22 June 2011

Mokuhanga Conference 4 - Carving the Ineffable

While Sato san was demonstrating Kyoto-style woodblock printing in one part of the large room at Kyoto Kaikan, a carver named Hiroshi Fujisawa was demonstrating traditional carving. Fujisawa san is a professional carver who works in a home-based workshop in Kyoto. He was an apprentice beginning at age 16 to master carver Kikuta Kojiro and has now been carving for over 50 years. He is said to be one of the best carvers in Japan.

Fujisawa san speaks while Claire translates

By the time I made it over to Fujisawa san's demonstration, he had finished carving and was giving a talk about how his study of Buddhism informs his work. In his talk he used the words kokoro (心) meaning heart/mind/spirit and kuuki (空気) which means atmosphere/mood/tone. He spoke about the importance and the difficulty of representing these qualities, the heart of the artist and the tone of a place, in a print.

As he spoke, I thought about the "kokoro" and "kuuki" in my own work. I thought about how I've been using mokuhanga to express my thoughts and feelings (kokoro) about my country, about religion, about the uneasy international relationships of this early global 21st century. I thought about how I often surround myself with music or audio books or podcasts that have to do with the topic or the time period I'm working with, an attempt to create the "kuuki" of a time and place in my studio while I work. I've always felt that somehow those feelings and songs and words and ideas that I'm immersed in, the emotional/mental/spiritual energy I use to create my work, become embedded within it and are readable by the viewer, however subtly.

Fujisawa san's beautiful notes

It seemed to me that Fujisawa san was saying that something inherent in mokuhanga allows these invisible and ineffable qualities to be expressed, that something about the method itself allows this process of embedment to occur. My answer to what it is about mokuhanga that allows these ineffable qualities to appear would be the following list.

- The slowness of the method allows (or forces) one to go deeply into the work.
- The tradition and history attached to the techniques and tools give them an almost ritualistic quality.
- The deconstruction of an image required in separating the colors onto different pieces of wood and then putting them back together into a new form offers many opportunities for the artist to react and respond to the materials in the process, embedding new decisions in the "memory" of the printed image.
- A woodblock artist uses her whole body to make the work. There is a very physical wrestling with the resistance of the wood in order to carve an image, and printing with a baren instead of a press also requires a lot of physical energy. The artist's body is part of the print.

Of course, some of these qualities are not unique to mokuhanga. I'd love to hear from you readers who work in other media -- do you, and if so, how do you express these ineffable qualities in your work? Please leave a comment if you have thoughts about this.

Detail of a print with over 300 impressions

Fujisawa san spoke about another factor of mokuhanga that he believes is integral to expressing the ineffable in a print: the transparency and layering of the pigments. Because of this transparency the colors are complex and deep and each layer, even if seemingly invisible, affects all the other layers. He showed us a series of prints that had each received hundreds of layers of colors to illustrate his point, saying that this kind of tone and feeling would not be possible in a print made by other methods, particularly digitally.

I was very moved by Fujisawa's talk. He articulated many things that I've barely articulated myself, and I felt a deeper understanding of why I've been so attracted to mokuhanga.


mara said...

Beautiful post Annie thanks!
I completely missed this part of the demonstration (as I said to you already, too many interesting things overlapping!) it was lovely to read it from you.

starkeyart said...

Wow. I think I have had all of those thoughts while carving and printing. Thanks for putting it to words so eloquently.

Sharri said...

I am enjoying my virtual trip to the conference very much and thank you, thank you for this opportunity. I think, though, that the qualities you attribute to moku hanga are inherent in all media. I know that it is all there for me no matter how I am working. The transparency of colors and overlapping are there in oily printing, painting, watercolors, etc.Keep the info coming - and I love all the extra insights you include!

Mandi said...

This is fascinating! I work with textiles. My current work is different from my previous in that I was searching for a connection to the process that was lacking in contemporary western textile work.

So I began exploring traditional Japanese techniques and found that I really connected to the simplicity of the forms and patterns that I could create. But what I love the most is the meditative state that I fall into when doing the time consuming work these processes take.

I use shibori, rozome and plan to work in some katazome. Shibori takes either a lot of hand stitching or a lot of time spent prepping the fabric before adding any dye. Rozome is a wax technique, but done with little brushes to create shading, not just a quick dip in dye. And katazome is like an early silk screen process, but cutting the stencils is so much more enjoyable to me than just creating a quick photo emulsion silk screen.

I relate to your list of ineffable qualities.
- The work I do is slow and requires much focus. The tools I use (I use surikomi brushes with the rozome) are similar to your printmaking tools in that they have a long history which makes their use meaningful (to me, at least).
-The design layers and processes must be thought through but there is a lot of the artist's hand seen in each step.
-Some of the manipulation of the fabric is physical, but so much of my connection to the fabric is because I am choosing to create in a less modern, speedy technique.

I love your work and the work of other Japanese style woodblock printers, and after reading this post, I know it's about more than just the gorgeous images. Its artist's connection to the work that shines through.

itsuko K said...

I am pleased to hear that you met Fujisawa san! I used to take his carving class in Kyoto ( which I think he still has) before I participate in NAP residency.
I love his personality as much as his idea, both of which are derived from his long experience as a top professional carver in my country.
When I was taking his class, he did not talk a lot, no lecture, just continuing to work on wood board. So all we students could do was to learn from and imitate what he is doing, the way just as same as the way Fujisawa san learned when he was apprenticing. I was very satisfied with his way of teaching.
What I learned from him is that professional career in art world cannot be established without the dedication of whole body of soul (kokoro) of the artist and deep understanding for the subject.

