Japanese aesthetics are at the centre of the exhibition On the Art of Building a Teahouse at the Neues Museum Nuremberg. Starting point of the excursion into the arts and culture of Japan are the traditional Japanese teahouse as spiritual place as well as the teachings of legendary tea master Sen no Rikyū. The exhibits at the Neues Museum include art, design, architecture and photography as examples of a cultural and historical development that started in the 16th century and is still significant today.
In Japan the tea ceremony is symbol of an aesthetic approach for the design of objects. For Sen no Rikyū, the founder of the Japanese tea ceremony who lived from 1522 to 1591, harmony, respect, purity and quietness were the essential aspects of this spiritual experience. According to his philosophy the ceremonial act of tea drinking was a synaesthetic event, his distinct sense of beauty shaped the culture of Japan until today. The basis for the understanding of Japanese aesthetics that become manifest in the tea culture is Zen Buddhism, according to whose teachings any object has a soul and is treated with the required respect. In doing so activities of daily life and objects become a projection screen for a meditation on matter and time.
The tea house serves the purpose to condense space and time in a way that banal things take on a spiritual meaning and shine in the splendour of something outstanding. The tea ceremony, in Japan called Sado, suspends the river of time and celebrates the pure irretrievable moment. In order to achieve this spiritual experience, the participant has to be ready to transform his ego by changing his own perception to set out for the “way of the tea“ that overcomes the division of art and life as aesthetic practice.
Neues Museum Nuremberg – On the Art of Building a Teahouse. Excursions into Japanese Aesthetics.
Tea master Sen no Rikyū recommended ultimate simplicity for designing a tea house and the use of materials that can hardly withstand the effects of the weather and wearing. This deeply in Zen Buddhism rooted mindset is the basis for aesthetics embracing lightness, fragility and impermanence which have produced objects of overwhelming beauty. As a consequence for design the tea ceremony has essentially inspired both the material and the construction as well as the impermanence of the minimalist architecture of tea houses. The minimalism of Japanese architecture also had a strong impact on the representatives of functionalism in the Bauhaus era and continues to have an effect on traditional and contemporary design philosophies.
Neues Museum Nuremberg – On the Art of Building a Teahouse. Hiroshi Onishi, tea bowl RURIKO, tea utensils set
Japanese pop culture is expression of an identity crisis.
In order to understand the culture of Japan which is still perceived as mysterious and complex in the Western world, it’s necessary to go on an excursion into the philosophy of Zen Buddhism which is still alive in Japan, but partly superimposed by the consumerism that has been imported from the West. Looking to Japan today mangas and animes come to one’s mind first when one thinks of Japanese arts and culture. This form of Japanese pop culture, however, is expression of a search for identity Japan was thrown into as a consequence of the Second World War.
Takashi Murakami is one of the most famous contemporary artists of Japan and is founder of the so-called Superflat movement with their garish and distorted images and bizarre manga figures. What is a Japanese export hit today and has strong influence on pop culture in the Western world originally was a protest against the consumerism of the Japanese population who had neglected their centuries-old culture and emulated the cultural achievements of the West with the victors of the Second World War USA and Great Britain instead. The concept of Superflat refers both to the two-dimensional rendering in Japanese graphic art and animation and to the shallow emptiness of Japanese consumer society who never had surmounted the trauma of the Second World War and the dropping of the nuclear bombs.
Neues Museum Nuremberg – On the Art of Building a Teahouse. Shiho Kanzaki, Door to Purple
This results in the phenomenon of the Otaku culture, with nerdy specialists living in a kind of a parallel world and indulging in the kitschy and childish pop culture of Japan. But the disintegration of Japanese society and the retreat of the individual into the current Otaku culture is still today opposed by the centuries-old cultural tradition of Japan which flourished during the height of the Edo period. The Edo culture was founded on the philosophical ideas of Zen Buddhism and has originated the artisan and aesthetic traditions that are presented in the exhibition at the Neues Museum.
Wabi-Sabi and the beauty of imperfection.
