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all photos this post FOP, 2015 unless otherwise noted
I could see the mountain out my window everyday. For weeks it seemed that everywhere I looked, there was Daimonji with its enormous 大 character peering back from above. The kanji shape etched into the mountain remains there year round. It translates literally as “big” and is the location of the largest of the “send off fires” set ablaze each August 16th as part of O-Bon in Kyoto, Japan.
O-Bon is a time when spirits return home for several days and are then ceremoniously sent off via giant fires on five mountains surrounding Kyoto. These fires are said to guide spirits back to the “other side.”
image 1864: the year Chizuru comes to Kyoto, 花洛名勝図会(元治)1864)年刊行より大文字送火〉
FOP has wanted to attend and experience the O-Bon fires for several years. From afar, we’ve considered the events as highly aesthetic practices for being with change. At its core, O-Bon is an ancient ritual that is predicated on acknowledging that someone is no longer materially in existence — and yet it also welcomes and celebrates their annual “return” — now in non-material form.
The four day holiday, culminating with the fires, seemed to not only be a process for meaningfully setting aside time to pause in highly personal and private ways to be with those who have passed on, but also to invite participation in something much larger than one’s individual family on a city, and even national, scale. It seems many people celebrate O-Bon both as a summer festival with dancing and food and as a traditional religious (Buddhist) holiday.
In Kyoto, the city prepares for the holiday weeks in advance. Countless stores offer special O-Bon sweets and theme-based gifts.
Daimonji wagashi (sweet) from Kagizen Yoshifusa, Kyoto, FOP 2015
When I came to Japan a month ago, I brought my own personal addenda to the O-Bon traditional theme. I came here wondering what O-Bon might offer humans in the age of the Anthropocene — and — if it might be expandable as a translated practice to include the non-human. I also wondered if O-Bon might offer inspiration and assistance for humans seeking aesthetic ways/practices for pausing with what we’re in the midst of losing ( human and nonhuman) on planet Earth at increasingly rapid rates. How might O-Bon reply to my question, “what does it take to be with what is right now disappearing, or perhaps is already gone?”
As the days passed, it became increasingly important that I actually climb Mt. Daimonji, experience the mountain’s forest and see the infrastructure that supports the fire here before August 16th arrived.
Japan’s tectonically active landscape is full of steep cliffs and mountains. Its mountains are well-known for being sites for monks to retreat when undergoing ascetic training. Luckily Lonely Planet had rated the Daimonji hike as an “easy” one, so I felt as though I might have a chance of making it to the top.
Mt. Daimonji, via Google Maps
Still, summer weather in Japan is a force unto itself. When I arrived in mid-July, Typhoon #11 had just arrived too. This pretty much marked the end of the rainy season and the start of “mutsu-atsui” (sultry humidity) weather, which features humidity around 80% day and night. Before arriving, I admit I did not fully appreciate the degree to which sticky, oppressive heat can affect a body. Even with hats, umbrellas and sunscreen, it’s typical to sweat through clothing within minutes of stepping outside.
So in recognition of this newly lived reality, I decided to begin my climb up Mt. Daimonji at 5am on August 1st, 2015. I hoped that I could climb the mountain and descend before the temperature passed 90F.
I was a bit unnerved to begin this climb alone. One friend had commented, with a smile, that despite being an “easy” climb often done by schoolchildren, the recent typhoon had probably brought out the snakes.
But I was soon set at ease, and humbled, by the number of people, most of them 20-30 years my senior, already well on their way to the top at 5:30am, despite the heat and humidity.
On the way up, the forest was a cacophony of cicadas, bird calls and flowing water — as well as hikers’ shouts of “good morning” to one another.
wood, presumably left over from last year’s fire.
where the O-Bon wood arrives
During the climb (staircase after staircase) I was able to observe the minimal infrastructure that affords the fires each August. Pulleys, levers and a small loading area shuttles a great deal of wood to the staging area. It was wonderful to encounter this spare infrastructure within a dense forest filled with ferns and running streams — and existing for no other reason than to offer guiding lights for spirits — and in the process bringing light to the millions watching down below.
I reached the summit around 6:45 am.
As I completed my last few steps, I could hear what sounded like a radio program with children counting in Japanese. Turning the corner to the top I was greeted by 10-12 people, who seemed to be friendly strangers, completely immersed in a morning radio calisthenics program. They were facing the morning sun and all of Kyoto spread before us.
