Two of my favorite recent reads are books about Japan.
Forms of Japan by Michael Kenna and Yvonne Meyer-Lohr is an oversized book containing 240 of Kenna’s black and white photographs of Japanese landscapes, skies, and cultural icons. Although Kenna is not Japanese, his photos have a Japanese sensibility — they reflect calmness, serenity, and simplicity and show beauty in stark, fleeting things.
Here is what Kenna says about his work: “When I photograph, I am irresistibly drawn to subject matter with visual patterns, interesting abstractions and graphic composition. The essence of an image often involves the basic juxtaposition of our man-made structures with the more fluid and organic elements of the landscape. I enjoy places that have mystery and atmosphere, perhaps a patina of age, a suggestion rather than a description, a question or two. I look for memories, traces, the presence of our human interaction with the land. Often, I try to emulate the calm and solitude I find in the land, to share that with viewers. At other times, I photograph the more turbulent phenomena of nature. The resulting images are interpretations, products of intimate conversations with miscellaneous subject matter.”
I appreciated how Kenna’s photographs were curated and organized to bring to life some of the essential “forms” of the Japanese experience. There are five groupings, or chapters. “Each subject transports notably its concrete reality, captured in the photographs, but also corresponds to a specific formal subject:
SEA – Forms of Isolation
LAND – Forms of Strength
TREES – Forms of Transformation
SPIRIT – Forms of Entireness
SKY – Forms of Elusiveness”
Almost all of the images are composed in such a way that the white space is an integral and suggestive part of the whole. I believe it is Meyer-Lohr who writes, “Simplicity and plainness are created by empty space. They provide the necessary leeway to be able to absorb a wide variety of thoughts and feelings. It is the same principle that also underlies the world of Japanese myth and communication through emptiness. This provides space for one’s own imagination, for the grace and beauty of small things, for the unfolding of that which lies in between.”
She continues her thoughts on empty space in art: “It is considered a symbol of stillness, the precondition for the appearance of the inner vision. Lack of balance, asymmetry, simplification, abstraction, wabi or sabi and loneliness are just a few of the most important characteristics of Japanese art and culture.”
There is a lot to absorb in the photographs and accompanying quotes and texts of this lovely book. I hope its influence manifests in my future watercolor paintings and photographs.
The Abundance of Less: Lessons in Simple Living from Rural Japan by Andy Couturier is a newly revised edition of A Different Kind of Luxury, which was written in 2010. The book profiles ten people who have intentionally chosen to live simple, sustainable lives in rural Japan. The new edition contains more photographs and updates on the lives of these Japanese artists, farmers, activists and philosophers in the aftermath of the March 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Two of the original ten had died before the second book came out.
When I first read the earlier edition in 2011, I was so taken with the book that I wrote a blog post about it. (You can link to my post here.) I enjoyed rereading the interviews with this new edition, and this time I was struck by how many of the people were influenced in their choices by time spent in India when they were young adults. While on their sojourns in India, they got into the habit of not needing much, with the surprise benefit of opening their lives to more time.
Gufu Watanabe, potter, botanist, farmer said: “If you start to accumulate things, you can’t travel, so I lived without. I figured I could live a whole life without anything, and then I wouldn’t really have to work when I got back to Japan.”
Osamu Nakamura, woodblock printer, also figured out how to exist in Japan largely outside the cash economy: “To have more time than things to do in that time, that is a very rich kind of feeling.”
Atsuko Watanabe, mother and activist, remarked: “Most people spend their time relating entirely to things that are made solely for the purpose of keeping the economy spinning, of making money for someone . . . they don’t stop to consider, Why is it that I as a human am alive?” She observes, “If you are selling your time, no matter how much money you get, you can’t every buy back that time.” And, “Now, as long as you don’t desire too many things, you can have some time.”
I am inspired by the quality of the lives these Japanese people have made for themselves, how they found meaning in the small-scale, slow, and simple ways of being in the world.