A central role in the aesthetics of the Edo culture plays the concept of Wabi-Sabi which stands for a world view that is based on the acceptance of transcience and imperfection.The beauty of imperfection reflects impermanence, suffering and emptiness, the three marks of existence. In the Wabi-Sabi philosophy natural objects and processes are particularly appreciated if they achnowledge three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. Originally Wabi referred to the loneliness of living in nature remote from society, today it connotes the ideas of rustic simplicity, freshness and quietness. Sabi means beauty and serenity which comes with natural aging, giving an object patina or expressing its impermanence. Wabi-Sabi represents the liberation from the material world and transcendance to a simpler life, thus being the material manifestation of Zen Buddhism.
Neues Museum Nuremberg – On the Art of Building a Teahouse. Takano Chikkō, bamboo root, bamboo bowls
Wabi-Sabi, as it were, represents a spiritual training to learn to find the most simple and natural objects fascinating and beautiful. In doing so, the own perception of the world is changed that a crack in a vase for example gives the object greater meditative value. Especially aging materials such as wood, paper and textiles become interesting as they are subject to changes that can be observed over time. Transferred to everyday life those things are closest to Wabi-Sabi that are in bud or in decay, as here the suggestion of the transience of things is expressed in the most distinct way.
The spiritual philosophy of Zen Buddhism and the aesthetics of Japanese art always have fascinated Europeans who have been shaped by a rationalistic world view. After Japan had opened in the 19th century Japanese works of art became a source of inspiration for many artists of the European avantgarde. The Impressionists, among them Vincent van Gogh, were inspired by Japanese colour woodcuts, as well as artists of the Vienna Secession and representatives of Expressionism who were influenced by Japanese art. Today it’s Japanese pop culture with mangas and animes, once imported from the Western world, that now comes back in a transformed shape. But also the minimalist design principles of Japanese aesthetics, as they have been established by tea master Sen no Rikyū, have a strong influence on design and architecture in the Western world. The exhibition at the Neues Museum illuminates the essential principles of Japanese aesthetics which are visualized in seven sections in the fields of art, photography, design and architecture. The cultural and historical development of craftmanship and design traditions is explored in the context of tea culture by means of innovative materials and forms.
Japanese aesthetics are based on the impermanence of being.
Fluid Boundaries explores the rendering of materiality on the brink of perceptibility presenting works by Hiroshi Sugimoto and Yasuaki Onishi. Within the traditional Japanese aesthetics the concept of Yūgen plays a major role, which means “dim“, “deep“ or “mysterious“. In Japanese poetry Yūgen is used to describe the subtle profundity of things that can be only vaguely suggested and are beyond what can be said. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s series of black-and-white photographs with the title Seascapes express exactly the mood of Yūgen. The hazy blurred views of the sea don’t offer any visual reference points to the eye of the viewer that could help him to recognize spatial distances, space and time are fusing in a sensation of the indefinite.
Neues Museum Nuremberg – On the Art of Building a Teahouse. Hiroshi Sugimoto, Seascapes, Bay of Sagami, Atami, 1997
The space installation Reverse of Volume NMN by Yasuaki Onishi is a mixture of artificial cloud and topography of a translucent landsscape. By means of gauzy foil and solidified heat bonding threads Onishi creates structures that are both complex and dematerialized, reflecting the processes in the atmosphere. Each of his works is a physical experiment that visualizes space by means of a weightless membrane, the fragile structures are set in motion even by the slightest breeze and seem to breathe.
Neues Museum Nuremberg – On the Art of Building a Teahouse. Yasuaki Onishi, Reverse of Volume NMN, 2017
Evanescence and Impermanence is dealing with the basic principles of Zen Buddhism that earthly things don’t keep grounded. The way of the tea celebrates the inescapable impermanence of being by drawing the attention of the enlightened to those evanescent but unique moments that suggest greater value. Commemorating the 800th birthday of munk and poet Kamo no Chōmei architect Kengo Kuma designed a pavilion in 2012 to pay homage to the famous monk. In his work Hōjōki Kamo no Chōmei describes his simple hut as architectural symbol of an ascetic world view that was meant to look fragile and therefore consisted of impermanent materials. Disassembled his housing was meant to fit in a box that he could take along during his travels. In this tradition also the design by Kengo Kuma can be disassembled, floor, walls and roof consist of ETFE foil, the supporting structure consists of laths that are held together by magnetic joints.
