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Cross Cultural Pollination at Japan Society
Walking into the Japan Society is like stepping into poetry. The austere exterior is monochromatic, unadorned with frills, somehow imposing without being intimidating. It’s solid. As you enter the black tiled inner courtyard, you are greeted by the contemplative sounds of running water trickling over rocks. Climbing the stairs to reach the gallery level, you rise through a small stand of bamboo. There is nothing wasted, nothing more than exactly what is needed, and everything from the benches to the ceiling dressing have meaning. And I haven’t even gotten to the art yet.
The current exhibition, Simon Starling: At Twilight (After W.B. Yeats’ Noh Reincarnation) is massive in scope, ranging from the highly stylized ancient art of Japanese noh to Modernism in writing and sculpture, to Winnie the Pooh. Needless to say, this is not your typical exhibition. It combines installation and research by Starling and his collaborators with the original drama of Yeats and artists including American poet Ezra Pound and Japanese dancer Michio Ito to name a few. The goal is to examine how the uniquely Japanese art form of noh has shaped art outside of Japan in multiple mediums throughout the twentieth century.
The most immersive moment in the exhibition comes at the beginning. A door opens, and you are in a dark, stylized forest of Starling’s creation. In the center is a gnarled, abstract tree bearing, instead of leaves, ghostly masks in muted shades of grey and white.The only lights in the room are sharp white pinpoints of light on these masks, which seem to cause them to pulse with life. Even the shadows cast by these masks become hauntingly beautiful in this space. At the opposite end of the room is a large screen with a single person dancing in a nebulous black world like the one you are in. Except it isn’t a person, it’s a Hawk, the guardian of the well from the dance drama by Yeats, At the Hawk’s Well. The individual is costumed from headdress to toe, complete with wing-like sleeves (Image 1). Her movements are simultaneously beautiful and desperate as she guards the magical waters of her well accompanied by an ethereal score.
The exhibition proper sprawls through a more traditional gallery. The organization of the space seems to want you to start with a large “Mind Map” (Image 2) on the wall directly opposite the entrance - definitely listen to that. It provides a strong connective tissue that allows you to see how Starling gets from Jacob Epstein’s sculpture of mechanized-dehumanization Rock Drill (which, if you are like me, will immediately recall Star Wars) to the children’s storybook character, Eeyore. You learn who/what the masks from the previous room represent and how noh inspired them (Image 3). You learn about the world Yeats and Pound were living in when they first became fascinated with the ritualistic Japanese form of theater. Speckled throughout the gallery are mirrors, which create a delightfully disorienting effect. You turn around and suddenly there you are: encountering you encountering the art.
What better way to examine the artistic impact of Noh drama beyond Japan than to experience Noh in person in New York City? Japan Society has thought of this as well through their presentation of Treasured Noh Plays from the Desk of W.B. Yeats performed by the Kita Noh Theater Company. “Act 1” was a talk by Dr. Anthony Sheppard of Williams College who then interviewed Living National Treasure Tomoeda Akiyo whose attentive stillness was punctuated with scratchy resonate replies and sharp, specific gestures which spoke of his talent and knowledge even before being translated. “Act 2” was a selection from five different Noh Dramas which appeared in Pound’s early twentieth-century English translation, performed in Japanese with English super titles. It was easy to see how Yeats was mesmerized by this symbolic and strongly evocative theater. The performers from the Kita School are masters of their ancient craft; there is inexplicable magic in how they can draw a range of emotionality out of a static mask. The focus and concentration brings a level of ensemble unity that is rare on American stages. The sparse text is in line with the mostly bare stage. This, combined with a generally slower tempo, except in key moments of passion, leaves the performer nowhere to hide. The joy of it all is: they don’t need to hide.
The combination of these two events, gallery and performance, created a culturally rich evening for me and are indicative of an institution cultivating truly unique experiences for their patrons. Add to this a helpful, educated staff (take a tour if you have the opportunity) and a cool neighborhood (the UN is just around the corner) and you have a museum outing you won’t soon forget.
Michio Ito as "The Hawk" in Yeats' play, "At the Hawk's Well," 1916.
1916 negative, gelatin on nitrocellulose roll film
Gift of Alvin Langdon Coburn
Simon Starling, At Twilight (Production Drawing), 2016. Courtesy of the artist and the Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow.
Simon Starling, At Twilight / Mask of Rock Drill (After Joseph Epstein), 2016. Mask by Yasuo Miichi; courtesy of the artist and the Modern Institute/ Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow.