Buddhists believe this world to be a collection of transient, ever-changing phenomena, and hold that the suffering of man is caused by his attempts to create fixed points of permanence in a ceaseless flow of change. Fundamental to the Buddhist worldview, this impermanence or interchangeability principle is evident in this meeting between three women artists who share a similar mind-environment and aesthetic view of Chinese and Japanese cultures. For Alejandra Okret, Lilach Bar-Ami and Anat Michaelis, the yearning for the Far East is not an escape from reality but an intellectual, as well as existential and emotional viewpoint.
Each brings her own personal code and sign system to what has become a discussion of the practice of art as a whole, eroding and befogging her identity and erasing the differences between cultures.
From the aesthetic characteristics of China, Japan, the Orient and Levant springs a fascinating dialogue, and the traits the Israeli artists’ work shares with the work of Kimiko Yoshida (Japan) and Lu Yang (China) become evident. These commonalities address such subjects as the multiplicity of identities, intercultural transitions, the experience of otherness and the contemporary meaning of multi-culturalism. The exhibition aims to study how the change component found at the heart of eastern philosophy makes China and Japan an impermanent, far-away-yet-within-reach “home” that plays a key role in the artists’ work. The scene of events shifts from passion to illusion to celadon green (a green-gray or bluish-green hue) used as a glaze for ceramics and often seen in Yue ware, a style that had been common in China and later spread to Korea and Japan to finally find itself displayed in the salons of European nobility. The charm of the color is woven like a silken threat into the Far East’s architectural elements, landscapes, enigmatic figures, disturbing history, forbidden cities and interrupted texts found in Okret’s, Bar-Ami’s and Michaelis’ art, where all these elements are shifted from their original place and brought into each artists’ personal world.
In his book “Writing and Difference”, Jacques Derrida wrote that “Writing in and of itself is the creation of meaning, before writing there is nothing but absence.” Writing suffocates and a-priori forces speech. Writing is the discomfiture of the spirit. The work entitled Chinese Woman, Chinese Man is a journey through words and time to faraway China, the object of Anat Michaelis Levi’s yearning. Working obsessively night after night, the artist copied the short story The Chinese Woman, The Chinese Man (from the anthology “The Man Who Didn’t Notice Anything”) by Robert Walser, the author who influenced her work the most. Her writing is strictly regimented, each letter pressed into the paper. The use of a stencil, she claims, was to regiment the tide of emotions that arose in her as a result of identifying with the story and its Swiss author, whom she has been studying for many years. Inspired by the story, the drawings and paintings are spread out like a Chinese scroll, a testimony of unattained culture that no representation can manifest. They are, however, more than that. They reveal a mechanism of oppressing women in Chinese society, where, once married, a woman becomes the property of her husband and his family, her status determined entirely by men: her father, her husband, her brother.
For Michaelis, the question of women’s minds being subjugated to men’s makes writing a torture and a cure for the soul at the same time. To her, language is a kind of prison, where every word and every image take shape and become content.The desk and the books displayed in the space are an intellectual viewpoint upon “the Chinese continent” and represent the artist’s need to learn and appropriate more and more knowledge about the Other.
Also included in the exhibition is the series Living in China, 30 drawings and paintings out of many dozens the artist has worked on in the past eight years. The corpus of imagery used by the artist is taken from books about travels in China, Chinese playing cards, postcards, art books, architecture and design and fashion magazines collected over many years. Her attraction to China is like a passion towards a god, who is both a loved one and an Other. This passion stems from a sea of imagery that includes pagodas, temples, landscapes, lanterns and bells, all of them showing up in her work in the form of a rich symbology, indicating a turbulent emotional world. In this series, the artist uses transparent paper dipped in gray, industrial paint, a technique she has developed herself. When used in this way, the gray paint mutes or erases some of the images, while others become clearer and more salient as they come into being on paper. The figures fill the entire surface of the sheets: little girls and woman young and grown, all of them absorbed, dreaming, staring, yearning, looking in admonishment, crying out in whispers, moments before they drown in the industrial-grey tide. The retouched faces in some of the pieces are an expression of violence and aesthetics, used by the artist as cultural traits. Ferdinand de Saussure wrote that the painting contains both signifier and signified. Michaelis Levi’s paintings contain Chinese signifiers and signifieds, and the artist is reflected through them. The figures’ faces appear at first glance as serene masks, but underneath the serenity lies a disturbing history and a hidden, obscure past. Through the humor and anxiety of the paintings, seeps the passion for celadon green. It erupts and culminates in the Song Dynasty installation, where the artist poured industrial green paint on linoleum. The objects and vases are caught in the green paint, covered by its smooth, uniform texture. Though covered in paint, the pottery is reminiscent of that commonly found in China’s cultural legacy. The color and texture of the spread-out linoleum reminds one of a Chinese scroll. The placement of the objects creates a frozen moment in time, between traditional Chinese culture and the inciteful exaggeration of color, which holds a more universal, modern statement.
