work in progress.
Hanging in the garden; photo credit Toshiko Watanabe
After some nerve-racking delay (due to the Swedish postal service), the transport box finally arrived in Yokohama – just a few days before the opening. Back home, I could draw a sigh of relief as our colleagues from EAJAS took over…
They, in turn, were now heading for another intense work phase; nineteen Japanese artists, and sixteen Swedish, have been selected for the group show. The curating and hanging of artworks by 30+ artists in this historic site is no little task! As expected, our Japanese friends took excellent care of it all. Art in the Garden – Contemporary Art from Sweden, part III opened on April 28th in the Sankeien Garden of Yokohama.
From the other side of the globe, we’re truly grateful for this photo documentation of the hanging process and results; it almost makes up for not being able to visit. Come stroll along with us in the garden…
This. This is what the material tells me: it wants the circle. To mirror the horizon, the sky, the full moon…
Just go for it. Communicate with the curators from EAJAS. Create a frame design from plastic tubes. Get polyester strings for mounting. Steel weights for anchoring. Cut and sew fabric – many hours of handcrafted trial-and-error. One blue piece, one gray – then another two… Duplicates, in case of loss or damage.
Meanwhile, winter dissolves into spring. The exhibition’s opening date is getting closer. I’ll need a big, sturdy box for transportation… So many practicalities to consider. Luckily, there is help. And in the end, it all works out.
On Maundy Thursday, I bring two of the pieces to a lakeshore nearby for documenting.
Then, one more day for disassembling, for marking each single part and packing properly. Easter holiday passes, and finally we can hand the transport box over to the postal service. And – off they are. Next stop: Yokohama!
January passes. February too. Snow falls and melts away, the migrating birds are returning: the larch, the heron, the wild geese… My dyeing results are improving – this will be it, I guess.
Upscaling from samples to full-sized textiles. Letting the fabric simmer with red cabbage in an iron pot, then washing with soap – makes blue. Burying it in the compost with pomegranate shells, iron, coffee, and tea – makes brownish gray.
Next: time to think one step further. How to mount the pieces in the Sankeien Garden? Doing some sketchwork, communicating back and forth with my Japanese colleagues. Could the silk pieces be hung from the branches of those trees along the shore? Or tied to a long rope? They will need some kind of anchoring weight, too…
…and meanwhile, a growing feeling that this isn’t the way it ought to be. Handling the fabric: ironing, measuring. Thinking. This isn’t right; these pieces want something else. What?
…to cross the threshold that separates the image from “real life”…
According to legend, seventh-century master Wu Daozi (Wu Tao-Tzu) did just that. The emperor contracted him to paint a landscape on a wall in the imperial palace. Having finished his painting, Wu Daozi clapped his hands; upon which an opening occurred, leading into a mountain cave in the picture. The master entered, the cave closed behind him and the whole painting disappeared.
Sadly, most of Wu’s works has vanished just like that mythic mural. Today, his œuvre is known to us largely through the well-established practice of copying in Chinese art; a double act of learning and recognition.
Chinese silk painting, 18th or 19th century copy after a lost original by Wu Daozi
(photo by Rob Michiels Auctions)
Another liminal figure is Tove Jansson‘s Moominmamma; mother, artist, and crosser of boundaries. In Jansson’s novel Moominpappa at Sea, Moominmamma finds herself yearning for home, while staying with her family in a lighthouse on a desolate, faraway islet. With some leftover paint, she brings her beloved garden to life on the wall…
Tove Jansson, text and drawing from her novel Moominpappa at Sea (1965);
also the finishing vignette below.
Having spent hours roaming imaginary landscapes, my mind resonates deeply with tales like these. In my current commission, however, I hope to achieve something else: rather than enticing the public into the picture, I’ll invite the image to communicate directly with its surroundings, with our living bodies and with light itself.
Transparency is the key.
Transparency is the key, and thin silk has a unique set of qualities: as a canvas, it absorbs the paint/dye; at the same time, it frames the background like a tarnished mirror; and in sharp daylight, it can even create a space of coloured light on the shadowed side – much like a stained glass window.
I’m deeply grateful to the EAJAS (Emerging Art from Japan and Around Scandinavia) organization, for this opportunity to develop the transparency theme a bit further. But for now, I’ll take a little break.
