it is as if you are in a limitless space, a seamless whole, to which there seems to be no beginning or end. On the walls of this serene void hang a careful selection of black-and-white photographs that comprise the current exhibition of Japanese photographer Chihiro Minato. In this intimate environment, where time seems to stand still, one’s perception is sharpened. As Taniguchi explains, “The gallery aims to calm the mind of the visitor, to enable him or her to concentrate entirely on the art at hand, to wander mentally within the universe of the artist, and through this, to have a little of the kind of transcendent experience that, following another path, people have sought to reach through the disciplines of Buddhist meditative practice.” The space allows one to contemplate the works with a degree of intensity and focus that I had never experienced within a gallery context. Taniguchi explained to me that the space was about much more than the work itself, that it allowed the viewer to gain a heightened experience of looking and understanding not only at artwork but at one’s self. He remarked that within this context the photographs function as mirrors, allowing the viewer to look inside themselves.

Installation view of exhibition of photographs by Chihiro Minato, Mind the 'Ma', at Kurenboh. Image courtesy of Akiyoshi Taniguchi

Throughout my recent trip to Japan with my colleague and friend Allison Tepper, my conceptions of time and space were continually challenged and expanded, both through my experiences of observing everyday life and through viewing artworks by a diverse range of Japanese artists. The initial impetus behind my trip was a desire to pursue a visual experience outside of my primarily Western one. My starting point was my understanding that time and space had historically played an important part in Japanese culture, from the tradition of Ukiyo-e prints, a genre of woodblocks of leisure scenes translated as “prints of the floating world,” to the slow movements of Noh theatre to fusama, the interchangeable sliding doors integral to interior architecture. I wanted to see how these concepts had evolved in the work of contemporary Japanese artists.

Installation views of Cosmic Travelers - Toward the Unknown, on view at Espace Louis Vuitton Tokyo. Shown: Tomoko Shioyasu. Flowing Sky. 2011–12. Paper, metal, light. © Jérémie Souteyrat/Espace Louis Vuitton Tokyo

Tomoko Shioyasu. Flowing Sky (detail). 2011–12. Paper, metal, light. © Jérémie Souteyrat/Espace Louis Vuitton Tokyo

At Espace Louis Vuitton, a striking glass box-shaped gallery perched high above the Louis Vuitton store in Omotesando, we visited an exhibition titled Cosmic Travelers – Toward the Unknown, focusing on the recent work of five Japanese artists. One of the most intriguing pieces was Flowing Sky (2011–12) by Tomoko Shioyasu, an artist who works with synthetic paper. In the gallery, a long ream hangs from the ceiling, with the extraordinarily detailed papercuts that punctuate the sheet casting two separate delicate shadows across the floor. We met with the Director of Espace Louis Vuitton, Christine Vendredi-Auzanneau, who described Shioyasu’s meditative working process to us. She sits on the floor with a scroll of paper, rolling out one tatami mat-sized work surface at a time, meticulously cutting and piercing into the material by hand. In fact, Shioyasu herself had not seen the work in its rolled-out entirety until one week before the exhibition opened.

The traditional method of Kiri-e (the Japanese art of papercutting) is regenerated in Shioyasu’s hands. She never works from a strict plan; rather the patterns emerge intuitively, evoking natural forms such as leaves, running water, or intricate rock formations. The carefully controlled conception of space in the process of making the work is released and expanded in the exhibition space, now literally floating in the air. The shadows cast by the work overlap and encroach into the other works in the room, as if growing seamlessly out of or into them. Midori Nishizawa, curator of the exhibition, explains that the word “cosmic” in the exhibition title can refer to “limitlessness and infinity with diverse implications,” a notion that is perpetuated in Shioyasu’s work.

Kumi Machida. Mountain. 2011. Etching, aquatint, spit bite, collage and hand color with chin-colle printing. Image courtesy of Kido Press

During a visit to print workshop Kido Press, Master Printer Hitoshi Kido showed us Kumi Machida’s most recent etchings from 2011. These were her first set of unique prints (all her previous prints were made after her paintings), and depict haunting creatures with delicate hand-applied additions, such as a white tissue paper veil draped over a head. Machida had explained to Kido that in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that took place in Japan last year, she had felt that a strong power from above was silently watching this horror and she wanted to create an “imaginative response” to this. Before 2011, Kido had never asked the artists he worked with to date their works, but since these natural disasters he has asked them to include this detail. A sense of specificity seems to have gained resonance in present day Japan, alongside more expansive notions of time and space.

The outdoor component of Magazine Library in Nakameguro, Tokyo

As we wandered through Nakameguro later that day, we happened to pass a courtyard that opened out onto the pavement interspersed with waist-height tables adorned with recent publications. We were drawn off the street, and soon discovered that this display was an extension of the Magazine Library, a traveling exhibition of contemporary print media, magazines, and independent publications (many of which were also on display at MoMA as part of the exhibition Millennium Magazines). Magazine Library blurs the boundary of exhibition space and pavement, engaging the viewer by slowing their pace. The exhibition context claims a new conception of time and space, in a very quotidian setting.

Exterior view from Magazine Library

Magazine Library interior

On my final day in Japan, we were extremely fortunate to visit the avant-garde artist and composer Mieko Shiomi at her home in Osaka. Amongst wonderful recollections of her childhood, she stressed how careful observations of gradual transitions of sunsets and moon cycles have provided the foundation for much of her work. The processes of nature seem fundamental to Japanese culture, in which time is merely defined by how long it takes for a cycle to complete itself. Even then, time is not confined, for the essence of a cycle is that it continues and repeats itself again as part of a seamless whole.

“To live naturally with time, says Asia, is to pay no attention to it. And Japan, despite its modernization, still subscribes to this ancient tradition.”—Donald Richie


Quotes from: Richie, Donald. A Lateral View: Essays on Culture and Style in Contemporary Japan. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 1992.