Friday, February 24, 2012

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki: In Praise of Shadows

This amazing little book was published in 1933 in Japanese. The English translation was published in 1977. The book talks about the home and architecture from Tanizaki's own experiences (it seems that this famous writer was constantly redecorating or building a new house). As the title suggests Jun’ichirō Tanizaki makes the claim that traditional Japanese objects such as lacquerware and the Japanese home itself have been made specifically for low light, or to be specific, the light produced as the day closes.

"Why should this propensity to seek beauty in darkness be so strong only in Orientals? The West too has known a time when there was no electricity, gas, or petroleum, yest so far as I know the West has never been disposed to delight in shadows. Japanese ghosts have traditionally no feet; Western ghosts have feet, but are transparent. As even this trifle suggests, pitch darkness has always occupied our fantasies, while in the West even ghosts are clear as glass. This is true too of our household implements: we prefer colours compounded of darkness, they prefer the colours of sunlight. And of silverware and copperware: we love them for the burnish and patina, which they consider unclean, insanitary, and polish to a glittering brilliance. They paint their ceilings and walls in pale colours to drive out as many of the shadows as they can. We fill our gardens with dense plantings, they spread out a flat expanse of grass."

But the coolest and most memorable part of the book is when Tanizaki talks about toilets and how we important the aesthetics of this room is. But i let you discover that yourself.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Pierre-Damien Huygue, Commencer à deux

A beautiful and enjoyable little (in size only!) philosophical book on the ideas underlying architecture. Editions Mix proves once again that they are producing important thought and inspiring new ideas in art and philosophy. More info here. (Unfortunately only in french.)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Influence of Suzhou's Taohuawu New-Year Prints

by: Cao Minzhu

This paper is about New-Year woodcut prints done in the Taohuawu area of Suzhou in the Chinese Ming and Qing periods that influenced Edo period ukiyo-e. And Japanese ukiyo-e impacted Western Post-Impressionism. The subject matters of Taohuawu engravings came from Chinese folk life, and were highly decorative. The engravings were reasonably inexpensive for ordinary people. This art form influenced ukiyo-e directly. As a Japanese engraving expert wrote: "Chinese prints were a good model for Japanese engravings. Chinese New-Year engravings moved Japanese ukiyo-e artists so much that the new idea of ukiyo-e was influenced largely by them."

The Influence of Suzhou's Taohuawu New-Year Prints
Taohuawu New-Year woodcut prints Chinese New-Year painting was " television" on the wall for people in earlier times. They liked these paintings very much and almost every family hung them on the door and/or on a wall on the first day of the new year and left them there for the whole year.

The origin of New-Year paintings can be traced back to the Qin Dynasty (221BC-206BC). At that time, people were keen on having the protective god images of Shentu and Yulei painted on their doors for the lunar New-Year period. These then evolved into engraving the names of these two gods on peach wood and hanging them on the gate during the new year celebrations. The third step was painting all kinds of sacred lucky horses on the doors during the main folk festivals. Lucky symbolic and homophonic images, such as beautiful girls, fish, lotus flowers and peaches, that showed people’s vision for a better life, appeared in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Most early New-Year prints were made by hand. Woodblock printing technology began to mature in the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Consequently the cost of engraving colored prints was greatly reduced and their artistic effect was increasingly improved. New-Year prints were spread rapidly.Taohuawu New-Year prints started during the Ming Dynasty and matured in the early period of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). During the early Qing Dynasty, Suzhou’s Taohuawu New-Year prints became famous not only at home but also beyond Suzhou. Together with Tianjin’s Yangliuqing engravings, they are listed as one of two major folk New-Year prints. These two different styles of New-Year prints, one in the south and one in the north of China were created for celebrating the New-Year.3 But Taohuawu New-Year prints used vivid and strong colors, such as red, yellow, green, blue and black. They are most famous for their sharply contrasting colors and exquisite patterns. Harmony and Good Luck, is representative of Taohuawu New-Year prints.