I had arrived in the center of the giant 大.
The view from the top of the mountain was breathtaking. The heat incredible. The sense of arrival profound. After the exercises were completed, one man happily informed me that he was 73. Everyone on the mountain that morning, despite being red faced from the ascent, was proud, alive and feeling strong. Their connection to this place and desire to climb this mountain, clearly on a regular basis, was humbling. In this way, I felt like my arrival to the center of the 大 was also a point of contact with a worldview that thrives within this particular demographic in Japan — an outlook that honors and respects the natural world through an intimate and joyful engagement with it.
Countless mornings, due to jet lag, I had been up at dawn and witnessed aging Japanese people sweeping their local sidewalks, silently bowing towards the sun and taking early morning walks. At the top of Mt. Daimonji I realized that this mountain isn’t a location that is merely activated on August 16th, it’s alive and loved by local people all year round.
Sixteen days later I am standing at the base of Daimonji. The sun is setting just after a storm and the O-Bon fires are scheduled to begin in less than an hour.
My question, “what does it take to be with what is right now disappearing, or perhaps is already gone?” has become less urgent.
Over the past month I’ve been newly reminded that life isn’t about obsessing about what is about to slip away. Change is constant. While in Japan I have been simultaneously more “exposed” and “at home” in relation to highly variable environmental contexts than during any other time in my adult life. Architecture in Japan, even modern, doesn’t isolate humans from the elements as much as slightly buffer us from them. People dry laundry outside, they rarely use air-conditioning, they have walls and doors that are open to the outside year-round. Here, it’s not about keeping the outside out — it’s about maintaining a frequent and lively exchange between inside and outside, human and nonhuman.
During several of my language classes this past month, we would briefly pause to notice some new, often incredible, insect that had just wandered into the room from outside. Through what some might call an “accommodation” in bodily comfort, here, humans gain a lived sensation of being in relation to environment and its varying forces. One feels, lives, even celebrates great variation in seasonality rather than trying to control it. One lives change and inherently senses that life lived in relation to environments that are beyond human control is not a failure of design, or will.
I now realize that my original question was mistakenly focused on the end point of “gone” — a time of being “too late.” But ongoing change, even change that includes physical death, doesn’t signal an “ending” for everyone and everything.
It sounds basic, but what it takes to truly be alive with “what is right now changing irrevocably” is actually the challenge. In a time of very real and increasing extinction of lifeforms and intensification of planetary volatility, serious questions arise about how we might not take for granted the world we are a part of — while being able to acknowledge the scale of changes unfolding.
In this way, practices that invite humans to experience and directly live, rather than be cut off from, a highly variable environments seem all the more essential for living meaningfully with change.
So, as the O-Bon fires begin, I know that what I am seeing and feeling is not what Japanese people around me are seeing and feeling. Down here on the street, there is a light-hearted feeling of a summer festival, popsicles, beer and laughter. I also sense that those who are up on Mt. Diamonji right now, having ascended the mountain to ignite the fires, are having a very different experience.
“At last and they reached the peak of Diamonji mountain … and he could look down from the heights, and there down below — completely encompassing the horizon — was in actuality the entire city, darkness had by this point almost completely fallen, the lights were burning down below in the distance already, and they didn’t say anything; he, because the sight left him at a complete loss for words, and Kawamoto because he was afraid that he was showing this in vain, that his friend — who had helped him form a connection between his solitary life in the world, due to which he owed him eternal gratitude — didn’t understand, and it wasn’t possible to explain: here on the peak of Diamonji, this was not the world of words; this gigantic evening picture of the city encircled by mountains said, without a single word, everything that he wanted to tell his friend before bidding farewell: an evening picture as a glimmer of twlight was disappearing into nothingness, and darkness finally descended, down below there was an enormous city, with the tiny lights of it stars setting out an enormous surface for itself, and up here above were the two of them … although he was pleased that his friend wasn’t talking and was only staring down below with dazzled eyes here from the heights, he was also aware that it was in vain, this friend saw nothing, the Western eye only saw the firefly-like sparkling of the evening city, but nothing of what he wanted to tell him, of what this hopeless, solitary, trembling land was signaling to one from down there below, certainly this place merely signified to him the wonderous gardens, the wonderous monasteries, and the wonderous mountains all around, so that Kawamoto had already turned around, and set off on the path leading downward…” — Laszlo Krasznahorkai from, Seibo There Below, ‘The Rebuilding of the Ise Shrine’ p.420
