Shōko Kanazawa and Her World of Ink

PILSEN 10th September – 11th 2015, PRAGUE 16th – 30th October 2015

The exhibition SHŌKO KANAZAWA and Her World of Ink is held as part of the Japan Fest 2015 festival and the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the towns of Pilsen and Takasaki partnership.

organisers: Plzeň 2015, o.p.s., The Municipality of Pilsen, Czech-Japanese Association a Bezejmenná čajovna
partners: EU–Japan Fest Japan Committee and the Pilsen Region
honoaray auspices: Embassy of Japan in the Czech Republic
The exhibition is kindly supported by The Japan Foundation and Nomura Foundation.

Curators: Robin Shōen Heřman and Ivo Hucl
Copy written by: Yasuko Kanazawa, Robin Shōen Heřman, Helena Honcoopová amd Ivo Hucl
Graphic design: Jan Dienstbier a Johan Vlach (catalogue)
Production: Pavla Kormošová
Production assistants: Arishige Ōkawara, Hirokazu Yokoyama
Translation: Robin Shōen Heřman, Marie Tesková, Filip Bezděk and Filip Miller
Editor: Vladimír Novotný
Installation: 23 foxes production s.r.o.

Thanks to PhDr. František Frýda and Romana Němečková (Západočeské muzeum v Plzni)

Special thanks to Ms. Yasuko Kanazawa for her extraordinary understanding and dedciated cooperation.

How Shōko Incidentally Conquered Europe – a Small Guide to the Exhibition

Robin Shōen Heřman

Shōko Kanazawa’s first independent exhibition in Europe …

When we first started to negotiate holding the exhibition a few years ago, Shōko was still far from being the media star she is today. Everything seemed pretty simple. We thought all it would take was to find the right space and to secure the funds for travel. However times are a-changing. Two spectacular profile exhibitions under the auspices of the NHK and Mainichi media conglomerates marking the 10th anniversary of her “professional” career are making rounds around Japan. The huge poster charting regional and ad-hoc exhibitions and public demonstrations looks like the busiest railway network. Shōko’s calligraphy serves a votive function at famous shrines and temples, she was entrusted with the interpretation of the Emperor’s poem for a monument as well as a title for a nation-wide TV network’s popular period drama series. Publications on the subject of Shōko can easily fill an entire book shop’s display window. Her appearance in the the UN fills front pages of Japanese newspapers and is almost broadcast live … Although Shōko is still the same simple-mindedly smiling girl and an address at the UN is just as simple a matter for her as is a presentation at a department store, putting together a representative profile of her work and taking it out of Japan for a few months turns out to be a superhuman task under these new circumstances. After more than a year of very complicated negotiations and only thanks to infinite dedication of those who keep protective hand on her – first and foremost her wonderful mom Ms. Yasuko Kanazawa – it however seems that our dream about truly representative exhibition of Shōko’s work in Europe would become a reality after all. I must admit I was losing hope on more than one occasion that we’ll manage to show the representative selection we planned to exhibit in the Czech Republic. I’m also certain Shōko wouldn’t care. The rest of us would nevertheless be troubled, since, unlike Shōko, we are obsessed with planning and visions and we are pretty obstinate about them. We are causing anxiety and anger, palpitation and sleepless nights to ourselves and to others, and we are often worse than dogs to ourselves. There are however times when we feel it is worth it. For instance when it comes to an exhibition we really believe in.

Should we in our book settle for the statement that Shōko, despite her “infliction” found a meaningful life career, her life’s story as well as the exposition’s role would on the surface be socially educative and we could have easily exhibited just about any of her work without any order or thought. Our ambition is nevertheless a bit different. What we are trying to show is that Shōko – whether she’s aware of it or not – is an entirely unique phenomenon in the world of contemporary Japanese calligraphy, an artist of phenomenal scope. Shōko has long been far more than a mere unconscious creator. After 25 years of uninterrupted everyday study with dedication and concentration, which is beyond any “healthy” man or woman, she left in dust all the famed artists, who cannot step over their own shadow. Shōko hasn’t got a shadow – therefore she has nothing to step over. With the exception of her beloved Michael Jackson she has no one and nothing to stylise into, least of all into herself. She is freely floating in a magical space, riding characters the same way saints are riding on the backs of demons. She has mastered the craft of calligraphy, but her calligraphy isn’t a craft. Her work bears unique art quality, but her calligraphy isn’t art. It is a spiritual practice in which enlightenment manifested to her on its own with the same joyful ease as it did to the “threshing-floor simpleton” at the times of the sixth zen patriarch. Shōko is endowed with a Buddha-like mind, which she needs neither cultivate nor reveal – she simply only lives it. That is why the expression of the most profound truths of Buddhism come across so authentic in her interpretation. It is the same extreme persuasiveness as the poems by the Hanshan (7th-8th century), Chinese poet intoxicated with the joy of simple life, or his much younger peer, Japanese poet Ryōkan (1758 – 1831). It is of the same blood group as Kenji Miyazawa’s (1896 – 1933) cat who isn’t bothered by rain, wind, snow or heat no matter what – it always keeps smiling. Yes, Shōko is afflicted – most of all by the joy of life in the present moment.