Tang Bohu, one of four famous painters in the Ming Dynasty, wrote a poem that described the Taohuawu area: "Peach fairies live in a peach temple in the Taohuawu area. The peach fairies plant peach trees in order to sell branches of flowers to be able to buy wine". There were plenty of New-Year engraving shops in the Taohuawu area because this was a peaceful place, where Tang Bohu lived. Taohuawu woodcut prints were loved by almost everybody at that time, including people who lived in rural areas, those who lived in the downtowns and even some scholars. New-Year prints were very popular because they reflected the hopes or wishes of people, and were highly decorative and inexpensive. This can be seen, for example, in the print Having More Than Needed, in which are shown a lovely child hugging a big fish in the center of the print symbolizing a wish for having enough to eat in the following year. The Chinese character “feng” in the top center of the print expresses the hope for a good harvest. The two lions standing on balls at the up corner of the picture symbolize protection and happiness. The two dragon boats floating at the bottom of the picture express a hope for high social status since dragon boats are only used by wealthy people.

Suzhou is located south of the Yangtze River, where transportation was very well developed long ago. It is near Wuxi and Shanghai, and an easy place for international merchants to gather. Thus, global cultural exchange and business trade were possible. After the Xianfeng era (1851-1861) in the Qing Dynasty, Taohuawu New-Year prints spread everywhere in the area south of the Yangtze River. The prints had various auspicious images, such as the door-god. They were printed in large size, with single line drawing and flat shading as well as in bright colors. Themes from operas increased significantly.

According to historical records, famous local stores sold the prints. People loved to buy prints for hanging but seldom bought them for saving. They did not save them for two reasons. First, there were plenty of New-Year engravings in the stores before Chinese new year and the price was quite low. Second, the paper used to make New-Year prints was too thin to keep. Taohuawu New-Year woodcut prints were very popular during the Yongzheng (1723-1735) and Qianlong (1736-1795) reigns of the Qing Dynasty, though their production stopped when modern prints appeared, first in Shanghai. Most technical people in Suzhou lost their jobs after the Second Opium War.

It is now difficult to find any valuable prints anywhere in China except some museums. But there are some Taohuawu New-Year print institutes and agencies in Suzhou. And “Taohuawu” has become a famous registered trademark.

Edo period (1603 - 1867) Japanese ukiyo-e
The superior geographical conditions of Edo (Tokyo) benefited local business development. Fires, however, happened frequently, as almost all Japanese buildings were built of wood at that time. For example, there was a fire in the winter of 1657 that burned down almost all the houses in Edo. People suffered severely, and thousands of buildings had to be rebuilt.

Ukiyo-e emerged in the period of reconstruction after this fire, and stimulated a kind of new culture in the downtown area. As a result of economic recovery, "town people’s" popular culture appeared in the city. For example, entertainment places, such as brothels, theaters, pubs and so on, appeared in Edo. Every bathhouse had women who could serve the customers. Geisha played koto5 behind golden screens and drank wine and tea with customers. Sometimes they even became prostitutes. There were also kabuki theaters. All of these were characteristic of Edo, a brand new commercially prosperous city. People came to Edo to have fun. They had, more or less, the hedonistic psychology of "the floating world"

Artists who worked in the town appeared in this era. They recognized that Edo people loved watching the geisha and kabuki troupe actors. Therefore beautiful dancing girls became the theme of paintings. Such paintings were not only adapted to the needs of society but also easy to sell, because almost everyone liked them, such as workers, householders and businessmen.
Ukiyo-e in Edo was a kind of hedonic painting. The subject matters and themes of ukiyo-e were similar to the spirit of “the culture” that appeared in ancient China. In Edo, the floating world gave rise to a variety of pleasurable things, especially ukiyo-e. The book, Tales of the Floating World, appeared in the Edo era. It says that, "The floating world means that nothing should be hidden in the heart, and everything may change as quickly as the wind." This thought and attitude reflected the feeling that life was short, that the world was unpredictable and that people should be happy every day. The spirit of ukiyo-e followed this philosophy, and some ukiyo-e became pillow books of brides.

According to the history of Japanese art, ukiyo-e was mainly created based on Yamato-e from local folk art. But it became different from Yamato-e by adding the themes and techniques used for making Taohuawu New-Year prints.9 Yamato-e was an art created especially for the aristocracy, while ukiyo-e was a kind of art for ordinary folks.