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Hiroshima, Japan on August 7th, all images this post FOP, 2015
It was an odd sensation to walk with through the streets of an unfamiliar city. To feel one’s awareness constantly being pulled upward, away from the ground plane — away from the buildings, the gardens, the traffic, people, bikes, rivers and bridges. An invisible weight from above and followed me everywhere I walked. I was in Japan — so much to take in right in front of me — yet the empty sky held tremendous force. For two and half days the feeling did not lift. It was from “up there” that it came — the force of the first atomic bomb used on civilians in the history of the planet. I found myself repeating the facts in my head like a mantra, in order to accept that they could possibly be true:
There were three planes up there. It was a morning, 70 years ago. August 6th, 1945. One plane was filled with scientific equipment. One plane was filled with photography equipment. And one plane, with the name Enola Gay painted on its nose, flown by General Paul Tibbets, held an atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy.” The bomb was conceived of on the plateaus of New Mexico. The people in the planes that day were Americans. Right now, I am on the ground in Japan, about 6000 miles from Los Alamos. These Americans didn’t set foot in the city that I am presently walking through. They did not see what I am seeing (they missed the Itsukushima Shrine, dating to around 600 AD, they missed the gardens at Shukkein, they missed the constant roar of the cicadas, which are near deafening here in August). They did not look anyone in the eye, here, on the ground. They flew high over this city that morning. They actually dropped an atomic bomb. They really actually did this. The bomb exploded in the sky over this city — right here. Surface temperatures were over 7000 F and instantly killed tens of thousands of people. The people in the planes didn’t see the strange colors that people on the ground describe witnessing after the flash of light — green, blue, yellow — just before everything went black with rain and fire. The beautiful meandering rivers around me today, they soon held the dead and dying. Before stopping over on Tinian, the plane carrying the bomb came from Wendover, Utah. Which, oddly enough, is a place I have spent several weeks of life over the past decade. I can picture the hangar the Enola Gay departed from, I’ve stood inside its crumbling infrastructure. I am now in Hiroshima.
The event of 8:16am (Japan Time), August 6th, 1945 unleashed nonsensical scales of madness: three planes, hundreds of thousands of lives. Earth materials that took billions of years were deployed by humans in a way that shifted the course of humanity and planetary materiality irrevocably within microseconds. The Anthropocene grew strong wings that day.
For the entire time I was in Hiroshima it was as though three tiny planes were flying overhead.
Enola Gay hangar, from the Limit Case postcard series, smudge studio 2007
On day two in Hiroshima, at the exhibition The 70th Anniversary of the Atomic Bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: War and Peace, the work of artist Ikuo Hirayama, a Hiroshima survivor, brought me to a standstill. It was as if his piece, Enola Gay (エノアゲイ) had read my mind. Hirayama is perhaps best known for his large, multi-panel painting, The Holocaust at Hiroshima, which was also on view. But here was a small work that showed exactly what I had been imagining rendered in simple watercolor: three B29 bombers suspended in transparent air. The plane in the foreground was delicately painted with “Enola Gay.” The work was so matter of fact. It appeared to be a humble attempt at making sense of how these planes could be the catalyst for setting into motion events so immense and inconceivable.
Today Hiroshima is a lively city that has been entirely rebuilt. It’s filled with real people, parks, gardens, architecture and art (some of the best in the world). Even when taking public transportation around the city, a visitor doesn’t pass out of the range of areas affected by the blast. But this fact is difficult to hold in mind. Yet, when one encounters the iconic, disfigured wreckage of the Atomic Bomb Dome building, deep material realities rise to awareness: at human body scale, there was no escape.
Memorials and markers can be encountered far beyond the Memorial Park area, in alleys and in gardens, distant from the city center.
Rather than attempt to describe in detail the intimately personal artifacts, ephemera and stories housed by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and surrounding Park, we invite readers to experience this place on their own time and terms. For many years we’ve appreciated the phrase “feel it for yourself,” which we perhaps ironically, gleaned from nuclear physicist Freeman Dyson. These words ask for a slowing down and require a “being there” with all senses — even as we know that the “there” we are feeling is not the “there” of that day in 1945.
