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Shape that doesn’t change for 500 years and shape that arises now

Category: Interviews
Sergio Calatroni | Sooku Sen| Kenya Hara

The essence of culture is in locality. There’s any such thing as a global culture .Hara – A little while back, Japanese fibers transcended the area of clothing and began to encroach upon a new dimension. Artificial fibers in particular have found a wide variety of roles, and are now being used in ways that once would have been unthinkable. I think of such fibers as environmental skin. There are predictions that we will discover new means of communication and interaction at the environmental interface, the point where our bodies come into direct contact with our environment. I believe that this is an area where artificial fibers have a major opportunity to grow and expand their roles. However, major manufacturers have been unable to allocate people and energy to developing applications-to the task of discovering how to make use of new high-tech fibers. That is a significant issue for the fiber industry, but at the same time I believe that it is also represents a big opportunity. There is substantial potential waiting to be discovered.
I have always thought that making things is driven by a sense of esthetics, not by technology. When you look at what it is about Japan that is accepted worldwide, it is Japan’s esthetics. On that point, I hope to hear about Sen-san’s experiences in New York. He has just come back from a year there, using his sense of esthetics to achieve communication in the face of different value systems from all over the world.
I found that when I held this Senseware exhibition in Europe, even though I did not use any traditional Japanese icons, and was not actively attempting to make the exhibition an expression of Japan, nearly everyone who visited the exhibition commented that it was very Japanese. Also, Sen-san frequently says that he didn’t have the slightest intention of doing tea in a modern style, and I find myself very much in agreement with that thought. In my case, I don’t have any intention of bringing traditional icons into the context of modern design. These two thoughts may at first seem to be conflicting, but they are actually the same thing, aren’t they. At root, they both come from an awareness that making incoherent intersections between the present and the past is very unsophisticated. I’m sure that tradition wants to continue into the present, and that the present wants to cherish tradition. Ensuring that the two are not cheapened by too easily mixing them together is a delicacy of approach that Sen-san and I probably share.

Sen – What I wanted to find out during my time in New York was the extent to which the culture of the tea ceremony is actually universal. If you think of the definition of the tea ceremony as creating a separate world in which people commune through tea, then the desire for that sort of communion is present throughout the world. For this reason, I strongly suspect that the tea ceremony, Chanoyu, has the potential to be a communication tool that can take the place of a shared global language.
We have come a long way since the stage when the tea ceremony was typically introduced as an cultural peculiarity from Japan. That is the origin of the stereotyped image of someone in a long-sleeved kimono following tea-making procedures under a big red umbrella. My theme for the past year has been to move away from that image and see how the tea ceremony can be developed as a method of communication relevant to all people. For that reason, I deliberately avoid placing an emphasis on Japan-like icons. For instance, there were occasions where I would visit someone’s home wearing western clothes and take a portable set of utensils. In that sort of situation, I would make tea sitting at a table, but the ceremony still had the tension and the special intimacy that it normally produces.
What is behind my approach is the realization that although non-Japanese are naturally distanced from Japanese culture, Japanese people are also distanced from that culture to almost the same extent. In that sense, for a long time I had the feeling that with respect to the tea ceremony, contemporary Japanese people are just another category of foreign visitor. More than anything, that is why it is time for Japanese people to take a serious look at the tea ceremony in their own country.

Hara – That’s a very interesting point. Let me explore a little further by changing the perspective of my question. Did you feel anything different on returning to Japan after being away for a year?

Sen – Going abroad didn’t shake my sense of values at all, but when I came back to Japan I found some things that seemed oddly novel to me, despite having thought of them as perfectly natural before going abroad. That was a surprise for me. For example, I noticed how clean the subway stations are, how interpersonal distances are different, and how everyone peers into their cell phones at the same time. These were sights that I’d probably taken for granted before, but I suddenly saw them from a new perspective.