The spread of Taohuawu New-Year prints to Japan
Japan's Edo era was the later period of its feudal society, the time of the Qing Dynasty in China. Cultural exchange between China and Japan had seldom stopped since the Qin Dynasty (221BC-206BC) of China. Japanese language, drawings and ancient buildings, were all deeply influenced by China.

In addition to the exchange of ambassadors, Chinese merchant ships played a significant role in cultural communication. They carried various commercial products to Japan, such as books and Suzhou’s Taohuawu New-Year prints. In this respect, Datingxiu’s research is particularly noteworthy. It can be seen from his research that the number of books imported from the area south of the Yangtze River during the 18th centuries was amazing. Japanese authorities encouraged importing Chinese books at that time, and although the Qing government of China limited the number of exported books, the number shipped to Japan still increased. For example, in 1711, six Chinese merchant ships carrying books arrived in Nagasaki. More ships carried books to Japan the next year. All of these books, probably including sets of New-Year prints, were printed and published in the area south of the Yangtze River.

Pu Songnian, an expert in Taohuawu prints, wrote in his book, The Rise and Decline of Suzhou New-Year Engravings: “Suzhou was a developed place for commercial trade between China and foreign countries. Fortunately, some of the early Taohuawu New-Year prints were preserved overseas, as local prints traveled to Japan with the merchants."12 Chinese New-Year prints spread to Japan, England and Germany, and had a lot of influence on Japanese ukiyo-e.
Japan was a nation that was good at combining and creating. The advantages of Taohuawu prints, such as being inexpensive and having a huge number of copies, were adapted to the market needs of Japanese “Town Culture”. Ukiyo-e printers were very interested in this skill. At the beginning, the print skill and the structure of ukiyo-e were similar to Taohuawu woodcut prints. They were black and white. Later, however, various colors appeared in ukiyo-e. In the mid-18th century, techniques allowed for production of full-color prints, called nishiki-e, and the ukiyo-e that are reproduced today on postcards and calendars date from this period on. Along with the development of ukiyo-e art, many artists became famous. Six of them were the most impressive, such as Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), and Kiyonaga(1752-1815). Ukiyo-e was poplar for more than two hundred and sixty years, until the Meiji restoration. The effects of Taohuawu New-Year prints on ukiyo-e First, Taohuawu New-Year prints influenced ukiyo-e that became a popular folk art instead of a royal art in Japan. This meant that both the subject matters and the living styles in ukiyo-e came from the common people. Therefore everybody was able to understand and enjoy it. Furthermore, the techniques of printing instead of painting reduced the cost of ukiyo-e, in turn, increasing the number of producers. People in Edo were willing to have it decorate their new buildings, and fortunately, the price was reasonable and they could afford it. At that time, fine-looking girls were the most popular subject. People would love to buy a print of a pretty girl and enjoy it everyday at home if they would not afford seeing such girls in the theater. The large number of Chinese New-Year prints that came to Japan by merchant ships changed the popularity of ukiyo-e and made ukiyo-e the most well-known and representative genre of prints in Japan.

Second, ukiyo-e prints borrowed from the appealing and charming girls that were printed on Taohuawu New-Year prints. For example, the pose of the beautiful girls in "Fancy Dress and Washing" (18 century), painted by Torii Kiyonaga, one of the most famous ukiyo-e painters, is similar to the pose of the two pretty girls in "Pan An Has Fruit Tossed To Him" (late 17th century). The story of "Pan An Has Fruit Tossed To Him" was originally from a Chinese folk legend. According to textual research, Pan An (247-300), was a gifted scholar who lived during the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316). According to the saga, he was a gentleman with superior appearance. When he was a teenager, he lived in Luoyang, the capital city of Western Jin. Whenever he traveled out by carriage, there were always girls around, tossing flowers and fruit to him to show their love. The good-looking girls printed in "Fancy Dress and Washing" were probably