Neues Museum Nuremberg – On the Art of Building a Teahouse. Kengo Kuma, pavilion Hōjō-an
Naoya Hatakeyama has specialized on photographing the blast of rock beds. In his photographic series Blast two different dimensions of time are colliding, the infinite time of geological history and the short moment of the explosion. Both spaces of time are beyond human perception, Hatakeyama’s photographs use the technical possibilities to tear moments of explosive power out of the river of time that disintegrate the geological structure of the earth.
Neues Museum Nuremberg – On the Art of Building a Teahouse. Naoya Hatakeyama, Blast #5707 / #3906
Death and rebirth as source of inspiration.
The dualistic concept of Kire-Tsusuki defines the difference of Cut and Continuity which is described by philosoph Ryōsuke Ōhashi in his book Kire no kozo. This contrast becomes particularly obvious in Ikebana which could be translated with “revival of the flower“. The plant dies after being cut and is subsequently artificially revived in the art of Ikebana. In his book Ōhashi describes how the aesthetic concept of Kire-Tsusuki also works in architecture, garten design, design and graphic arts.
The chair Honey-pop by Tokujin Yoshioka from 2001 has become a design classic in the meantime and is represented in numerous international design collections. The seat object consists of 120 layers of paper that turn into a stabile honeycomb structure when unfolded that can bear the weight of a sitting person. The transition from a two-dimensional object into a three-dimensional structure is characteristic of the recent development of Japanese seating furniture which is inspired by traditional sitting on Tatami mats.
Neues Museum Nuremberg – On the Art of Building a Teahouse. Tokujin Yoshiaka, Honey Pop Chair
Issey Miyake is one of the major fashion labels of Japan of international renown. The label makes high demands on the cuts the design of whose is developed by unfolding the fabrics. Thus two-dimensional patterns are turned into surface structures as well as three-dimensional shapes that loosely swirl around the body without constricting it. The designs of the series 132.5 are experimental evolutions of origami the geometry of whose were developed in collaboration with scientist Jun Mitani. By means of Mitani’s 3-D program the Miyake Reality Lab explores pleats and curved surfaces. Issey Miyake considers textiles of the 21st century as part of an ecological cycle, that’s why the yarn that is used in 132.5 is produced from recycled PET bottles.
Neues Museum Nuremberg – On the Art of Building a Teahouse. Issey Miyake, 132.5
Japan has one of the oldest pottery traditions in the world.
The Value of Imperfection is dedicated to Japanese pottery which is one of the oldest crafts and artistic forms of Japan, earthenwares were created as early as 10.000 B.C. in the Neolithic period, making Japanese ceramic tradition one of the oldest in the world. The aesthetic principles of the tea ceremony were strongly defined by ceramic which is characterized by an unrefined, simple style and shapes that are not quite symmetrical. In the spirit of the Wabi-Sabi tradition both unglazed earthenware and glazed ceramic are marked by little flaws that give each object an unique character.
Takahito Kondo is descended from one of the most renowned families in the ceramic business of Kyoto, his grandfather was honoured with the title of a “living cultural monument“. Takahiro continues the family tradition with innovative concepts by combining ceramic and glass craft. During the kiln process his ceramics are often sprinkled with drops of gold, silver or titanium which results in a coat of tiny beads. To commemorate the victims of the tsunami disaster in 2011 he created two groups of works. The group of objects titled Hotaru consist of glass and uranium and are dedicated to the missing, whereas the objects of the series Tsunami symbolize the power of water and the transmigration of the souls through their material appearance.
Neues Museum Nuremberg – On the Art of Building a Teahouse. Takahiro Kondo, Wave
Neues Museum Nuremberg – On the Art of Building a Teahouse. Takahiro Kondo, Tsunami
Neues Museum Nuremberg – On the Art of Building a Teahouse. Takahiro Kondo, Mist Bowl
Shiro Tsujimara is one of the few internationally successful artists who don’t come from one of the family dynasties famous in ceramic production, nevertheless he refers to the tradional techniques of his ancestors. In search of archaic prototypes he gives his pottery the character of volcanic landscapes through rough grainy surfaces. Experimenting with ash glazes Tsujimura constantly creates new colour gradients during the kiln process that suggest to have been subject to a long process of weathering which give his ceramics the patina of dignified age.