Zen Buddhism has been common in the so-called Western world since the early 20th century, and even more so since World War II. There is Zen moisturizer and Zen fashion and Zen perfume, the word “Zen” is often used in business, architecture, art and everyday life – Zen is everywhere. Zen Buddhism originated in China, where is was called “Chan”, and its birth was a gradual process that took hundreds of years (7th to 10th century AD). Japan adopted Zen quickly and naturally. It fit in well with its existing religions, the various forms of Shinto and Buddhism. Alejandra Okret’s body of work reflects the omnipresence of Zen. Inspired by celadon green, the lucid nature that leaps from the canvas in One-Time Entry and My Mother, Ria Okret, is suggestive of the infinite happenings of nature, all of them interconnected and affecting each other. Open Pink Silk Kimono, reveals a personal, spiritual aspect and a seductive aesthetic of saturated color that reflects an internal landscape. On the one hand, the sensual spontaneity of color, spread across the canvas like a pink, Japanese Kimono builds up to a passionate outburst; on the other hand, the textures and the leaks of paint create a mystical atmosphere that expresses the artist’s yearning for Japan and its culture. Okret views nature as a goal in and of itself, and her picturesque language is characterized by her ability to attain harmony and freedom. The two pieces, The Laughing Buddha and The Ivory Buddha suggests that even god is not free of weaknesses (the common belief is that gods are similar to men) and teaches of a multifaceted, multidimensional personality, filled with discrepancies. The artist traveled to Japan several years ago. Her journey brought about the creation of the video art piece Vignette, an almost obsessive documentation of the human tapestry of Japanese society and life. Okret reflects Japan as a culture that holds beauty and aesthetics sacred, a private journal chock-full of memories of discovering great beauty in the details, the deep essences of simplicity and a ceaseless dialogue with nature, alongside values of restraint and minimalism.
A prevalent symbol in the Far East, the dragon has become a serial motif in Okret’s work. Unlike the medieval dragon of Europe, a symbol of evil that often appeared on knights’ emblems, dragons in the Far East were kind and generous creatures attributed to the element of water and flow and endowed with the power to grant wishes. The dragons of the Far East also played a central role in plastic art; mostly in China, where they can be found in architectural decorations, paintings and sculptures. In the Mist Dragon series, the image twists on the paper, reacting to the Japanese ink the artist uses in her work. The sensitive line and sensual color seem to breathe each other’s essence until color completely assimilates form.Prof. Ofra Goldstein-Gidoni explained that women wearing kimonos become models and symbols of all that is Japanese (not unlike Mt. Fuji and the cherry blossom). The understanding of gender goes hand in hand with the distinction between Western and Japanese, because the process of defining the self always takes place in relation to something else, dramatizing the difference of the Other. Okret’s The Musical Geisha was inspired by a stirring collection of ivory sculptures she had inherited after her mother’s death. The point of view and the velvety softness of color and motion in the painting accentuate the many faces of Japanese culture and mythology.
The yearning for the near-yet-far East bestirs Lilach Bar-Ami to hybridize typical Israeli landscape with Japanese and East Asian ones. The merging of the local and familiar with the foreign and reclusive creates a parallelism between the Middle East and East Asia. This merging is seen in all her work, from the Date Palm peeking at the viewer from behind layers of paper in Pagoda and Tower, next to a red sun, to structures reminiscent of pagodas or East-Asian temples painted beside structures tightly associated with the landscape of early Jewish settlements from the time of the pioneers – “Halutzim”. Bar-Ami creates a cross between secular and sacred spaces, the eternal and the temporary, yet never strays far from the symbology of her home town.
