Hirakawa’s vision of the future for Bizen Art

Zen and Bizen Ware

Zen Buddhism, originated during the Tang Dynasty in China ,was introduced to Japan in the Kamakura Period, 13th century. Eisai a Zen Priest of Rinzai School (known as Yosai in Kibi Region, today’s Okayama) studied the Zen doctrine in Southern Song and upon retuning to Japan propagated and preached the principles. He also introduced drinking of green tea, which developed into the Tea Ceremony. “Yosai Tea Ceremony” at the Okayama Korakuen Garden was widely publicized as a major event commemorating the introduction of tea appreciation in Japan.

The Sogenji Temple, at Naka-ku of Okayama City, where the “Zen & Be-zen” exhibition was held, was built in 1698 as a temple under Myoshinji Temple, the head temple of the Rinzai Zen school in Kyoto. Tsunamasa Ikeda, the local lord of the Okayama Clan at the time, provided the funding in memory of Tsuneoki and Tsunamasa, his grand father and father respectively.

It is generally believed that Zen principle covers various teachings from Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, while I personally feel strong influence of the Tao concept of yin and yang of the great nature, as represented in the taijitu, as well as the Chinese Shen-xian si-xiang philosophy. Okakura Tenshin,1863-1913, a famous scholar in art world, argued in his book, “The Book of Tea” (Putnam, 1906), that Zen most accurately succeeded the Taoism. The philosophy of Zen highly influenced the Japanese mind to appreciate the nature and to capture its beauty, as represented in the ink works of Sesshu, followed by court paintings by Rinpa school artists and the Ukiyoe. Of important progression in Tea Ceremony is “Wabi Sabi”, a Japanese aesthetics of effort to find meaning of imperfection and self emptiness. The fact that many tea ceremony masters sought Bizen pottery is a proof that Bizen Art played a major role in propagation of Zen.

Bizen Ware, Tokushu Kidai and Taoism

Specially shown at the exhibition was a recreation of prehistoric “Tokushu Kidai” and period pots which had been replicated two years earlier by three local artists, Tadashi Hirakawa, Yukiko Akai and Shingo Koyama. “Tokushu Kidai” is a terra cotta objects used in formal funeral for kings, a practice started in the Kibi region, today’s Okayama area, during the late half of the “Yayoi” period (around 180 AD), prior to the rise of the Yamato empire in central Japan. The object was found in one of the largest Japanese tombs excavated locally, the Tatetsuki mound, and was used with some 30 kilograms of cinnabar pigment, a mercury based mineral. In later period the objects were carried to kings’ tombs in Izumo and then to the largest tombs in Yamato (present Nara). The burial mounds consisting of a square front part and a round rear section. This indicates that Kibi region played a key role in the forming of the unified country of Japan. About the same time these Kidai were made, “Jotoshiki” terra cotta objects were used near Ashimori River by Tatetsuki. They are believed to be the start up production of culinary pots which later spread over many parts of western Japan. This means that high level craft workers were living in the Kibi region, leading us to the belief that the area is the origin of Bizen Ware. Hirakawa hypothesized in his Kidai reproduction report that there exists clear evidence to trace the Bizen craftsmanship to the Yayoi period and disagreed with the common academic view that Bizen Ware origin is “Sueki” which is a glazed pottery in greyish blue color mostly found in Kofun era tomb mounds.

I take a position that the ceremonies using the Tokushu Kidai carried out at Tatetsuki mound were based on the Taoism. There exists no established evidence that that was the case, but I strongly believe that the facts that main production center of the mercury pigment and Tao followers were along the lower end of the Yantze River indicates strong ties to the Zen philosophy Yosai brought back to Japan. If this hypothesis holds, then the dots on Taoism, Rinzai Zen, and Tokushu Kidai, when connected will definitely show a continuous line of propagation. The main purpose of the current exhibition, Zen & Be-zen, is to trace the philosophical connection of the four presentations, i.e., Taoism, Zen, Kidai and Bizen Ware.

