Starting May 11, 2010, all of Refractions essays (future and past) will be moved to the "writings" section of newly redesigned www.makotofujimura.com
I was one of the first artists to have a website, as I had a privilege to work with a young html wiz Hai Nyuen in 1994 who developed the early Sotheby's website. He wanted to experience on an artist's website and I was his guinea pig!
Now, I have a web design wiz of my own - Ty Fujimura Thanks to his many hours of hard work, I am delighted to have a up to date, clean interface with iPad functionality.
Please check it out, and with a full searcheable engine built within the "writings" site, any topic (look up "van Gogh" for example) would come up very easily. We'd love to get your feedback so let us know... If you currently subscribe to an RSS feed on this blog site, please change your subscription to www.makotofujimura.com/writings/feed
Annie is delighted, but the transfixed vision is only given for a moment as the young Peter, a child with a blacksmith's hand, wipes at the butterfly, crushing it.
In order to pass the B.A. examination, it was, also, necessary to get up Paley's Evidences of Christianity, and his Moral Philosophy. . . The logic of this book and as I may add of his Natural Theology gave me as much delight as did Euclid.
Such a pang for the existence of the soul may be a prerequisite of modernity: perhaps a badge of honor for those who insist on "pursuit of truth." "There was a time," H.G. Wells wrote, "when my little soul shone and was uplifted by the starry enigma of the sky. That has now disappeared. I go out and look at the stars in the same way I look at wallpaper." We see beauty as flat, perceptible gain, when our eyes long to be opened to the fullness of what they were created for; extravagance, and use-less beauty. A materialist no longer can see beauty.
My next Refractions (34) called "The Artist and the Beautiful: Hawthorne, Darwin and the Watchmaker" will be out soon.
I am deeply saddened by the passing of Ralph McInerny. I wrote about my experience of sitting next to him on the bus as I accompanied The Presidential Committee of Arts and Humanities in our delegation trip to China in 2005. Here's my Refractions link from that essay called "Traveling in China with Father Dowling."
Dr. Thomas S. Hibbs of Baylor University who wrote for Rouault & Fujimura catalogue, writes an eloquent tribute to Ralph on First Things. It's worth your read and contemplation. Note also tributes from his students and friends below. This was an extraordinary man of intellect and grace.
Last time we met, we were at the White House celebration of National Medal of the Arts and Humanities. Here's pictures from then: my wife Judy, an avid reader of mystery books and a Catholic, was so delighted to meet him to fellowship with him.
PRESS RELEASE: Through Fujimura, New York Produces its Bible
Contact Angie Cheatham: 630.868.6043 or Media@Crossway.org
Renowned artist and writer Makoto Fujimura is not shy about the importance of his latest project. “Whether I like it or not, this is what I will be remembered by,” Fujimura asserts. “I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that it is a commission of the decade, if not more,” says Valerie Dillon, whose Dillon Gallery is Fujimura’s main exhibitor.
The commission is an illuminated manuscript published by Crossway, to commemorate the four hundred year anniversary of The King James Bible, set to be released January 2011. The leather-bound English Standard Version of the Bible, printed with a six-color metallic process, will comprise the four Gospels as designed and illustrated by Fujimura. Five major new works, painted in the artist’s Manhattan studio, will be the volume’s main images, making this the first such manuscript to feature abstract contemporary art in lieu of traditional representational illustrations. It is this unprecedented marriage of a modern, usually secular art form with ancient scripture that most interests Fujimura, who aims to depict “the greater reality that the Bible speaks of... for the pure sake of integrating faith and art in our current pluralistic, multicultural world.”
The artist is quintessentially multicultural. Born in Boston to Japanese parents, Fujimura lived in three countries before the age of ten. While attending school in Japan and the US, he met and married an American woman, then became a New Yorker. He is both culturally and literally bilingual, a seasoned navigator of the uneasy overlap between East and West. But he also traverses the deeper divide between the art world and the church. As an Artist and a Christian rather than a Christian Artist, Fujimura is Crossway’s ideal candidate, an individual defined by the very juxtapositions this Bible will display.
Fujimura’s work also fits the commission. As a student of Nihonga, a Japanese technique dating to the 8th century, Fujimura and his classmates at the Tokyo University of Fine Art set out to “[break] with tradition in order to revitalize and expand the art form,” according to Dillon. The Dillon Gallery is the foremost Western gallery representing contemporary Nihonga artists. The work of that group, which includes Hiroshi Senju, Norihiko Saito and Chen Wenguang, created an “entirely new approach to Nihonga,” a synthesis between traditional and modern techniques.
