Last weekend I was feeling a little restless and needing inspiration, prompting a day trip to Ishikawa Prefecture. I was lucky enough to catch Tokyo-based Koji Kakinuma‘s exhibition “Exploring Calligraphy” at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa.
I say “lucky”, because this exhibition left me in awe. I hope to share why I found this exhibition so fascinating!
Kakinuma brings to Shodo a contemporary vision grounded in tradition. He probes the principle of calligraphy in an endeavor to see calligraphy as a contemporary art form. “Inhale, exhale—use the brush freely!” is the figure of calligraphy he aspires to.
– An excerpt from Kanazawa21
So let’s start at the beginning.
The writing system in Japan uses Kanji, characters used to symbolize or represent words and ideas. In order for Kanji to be functional it has to have rules and remain consistent. The size, shape, spacing, and stroke-order really matter. It matters even more in Shodo, which is the artistic writing of Kanji (or Japanese calligraphy). There is great emphasis not only on the appearance, but on materials and the physical movement of the writer. Kakinuma’s background is in Shodo, and his work plays with the restrictions that surround the practice.
Kakinuma’s exhibition fills 7 rooms, throughout which he manipulates and distorts these Japanese characters and all the rules they entail. He often alters his arm movements which creates lines that are loose and distorted. In the image below you can see an example of varying strokes.
Sometimes these characters become spontaneous and difficult to read. In this form they begin to look less like their practical selves and become more abstract. This work was not included in the exhibition, but it is an excellent example.
In the above image, you might have noticed a small red mark on the left. All of Kakinuma’s works are finished with his Hanko, a personal stamp used in Japan equal to the functon of signatures (I myself have one for bill payments and signing contracts!). The Hanko, with it’s defined image, looks static next to the Kakinuma’s fluid characters.
The exhibition included one work in English: The phrase “You bring the light in” repeated over and over again in loose writing.
The longer I stared, the more the images in front of me looked less like letters and words and more like orderless markings. It was definitely helpful for me to have one work in my own language. It helped me understand the feeling of something visually familiar being distorted.
Kakinuma’s produces “big scale” works which are several meters in width and height. Big pools of ink collect together to form areas of progressively deepening shades, as well as ink bleeding into the paper. Droplets and drippings scattered around the overall clean strokes. The Hanko marking that I mentioned before was also present on the larger works, in an accordingly larger size.
During the few Shodo lessons I’ve taken the instructor explains: back straight, relax, move your arm not your wrist, feel the brush, breathe. The brush will move as you move. Kakinuma takes the physicality of Shodo to another level with his. In a seated area outside of an exhibition room, visitors to the museum are able to watch a video of Kakinuma’s process. Along with a bucket of ink, he uses a brush almost the same height as him (cue images of the “Borrowers”). His entire body’s strength is needed to move it across the paper on the floor. His feet, back, arms work together to produce the right strokes.
This isn’t the same video shown at the museum, but it’s also really cool to watch.
These oversized characters speak to the inexhaustible power of Kanji as symbols. This character, 山, is tiny on paper, but represents the gargantuan presence of a mountain, and brings to mind images of Japan’s endless mountain ranges, of their sublime power, of the feeling of spirituality that can come from being in the presence of these untouchable ancient entities.
The way these large works are presented can be very powerful, for instance in an enormous room with a ceiling as high as a gym’s and blindingly white walls. Hanging on opposite eachother, a few meters from the top of the ceiling are “Go Go”, 2013, and “Pheonix”, 2013, each spanning over 77 squared metres. The sheer size, space, and visual impact of this presentation left me in awe. It’s the same feeling I get when I stand in a towering Cathedral or look across the mountains: Completely overwhelmed and yet reassured by the beauty of these environments. A beauty that feels innately familiar yet out of grasp.
Needless to say I really enjoyed the exhibition and I’m glad I was introduced to Kakinuma’s work at this time. Had I visited after only a month or so living in Japan, my response would have been different because I would have had no familiarity to Kanji. In the last 6 months, Kanji has become a confusing part of my daily life. Seeing it distorted and manipulated by Kakinuma was captivating and oddly cathartic.