Japanese women who worked in public bathhouses. But the attractive appearance and manners of the girls on the prints were beyond women who worked in bathhouses. It seems that they were pure, ideal gorgeous women from a dream.
Nevertheless, although ukiyo-e was influenced a lot by Taohuawu New-Year prints, the subject matters were different. Images in Taohuawu New-Year prints in the Ming and Qing Dynasties were mostly created by imagination according to legends, and they had abundant meanings and styles. The patterns and images of auspiciousness, such as symbols of good luck and the door-god, were the most popular in Taohuawu New-Year prints. Some of these images expressed people's prayers for such things as a bumper harvest. Later, images from dramas, novels, became a source of inspiration, and recent research indicates that later still Taohuawu artists began depicting images of everyday life in their work. However, the images of ukiyo-e were almost always sketched from daily life. Some characters could even be identified from real life according to the name on the prints. Pretty girls were the main characters in early ukiyo-e, and, to be sure, some samurai, landscapes, flowers and birds also appeared in them.

Worth noticing is that this superb skill, engraving the complex and delicate lines on wood, and then printing colors, was seen as remarkable by Western artists. For example, in the nineteenth century, European artists who created the art styles of Classicalism, Impressionism, and especially Post-Impressionism, such as Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, were inspired by ukiyo-e. So, both Taohuawu New-Year engravings and ukiyo-e are bright pearls shining in the art world. They contributed a glorious page to art history.

Taohuawu New-Year printing was popular in China before modern printing appeared in Shanghai. During that period, almost every family hung a print on the door or the wall. This art was not only an important part of traditional Chinese culture but also, before it disappeared in the middle of the 19 century, a significant part of world culture, contributing to the progress of global art, especially Japanese folk art. However, research on folk art in China started relatively late and people did not appreciate the value of Chinese folk art until the beginning of the 20th century. Li Bai, a famous poet in the Tang Dynasty, wrote in a poem: "I cannot see the whole truth of Mount Lu because I am on the mountain".15 People who saw them on their own walls and doors everyday would not fully appreciate these prints. Few people saved New-Year prints in China. In contrast, during the Edo period some Japanese saved a large number of Chinese New-Year prints. And they spread some of them to other countries. "Pan An Has Fruit Tossed To Him", a representative Taohuawu print from the early period and well preserved in the British Museum, was shipped to England from Edo in 1693 by Engelbert Kaempfer, a British man. The woodcut method of Taohuawu New-Year prints affected ukiyo-e directly. Some ukiyo-e works were very popular because they praised free love and satirized feudal ethics. They served as models for Edo period women and subsequently as reference works for historical research. Ukiyo-e had a profound influence on Japanese society in the Edo age as it followed the demands of economic and cultural upsurge. Similar to the artists of Taohuawu New-Year prints, most ukiyo-e artists were from the bottom of Japanese society.

Although Taohuawu prints have become history, and ukiyo-e has been followed by modern printmaking, their rich artistic achievements are worth cherishing by people today. Ukiyo-e is the most famous and classical kind of print in Japan. It was strongly influenced by Taohuawu New-Year prints and then affected the Western post-impressionistic paintings.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Chronology - Daniel Birnbaum

" ‘It all starts with an ending, and then it ends again’, writes Daniel Birnbaum in his slim, expansive essay on the species of temporality extant in contemporary film and video art. If the sentence sounds Beckettian – and Samuel Beckett, after all, is one antecedent of much of what keeps us shuffling about in dimly lit black boxes and calling it art – it is to the extent that Birnbaum is interested in a certain inhuman unfolding of time, stripped of consoling metaphors. In the early works of Dan Graham, Bruce Nauman and Joan Jonas, and latterly in the art of Stan Douglas, Doug Aitken and Darren Almond, he discerns varying degrees of autonomy from traditional, subject-centred models of time. At the starkest extreme a work such as Aitken’s diamond sea (1997), which explores the post-human drosscape of a Namibian diamond mine, ‘can be read as a grandiose illustration of a return to the mechanical processes of the inorganic’.

Birnbaum’s notion of an art of unpredictable becoming is a compelling and sophisticated take on the common theme of Deleuzian immanence. But it has its aporias too. A brief aside à propos Matthew Barney – to the effect that his art is all meaning, all of the time – is quite telling. What Birnbaum resists is hermeneutics: work in which the topography of time is mapped with traditional instruments: metaphor, allegory, symbol."

Brian Dillon - Frieze