Fujimura is not alone in his complexity. Sociologist Tony Carnes sees Fujimura as part of a “global religious transformation,” the result of blurring lines between mainstream and religious culture. Another recent illustrated manuscript of Genesis, by decidedly secular illustrator R. Crumb, is evidence of this shift.
Fujimura also recognizes this movement, saying “the Age of Faith is coming.” This illuminated manuscript, painted in Midtown Manhattan by a cultural navigator like Fujimura, will be further affirmation. “Jesus is a New Yorker,” Carnes says. “And he’s got an illustrated Bible.”
Fujimura’s latest show, Soliloquies, is a joint exhibition with 20th century French painter Georges Rouault. It is on view at Dillon Gallery through December 24.
1300 Crescent Street t 630.682.4300 Wheaton, Illinois 60187 f 630.682.4785
Myriads of Parisians, returning home from work, rushed about in the square in front of Gare de Lyon station. "He would have been able to see Seine river," Gilles Rouaut told me, and pointed to far horizon where the newer buildings now block the view. He stroked the chair his grandfather would have sat, and showed me a photo of Georges Rouault with Marthe, wife of over fifty years, to the opposite end of the window. Georges Rouault (1871 - 1954) was a keen observer of people, and he must have enjoyed watching the square from his window. He painted figures and portraits as "a fit object of grace, while more visibly born in and for suffering." He sought out the marginalized poor, prostitutes, clowns, politicians; to him Kings and homeless were equally significant as his symbol of brokenness. But ultimately they, especially the misfits, were celebrated as God's chosen manifestation of light into darkness. I asked Gilles if this area was popular area for artists to live, having just walked about the gentrified "creative zone" nearby filled with design studios, art students, and cafes. "No," Gilles told me, " back then this area was not very popular among artists." Gare de Lyon area does not have the charm of Montmartre, where Rouault once painted with late-impressionsists like Degas, or the intellectual rigor of St. Andre-des-Arts, where Sartre and other existentialists would have discussed philosophy; no, what you see, and must have been from Rouault's studio were scenes of ordinary people mingled about in a theatre of life.
Georges Rouault, Reine de cirque, 18.8x12.4x1 in
We should expect Georges Rouault to live where no other artists would live. His work, and his life seem distinct from the conventional creative forces of the time. Picasso, Braques, Brancussi, Matisse and others would have walked about the streets of Paris then, as well as Cezanne if not for the light of Provence in southern France to have lured him back. Georges seemed to live and work from a different sense of time and calling. When the French state began to close down monasteries and ban Bibles from schools, Rouault turned to Catholicism as a result, knowing that such decision would put him at odds with the authorities. He was not a person who accepted conventions at face value; he probed deeply into both the malaise and despair of those around him, and at the same time held to a deep abiding reality of greater hope.
Though he was not overly social, those who knew him, they got to know him well: and they testify to his trustworthiness as a friend. When the French salon master and teacher Gustuv Moreau died in 1898, it was Rouault who was asked to manage and run the estate. But he never seemed to seek attention, to demand the world around him, including the elite society, to pay homage to him. He seemed content to see himself as a craftsman or an artisan, given the task to capture the monumental struggles of a common person,
Rouault was born on the day the ended Prussian-French war. As the casualty mounted for the French Commune, and with no hospital to go to, his mother gave birth to him by herself in the basement shelter. 'I believe [...] that in the context of the massacres, fires and horrors, I have retained (from the cellar in which I was born) in my eyes and in my mind the fleeting matter which good fire fixes and incrusts,' Georges later recounted. His early memories included being taken to Victor Hugo state funeral march in Paris when he was 12. His "ground zero" began at the cellar of his Belleville home, and expanded as he saw the devastation and the fragmentation that would confront him them, and haunt him later as France faced the shadows of Nazis invasion, and then the ideological fragmentation that Modernist intellectual milieu would march forth for the remainder of his life.
Georges Rouault, Miserere series
He never felt comfortable in such a schism, and struggled with depression: the darkness or the broken realities would insist upon him to depict the oppressiveness as is, making some of the early paintings almost unbearable. But eventually his palette would find colors streaking through the somber darkness via the clown's faces, and blemishes of cheeks of the prostitutes. They were becoming his existential statement, as if to force back the darkness, or perhaps more accurately, give grace a chance to shine in the margins of stark and bold lines. Early on, he found refuge in the colors of the stained glass windows that he apprenticed to create, and in the prints that his grandfather, a postal worker, showed him of Manet and Rembrandt from Paris market influencing the young Georges.
