The other day I was in Mayfair meeting an antique jewelry dealer from Japan. We discussed the contents of an interview he gave some years ago in which he said:
“It used to be a tough job being a king. If you lose a war, you would be killed. Even if there is no war, you never know when you might be poisoned by those around you. So the king takes to wearing jewelry in order to invoke higher spiritual powers to fortify his own frail self and to manifest the divinity within him. Jewelry used to be shingu [神具], or an ritualistic article transforming the wearer to someone greater than himself.”
He then continued: “Ōkurashō [大蔵省], the old Japanese word for “the Ministry of Finance” actually came from the English word “the Treasury”. The main purpose of the Ministry of Finance was to manage “treasure” or zaihō [財宝], and it used to be that much of that treasure consisted of jewelry. Losing that treasure of jewelry would be the same as losing national identity. It follows that in East Asia, the word for “country” [国] is a square enclosing the word for “jade” [玉]. However, I have noticed that there seems to be a subversion of values in which paintings now command exorbitant prices, whereas jewelry is treated as separate from all other genres of art and perhaps a lesser one at that – like mere decorative accessories for rich ladies.”
If you go to the art section of a bookstore in Japan, you will inevitably find heaps of DIY books of a certain style of line drawings that seems unique to Japan. The idea of this artistic style is that if you can draw circles, rectangles and triangles, then you can draw just about everything. What’s more, the things drawn in this style all seem to be imbibed with a certain spirit as though they were alive – onigiri rice balls greet you with smiles, an iPad too smiles back at you.
Shuji Terayama [寺山修司] (1935 – 1983), avant-garde poet, dramatist, writer, film director and photographer, is not for the faint-hearted.
I dived into his mind-bending universe with the purchase of an artbook called Terayama Shuji no Kamen Gaho [寺山修司の仮面画報], which is brimming with sketches, photos, quotations and explanatory notes on his works. I have to say that he was not an icon of the counter-culture movement of the 1960’s – 1970’s for nothing. He was way out there. To give you an idea of the sort of strange and surreal images that gush forth from his high-powered imagination, below are two pictures of props used by Tenjo Sajiki [天井桟敷], an experimental theatre troupe which he formed in 1967. The first one is called ‘Machine for an Indolent Audience to Appreciate the Classics’ [怠惰な観客のための名作鑑賞機械]:
Of all the works of calligraphy I have ever seen in Japan, my favorite is the late style of Kukai [空海] (774–835), the founder of Shingon Buddhism. He had experimented with many different styles throughout the course of his life, and methinks he reached the height of his artistic powers when, at the age of 52, he wrote Masuda-ike Himei Narabinijo [益田池碑銘并序], the original of which is now stored in Koyasan Reihoukan Museum [高野山霊宝館]. The calligraphy of this piece was said to be engraved on a commemorative tomb for the creation of a (now extinct) reservoir in Nara called Masuda-ike.
Kintsugi [金継ぎ] is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver or platinum. Instead of seeing cracks as something to be disguised, it is thought that the cracks form a unique, one-of-a-kind pattern (it is not easy to replicate the exact same cracks after all), and that the cracks become part of the history of an object. Moreover, this technique can also be used to combine fragments from different broken articles creatively to form a new item.
Among the many Japanese words for describing different kinds of beauty that I wish could make it to the Oxford English Dictionary someday, high on my list are the below three words:
1) Beauty in Madness – kyouki-bi [狂気美]
The word kyouki-bi [狂気美] is comprised of kyouki [狂気] meaning ‘madness’ and bi [美] meaning ‘beauty’. It is not a word you would find readily defined in a dictionary although it is used quite frequently. Personally I would define it as:
The strange and demonic beauty of madness, lunacy and all manner of mental infirmities, usually accompanied by:
- an intense yearning or obsession for ‘purity,’ ‘perfection’ or ‘ideal’
- a refusal to compromise with ‘impurity’ and ‘imperfection’
- a readiness for death and destruction.