That is why we have at the planning stage tried to concentrate on the themes and authors which seem to speak themselves through Shōko’s work. The arc of those themes and authors spans from Taoist classics across the heights of esoteric Buddhism all the way to the realm of Japanese literature. Each part of that arc has been given its own segment of the exhibition. The theme thread that connects them is the joyful fascination, uninhibited detachment, intimate tenderness. Formally they however represent different styles of calligraphy.

The European collection is symbolically opened by the assertive double-character composition called “Love and Compassion”, on which the ink has barely dried yet – a work created by our commission, exclusively for this exhibition. As an expression of Shōko’s life’s most fundamental sentiment we wouldn’t hesitate to adopt it as the exhibitions motto.

The following segment of Japanese literature is perhaps the closest to what everyone imagines under the term of calligraphy – a more-or-less stylised interpretation of a longer or shorter literary text (the “shorter” one might easily be represented by a single character), which its creator as well as the viewer can easily understand, being able to read it. Even here we can encounter admirable scope of expression from “neatly” written poems and a playfully sketched tale about intrepid cat, to assertive solo characters akin to guttural screams. This is where the originally styled famous prologue to the Taira clan story (Heike Monogatari) might have been placed, which can unfortunately only be seen in the catalogue in the end, having been replaced by the “Prayer for Peace”, a message which –considering Shōko’s nature – might rather be translated as the “Peace Prayer” …

If the Japanese literature segment is the part for readers, then the following one, dedicated to Buddhism, is a step from readable text to mantra, whose exact meaning is hidden to both sides (the speaker as well as the listener) – its cosmic vibrations however do their deed regardless.

By sheer mass this is the heaviest, mentally the most concentrated and at the same time the most monumental part of the exhibition, in a way its mysterious focal point.

By no coincidence the largest character of all in our exhibition is the mysterious “One” at the beginning and end of everything, at first glance an extremely simple horizontal stroke which is nevertheless considered the most comprehensive statement about each calligrapher’s soul.

A style antithesis of this character is the work affixed on the bulkiest screen divider in our exhibition, which represents a part in verse from the 16th book of the Lotus Sutra called “The Eternal Lifespan”. The screen is a testimony of incredible concentration (all of the 510 characters must be written on a single breath), excellent mastery of the calligraphy craft, but also of Shōko’s ability to manifest her original style in a seemingly routine form.

I have already mentioned that the Buddhist segment contains the heaviest works, but at the same time we may find the airiest ones here as well. The segment’s closing calligraphy in two parts expresses the utterly free manifestation of the Buddha-like spirit is entirely drawn with a “dry brush”, which seems as if dipped to one part of ink and one part of air. One of this segment’s – as well as the entire exhibition’s – spatial dominants is a four-character artefact whose airiness is by far more sophisticated, and is employed in several layers. Its theme isn’t purely Buddhist, although it’s is inseparably connected with the world of a Buddhist monastery and religion. It depicts the deities of wind and lightning (Fūjin and Raijin), which thanks to the negative trace of the empty stroke literally dazzlingly shine and blow furiously. Moreover the artefact preserves the typical composition of the art which inspired it: its centre of gravity lies in empty space where lines of force flow like electric discharges between two clouds. In this respect we should speak of spaciousness rather than airiness. Even though it is a world premiere for this particular piece, the screen with the same content is well known to Japanese people. It could be considered Shōko’s most famous work altogether. It is on permanent display in Kyoto’s Kennin-ji shrine, close to a famous painting of the same deities, as its calligraphic analogy. Shōko has decided to create a work with the same theme once more – and I personally believe she did so in no less impressive manner.

Entering the final segment of the exhibition feels as if a view of an endless mountain range opened in front of us. This part is dedicated to Chinese and Japanese poetry of hobos and eccentrics, and at the first glance it radiates joyful freedom and sing-song lightness. The characters seem as if dancing among clouds. Here is the sovereign place of Hanshan, the eccentric ascetic from the Cold Mountain, but also famous Japanese haiku authors beginning with master Bashō (1644 – 1694). The intoxication with world and life, as well as the illusion of almost dancing moves, are typical for the interpretation of the familiar quotation “The phoenix is flying in, Kirin (the fabled cross between deer, dragon and horse) appears”, under which the last of the screens literally buckles.

Walking through the exposition we have been liberated from the classroom desks guarded by the Meiji-era mentors and through the gloom of monastery halls we have climbed to the very peaks of mythical mountains. I have no doubt that on the way back, when looking at all the exhibited art, we will see a completely different perspective. When we planned the exhibition we tried to make it tell a story that makes sense from the beginning – all the way back to the beginning. We set off from Shōko’s simple-mindedly smiling face – and now we are coming back to it. If the pre-requisite for mastery in any of the traditional Japanese disciplines is the ability to preserve the mind of a beginner, then Shōko is unmatched master par excellence …