I have recently visited the exhibition Edo Pop at New York’s Japan Society and so much beauty made me feel compelled to write something about it. This exhibit gathers about fifty ukiyo-e (浮世絵) prints from the Edo era including an important amount of works by Masters Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa (Ando) Hiroshige as well as others from 18th and 19th century. What fascinated me in them (and that will certainly not fully translate through the images here unfortunately) and made me stay several minutes in front of each of them consists mostly in the fact that each of the line traced on them seems to be absolutely necessary. What I mean by that is that there seems to be a purity of the gesture tracing the lines, a form of confidence, a breath which at the end, gives the impression that the print does not miss a line nor should necessitate an additional one. This could have something to do with the fact that, on the contrary of Western art, tracing those lines is a similar assignment than the one of calligraphy which is also part of these prints. As my readers would know, the art of tracing lines is how I usually define design as well: lines of space, lines of power, lines of flight, symbolical lines, conceiving architecture (building it is a very different story) is closer to calligraphy than what we might think.
One way to perpetuate my fascination for these ukiyo-e prints is to insist on one question that seems to have obsessed the Japanese artists of that time. How can one represents the formlessness we see in water, mud, lava, wind, rain, snow with the use of lines which intrinsically carry a circumscribing power, and therefore a tendency to form things rather than unform them. The various responses to this questions involve various processes that manage (sometimes without even the help of color) to represent formlessness through lines. The strength of their expressive representations carries the ones of the elements they represent and the fragility of humans who can, at best, compose with them (that is often the case for the boats in the waves, although they never seem to be perfectly comfortable with it!). Formlessness is feared at many level of consciousness, precisely for the reason that it cannot be circumscribed and therefore controlled and understood (for a political reading of it, see my essay Abject Matter). Humans in Edo prints are certainly not the Cartezian ones “masters and possessors of the nature”; on the contrary, they are surrounded and subjected to the power of these formless phenomena and, for the most skillful of them, they try to compose harmonious relations with them.
The exhibition Edo Pop was supposed to bring contemporaneous artists who founded their art in a respectful and inspiring influence of the Edo prints. As talented as they are, their production could unfortunately not carry the weight of such comparison and the essence of the exhibit seems to be elsewhere. The only recent work I present here which is part of it is the monumental Alas! Heisoku-kan (2012, see below) by Kazama Sachiko which introduces a uncontrollable destructive sea that washes away human’s pretentiousness (the main object of the print are the four reactors of the Nuclear plant of Fukushima). A similar work I am adding here does not come from Japan but constitutes a good element of dialogue both in its subject than in its graphic medium: the artwork created by Stanley Donwood for Thom Yorke’s solo album The Eraser (2006) that represents London being swallowed by the formless waves of lines.
A very interesting filiation that should have been pointed out by the exhibition would have been the one of Hayao Miyazaki as some of these prints seem to have greatly influence his films. In particular we find a fascinating representation of the waves in Ponyo (2008) as a metaphorical shoal of fishes (see the animated gif below) and one of the most expressive representation of formlessness in cinema with the Polluted Spirit of the River in Spirited Away (2002), a mobile giant pile of dripping mud that represents the spirit of a river that has been polluted by humans over the years (see below as well).
The following prints are only details of what I wanted to draw attention on, only part of them are part of the exhibition itself and they are followed by the four contemporaneous examples I wanted to present as well: