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20 Jul 2017

KorinGami - 光琳 雅味 : A sculptural photographic project.


Ogata Korin (1658 – 1716) was the first to introduce a high level of abstraction in Japanese art. The previous generations of Yamato-e painters employed a more naturalistic approach in their depictions introducing elements like overhanging golden clouds or roofless building as mean to either obstruct or reveal details in their compositions.

Illustration of "The Tale of Genji, ch.5–Wakamurasaki", traditionally credited to Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–1691)

By presenting idealised natural elements depicted against a stark and simple golden background, Korin opened the road to a new way of artistic expression, later called "Rimpa" school in his honour.

When his subjects weren't devotional in nature, nature was shown in all its glory. Starting from the early history of aristocratic Japan till nowadays, nature and the four seasons have played a very important role in Japanese aesthetics. Surrounding oneself with artificial depictions of natural subjects soon became to be seen as a way to extend nature into one's house; in epochs when aristocratic women were not allowed to leave their house at will, this must have been a welcome relief from monotony.
Many were the surfaces in a house that could be enriched with paintings from famous artists. Sliding doors (fusuma) were the most extensive of these surfaces, often almost completely surrounding a hall or parlor space but screens (shoji) of different dimensions and hanging scrolls (kakejiku) were also very popular.
Even everyday objects like hand-fans (uchiwa), tableware and small furniture were enriched with naturalistic scenes using gold dust sprinkled on black lacquer (maki-e).
"The Old Plum" by Kano Sansetsu on four fusuma doors

Many of Korin's work were created with these "interior decoration" use in mind.
These representations, weren't simply gracious and beautiful to look at but they encoded a rich system of symbols and literary allusions that enriched everyday life with the talismanic power of nature. For instance, both pine trees and cranes were considered symbols of long life, ume plum flowers and hollyhocks symbolised a strong life force since both bloomed in adverse situations etc.
The iconography associated with the 4 seasons started being codified since the early Nara period (710–794) and it has been fundamental to the artistic and religious expression of Japanese culture across the centuries. Even novels, like "The Tale of Genji" (beginning of the 11th century), couldn't be fully appreciated without taking into account this layer of symbolism.
By abstracting its subjects from a context, Korin emphasized their symbolic meanings. With a masterful use of negative space and gilding, he imbued them with a mesmerizing otherworldly grace. As Jun'Ichiro Tanizaki says in his "In Praise of Shadows":

"Modern man, in his well-lit house, knows nothing of the beauty of gold; but those who lived in the dark houses of the past were not merely captivated by its beauty, they also knew its practical value; for gold, in these dim rooms, must have served the function of a reflector. Their use of gold leaf and gold dust was not mere extravagance. Its reflective properties were put to use as a source of illumination. Silver and other metals quickly lose their gloss, but gold retains its brilliance indefinitely to light the darkness of the room. This is why gold was held in such incredibly high esteem."

Being considered as very precious, glass was never really used for architectural purposes in Japan until the modern era. In its stance washi-paper was employed to cover up those surfaces meant to let the outside light seep through. Contrary to European paper, Japanese washi is produced with longer plant fibres giving it a higher strength and allowing light to emerge from it as a suffused and harmonious haze.
Artificial light existed only in the shape of candelabra or lanterns both movable and standing. They created a restricted region of light were actions could be performed while plunging the rest of the rooms in dark smoky shadows. The appreciation for shadows grew then from an inevitable state of being but it soon became a real part of everyday rituals and the art forms that stemmed from them.

"The “mysterious Orient” of which Westerners speak probably refers to the uncanny silence of these dark places",
as Jun'Ichiro writes.

It's from these premises that my project "Korin Gami" was born.
KorinGami - Ume Plum

Inspired by the artworks of Ogata Korin, as recorded in the 19th century woodblock printed book "One Hundred Paintings by Korin" (Korin hyakuzu), I wondered how these idealized talismanic symbols of nature would look if brought out of abstraction and placed in the shimmering shadows that Jun'Ichiro Tanizaki writes of.
To create something that is present only in the abstract world of art, feels to me like an alchemical process through which some of our life force is transmuted into a concrete object.
Page spread from "Korin hyakuzu" (ca. 1826)

Did you know that the Japanese word for paper "kami" represents as much "paper" as "the essence of a god or ancestor"?
Paper in Japan is considered to be a powerful carrier of intentions and wishes.
The ancient practice of wrapping gifts in paper was a way to protect as well as to add value and good omens to them. With time this gave rise to what we now call Origami, where the created paper object alone, as a representation of nature, may act as a talisman embodying the characteristics of its counterpart.
Using common wrapping paper and origami to recreate these compositions seemed a natural way to combine both the man-made, down to earth aspects with the traditional and ritualistic ones of this transmutative process.
The act of photographing these sculptures somewhat captures part of the "kami" housed in them, recreating a talismanic image in tune with Japanese traditions.

Technical Details
The background consist of ca. 4 sqm (ca. 43 sqft) of Dutch gold leaf sandwiched between a white and a black washi-paper surface, worked out so to bring the shimmery-shadows effect.
The sculptures are executed in lightweight wrapping tissue paper, thin brass wires, sometime sequins, floral wires and floral tapes. Each small sized sculpture takes ca. 2-3 months to complete and measure ca. 50-60 cm (20-25 in).
The photographs are executed using speedlights and a Fuji XM-1 camera.

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