In turn, today, Rouault has influenced many. As a student in Tokyo, I once asked a zen master of calligraphy who among the western masters he admired the most. He replied "Georges Rouault...because his lines contain the weight of life." And in many conversations among artists and intellectuals, especially in Japan, Rouault's name pops up as a major influencer for them. Recently I had the privilege of spending some time with contemporary American great Chuck Close, and he told me of his high admiration for Rouault. "I wanted to buy one of Rouault's prints as a student at Yale," he said, " but just could not afford it." For an art student to even consider buying an artwork, would be the greatest show of admiration.
With such respected following among artists, one would think that Rouault would be positioned among the greats, such as Picasso, or Matisse, who was a close friend of Georges. But his reputation never found such foothold, as he continues to confound the critics, never seeming to fit into the neat categories of modernists, abstract expressionism, or, despite exhibiting with them, the Fauves. Why? Rouault's paintings are not ideologically driven, like the modernists, or of pure abstraction, like some of the expressionists, nor hedonistic, like the Fauves: Rouault paintings are faithful depiction of the broken realities of his time, eloquent testimonies of color in fragmentation and graceful reminder of faith in an agnostic, and increasingly atheistic era.
Georges Rouault's paintings are a portal that peaks into the ages past, and then, magically, invites us into a journey toward our future. They transport us to a past beyond the fragmentation of Modernism into the enchantment and mysteries of medieval aesthetic: Before rationality was segregated from passion, and our hearts divorced from faith. Like the stained glass windows he grew to have a "passionate taste"  for their colors, Rouault's world is principally determined by colorist space and not dependent upon traditional formula of illusionistic space. They create in-between space within layers of paint, what contemporary art historian James Romaine called "Grace arenas."  No, they are more than Modernist or Classical, Rouault's paintings "Trans-Modern paintings, "synthesizing bold and calligraphic colors, humble view of humanity, and a prophetic visage of a forgotten reality.
Like the Rembrandts that he valued and imitated as a youth, and Cezanne he celebrated in his letters and poems, Rouault paintings capture not a mere reflective, descriptive light, but Light behind the light, Reality behind reality. They are generative, and seem to grow more and more pregnant as they age. Rouault may yet prove to be the first Twenty-first Century painter, bringing synthesis out of an age of fragmentation. They stand in complete contrast to the path the other modernist artists took, like Picasso and Mondrian, to delineate and dissect reality into flat cerebral spaces. Takashi Murakami, a recent incarnation of his post-Modern visual language states in his "Superflat," essay that flatness is the essence of artistic innovation of recent path and considers "Superflat" as an "-ism, -- like Cubism, Surrealism, Minimalism and Simulationism." Rouault's work was a resistance to this age of "flattened perceptions."
The assumption in "Superflat" is that the reality itself is readable in a flattened perceptions; Rouault spends his entire life and career disputing this fact. Just like in Edwin A. Abbott's "Flatland," a nineteenth century "romance of many dimensions" about a journey in two dimensional universe, a dot approaching toward you in "flatland" may not be what it seems. A resident of a two dimensional world must determine if the "dot" approaching us quietly in the horizon is innocuous, or a huge round ball of an object rolling to crush us but imperceptible in the flat dimension. "Superflat" ism, likewise assumes we can lose dimensionality without much harm. But as twentieth century moved toward the collapse of form and ideas, we lost connection with the fully orbed dimensional reality. Into that increasingly flat world Rouault gives flesh to the synthesis of these alienated elements. In doing so, he may even be warning us, from his vantage point of the early twentieth century, that the "dot" rolling toward us may not as innocuous as it may look.
When modernism depicted chasms of splintered conditions, Rouault's little paintings shed light into that room. When the prevailing notion of the existentialism posted "No Exit" signs in our studios, Rouault was a little window that looked out into a vision of wholeness. His work awakens us to a greater sensation.
Juhuani Pallasmaa, in "The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses" states:
"The skin reads the texture, weight, density and temperature of matter. The surface of an old object, polished to perfection by the tool of the craftsman and the assiduous hands of its users, seduces the stroking of the hand. It is pleasurable to press a door handle shining from the thousands of hands that have entered the door before us..."
Pallasmaa points out the "flattened perception" in recent architecture designs, and calls for recovery of our fully orbed sensory experience, to design to awaken our holistic being, to have "eyes of the skin."
Similarly, Rouault's work engages us not merely in the visual mode but in this holistic mode, and thus, Murakami's "Superflat" ism does not justice as a proper grid: Rouault paints with the "eyes of the skin" as much as his ocular vision. When modernism created chasms of splintered conditions, both with truncating ideologies, and deprivation of sensory signals, Rouault stubbornly kept painting a small windows of senses, fighting against the dehumanization of visual vocabulary.