For a decade FOP has been devoted to creating “aesthetic prostheses” as provocations for public audiences to expand their capacities for imagining and acting in relation to deep geologic time. The nuclear has been central to this work, because of its entanglement with profound and vast geologic time scales (past and future). We have “felt it for ourselves” at the open house of the first atomic test, Trinity, and alongside the craters from subsequent tests that will reverberate in perpetuity in the exclusion zones of the Nevada Test Site. We have also stood before a model of “Little Boy” (nearly identical to one found inside the Hiroshima Peace Museum) at a small local museum in Wendover, Utah. Recently, we spent weeks of our lives traveling U.S Interstate/highway shipping routes for nuclear materials destined for deep geologic storage — a process that became necessary only post-1945 and will remain a pressing necessity for all remaining human history.
These experiences paved the way for and framed my arrival in Hiroshima, under a sweltering summer sun.
Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound (ashes of tens of thousand of people are interred here).
After touring the Peace Memorial Museum and Park, I sought refuge from the afternoon heat in the Hiroshima Museum of Contemporary Art at the top of a beautiful hill. Several important shows are on view in honor of the 70 year anniversary. One exhibition is aptly named Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness. Another, Life = Work, includes work that artists have dedicated nearly their entire lives to creating in response to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I was struck by my near total unfamiliarity with the artists being shown. I felt it as a deep loss.
The exhibitions I saw in Hiroshima that weekend weren’t offered as context for debating whether dropping the bomb was right or wrong, ended the war early or saved lives (American or Japanese). They were apolitical, and simply offered room after room of deep, human expression of what it was like to actually be on the ground, living through an atomic explosion and its aftermath. I was left wondering what might result if more people everywhere had the chance to encounter and spend time with these works, to simply stop and be with what actually happened to the humans living in Hiroshima on that day.
I offer the following list of works for consideration and personal research: Chimei Hamada, Elegy for a New Conscript: A Flabby Sun Rises, Toshi and Iri Maruki, The Hiroshima Panel, 6th August, Yasuo Kazuki, Stars (Barbed Wire) Summer, Yoshiro Fukui, Hiroshima Atomic Bomb, Ikuo Hirayama, Enola Gay, Ihei Kimura, Living Hiroshima, Hisashi Akutagawa, Child Drinking Water (Water Ota River 4), Shomei Tomatsu, Ms. Urakawa Shizuka and her daughters: Chika, Tomoyo and Mika (from left) ART EYE, Sadanobu Otsu, Black Rain, Miyako Ishiuchi’s Hiroshima series, Masahiro Usami, Hayashi Yuriko Hiroshima 2014.
The last exhibition I saw before leaving Hiroshima concluded with museum staff gently urging me to enter a small, final gallery. I was greatly relieved to be met with small cases of ceramic works, including many beautiful tea bowls.
The creators of this culminating exhibition share incredibly insightful words in their curatorial statement — offering a reminder that how we practice daily life, including seemingly mundane exchanges between humans that are culture — are actually at the core of the world we continuously co-create together. And I feel this statement offers a start toward fashioning a reply to the question that I brought with me to Japan : “What does it take to be with what is right now disappearing, or perhaps is already gone?”
Commemorations of the Exhibition “War and Peace” The Craftwork of Japan and Asia — Connected Hearts, Foundation of Peace:
“We have made “Craftwork of Japan and Asia” as one of the pillars of our collection in order to deepen the understanding toward Asia through craftwork familiar in our daily lives. Craftwork enriches a variety of situations in our daily lives and connects the hearts of assembled people. It has been observed that hopes for peace and prosperity are shared among craftwork’s designs even when the place and time are far away. Moreover, craftwork has encouraged the exchange of people, culture, economy and technology by circulating as commodities and gifts. Positive measures have been taken to build a peaceful world without war based on the principle of “creating peace” in Hiroshima Prefecture. Under these circumstances, exchanges through culture can be effective for the formation of a fundamental undercurrent in fostering mutual understanding and respect. The world is connected by culture and there is a force that connects the world vividly appears in craftwork that reflects the hopes of people intimately and had been circulated across national borders [my bold]. We would like to make this an opportunity to consider maintaining and building peace with culture through the “Craftwork of Japan and Asia.”
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What does it take to be with what is right now disappearing, or perhaps is already gone?
