Monday, May 23, 2011

What's So Japan About It?

During the month of May, in conjunction with Cullom Gallery's current exhibit, East by West (highlighting work by eleven different artists who draw on technical and aesthetic traditions of Japanese art on or of paper) participating artists are invited to comment on the question, What's so Japan about it?" as it relates to their own work.  In the first response, Kansas City artist, Saskia Lehnert, shares her nexus of ukiyo-e, gender identity, and looking at Japanese culture from the outside in.  B.C.

Saskia Lehnert. Looking into the Sun: The Appearance of the Artist Imagining Herself as a Japanese Warrior in a Kurosawa Film. Japanese woodblock print. 22 x 15 inches.

The piece in question is a self-portrait entitled, “Looking into the Sun: The Appearance of the Artist Imagining Herself as a Japanese Warrior in a Kurosawa Film.” The image used to create this woodblock print comes from a photograph, distilled through a line screen pattern in photoshop, carved with a dremel tool in woodblock, and printed in the traditional Japanese style, known as moku hanga. This print was originally conceived as a kite print, and in fact an artist's proof from the edition was mounted and exhibited as a kite in Japan. The subject and title of the print contains many ukiyo-e references, and was originally inspired by traditional Japanese kite prints of the Edo period (1603-1868): namely the 'big head' kites such as the Daruma kites and those depicting close-up, enlarged head shots of famous actors of the day or great warriors from Japanese history. During that time period in Japan, the government under the Tokugawa Shogunate kept tight control on every aspect of people's lives, and everyone was expected to keep to a very specific place and role in society. As John Stevenson notes in the book, “Japanese Kite Prints”, during the seventeenth century, “kite-flying itself could be a mild form of rebellion against a strictly stratified hierarchy. Commoners loved to fly kites over the compounds of noble families in Edo: though not specifically forbidden, this was considered a way of thumbing the nose at social superiors.” Indeed, it was this very idea that provided the main inspiration for this print: the power of flying symbolically through the sky over the heads of society below. I decided that the 'big head' in my version of a kite print needed to be mine. Not that my ego is currently so enlarged as to need to fly above everyone else, but I felt that a bit of self-empowerment through art- making would certainly be in order for my own personal time and place in the world today.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) “Mutsuki (the New Year's Festival)”. From the series, Five Festivals (Go sekku no uchi) c. 1845

The title of my print gives a nod to Yoshitoshi's famous print series, "32 Aspects of Customs and Manners (32 Aspects of Women)," produced at the end of the nineteenth century. These prints, with titles such as, “Looking sleepy: the appearance of a courtesan of the Meiji era”, or “Looking weighted-down: the appearance of a waitress at Fukagawa in the Tempo era”, depict women from various time periods in Japanese history caught in every-day moments of their lives. I adopted the naming conventions of these titles to draw a comparison between Yoshitoshi's depiction of women and my own contemporary depiction of my female self outside the Japanese tradition. Although Yoshitoshi shows a sensitivity to the women he depicts, which in my mind exceeds many of his ukiyo-e predecessors, I still hope to highlight the difference in the way his women 'look' and the way I 'look' as both the subject and the artist of this print.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892) “Looking relaxed: the appearance of a Kyoto geisha of the Kansei era” (1789-1801). From the series: Thirty-two Aspects of Women published by Tsunashima Kamekichi, 1888
Yet not only have I muddied the gender role in this reference by 'imaging myself' into a heroic Japanese male role, unlike Yoshitoshi, it is not a role from a specific time and place in Japanese history that I take my inspiration from, but more, from my rather removed impressions of Japanese history as gathered from the movies and cultural artifacts exported from Japan, like what I absorb from watching a Kurosawa samurai film. More layers, more degrees of separation, but perhaps instead of being a romanticizing, exoticizing force, I can turn that distance into an advantage and not a disadvantage.

from Akira Kurosawa's 1954 film, The Seven Samurai

Additionally, by using myself as the subject of the print, and then imagining myself into a typical ukiyo-e subject, it gave me a chance to examine more closely my unique connection to the ukiyo-e tradition, and the ways in which it and the larger picture of Japanese artistic and aesthetic concerns inform my own work. It became a means to highlight the contradiction of a Western, American, woman artist in the twenty-first century with minimal real-life connection to modern Japan working in the tradition of Japanese woodblock prints. Also, it was a way to find the resolutions inherent in that contradiction. And so, there I am, looking heroic, looking fierce like a traditional samurai warrior. I am looking into the (Rising) Sun, both literally and symbolically; it's nebulous, it's slightly blinding, it's hard to describe what I see, but I'm still seeking to find that insight, perhaps an insight that only an outsider can bring, that only an outsider can take away. After all, the technique, content, and inspiration used in my prints exists just as much outside the ukiyo-e tradition as in it; It's quite an interesting hybrid indeed.

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