As a graduate in student invited National Scholar at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, I, too felt, the oppression of "No Exit" reality. For a modern painter, one of the only avenues to explore was the language of angst and despair. Very similar to Rouault's depiction of his darker images early on, I began to depict sinister elements of nature, and struggled to grasp beyond the closed door of perception handed to me by the philosophical air of our time.
It was then that I encountered the works of Rouault's Passion paintings at The Bridgestone Museum and other Rouault paintings in Idemitsu Museum in Tokyo. At the same time, writing of Jacques Maritain, William Blake whose writings I read in college began to capture my attention again. Japanese, for surprising reasons, have the best collection of Rouault. The post-war intellectual movement of Shirakaba championed artists like Rouault among other continental artists (including William Blake). I made pilgrimages to see these small but heavily painted surfaces.
Georges Rouault, Christ on the Outskirts, Bridgestone Museum, Tokyo
Once in my graduate program studio in Tokyo, one of the assistant professors walked into the studio unannounced. I was working on a semi-abstract painting that I felt was close to finished. He took one look at the painting and said "this painting is so beautiful, it's almost terrifying," and walked out. Immediately I proceeded to wash the painting down, destroying the surface.
Why did I do that? It was because I realized, in honesty, I did not have a room for that kind of beauty inside my heart. I now realize it may have been Rouault's paintings that caused me to pursue the path of "terrible beauty," a path I was not prepared to walk. I was simply astounded that this terrible beauty would be birthed out of my own hands. Philosophically, I did not have the luxury of having beauty to capture and possess my heart.
Jacques Maritain's writings began to affect my philosophical outlook then. His Creative Intuitions in Art and Poetry, a book I had carried around with me since college, began to bring a different outlook: Maritain wrote "For poetry there is no goal, no specifying end. But there is an end beyond. Beauty is the necessary correlative and end beyond any end of poetry". Beauty as a "necessary correlative" of art and poetry, allows for a broader context in which deeper wrestling, and synthesis, can take place.
It was only in reading up on Rouault's life for this exhibit that I discovered that Maritain wrote his seminal Creative Intuition in Art as a summarization of his encounter, and his friendship with Rouault. Little did I realize that this Thomist thinker's overlap with Rouault. It could very well be that while my visual arena was touched by Rouault's "weight of life" paintings, I was concurrently reading, being influenced philosophically by Maritain, without knowing the connection between the two. And, it occurs to me now that I may not have encountered Rouault, and perhaps Maritain, to such an extent if I did not come to Japan.
To Rouault, to create such indelible images, hard labor and discipline is required. Many people today assume that being an artist or musician is irresponsibly drifting into a romantic ease; young artists and musicians may think that as well, until they actually attempt to make it work. Artists actually work longer hours, with lower wages, with no guarantees of security than most other occupations. There is no "nine to five" boundaries for us. But those who make it work, do so knowing that their expression has a place inside more enduring conversations that go deep beneath the culture's superficial terrains. And to Rouault, and often for me, that conversation is rarely with contemporaries, but with artists of the past influences, like Rembrandt or Fra Angelico, or, for my journey, artists like Tohaku Hasegawa. We are caught in the five hundred year conversations. And in such reality, consistency, diligence and commitment to discipline is the only way to gain entry into an enduring conversation.
In Rouault's sun lit studio, I faced a photo showing stacks of paintings. The varnish bottles and used bristles of brushes seem to beckon the master artist to walk in and start working. The heavy impasto of his surfaces, though now completely dry, seemed to give the illusion that it was painted yesterday, still seem to give a slight scent of linseed oil. The tubes of paint lay inside the boxes they came in, somewhat arranged in an ad hoc manner. His process of working allowed parallel progression, and he literally stacked framed paintings on top of each other, working in literal layers. One painting competed against, and even visually bled into, each other. When I visited later the Rouault room at Pompidou, and faced with many paintings with similar colors, I began to, in my mind's eyes, see Rouault painting them in the sun lit little room. Although the paintings used similar motifs and same colors, the series of paintings opened up as completely new creation, unique and distinctive offering.
Georges Rouault painting close up at Pompidou
These colors used in Rouault's are combinations that I was taught avoid in school. Bright yellow and sharp purple never should work well on a painting, nor muted color mixes with black; and yet in Rouault's hands, these "impossible" colors speak deeply and resonate. To observe each painting of Rouaut is to throw away conventions of painting, to watch a literal miracle take place in front of you. This is why, to this day, many painters admire him and see him as their great influence.
