Monthly Archives: October 2011

Taking Form in Chinese embroidery, carving, ceramics…

Ancient Chinese Folklore holds a deep respect for nature. Natural things (organic and non-organic) were believed to possess an independent spirit. Rocks, trees, animals and even natural phenomena such as mist and rain were regarded as the souls of past ancestors who continued to care for their living descendants. This respect for nature takes form as cultural symbols within Chinese literature, ceremony, art and architecture. Originating from simple marks on earthen and stoneware for everyday life some evolved to form Chinese written characters. Examples of plants and animals and their symbolic meaning include:

– Pines inspire thought of longevity, while Bamboo of supple bending before life’s trouble

– Mulberry of calm filial piety (or a respect for parents and ancestors)

– Birds have a special place  as they represent a free soul.

– Chrysanthemum of the charm of autumn and a life with ease.

– Cicada as an emblem for immortality and resurrection, as well as happiness and eternal youth.

– The wild plum of the character of austere winter. In China it is one of the few flowers that bloom in winter so it represents gracious and unwavering character.

While recent reforms over the past century have continued the evolution of these symbols, motifs and patterns, what remains constant is ‘counterbalance’; from the formless (wu) Chinese strive for the formful (yu).

Heading to Jingshan Park, Beijing

Without delay I jumped on a bike and headed to the heart of Beijing. Well really the lungs of Beijing, Jingshan Park, the Imperial Court’s ‘Playground’ and a great vantage point to get a sense of the city.The park is to the north of the Forbidden City. The hill at the centre of the park is manmade using the earth carved out to make the Forbidden City’s protective moat.

Headed to the lookout high on the manmade hill
It wasn’t the clearest day in Beijing
View to Forbidden City
Amazing patterns and motifs including those incorporating Dragon, Crane, and Lotus
I make the trek back down the hill

After many hours of sitting; enjoying the place and completely overwhelmed and inspired, I ventured back out into the organised chaos that is Beijing!

Leaving the Park

Forbidden City beyond
Needing to have a nap!

I arrived in Beijing.

I jumped from the Airport shuttle bus into the middle of CHAOS. It was a Friday leading into a holiday weekend. There were people and bikes and cars honking everywhere and a major traffic-jam.  Beijing is a city with a population of 20 million (three-quarters official and the remainder ‘floating’). I could feel it!

I decided to walk to my Hotel given that it was going to take an hour within the chaos for a Taxi to travel a few blocks. Beijing’s city blocks were at a scale I hadn’t witnessed before. So what seemed not far on the map was in fact quite a hike. I found that I had the distance right in my head running North-South but I kept running short in the East-West direction. There was also another layer of streets and alleys that to me seemed quite major, but weren’t in the scheme of things. I arrived at my Hotel…sat for a while in the foyer and then lay down in my room…

…I may have overdone it on the bike in Kyoto but it was worth it!

Kyoto Arcade

You would not believe it. I was riding my bike through one of the arcades and I ran into Toshie Kusamoto, a photographer I had met the week before in Beppu! So lucky!

We both were very surprised and very excited, so we made a plan to have tea and hang out before my train left for Osaka that night. In fact Toshie only lived a block away from my hotel!

Toshie at Home

We enjoyed tea and special sweets. Toshie was kind enough to show me her work. She had recently documented the hot springs of Beppu; communicating the essence of the place: mysterious scaleless landscapes that materialise through the steam.

And then suddenly it was time to go! Taxi…Shinkansen…Osaka…plane! I was sad to leave Japan especially all of the gifted people I had shared time with.

Time to fly…

…next stop China!

Kyoto Skyline from JR Station

What happens when you’re in a city like Kyoto where there is so much to see and the topography is fairly even… you get on a bike!

On My Bike

Bundaberg, where I grew up, is very flat. It has one hill, The Hummock, an extinct volcano. Its so flat that as children we would lie on our backs in the field, and looking back towards the horizon, see the curve in the earth. Kyoto central (whilst surrounded by mountains) is fairly flat, so perfect for biking it.