“Amphibians have the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals” (About 40 percent of all amphibians are considered endangered). “But also heading toward extinction are one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles and sixth of all birds.” – Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, from an interview with NPR’s Terri Gross
For over 500 years Japanese people have held a festival each August in Kyōto called O-Bon (also know as the “festival of the dead”). This event honors the visiting spirits of deceased ancestors and welcomes them “back” for three days (via home altars and visits to graves) and then “sends them off” with massive fires during the Gozan no Okuribi (“five mountain send-off fire”). The fires are ignited on five mountainsides surrounding the city.
To date, we have found no parallel to this event, especially in the form of enduring national traditions that attempt to acknowledge and maintain connections to what many humans would typically describe as gone or passed away. This August 16th, FOP will be attending the O-Bon festival to experience first-hand how this ancient ritual still invites and attracts contemporary humans to “be with” what has passed out of being.
FOP will attend the festival, as part of our ongoing research towards developing aesthetic practices that assist humans in attuning to the changing material conditions presently unfolding as the Anthropocene around us. How can we gracefully accept and adapt to the fact that lifestyles have material limits and respect other species and non-human forces? What does it take to be with what is right now disappearing, or perhaps is already gone?
As Japanese people meet emergent conditions of contemporary life, they have access to a rich and long cultural history and a relatively strong social fabric. Over thousands of years, Japanese culture has refined and invented countless practices and forms for negotiating and aesthetically responding to uncertain futures. We sense that many humans can benefit from cultivating more nuanced engagements with forces and dynamics of change. We also believe that aesthetic practices that invite humans to meaningfully and aesthetically be with, consider, and live change, are urgently needed. Aesthetic practices can inform new modes of attuning to and gracefully being with these changes, rather than responding with attempts to rise up and do “battle” with, control or re-design earth forces, or re-inscribe fatalist scenarios.
FOP will be in Japan for the next month. During this time, we will also experience intensive Japanese language immersion, visit Hiroshima in honor of the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb, which occurred on August 6th, 1945. And, we will research emergent Japanese daily life practices that use aesthetic experience as a way to attune to impermanence in the Anthropocene.
*This research is supported in part by the Tishman Environment and Design Center, The New School.
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Xiaoxuan Fu, Dragon Tree Mask (green tea, rice tea, flour and corn tassel)
Design, make and perform a mask to bring awareness to issues related to environmental change and/or possibly alter the behavior of those who use/wear it.
A group of ten students were charged with this task as their final project Masks for the Anthropocene. The project was part of a recently completed five-week intensive taught by FOP co-founder Jamie Kruse for the course entitled Sustainable Systems. Sustainable Systems is a first-year required course at Parsons School of Design that introduces and prepares first-year students to work with “wicked problems” as artists and designers. It does this through sequenced field trips to locations around New York City, lectures, fieldwork and applied scientific methods and encourages students to develop creative skills that support diversity, adaptability and resilience in the face of ever-changing conditions.
The mask project gave students a chance to materialize some aspect of at least one of the themes developed in the class. The themes included: intentional observation, climate change, wicked problems, storm surge, sixth extinction, social resiliency, guilt/denial of climate change, impact on air, water, plants, animals, waste, long-term/geologic thinking and the materials of the Anthropocene (such as plastic and nuclear waste).
Might a mask be able to materialize/translate a theme into an object or character of the Anthropocene that can be experienced? Might a mask invite someone wearing it to behave differently — to become more resilient or provide protection or encouragement in relation to a contemporary environmental problem, such as a nearly extinct animal, a person living near Fukushima, someone living in Evacuation Zone 1 of New York City, or someone dealing with poor air quality in Beijing? What happens to who and what a person “is” when they wear a mask designed with such questions in mind?
Students performatively documented their projects — that is, they activated the masks and interacted with other people or things in the world. Student-designers carefully considered their choices of materials and contextualizing narratives. The resulting masks were incredibly diverse. All of the students were international (from China, Colombia, Korea, Mexico, Taiwan and Saudi Arabia), and several of the masks focused on issues affecting their home countries. As a result, the mask offer a global tour of sorts, of regions and materials that are being altered by the Anthropocene.
The project summary, design brief and documentation of the masks can be seen here. The course blog, Art + Design for Changing Conditions, documents additional course projects, design briefs and curriculum.
Sara (Qihan) Dong, Mask for the Anthropocene
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Cover Art, © Mary Mattingly, House and Universe, 2013
We are pleased to announce the release of a book that we’ve been anticipating — Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies edited by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin.