Rouault was a painter's painter. Purists seem to gravitate toward his work: what makes him different from Picasso, Matisse, Bonnard , or countless other example of artists from around the same period? Is it the use of colors? Application of paint? Delineation of lines? Rouault's works are unique in their audacity of conviction: an affirmation of the light that lay behind the darkness, and the gestural authority to capture that reality. His works still, so many years after the viscous layers of paint has dried out, teaches us to trust paint. Rouault reminds us that our souls are being squeezed out like fresh paint, directly onto the canvas of modern struggles, raw, pungent and pure, about to be pushed about by a great master. And when we allow ourselves to be moved in such a way, as I did that day at Pompidou, inevitably we begin to notice the visual language Rouault developed all his life, and we may finally begin to truly "see" Rouault's paintings. Let me list three of visual "keys" I've discovered that may help in looking at Rouault paintings.
First visual key is the perspective he often uses. The masterpiece "Christ in the Outskirts" which is at the collection of Bridgestone Museum in Tokyo, depicts Christ with two other figures (children?). The perspective used here is much like the contemporary artist Richard Diebenkorn or Anselm Kiefer, as an "angelic" perspective. The perspective used is not perpendicular to the ground, nor from the ground looking into the horizen: The angle is "angelic" half way between heaven and earth. Recently, at Fuchu Museum in Tokyo, I spoke in front of one of my Twin Rivers of Tamagawa paintings which were displayed there. I noted the use of the same perspective used in Rouault: I had done so unconsciously in my Twin Rivers paintings, imitating Rouault's work. The Outskirts painting influenced countless Japanese masters, including Ryusaburo Umehara, the most significant post war artist that worked in western style.
The second visual key is in the sun/moon in the horizon, often depicted in Rouault paintings. When I see the "Outskirts" painting now, my eyes gravitate up toward the moon in the sky. But then, with Rouault, the moon is not guaranteed to be just a moon.
Very similar to Vincent van Gogh's sun/moon, a symbol of the new Heavens and the new Earth in the Starry Night; but for Rouault, the sun/moon is a Sacramental vision, like the round bread of life offered by the priest at a Mass. Bread of Life, the body of Christ, is superimposed with the sun. In France, Catholic Mass often uses Monstrance, a large round, golden signpost to lift up the Sacramental reality to invite the communicants to encounter worship.
In such a Reality, materiality has direct connection with the sacred, and gives conviction to an artist, like Rouault, to see the spiritual, heavenly presence to manifest itself in reality of earth. If Communion wafer is the actual body of Christ, the intensity of the greater Reality can, in a smaller way, inhabit even ordinary paint. Heaven can, in other words, intervene our ordinary Reality to break forth physically. And this Reality of heaven being manifested on earth is a portal into any earthly reality to be filled with a sacramental possibility.
And as a third key, we must note Rouault's unique use of colors.
During my recent stay in Japan, I traveled to Yamanashi prefecture where Rouault is exhibit at Shirakaba Museum. The Rouault Chapel, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, with a crucifix that Rouault himself hand painted. The 54 Passion paitntings that I saw in Tokyo as a student was collected by Chozo Yoshii of Yoshii Gallery, and he is the principle owner of the museum. In one of the literally journals Shirakaba movement created, Japanese philosopher Sogen Yanagi writes of Rouault's colors:
Beneath the richly painted surface, we hear a song. Sometimes, it is a lamentation sang by those being oppressed, a dirge for those dispersed into the darkness at the end of their suffering...
And yet, what is signified beneath cannot be compared to the power of the colors:
The blue, once the color of the sacred sky by Giotto and stained glass craftsman... (though I believe the emerald of the Passion series is an homage to that), now fallen upon earth as the shadows falling upon the prostitutes' tired skin, or in the exiled outskirts of town in a winter landscape. The red is the color of the clown's nose or the woman's lips, or the judge's ruddy, fat face - but ultimately it is the color of the blood of Christ streaking down from his crown of thorns. The sun is light of yellow, with a touch of occasional red, and at times it reads as ominous color of blood, and at other times the sacred color of the proof of Love. Yellow that is depicting light is layered upon much white underneath, giving it a particular glow, and enhanced sometimes by a top layer of emerald. White is the color of the garment of Christ, but it is also the color of the moon dominating over the night sky cast upon the ash ground in the hallowed evening.
And then, there is black
Yanagi continues to describe the black in Rouault as his most important color, noting, quite correctly that Impressionists did not use black. "Black may not hold a certain worldview: but black holds a definite spiritual outlook." Rouault, to Yanagi, was an artist of the night.
Yanagi correctly states that only in such darkness, recognizing the bleak conditions of the world and the fallen reality of our souls, can Christ's appearance make sense. He is the true Light behind the light. "The hope and love Christ shines into the world, and He is the only Light that will never be extinguished.
