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“… to see beauty which might be sensed, if not described. Their preference for suggestion and mystery was shared be the masters of the tea ceremony, and by the landscape architects who created gardens bare of flowers or trees … the bare stage, the insignificant props, the movements of the actors, recalling at once the Zen priest and the warrior…” – from Nō and Bunraku, Donald Keene, 1966
Hisa and Hikaru Uzawa, mother daughter Nō performers, image Donald Keene Center, New York
The ghost. The beggar. The whistler. The trickster fox. The dead. The laughing. At me? Or someone/thing else? They were staring out from behind the glass cases. A multitude of eyes peering back at me. Some of the faces were cold, ancient, distant. All contained secrets that would not be disclosed readily. They were from another world, yet utterly present with me in the room. The silent gallery was populated by them. Chills ran up my arms. I diverted my eyes to the wall text. It read, “Japan’s Noh Theatre: Around the eighth century various Chinese theatrical traditions made their way to Japan…”
The exhibition, “Becoming Another: The Power of Masks” is currently on view at the Rubin Museum in New York. Here, a variety of masks created for traditional theatre (such as Nō) as well as masks used in communal rituals and shamanistic practices around the world (Northern India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Mongolia, Siberia, Japan, and the North-West Coast tribes of North America) are on exhibit until next fall.
Some of the Nō masks were disturbing, their faces mournful for unknowable reasons and circumstances. Others provided comic relief, more funny than frightening. Donald Keene has written that looking at Nō masks is like “seeing a voice.”
Immediately upon encountering the Nō masks, I was struck by the feeling that they represented an uncanny constellation of expressions/beings/characters and sensations. To me, they spoke of a complex composite of Anthropocene actants: beggars, villains, animals, beauties, goblins and deities. Which were the faces of oil and gas company CEOs? Which were the faces of those living beside the Salton Sea? Which were me? Which were we, as the human species still in the midst of becoming? Or, perhaps all of us, human and non-human actors alike, can be found in all of them?
In traditional Nō theater things move slowly. Movements are methodical, intentional, calculated. There is no space for improvisation. There isn’t a plot or character development in any sense familiar to Western theater forms. Yet through constraint, vast depths of experience, emotion, and meaning are communicated. Nō is the longest continuously performed theatre practice in the world. It has been speculated that Nō was originally preformed for gods, instead of human audiences, at Shinto shrines in Japan centuries ago. These “gods” were forces of the seasons and landscapes (mountains, rivers and seasons). Following this theme, a particular Nō play was often performed in the season it was associated with, and sometimes only once.
In recent months, we’ve been conducting extensive research into Nō. A great deal of background history for the art form is easily found online. We also highly recommend a more in-depth introduction via Nō and Bunraku by Donald Keene. In this book, Keene describes Nō as a “mood created by motionlessness” and “a dramatic poem concerned with remote or supernatural events.” He also writes that its form is “the search for meaning beyond appearances,” and that Nō’s purpose is to: “move profoundly and transcend the particular and touch the springs of human emotions.” Characters offer “momentary embodiments of great emotions.” Nō acting is closely related to sacred rite. It can be understood is ritual. The actors are more like mediums than performers, as “the moment he [the main actor] puts on the mask … marks the transition from his daily existence to the special realm of his art.” Though, the actor’s “slowness of pace and unrelieved gravity may weary [him], this risk is taken deliberately.” Building off our own growing sensibility that how we conduct ourselves towards the unknown, and towards one another, will be of great consequence in the Anthropocene, we believe Nō offers vital inspiration for this challenge.
from the Rubin Museum (otafuku “beauty and good fortune,” horned mask for village ceremonies, ko-omote (young woman) Usofuki, “whistler” from Kyogen, and the “trickster” fox/kitsune).
Given the material limits we face in the Anthropocene, we feel that the intentionality of Nō practice, coupled with its strict physical delimitations, potentially infinite depth of meaning, and hybridity of performance (there are 140 derivations of Nō masks, many of them extremely subtle), can aid us immensely in living the Anthropocene.
If there’s something humans need to learn to accept in the Anthropocene, it’s limits. Nō invites a wide gamut of response to limits — through limited gestures. What can be accepted, embodied and practiced through an aesthetic exploration of limits? How might we embody/enter constraints with utmost intentionally — and in alliance with non-human forces? What aesthetic contexts might we invent that invite an intimate interfacing with forces of the non-human: weather, animals, forces of change? What practices invite us to become more nuanced, hybrid — and aesthetically engaged in and by our actions — despite the challenges we face?
“suffering ghost” Nō mask from Japan, at the Rubin Museum
Japanese karura “eagle-like bird,” said to have wings and a human body. Adopted into Buddhism as a protector deity
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