This timely collection takes “as its premise that the proposed epoch of the Anthropocene is necessarily an aesthetic event.” Its contributors explore “the relationship between contemporary art and knowledge production in an era of ecological crisis” and the volume includes a “multitude of disciplinary conversations, drawing together artists, curators, scientists, theorists and activists to address the geological reformation of the human species.”
All are welcome to download the book or purchase print copies. Many thanks to Heather and Etienne for including our work.
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“Is it not impossible that future humans will have built something like spirituality around these materials?” Care for the hyperobject will emerge … What do you do with the radioactive waste? You can’t just sweep it under the Yucca Mountain carpet and hope nobody notices … Hyperobjects are the true taboos, the demonic inversion of the sacred substances of religion … Isn’t it ironic that supposedly materialist, secular societies created the ultimate spiritual substances?” – The Ecological Thought, Timothy Morton (p.132)
“In Zeami’s later critical works yūgen takes on a darker coloration … Yūgen in fact tends to reject conventional notions of beauty: if a display of feminine grace on the Nō stage were the highest aim, real women could now take the parts, though they were not permitted on the stage in Zeami’s day. But the thought of a woman performing the role of say, the courtesan Eguchi is repugnant to lovers of Nō who insist that a man in his sixties with a cracked bass voice and large, ugly hands has more yūgen. They are right: anyone who saw Kita Roppeita dance the role of the shite in Sagi (“the White Heron”), a man in his eighties taking the part of a bird, surely sensed the mysterious, indefinable presence of yūgen.” – Nō and Bunraku, Donald Keene (p. 23)
Untitled (Human Mask) (2014), Film. (Courtesy the artist; Hauser & Wirth, London; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York; Esther Schipper, Berlin; Anna Lena, Paris, © Pierre Huyghe)
The girl is agitated, pacing. She is waiting in a dark and empty room. The structure is some kind of house or restaurant. Fusuma doors display iconic, ancient landscapes — scenes of a “nature” typically (imagined) to be inhabited by reclusive monks who have renounced the world. A scroll of calligraphy, slightly out of focus in the background, displays a phrase typically referenced in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony “一期一会“（ichi-go ichi-e). The words literally translate as “one time one meeting.” But they also are used to express, “for this time only,” “never again,” or “one chance in a lifetime.” Maggots crawl through spoiled food. A faucet drips. Rain pours off the roof. She climbs into a chair. Her face, smooth and even, is that of a perfectly sculpted Nō mask. It reflects an eerie glow of blue green light. She appears consumed by the waiting, pulling at her hair. Her arms and legs are covered in fur. She has the posture of a wild animal — a monkey.
The people around me in the gallery, also watching this video, seem uncomfortable. The silence is charged. The video is on loop and I wonder what it is like for visitors who are right now walking into this unpleasant and confusing scene. What is this creature?
It’s important to note that the piece starts with the footage of the wreckage. All that was torn from the land in the wake of the tsunami and earthquake in 2011. What we see on screen, in reality, can’t be repaired because it exists within the exclusion zone. There are real places like this in Japan. Radiation is everywhere. All the people have left.
Is this video fiction, or is it reality? Perhaps they are the same in this context. Could this equation of fiction and reality be the beauty, the mysterious grace — the yūgen you might say — of this ambiguous video by Pierre Huyghe that is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?
Both Huyghe’s roof commission and this video piece require patience and a reorientation to notions of time. They both require the long, geologic view, but from a human body and with a human scale — a certain kind of waiting. These works require us to leave the world as we tend to experience it in our daily, habitual lives. They require both an imaginative and a grounded sense of existing on geologically active planet Earth. In return, we get a chance to experience a little more intimately, and uncomfortably, the contemporary world we inhabit, but don’t yet seem to have the tools/capacities to actually take in.
I left Untitled (Human Mask) reeling. Cherry blossoms were blowing through the streets of New York. It was a spectacular spring day outside the Museum. The heaviness of the video was a strong counterpoint to the uplift I found outside — the sky, the light, the sense of a new season finally beginning. News of the drought in California had been making headlines all week and now the beautiful landscaping and fountains I saw on the streets suddenly appeared excessive. I was filled with a sense of all things surpassing limits. The limits of waiting — for rain, for action, for radioactive particles to undergo transmutation into lesser forms. This moment of realization felt like a resigned but calm acceptance. I could continue to walk through the day as though all was “okay” or I could take up the invitation from Huyghe and go deeper into the theatre of reality for a moment or two. To pause with what we might call, the yūgen of hyperobjects, such as the Anthropocene.