One should not be surprised, in following Rouault, to find a philosopher, like Yanagi, who do not identify himself as a Christian write so eloquently of the Biblical realities. That, in essence, is the power of Rouault's universe. He is not merely a "religious" painter: he was the painter of a greater generative Reality, of multiple colors behind our dark, foreboding and destructive world.
Thus in homage to him, my Soliloquies painting begins with a dark background on linen, and minerals are layered on top in the traditional Nihonga technique. As Rouault sought to bring stained glass colors into the darkness, I am literally painting refractive colors into the darkness. As Rouault sought to incarnate God's love into the faces of prostitutes, exiled to the outskirts of culture, so I face my paintings to bring medieval colors to dance, and gold leaf squares to invite the City of God into the hearts of the City of Man.
Makoto Fujimura Soliloquies - Joy, 64x80" Minerals, Gold on Linen
As I stood in the sun filled studio of Rouault in Paris, I pondered the conversations, the thoughts that Georges must have had. He must have been pondering upon Maritain's philosophical musings as he painted one stack of paintings after another. He must have prayed, knowing that his art, too, was a prayer. Rouault and Maritain were instrumental in recovery of integration of faith and art at the time in France where their separation of church an state lead to closing of monasteries and banning of faith teaching in schools. To Rouault, his faith was not a private event, it was connected to the public reality, a threat he felt encroaching upon the whole of humanity. My journey with faith, art and culture has lead me to begin the effort of International Arts Movement, a non-profit arts organization that would champion artists on the "outskirts" like Rouault. Georges and Marthe had three children, as Judy and I, struggling to raise them, not knowing exactly where the next month's income will come from. Standing alone, in Georges' studio, I had an inkling that my struggles were not foreign to him, but that they were inherited, worthy cause, passed down via the corridors of time inviting all of us for the Feast to come.
 William A. Dyrness, "Rouault: A Vision of Suffering and Salvation." Pg. 108, Eerdmans Publishing, 1971
“If (artists) are any good, they make art because they have to ... they don’t do it to please the market ... (an Art fair’s) like a free jazz concert in here, with a drunken monkey working the mixing board.” Dealer Jeff Poe, Seven Days in the Art World, Sarah Thornton (W.W. Norton)
“The audience was a tad restless.” Woody Allen, Annie Hall
She leaned slightly toward her single snare drum, and her dark silk robe moved in the shadows over her lean body. She closed her amber eyes, waiting, perhaps listening for sounds beyond the museum walls.
It was the annual fund raising event for The Kitchen, a bright and decorous affair like any art openings in Chelsea, with a few in spring dresses, but some in designer t-shirts, all mingling with wine, Champaign glasses and canapés. My wife and I mingled about, purveyed the art on the walls, and above the clamor we heard one of the organizers trying to get the crowd’s attention. “We thank you for coming to our annual fundraiser for The Kitchen, and we want to introduce several of our artists.” A poet began to read, but very few seemed to want to pause and listen to him, or, soon after to the quiet gong percussion of a slight built Asian woman. Even as she started to play her notes, the chatter only increased in the periphery of the large Chelsea museum. We inched closer to her to hear the sound of her music.
She was obviously not playing for the crowd.
I approached her after about ten minutes of performance, shook her slim hand and said, “I’m sorry your beautiful sound was drowned in the chatter.” She seemed rather unfazed by it all. Perhaps she did not even know that only a few of us were listening. I told her I was an artist, too, and gave her my exhibit card for my show coming up in TriBeCa.
I received an email from Susie a few days after The Kitchen event. “You are having an exhibit? I’d like to see it.” At Starbucks at Chambers and West Broadway near my exhibit, we spoke at length for the first time. She was raising funds for a contemporary opera piece she had written called “Shangri-la,” with a poet Yusef Komunyakaa. She explained that the collaborative piece was about raising awareness of the underground sex-trade issue in Thailand. “There’s this character, a ‘metaphysical detective,’ who looks for a missing girl.” She said playfully, inviting me into her creative thoughts. Then she looked at me, quizzically and abruptly, and asked, “I wondered if you would want to participate in the project.” She speaks in the way she plays: with a quiet, nuanced voice, explaining the details of the projects carefully, patiently. But as she did, I sensed also a determination and drive behind her every word. She was a visionary, too, pushing the boundaries of music, art, theatre and dance.