Annie B said...

Sharri, I figured that a lot of what I said about how the ineffable is expressed in mokuhanga would be true of other media. It's hard for me to know, because the only other media I know well is digital.

Mandi, it's very interesting to hear your experience. Similar to how I felt when I discovered mokuhanga. Thanks for your kind words about my work.

Itsuko, wonderful to hear that you know Fujisawa san! How fortunate you are to have studied with him. I was really impressed with his work and also with him as a person.

Keep those comments coming, please! I'm enjoying hearing your thoughts.

JennifersCabin said...

How well these elusive ideas have been expressed. Thank you for giving us all a window on the experience. It is this constant attempt to convey the essence of the place, time, experience of the moment that keeps me and many going. Be happy!

Rick Finn said...

Great post Annie,very insightful! I can understand how moved you would be by his talk.
When I began doing moku hanga, the one thing that I was initially aware of was the physicality of the process. In no other printmaking process have I felt my "hand" in the final print. It's one of the things I really love about it.

Steve Emery said...

I've been thinking about Fujisawa san's lesson, and your take on it from the point of view of your beloved mokuhanga.

My chosen media is watercolor - ephemeral, rapid, often at its best when it looks like the artist got out of the way and the moment took hold of the brush. And this haste might be true of some of my sketches, though even there my handwriting persists, and my feelings for colors and contrast overrule what I see before me. So even in the fray some of my heart, and some of my interior weather overshadows or lights the piece, no matter how brief.

For longer works, where days or weeks of drawing and thinking go into looking for the right characters and lighting for their hot press paper stage, I think it's inevitable that parts of me gets tangled in the result. Certain creatures appear and reappear - greyhounds like spirit guides, internal chicken jesters and fools, the wise and simple woolly sheep and solid cows, the gently smiling rabbits, schooling me with reminders from my deeper feelings.

Maybe heart and mood would be absent if the craft were practiced mechanically, or if the subject matter meant nothing to the artist, but that seems to me a desecration of both the subject and the art, like sex without love. Even when the work is fast, there is always an element of play, and it doesn't seem hurried.

I think, as with your work, when you dwell with a subject (an obsession?) for a long time, and internalize it - digest it, even - and then return it to the visible world through some careful craft, a well loved art that is as familiar as your own bones and tendons, then heart and place and emotion are inevitably present. At that point the speed of execution probably doesn't matter. It's the depth of the journey, more than the duration of the physical process. How have you loved this? How have you embraced this? How have you (as you so often do) felt another's pain or sorrow or loneliness? Can the craft, through long practice or a great gift, serve the needs of those emotions? Then art happens.

Annie B said...

Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Steve. For me, with digital being the only other medium I'm fully fluent in, moku hanga is achingly slow and so the speed is a quality I not only notice but have struggled with. But yes, I think you're right that it's not the duration of the process per se that allows heart and mind to be expressed, but the loving of the subject and, as you suggest, an intimacy with the process.
... Just read your comment again. You're a great writer. Much to contemplate. Thank you.

Andrew Stone said...

I managed to catch the first half of his demonstration and will try to post soon some photos of him working and his blocks. I went quickly over when he started carving as I was very interested in the physical act of carving; how he held the toh, the hammer and clearing chisels; the angle of the blade for lines and color blocks and the number of cuts used for each area.
I was most amazed by how quick he was.
He cleared the block the way I'd use an eraser to clean a blackboard coming within just 1-2mm to his carefully carved areas with a curved chisel and hammer. Bang, Bang, Bang, using his hammer elbow to keep the block from moving too much, the block sliding a bit away, the big curls of wood flying away.
He did in 10minutes what would have taken me all day.
As per the topic you raised.
As a professional printer he prints 100s of copies of the same image, layer after layer. I would imagine that to be successful one would have to become in spirit with the work and let it/you infuse each other; or conversely remove oneself from the process--getting rid of the ego and self, to become almost automatic and repetitive. What I imagine Zen Archery to be like....
I'm very much from the West. Pragmatic and not very metaphysical.
I suppose it's what is not in the work, what is somehow withheld and not expressed that marks my own efforts in printmaking. Like a teenager still awkward in his new body; I find the process of moku hanga somehow a bit outside the way I was before and the tension that comes from not being of the medium and a foreigner in the world of ephemeral images, of pigment that is pushed into the fibers of the paper as it stains my fingertips infuses the work as much as anything.

Annie B said...

Andrew, I wish I had seen him carving. I've tried to use that curved chisel the way you describe and I've never managed to control it. Looking forward to seeing your photos.

As for the metaphysical, I do suffer from a bad case of attraction to the mystical. I was a little shy about writing this post, in fact, as I don't like to confess how much of my life has been consumed with questions about religion and god(s) and all of that. I like to think of myself as a pragmatic mystic, only interested in mystical things that can be directly applied to my daily life. That would be things like meditation, mindfulness, cultivation of compassion and the like. Spiritual technologies rather than spiritual dogmas or ideologies. But I'm definitely prone to the mystical.

Having now met you in person, I think your prints are definitely infused with Andrew-ness. They are witty, thoughtful prints that address your questions about the technique and about suitable topics for art, and they contain that same tiny bit of self-deprecation that makes you as a person charming and easy to be with. I will remain a very proud owner of your earthworm print which for me, with my bent toward the mystical, is a print about death and rebirth.

Art is mystical. It is making something out of nothing. It's a miracle, I think.