In the Ecological Thought, Timothy Morton writes: “Ecological collectivities must make space for introversion and reflection, including meditative practices … ‘radical passivities’ … must work directly on attitudes … Meditation means exposing our conceptual fixations and exploring the openness of the mesh. Politics must begin to include (difficult word!) spirituality, in the sense of radical questioning and opening … Meditation does not mean emptying the mind or suppressing the intellect. It doesn’t mean doing nothing … Meditation implies an erotics of coexistence, of not just letting things be.” (p127)
Huyghe’s video is both distant and extremely intimate. We are inside and outside of its spaces and times (the gallery, Japan, the waiting, the past, present, future) simultaneously. The piece works, if not grates, intensely on our psychologies. It’s almost absurdist theater, a Waiting for Godot of the Anthropocene, and demands a viewing audience with a certain sturdiness. You quickly discover whether or not you’re up to the task. It asks quietly, in the dark, if you are ready to meet these unknowns. And you have to answer only to yourself about how long you do in fact pause before you get up to leave.
The description posted on the Met’s website doesn’t prepare visitors for what they encounter. It reads, “Pierre Huyghe: Human Mask—on view from April 27 through August 9, 2015, in gallery 916—will present the New York premiere of Huyghe’s new nineteen-minute video, Untitled (Human Mask), which portrays a mysterious creature’s resilience in the aftermath of natural and man-made disaster.”
No mention of Japan. No mention of Fukushima. No mention of the loneliness, the agonizing wait or the forced exodus. The words imply a piece about resilience and a future.
The wall text accompanying the video is more detailed than the Met’s website. Here, steps from the piece itself, visitors learn that we are about to experience a work that, “explores the paradoxical rift between what we think we know about the world and what it can and cannot, in turn, tell us. Untitled (Human Mask) evokes many such themes: the monotony of work and the repetition of ritualistic behaviors, the possibility of a catastrophic future, and the power that living creatures hold over us as ciphers of ourselves.” We also learn that the work, “opens with a deserted streetscape near Fukushima, Japan, which was devastated by natural and man-made disaster in 2011. Amid the ruin, the camera enters an abandoned restaurant and finds what appears to be the only survivor: a monkey adorned with a mask and costume of a young girl…”
The effect is one of psychological endurance. Even if you don’t find yourself thinking about what occurred (and continues to affect the planet) on March 11-13th, 2011, there is something about the video that you likely will find to be unshakable: an unnamable sense of recognition.
In Untitled (Human Mask) Huyghe offers audiences engagements with the strange stranger of the Anthropocene — and it/s/he seemingly looks and moves uncannily like us, in a state of unravelling. Parsing out what’s fiction and what’s reality no longer computes. As David Neumann did in his deeply human, “I Understand Everything Better,” Huyghe has crafted a work that offers a brief, but sustained, aesthetic encounter with elusive sensations of mortality. Perhaps this is a themes most of us would rather not engage on a Saturday afternoon, but our culture’s inability to “hold the thought” of limits has contributed at least a bit to our arrival at the Sixth Extinction. Some have aptly suggested that the development of material and psychological capacities for being with change, or what we call “death” in the West, is becoming increasingly urgent as we head into the unknowable futures of the Anthropocene. It many ways, it amounts to a question of spiritual constitution. How might we be become better prepared, not just materially, but psychologically and philosophically, to meet what’s already here?
This summer we (FOP/smudge) will be spending an extended period of time in Japan, undergoing language immersion and exploring new trajectories for our work, such as performative/theatre practices and yūgen in particular. Also, as part of an intensive summer session at Parsons, a group of students will be producing a project entitled, “Nō Masks for Navigating the Anthropocene.” We will share more about these projects in coming weeks.
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“What we call yūgen lies within the mind and cannot be expressed in words. Its quality may be expressed by the sight of a gauzy cloud veiling the moon or by the autumnal mists swathing the scarlet leaves on a mountainside. If one is asked where yūgen can be found in these sights, one cannot say; a man who cannot understand this truth is quite likely to prefer the sight of the moon shining brightly in a cloudless sky. It is quite impossible to explain wherein lies the interest or wonder of yūgen.” -Buddhist priest and poet, Shōtetsu (1381-1459), from Nō and Bunraku, Donald Keene
from “I Understand Everything Better,” image by Maria Baranova, courtesy Advanced Beginner Group
(See Interfacing the Anthropocene Part I for an introduction to this post and Interfacing the Anthropocene Part III for a continuation.)