We began to do live painting collaboration after the Shangri-la performance at the Kitchen in 2003. I do not recall the first time we talked about it: it came about as naturally as speaking to each other. I began to “see” the colors of her sound, and she claims that she “hears” the gestures of how I paint. I decided to use mainly gold and platinum powders mixed with hide glue, to narrow down to the gradual spreading of the heavy metallic elements on paper. Paper can buckle and as it dries on the floor. I had a paper maker in Imadate, a village in western Japan, create a particular blend of fibers and dye that would accentuate the subtle hues of thinly spread gold and platinum.
We asked Plywood Pictures to document our collaborations. Our journey culminated in the American Composer’s Orchestra performance at Carnegie Hall and Annenberg Performance Center at the University of Pennsylvania, for which she invited me to participate by live-painting on stage. But the film crew captured two private performances not seen by the public, one at Sara Tecchia Gallery in Chelsea and the other at the International Studio & Curatorial Program residency in Hell’s Kitchen. The extended performance at Brecht Forum, an avant-garde space in Greenwich Village followed. And most recently, her quartet that includes Bridget Kibby, a harpist, invited me to perform together at Le Poisson Rouge, now a renowned venue on Bleecker Street.
In all of these venues, however avant-garde or mainstream the venue, the experience is similar. Very few people in the audience seem to fully take in the performance, or to grasp the breath and depth of what goes into them. It seems we are to perform without much expectation, nor attention. Yes, every time, for me as an artist, there are new discoveries and unraveling of the language of improvisation. In this art form of collaboration, we cannot play to the crowd.
* * *
In the famed Joshua Bell experiment at L’Enfant Plaza subway station, The Washington Post had the violin master play as folks rushed to work, to see if anyone would stop and pay attention. Only a few people did (out of 1070), and he “earned” $32.17 in the 43 minutes of experiment, a repertoire that included “Chaconne” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor, and Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” . But one person, a demographer at the Commerce Department, did recognize him:
“It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen in Washington,” Furukawa says. “Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn’t do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?”
Joshua Bell regularly plays for concerts in which the best seats go for over $100 (he played at such an event the previous evening), and yet his playing could not slow folks down, rushing to work. What kind of the city do we live in? Well, it’s clear from the experiment that it is not the kind that recognizes beauty, classical or avant-garde, so readily.
So, if Joshua Bell with his 3.5 million dollar Stradivarius cannot stop people, none of us who creates music, art or work in iambic pentameters should expect much. But then what good are the arts? Why would artists spend time collaborating, spending days working on something that would not be well paid, or pay nothing at all, without anyone to stop to take it in? But we should note that this wasteful excess is being exercised in many hidden places, in homes where a child protégé plays his violin, on the canvases of self-taught artists, or on a humble square table filled with poetry. They may or may not turn out to be Joshua Bells, or Grandma Moses or Emily Dickinsons, but the prerequisite for the arts never seem to be a guarantee of an audience, or income. Artists are clearly not driven by mere monetary capital, but they are driven by another form of capital - creative and relational capital, the discovery of new ideas and thoughts and cultural geography.
But it is worthwhile to ask, “is Joshua Bell’s exquisite playing, or Susie’s quiet percussion, useful for society at all?” Is there a utilitarian reason for valuing their art? The heartbeat of the arts resounds with internal significance that quietly pleads for Art to be more than a mere tool. Art is the “organ of human life,” as Tolstoy would have it; co-joined with our deepest humanity. We cannot “use” the arts, any more than we can “use” a human being. This pervasive utilitarian view is a symptom of our greater cultural malaise, a view that can dehumanize the entire river of culture. Artists need to transgress against this truncated reality that views utility above the life of art. Thus, the essence of art needs to be useless, or use-less, because of the intrinsic nature of our excess. What is extravagantly beautiful is a deposit toward a greater fusing of purpose and design of our universe.
The universe is full of hidden mysteries, micro realities that seem extravagant and excessive. Why would a tiny little creature that lives in the deep, dark bottoms of the ocean (try Googling Munidopsis tridentatus, a Squat Lobster! Blind, and yet beautiful) be designed so exquisitely? Why so many stars in the Milky Way, and Hubble photographs (now sadly decommissioned) full of mystery and color? Art pursues, and points to, these use-less realities, or the hidden realities of the universe, and conversely, nature seems to beckon us to generatively create after her. We are inspired by natural phenomena, whether that be a once a year rain that causes a congregation of thousands of birds and beasts in Serengeti feasting in the normally arid, seemingly lifeless earth (see BBC’s upcoming effort,) or simply watching a sunrise over Stonehenge (see Discovery Channel's Sunrise Earth.)
Nature herself beckons us toward a journey to be misfits in a utilitarian society, inviting us to a strange, silent dance.