In her installation Knock on Wood, Bar-Ami uses nature and nature-related rituals by showing a dialogue between physical and artificial nature, between the internal and the external, between the Near and Far East. In Shinto, salt is considered to be a purifying substance. Sumo wrestlers throw salt onto the ring before each fight to purify it. In Jewish mysticism, however, salt is used in charms that protect the wearer against the Evil Eye. For Bar-Ami, the East is a contemporary hybrid culture. She tells of her grandmother, Phoebe, who had come to Israel from Morocco and was never assimilated into the new, Israeli culture. The artist’s connection to tradition manifests in movement through a harmonious existence between opposites, as fragments of identity. In her work process, the artist expresses her need to connect to the past, to her origins, through the process of deconstructing her identity and structuring it anew. The video art piece entitled Dropping a Vase from Casablanca shows a dance that reveals many elements the Middle and Far East share. Like the Japanese kimono, the Muslim Veil serves as a wrapping or packaging for the woman’s face and body, an attempt to discipline women and limit their freedom of movement. As the dancer shatters the vase, she breaks the traditional codes, protesting against the limitations imposed on Middle Eastern and Japanese women’s freedom – women in both cultures suffer from their culture’s repression of the self. In his fascinating, sharply worded book, “The Wretched of the Earth”, Frantz Fanon presents the veil as a translation of the new local nationalism which, in rising to absurd, new heights, brings about an infatuation in the external features and leads to the ultimate appropriation of the exotic. Fanon posed that when Western man gazed upon the non-Western world, he often saw reflections of himself and his own perceptions, rather than the true reality of this world. This form of gazing upon the veil is analogous to Bar Ami’s treatment of her digital collage featuring a photograph of Felix Beato and entitled Western Eyes. A late 19th century Italian photographer motivated by the desire to show Japanese people to the west, Beato was among the first to photograph Japan. In the photograph, he objectifies the subject, transforming it into merchandise suited to the needs of the Western market. The appropriation of the Western gaze that falls on the desirable, exotic other can also be seen in Christmas, where a Christmas tree meets the cherry blossom in a typical Israeli landscape. By “crossbreeding” these elements, Bar-Ami creates a kind of souvenir for tourists, thereby raising the value of the object by breaking the boundaries between the artistic and the commercial, between a manipulated photograph and a ready-made object, collapsing the hierarchy between “high” and “low” art.
In her self portrait, The Red Akamba Bride with Kikuyu Earrings (part of the Bride series), Japanese artist Kimiko Yoshida combines ethnographic and contemporary art and merges Japan with the West. The artist’s act of masquerading is an actor’s total identification with his part in a Nu or Kabuki theater, or a Geisha’s identification with her own role, which must be filled by a member of the Japanese society and requires self-sacrifice and denial of individual needs and aspirations. The makeup on the head and shoulders is associated with makeup in Japanese theater, but also with the protoma format commonly used in European portraits since Roman times. The artist’s total transformation as she merges fully with an anthropological object is evident in the close-up photograph of her with two lamps. The use of a convention commonly reserved for inanimate object photography evokes the feeling that Kimiko Yusida becomes an object herself. In Western culture, makeup is used to seduce and accentuate the personality, whereas Yusida, like the Geisha, uses makeup to erase her own identity. Japan’s conservative business world is not yet ready to accept women in key positions. The erasing of the artist’s personality is suggestive of Japanese society’s treatment of women; even today, Japan believes a woman’s place is at home.
The video art piece Lu Yang Gong Tue Kite is part of “Delusional Mandala”, a project by Chinese artist Lu Yang. Yang got the idea for the piece from a childhood dream, where she saw her own head flying out of a dark place, an image still present in her dreams today. The artist’s interpretation of the image is that after her death, her soul will be a floating head in the sky, looking down on the city and its crowds. In her mind, the detachment of the head from the body is associated with fear and death. Beijing has a kite flying tradition dating back over three hundred years, and legend has it that kites have been flown in China as early as two thousand years ago. As one of China’s traditions, kite flying reflects the richness of Chinese recreation. In China, it is said that by flying a kite, one sends away his or her ill-luck, uprooting their life’s problems. In her kite shaped self portrait, Lu Yang chose not to repress the dream and instead made it a reality, expanding the image and adding previously unknown or hidden details. As part of her introspection through the circle of art, she sets free her fears, her dreams and her identity as an artist and lets her art fly free.
Celadon green is a color with a history. Today it represents multiculturalism and a passion and appreciation for tradition. The color is a link between Okret, Bar-Ami and Michaelis Levi; it represents the way they see the East, each with her own sign system, in her own special way, reflecting her own artistic perspective.
Exhibiting artists: Alejandra Okret, Lilach Bar-Ami, Anat Michaelis Levi, Kimiko Yoshida, and Lu Yang.