Daylight increases almost imperceptibly. Weather is cloudy; winds are light; temperature stays close to the freezing point. Drizzle, mixed with snow from time to time, falls on ground already soaked with water. I try to understand how the acid/base balance affects different dyeing agents, while a bundle of silk rests buried in the kitchen compost.
Dyeing silk in bokashi compost
A painting can – among other things – be seen as a certain configuration of colour and form. For an art critic, this would be recognized as “the formalistic approach”. My understanding as a painter is more hands-on: I find myself in a joint movement together with my chosen materials, rambling towards an unseen visual order. Painting traditionally uses pigments and binder on a base or substratum such as primed canvas, wood panel or lime plaster. Dyeing a transparent textile is different, though – adding some of the qualities of a stained glass window to the final outcome.
Silk dyed with black beans, pomegranate shells and red cabbage (backlit)
While waiting for the dye to bite, the Bauhaus school comes to my mind. In the aftermath of the Great War – later known as World War I – it was founded in Weimar by Walter Gropius. His intention was to fuse architecture with the arts in order to “build the future”. Bauhaus teachers such as Johannes Itten, Paul Klee and Vassily Kandinsky theorized principles of colour and form, and implemented their theories in the handling of materials. Much like other art movements and manifestoes of those times, a kind of heroic aura lingers over their effort.
One of the students who joined Bauhaus in those early years was Josef Albers (soon enough, he would become one of the teachers too). Trained in the making of stained-glass windows, he knew how to paint with light itself; from detritus found at the Weimar city dump, he assembled a number of glass works where simple geometrical elements form colouristically complex images.
From left: Josef Albers, “Scherben im Gitterbild” (Shards in Screens), ca. 1921; “Park,” ca. 1923; “Gitterbild” (Grid Mounted), ca. 1921. © 2021 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Other Bauhaus students and teachers (notably, László Moholy-Nagy, Kurt Schwerdtfeger and Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack) attempted to liberate the abstract image from its frozen state; by the use of custom-built mechanical devices and film cameras, they released light to move freely in space and time. Much of what was accomplished at Bauhaus during the 1920’s got lost in World War II – but over the following decades, some of it was reconstructed and brought to life again. A century later, the Bauhaus impulse is still generating response in contemporary works of art.
Trailer for “Reflektorische Farblichtspiele” Kurt Schwerdtfeger (1922)
with music “De Novo Remutations” by Mohammad H. Javaheri (2019)
What I’m doing today may not have much in common with the Bauhaus dogma, but I do share their urge to comprehend the nature of light, the ways of matter; to cross the threshold that separates the image from “real life”. In addition, I hope for a future beyond the Anthropocen crisis.
More on Bauhaus art and artists (with a special thanks to the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation):
Documentation of 1966 performance,
re-staged at Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn, NY (2016)
To ingrain with mud; to capture the colour of the sky… From dirt to blue – how can it be done?
Testing and trying, for weeks. A dash of tea, of wine, of pomegranade juice upon the fabric… Wrapping fermented compost in pieces of thin cloth, burying them in soil; waiting, then unwrapping. Which materials leave distinct shapes and patterns?
And the sky… Permanent nuances of blue are difficult to achieve. Black rice may do it, or black beans. Or red cabbage in an iron pot.
Days are overcast, light is sparse; the sun hasn’t been visible for one single hour in December, so far. I’m dyeing with nature’s materials: leaves and dry petals, roots and a hint of rust. These samples are no final results, rather trial-and-error attempts. I am much indebted to Lina Sofia Lundin and her book Naturlig färgning (“Natural dyeing“) – thank you Lina Sofia!
In the end, I hope to achieve a visible memory of wintery Scandinavian soil and sky, recorded in the thinnest of fibres. These silk imprints/paintings are to be exhibited next year, when spring bursts into summer, in a very distant place: the Sankeien Garden of Yokohama. I’ve been invited – as a part of a group show – by EAJAS (Emerging Art from Japan and Around Scandinavia). More to follow…
Map borrowed from the Sankeien Garden Guidebook; site photo kindly provided by Ms. Toshiko Watanabe.
Late november. Nature passing from the fullness of autumn to hibernation. The first snow touches the grass, then melts away.
I’m collecting beech leaves, ferns, nettles and compost soil, still moist and balmy. Preparing fabric with alum mordant, before wrapping it all together. Another journey beginning.