But, even if art is use-less, it does not mean that the arts are exempt from our need for a responsible stewardship of our gifts. Our artistic expressions should act as a catalyst, or as a backdrop for the “theatre of God,” or at least the “theatre of Nature,” to mediate our communal experiences. Art taps into the core of our humanity, preserving, invigorating and delighting our cultural memories. Art, like Stonehenge, will become part of the landscape, through which the rays of sunrises see fit to embrace, but without being completely subsumed by nature.
And while art is not a mere tool, art creates useful tools like brush, camera or pencil to shape our expressions. “We are human beings, not human doings” states Nigel Goodwin. Our doings shapes our tools, but it is our beings that often leaving indelible marks of our exiled journeys. Art uses these instruments (often beautiful in themselves) to translate from experiential gestalt; art should not a translation of a pre-set ideology. Good art is not a one-to-one transaction, but a journey that sends us toward the possibility of one-to-many. Thus, each translation is unique to the context, and the language of the cultural reality, but at the same time refracting into the greater, enduring reality. Therefore, created art (or the praxis of art) is rarely repeatable or transferable.
Art, thus, just like the woman in Shangri-la, is also caught in a metaphysical maze, or at least a labyrinth. Like the detective in Shangri-La, we find ourselves confounded, even lost, in our post-Ground Zero haze. How do we, as exiled citizens, journey in our labyrinth?
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As Plywood documentation rolls on, a viewer may see something rarely seen in avant-garde circles. Susie and her husband Roberto, also a superb percussionist, were expecting a child. During our process of collaboration over time, Susie became painfully aware of the difficulty of being a musician who is also an expectant mother. Many avant-garde settings are not set up, either in social acceptability or in slight gestures, to embrace a performer expecting a baby. As soon as one tries to have a family, we become a misfit to the highly regimented, rugged individualized world of the avant-garde. I’ve often had to explain to folks in these settings that I do have three kids, and am happily married and that reality seems to shock, and transgress, as much as any shock art of the 90’s. It seems that being a father or a mother is transgressive in today’s art world.
Thus, at the performance at The Brecht Forum, the epicenter of avant-garde, progressive space, she decided, without telling anyone except me, to start the performance with the heartbeat of her baby inside her womb. She had just recorded it at her recent doctor’s visit. As we quieted ourselves, the sound began in the background...Ta,ta, ta,ta,ta,ta,ta...As she began to build her sound upon the heart beat, I began to paint, first by dripping platinum and gold, and then with yellow malachite, and purple lapis pigments, poured over dark, wine colored paper. The pigments spread, and I could feel the weight of the pigments on top of the paper, cascading as I lifted the paper. The Plywood team set up cameras shooting Susie’s movements, and they set up my own video camera to project onto the wall, so I could video the surface of the paintings, and then have Susie’s face reflect in the puddles of water.
The resulting film/documentary is not a typical film that would be “released,” but meant to be part of future installations at galleries and museums. It is a “self-aware” piece that is used to birth more documentations (see the recent Tokyo installation/perfomance), of a documentation within a documentation; an ongoing reflective piece that will incarnate itself in various settings. There will also be unique art editions created using pieces of paper drawings used in actual performances, packaged with the dvd, in a specifically made Japanese gift box. We will begin to release this set at the Space 38|39 collaboration in the fall of 2009.
Susie and I did a live performance to open my exhibit in Tokyo. This performance was done as an offertory to generate a “gift economy” in gratitude to those who helped me to get my career in Japan started. The performance included live painting, but with a surprise ending that “gave away” art at the end. I was influenced, in part, by Yoko Ono’s performance of cutting up a map, distributing the pieces and asking the recipients to come back later to re-connect. It was also an homage to Sen no Rikyu, the 16th century tea master, whose art redefined communication in a war-torn, strife filled Japan.
After Japan, Susie was on her way to the Philippines, where she is working on a project to preserve the heritage arts of Philippino Kulintang gongs, creating a documentary overlapping the disappearance of heritage crafts and traditions with the endangered King Eagle, the national bird of the Philippines. She has asked me to participate in the project, to add animated images to the footage. The preservation of culture and nature thus can lead to the creation of new art.
Thus refracting in the pools of water in the avant-garde venues of New York, the Philippines and Tokyo, Susie’s drumbeat resonates humanity, continuing to draw those who are willing to listen to the quiet heartbeat from the womb of progressive art. Every time we collaborate, the sound of her gongs grows within me, pointing me to an invisible reality, to what the Celts called “Thin Spaces,” a space between heaven and earth. I am glad my wife and I stopped to listen to the slender Asian woman at the Chelsea Gallery. I am moved to be lead by the heartbeat of the unborn to collaborate.
And they named their baby Emanuel (God with us).