Attraction for a culture outside your own has its advantages. The difference of the culture from your own culture allows you to see things with stark clarity and contrast with your own. Of course, a culture outside your own can be overly romanticized and/or misunderstood too.
I continue to be fascinated and learn about Japanese culture in different contexts. Through my own disciplines of architectures and design, I have long been acquainted with the power of Japanese design. Its emphasis, in traditional examples, on natural materials, simplicity, spareness/frugality, expressed with honesty and sophistication at a very human scale, are powerful. Equally, or perhaps even more striking in my view, are modern Japanese examples that work with high-tech materials and technology and bring qualities of simplicity, spareness, raw and rugged tactile beauty.
Some years ago when my volunteering experience at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) expanded from serving as a Collection-in-Focus Guide in the Arts of China collection to the collections of Japan and Korea a whole new world opened up for me. Becoming familiar with the museum’s reconstructed tea house and landscape, objects of the tea ceremony including the rakuware, bamboo scoops and whisks, Matcha and other teas, was profound. Beginning to learn now about Japanese painting arts continues to teach me in deep ways. I understand better why a generation ago Frank Lloyd Wright was so enthralled by Asian art and Japanese and Korean art and architecture, in particular, that influenced his work. (A Korean jar, shown above, that Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) once owned and used to decorate his suite at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, is currently on display at the museum. The Mia also has a screen that Wright owned at one time, now part of the outstanding Mary Griggs Burke collection, bequeathed to the Mia.)
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Japanese culture and its art and design is the embodiment of being and doing. It’s not just that the objects from the culture are beautiful and handmade but that they are set firmly in mindfulness and ritual. The tea ware and the tea house are necessarily about slowing down, connecting to nature and and enjoying the simple act of enjoying tea in community and ceremony. The Japanese garden, with its raked gravel, is about connection to nature but also about the everyday ritual of taking care of things of engaging with the passage of the and the seasons. The painting arts are about mindfulness and expression of the fleeting moment. (An artist friend shared recently that as a young girl she learned brush painting from a Japanese art teacher who for months would praise her daily brushwork and then promptly crumple up the work and drop it into dustbin lest she get attached to the work itself. Imagine that!)
I am interested, then, in the artistic expression and the ritual, in the way of being/doing and the thinking/way of seeing the world that is so alive in Japanese art, architecture and design. The journey to a deeper understanding has barely begun…
- Virajita Singh (p. 114-115, Japanese Architecture: An Exploration of Elements and Forms, Mira Locher)
- Virajita Singh (p. 72-73, Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, Leonard Koren)