Neues Museum Nuremberg – On the Art of Building a Teahouse. Shiro Tsujimura, Large Vase
The world of Japanese arts constantly surprises with mysterious things that bear witness to a refined cult of objects. With regard to this cult Nature and Artefact explores the concept of dignified grace that can only arise from a sense of humility. Artistic perfection isn’t imaginable in Japanese aesthetics, but to come close to it at least, the artist needs to respect naturalness and to give the unforeseeable a chance. Therefore artistic artefacts are deliberately exposed to processes of aging and weathering to give the object patina.
Artist Reijiro Wada creates images by throwing fruit at blank metal plates which cause chemical reactions on the metal surfaces due to their acidity, leaving persisting traces through oxidation. The results that remind of Tachism and Action Painting in the Western world are determined by chance. The unforeseeable of the oxidation points to the concept of Sabi which is accompanied by the mood of loneliness and loss. Therefore patina and rust may not be understood as final state of a weathered surface but as a momentum that triggers certain mental reactions.
Neues Museum Nuremberg – On the Art of Building a Teahouse. Reijiro Wada, Vanitas, 2017
Living in danger – how natural disasters shape Japanese aesthetics.
The Japanese chain of islands is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire and is therefore regularly haunted by natural disasters that are constantly present in the collective memory of the population. In 1923 the region of Tokyo was shaken by a devastating earthquake that claimed 142.000 victims, in 2011 the seaquake in the Tohoku region caused a tsunami and the nuclear reactor disaster of Fukushima that claimed 16.000 victims. In the section Reconstruction the exhibition is dedicated to Japan’s handling of existential catastrophes. Such events require reconstruction both in material and psychological regard in form of meaningful gestures to restore the usual course of life.
The architectural firm Atelier Bow-Wow was dealing with the existential emergency situation of homeless persons who had lost their homes through natural disasters and therefore resorted to drawings by Wajirō Kon who had made sketches of the situation the victims of the earthquake in 1923 were suffering from. By analyzing and refining the graphic approach of Wajirō Kon Momoyo Kaijima and Yoshiharu Tsukamoto from Atelier Bow-How came up with a design for an emergency accomodation for the homeless of the Tohoku region. The prototype of the cabin was developed in collaboration with craftsmen from the disaster region. The design of the cabin that exudes the scent of Japanese cedarwood is deliberately incomplete to give the future residents the possibility to complete their new home themselves.
Neues Museum Nuremberg – On the Art of Building a Teahouse. Atelier Bow-Wow, Concept House Prototype – Concept Itakura Cottage Project, 2016
The section New Craft explores the unique Japanese craft tradition whose repetitive gestures, movements and processes are passed on from one generation to the next and which is preserved as part of an immaterial cultural heritage. The exhibition shows objects out of textile, paper, metal, bamboo and lacquer which are reinterpreted by the younger generation of Japanese craftsmen and evolved in innovative ways. Hosoo is a textile company that was founded in 1688 and is famous for her manufacturing of kimono fabrics. The long craft tradition of the company is carefully preserved and expanded by contemporary textile design, among the customers are international brands such as Comme des Garçons, Dior und Chanel. In order to be able to fulfill the extravagant desires of the haute couture Hosoo disposes of a fund of 5000 textile samples from the Edo period, with some original designs on Japanese tissue paper being presented in Nuremberg.
Neues Museum Nuremberg – On the Art of Building a Teahouse. Hosoo, kimono patterns, 1900-1940
Neues Museum Nuremberg – On the Art of Building a Teahouse. Video installation by Hosoo and Kyoto University of Art and Design
The company Kaikado was founded in 1875 when Japan opened to the global trade. The import of tinplate from England stimulated the production of tea caddies that had been used since the Edo period. The tea caddies that are produced by Kaikado stand for minimalist elegance since 130 years, after the Second World War the range was expanded by copper and brass caddies. The lid is engineered so precisely that it sinks down slowly due to its own weight and closes the caddy almost airtight. The tea caddies of the manufacture Kaikado represent memories of generations, the patina of daily use turns them into unique objects.
Neues Museum Nuremberg – On the Art of Building a Teahouse. Kaikado, tea caddies
27.10.17 – 18.02.18 Neues Museum, Nuremberg