The entire stage was in motion, serpentine waves of billowing plastic. As “the wind” increased its fury, our main character gallantly attempted to confront the storm that swirled violently around him. It was a pivotal moment of David Neumann’s performance, ‘I Understand Everything Better’ at the Abrons Arts Center.
The New York Times has described Neumann as having weathered “a number of storms in recent years, personal and meteorological.” And in ‘I Understand Everything Better,’ “he reflects on the deaths of his parents, which bookended Superstorm Sandy. Techniques from Japanese Noh theater, along with his characteristic wit, provide grounding and leavening forces.”
In the last moments of ‘I Understand Everything Better,’ after the storm has passed, a father is about to die. Neumann (as his father) is moving slowly off stage, dressed in white attire reminiscent of traditional Shinto and Nō costume. His exit is meticulous. Step by step. In silence. It is a slow, ritualistic movement. It conveyed a process of passing out of being. Another character on stage, serving as the character’s medical attendant, states definitively, “I’m here till’ he’s gone.” And, off he goes, into his “next.”
Core to the concept of Nō theater is yūgen, which roughly translates as subtle beauty, mystery and profound grace. We (FOP/smudge) feel it is the urgent task of artists to discover and enact new practices that cultivate new sensations of, and fortitude for, living within emerging planetary realities. Our hunch is that this is will be more effectively taken-up through embodied practice rather than through representation or description. Neumann’s appropriation of Nō to communicate and enact the loss of his parents — and to indirectly link these passings to the upheavals of planetary systems (i.e. hurricane as metaphor for Anthropocene), left us newly inspired.
from “I Understand Everything Better,” image by Maria Baranova, courtesy Advanced Beginner Group
Neumann’s ritualistic exit from the stage was risky. It was slow and processual. It drew us in closer until we were with him. American culture tends to avoid lingering over themes of death and other limits — and over the idea of not grasping for more (time, resources etc.). Yet signals that we humans are approaching new limits are everywhere. It’s stressing us out. The gathering “storms” signals to us the many limits we do indeed face.
We noted, appreciatively, that when Neumann needed to express something deeper, more sacred, about the changes he was experiencing in his life, he sought “training” outside of American cultural traditions. For thousands of years, cultures such as Native Americans and the Japanese, just to name two, have been refining embodied and often aesthetic practices intended to invite humans to continuously acknowledge their (humble) place within larger planetary realities. In preparation for ‘I Understand Everything Better,’ Neumann took part in a “Nō Immersive” in Tokyo, under a fellowship grant from the Asian Cultural Council.
Neuman elaborates on his attraction to Nō for The New Yorker, “Watching Noh is like looking at an airplane in the sky. It is slow and serene. But if you were up there with it there would be all this noise and black smoke.”
In the playbill for the performance Neumann writes that with the loss of his parents he “felt a significant change … a new perspective—a type that only loss can bring…” and that Superstorm Sandy lent, “a sense of humility in the face of the natural world, and with that, the perspective only nature provides.” Neumann has said that he was never interested in attempting to imitate Nō, but rather his work “shares some formal elements with both the Nō and Kabuki theaters, and with that, the desire to engage and activate our imaginations.”
As FOP/smudge, we sense that if contemporary humans (Americans, in particular) feel there are a limited number of meaningful practices available in our contemporary culture that enable us to turn towards the planetary realities and limits that we currently face, instead of distracting us away from them, it is important that we (especially artists) learn from such practices that exist elsewhere — and then attempt to invent our own. Neumann has done just this.
A New Yorker review goes on to say: “In that act of containment, Neumann feels that he found a chastening vehicle for a potentially chest-banging subject. He thinks, also, that Nō reinforced in him the conviction that he has to trust the audience. ‘I don’t want to try to convince them that they should like my show, or that they should feel something at a certain point. To refrain from that requires patience. I used to have no patience. I’ve learned some.'”
As we navigate our way through the limits that the Anthropocene is delivering, embodied practices such as the performance Neumann invented, can offer means for gaining nuanced acceptance of the fast, intense material changes taking place on a global scale. By inventing and enacting such practices of our own, we can make contact with emerging realities without being left to reel in states of distraction or despair.