Having visited Kyoto before, I was aware that moving experiences surface when you least expect them; when you are between origin and destination. Biking offered the best way to be open to these in-between discoveries.

The in-between
Shinhiyoshi Jingu Shrine
Markets at Shinhiyoshi Jingu Shrine

I was headed to Sanjūsangen-dō, a Buddhist Temple known locally as Rengeō-in or Hall of the Lotus King. The interior of the Temple is divided into thirty-three bays by sets of columns. The hall houses 1000 statues of the Bodhisattva Kannon. Each may manifest into thirty-three forms to take flight and ward off evil.

View of perimeter of Sanjūsangen-dō adjacent to Yogen-in gateway
Sanjūsangen-dō special entry with courtyard and Hall beyond
Sanjūsangen-dō Hall exterior
Sanjusangendo-Hall of 33 Bay (1995) by Sugimoto

Photography inside the temple was prohibited. Japanese Photographic Artist, Sugimoto Hiroshi, was permitted to photograph the interior for his work Sanjusangendo – Hall of 33 Bays. I still remember the first time I saw this work, first hand, while working at The Queensland Art Gallery. It echoed the experience of the place: a calmness; an eternal drawing out of time and space that you can almost hear rising out of the dark.

I left Sanjūsangen-dō, visited Yogen-in again, then rode until dusk heading in the direction of home.

A Great Day in Kyoto!

See Sanjūsangen-dō official website for Interior views.

It is very important to experience Karakami within space and time through the sequence of arriving and discovering the work, and experiencing the change of light in its surface. Toto and Aiko directed me to places that feature ancient Karacho Karakami with later editions of the Karacho patterns, as well more recent commissions of their artwork. One important example sits within Yogen-in (very near Sanjusangen-do officially called Rengeo-in, Kyoto).

Yogen-in gate
Path leading from gate to Temple
Entry to Main Temple
The mon or Family Crest of the Tokugawa shoguns – Maruni Mitsu Aoi (Mitsuba api) or three holly hock leaves inside a circle

Unfortunately photography is forbidden inside the temple. It was beautiful to see the very very old Karakami Fusami featuring the Dragon (protector of Buddhism). Karacho had recently installed new panels of the same pattern to sit next to the historical screens. One has to imagine being in the space by candlelight and seeing the glimmer of the golden dragon as it clutches the pearl.

Visit design boom to see photos of another example of Karacho’s karakami within Katsura Imperial Villa (Katsura Rikyu). Beautiful!

After a long restful sleep (and completely inspired by meeting Toto and Aiko from Karacho) I headed out to enjoy all of the beautiful moments of nature in my immediate area. For me it’s not just nature’s beautiful presence in fauna, and flora and season that inspire me. It is also the force of nature made evident through the changes in the things around us with the passing of time.

Street Chive
Space of Rust
Vine on Pine
Sun on Pine leaf
Potted Plants
Street Grass

What struck me most about Japan, and what is not evident in these photos (of nature in Kyoto City) is the difference in Japan’s nature when placed next to Australia’s. There is an essence; a flowing quality to it; a movement. I believe this is ever-present in Karacho’s Karakami.

Cocon Karasuma Building, in Kyoto
Shijo-Karasuma Store

After my very personal experience with Toto and Aiko at Karacho’s Saruyama Salon  we visited their Shijo-Karasuma store, at the Cocon Karasuma Building, in Kyoto (designed by architects Kengo Kuma and Associates). On arrival I was struck by the building’s facade. Karacho was commissioned by Kengo Kuma to re-interpret Tempyo Ohgumo (big cloud) as large printed glass panels applied to the facade. In fact this motif features throughout the building at different scales and in a range of materials. Each iteration has been carefully considered and responds directly to the surrounding space.