La Pansee Sauvage and Tsuchigama Project

Claude Levi Strauss, the French anthropologist known for establishing contemporary philosophy on the structuralisme as demonstrated in his work, “La Pansee Sauvage” , 1962, stated late in his life that Japan is the only country which was successful in maintaining the balance of the age old tradition and the modern innovations. He said that the modernization in the western world was accomplished by separating the humans from the nature, but the concept which rigidly remain in primitive societies that the nature and human minds are inseparable and he called this “ La Pansee Sauvage” and concluded that it is an invaluable philosophy for mankind future. He observed that Japan is the only country where people maintained that man and nature are one, yet accomplished modernization.

Strauss used the Greek word ‘poesis ’for the creating works by Japanese pottery craftsmen and cooks, rather than English word, ‘production’. He pointed out that the inherent attitude or artisan spirit observed on these average Japanese workers is based on workers’ belief that making potteries or cooking meals is not just creating something new or different for their own purpose, but rather it is their duty to bring out the beauty and the value that exist within clay, wood or vegetables and whatever ingredient. In other words the workers’ task is believed to satisfy the desires of materials themselves to come out or sprout in the outside world.

The idea is extremely close to what the Taoism preached, that is Tao’s “Wu-wei, zi-ran” or effortless action and naturalness. Not to intentionally pursue perfectness is another concept similar to the Taoism. This is the very philosophy of the origin of the Bizen Ware, which Hirakawa pursued in his Tsuchigama project, the spirit of his 30 year work, searching the wild hills and fields of Bizen for the origin of the naturalness of the Bizen Ware.

Hirakawa’s Tsuchigama is a regeneration of the Bizen kilns of the Kamakura and the following periods, which is of perfect nature recycling process in mind. It has been proven that the kilns have heat efficiency much higher than contemporary rising brick kilns and that it is the friendliest kiln to the nature.

It is now receiving recognitions by the global art community as the most effective approach to bring about the ultimate elements of the nature in forms of new art work.

The Sogenji Garden Exhibition was a representation trinity of sort ; the Zen Buddhism, the artists and the works, i.e. the Bizen Ware. As the program manager, I felt truly rewarded when people commented that the very best of the exhibition was the harmony of the works and the venue.

The role of Japan’s Art Community

I believe the essence of an art is a form of ‘ode to nature’ as a means for preservation of species. Kibi Tokushu Kidai was an instrument in ancient Japanese mythological ceremonies and superstitious practices, was decorated by bands around the tubular body representing ‘depth , space, and eternity’ for ever lasting life. This was the fundamental respect for a contemporary art, of the time.

Along the course of Bizen Ware timeline, pottery making dissociated itself from the superstition practices, but the craft maintained expressing the imperfect balance of nature by gritty surface finish offering multi-layered attractiveness. Such typical art spirit of Japan, I conclude, is an
exact parallel to the Strauss’ proposal on bricolage and divisionism.

Richard E. Nisbett analyzed in his popular book, “The Geography of Thought”, Free Press 2003, object-based thinking by Westerners vs. context-based thinking by Asians. He had observed that the difference in thinking approach, i.e., self centric drive in the West versus spirit of serving a community in the East, is due to cultural differences. The same difference is often seen in such well published discussion, ‘ baseball vs. Japanese Yakyu’. And by all means such differences do exist in the world of art.

However, recent general flow of art seems to follow the omnipresent globalism trend in economical and geopolitical sense. A question to be raised is whether such expansion of economy and increasing wealth would serve the wellness of art in the future. At such time in the history of Mankind, the art community has a critical role, particularly in a country like Japan where virtue and value systems are deeply connected with the respect for nature. The Zen and Be-zen Exhibition was produced with a strong desire that the art world in future be strongly tied hand in hand, East and West. We believe it is a mission given to us in the Bizen region, where the Asian context-based thinking continues to live. We wish this effort is more widely recognized in the rest of the world.
Hiroyoshi Chikashige (Art Director)

Hiroyoshi Chikashige