Within the Shijo-Karasuma store there is Karakami in traditional and non-traditional forms; cut to match the size of cards and letter paper; special mounted artworks in different formats (circle, square) as well as Lamps, Screens and Fusami.

Karacho is the last maker of Karakami in Japan. Working in this new way Karacho makes their art accessible to a wider audience and ensures the continuance of this gift for future generations to enjoy!

Shijo-Karasuma Store
Friendly Karacho Staff with Tempyo Ohgumo (big cloud ) and Kado Tsunagi (connecting angles) Fusami behind
Large mounted artworks (top) and Washi Lights using Karakami
Mounted Karakami including Tempyo Ohgumo (big cloud), Hyotan (Gourd), Shunran (spring orchid), and Kado Tsunagi (connecting angles)
Karacho’s Tempyo Ohgumo (big cloud) 

Karacho’s Saruyama Salon with Hyotan (gourd pattern) on the entry Fusami

On arriving at Karacho’s Saruyama Salon I was greeted by my special interpreter for the day (Karacho staff member) Mayo Ishii. Ishii modestly introduced Toto and Aiko, the twelfth generation of Karacho Karakami artists.

Toto first presented the Karacho Fusami screen samples. The patterns were very spatial and present in time; especially the white on white Kado Tsunagi (connecting angles). It was like a spider’s web at night catching the smallest amount of light with its silvery thread; a shimmering transient moment.

The hangi (wood blocks) are a particular size to match the largest size of washi produced in the early times. On the Fusami screens the patterns are set out to form a continuous pattern. Many of the patterns that looked contemporary were in fact the very oldest.

There is a special ritual that Toto performs to prepare for Karakami. This is personal and spiritual. Toto selected a wood block with the pattern of a wispy cloud (or for me like the moment when the sun glows on the lining of a cloud). It was very soothing to watch Toto work. In Karakami the colour is applied with a furui. This application is gentler on the woodblock than a brush and ensures the hangi’s longevity.

Preparation: combining the pigments to the desired colour mixed with mica; then applied to furui (fine circular sieve) with the natural brush; a selection of prepared hangi

Toto gently transfers the colour to the prepared hangi

Gentle touch as washi meets hangi through pattern

Checking, then adding colour

Gently the washi is lifted from the hangi and karakami placed face up

Toto informed me that it was now my turn! I was a little reserved as it was such an honour to experience the making of Karakami. Toto guided me through the process and told me that watching someone make Karakami gave an insight into a person’s nature…

The hangi Toto selected for me was asanoha (hemp leaves). This was a block that had been carved anew as the original was very often used.

…Come close and let me whisper something. There is a moment when the furui meets the hangi for the first time, that is like breathing.  Delicate and fleeting and very personal.

The feeling took my breath away.

Pattern of carapace seen on a tortoise sculpture at the Entry to The Forbidden City, Beijing

kikkō is used extensively throughout Japanese and Chinese crafts. It draws its origin from the carapace of a tortoise. The carapace is the upper part of the shell and has a distinctive hexagonal pattern. The tortoise symbolises longevity because they are known to live a long life.

Kikkō: The hexagon can appear singularly or concentrically repeated (R)

This pattern is also practically used for Kikkō armour. The armour is made up of small hexagonal plates of steel or hardened leather connected to each other by chain armor or kusari and sewn to a cloth backing. Because it is flexible and folding it is sometimes known as Kikkō tatami dou.

There are many beautiful variations of the Kikkō pattern. These include:

– kasane kikkō ni wa (kasane = repeated: kikkō = tortoise carapace: ni = and: wa = ring)

– kumi kikkō (braided/plaited hexagons)

– hanairi kikkō (a flower placed inside a hexagon)

My Favourite: Bishamon kikkō (Bishamon the name of Buddhist god) Bishamon is a protector of Bhuddist law bringing good fortune to the poor and is the patron of doctors priests, and soldiers