Hara – I know what you mean. Whenever I come back from overseas, It’s always a surprise to see how clean the airport is. The Tokyo nightscape seems particularly beautiful, too. The way that people keep different distances, and the effort they put into being attentive to others are just some of the things where Japan still feels very different from other countries. I am convinced that things like these are important resources for Japan. One thing I sense when I work overseas is that the essence of culture is in locality. In fact, I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a global culture. In the future we will need to gather up the senses and esthetics that we have developed in our own our locality, and make them work in a global context. This Tokyo Fiber project is an example of doing that. If it’s appraised as being “Japanese,” then for me, that’s a sign of success.
How about you Sergio-san? What were your feelings when you saw Tokyo Fiber in Milan?

Sergio – My first impression was that a very sincere attempt had been made to address the exhibition’s pre-set theme. There had obviously been a clear methodology behind the process for selecting the exhibits, and that gave me a strong sense that the exhibition was driven by a desire to explain something and communicate it to the visitors. That has something in common with Sen-san’s desire to communicate through tea. I feel that the same spirit is present as the undercurrent in both cases. You each use different tools, but it seems to me that you have a common objective. Another thing that I sensed in Milan was that the methodology had successfully aligned all the creators in the same orientation, despite their coming from different fields. It sounds simple, but things don’t usually work out that well. However you look at it, the exhibition in Milan was a wonderful success at communicating Hara-san’s message, and I believe that the visitors to the exhibition gained a clear appreciation of Japan’s assets.

Hara – That’s good to hear. It’s very difficult to put the ideas that I want to convey into words.

Sergio – Not everything can be expressed as words.
If Hara-san had taken the common Italian approach of attempting to rapidly explain everything in a logical fashion, I’m quite sure that he wouldn’t have been so successful. Allowing visitors to look at an exhibit first, and then read a slightly reticent explanation was much more effective. At the Tokyo Fiber venue, I talked to many different people-media people, designers, other creators, and ordinary members of the public-and they all seemed to have been deeply impressed or moved by the exhibition. I’m convinced that your message was properly communicated.A space can be thought of as a place regulated by a sense of tensionHara – The term “senseware” signifies a medium that stirs the human creative instinct, matter that leads people in creative directions and awakens the desire to make things. Stone had that role in the stone age. Later, paper had that role. Being printable is of course one of the important attributes of paper, but its whiteness and stiffness are also vital characteristics. However, it is easily dirtied and torn, and a black line made on it with ink cannot be deleted. Paper is a delicate material that cultivates an appreciation of the easily breakable and the irreversible. I am convinced that it has been instrumental in stimulating deep concentration and creativity. To Japanese sensibilities, the artificial fibers that are the theme of the current exhibition also function as senseware. They are both intimate and high-tech, and have the potential to be powerful agents for awakening creativity. I am sure that each of the creators who took part in this project shared that feeling.
That’s something that I’d like to ask Sen-san about. What was it that originally triggered the tea ceremony, and what was the medium that it emerged from?

Sen – Just now Sergio-san commented that it’s very difficult to take people who create very different things and bring them together to focus on a single theme. That’s interesting because that approach is very much the methodology behind the tea ceremony. That applies to the people who meet in a tea house, and it’s also behind the tea ceremony utensils. The utensils are not just from Japan. The come from Korea, China, Southeast Asia, and even Europe, a mixed bag of items that combine into a single idea in the context of tea. Many people forget this, but nearly all the tea ceremony utensils tools date back to the 16th century or earlier, and were originally made for a different purpose, not for the tea ceremony. When the culture of the tea ceremony, Chanoyu, emerged in Japan, the items it adopted as its tools came from China, Korea, and other places, and originally had nothing to do with tea. Nowadays, everyone thinks of the tea ceremony as the foremost example of Japan’s traditional culture. The container or framework denoted by the tea ceremony may have emerged in Japan, but the custom of drinking tea came from China, and nearly all the ‘hardware’ used in the ceremony was imported from outside Japan.

Hara – That’s an example of the power of context, isn’t it? My own experience with the tea ceremony is still very shallow, but I have a feeling that the role of senseware in tea is played by a space with a sense of tension. Just putting a stone down on a table that has nothing else on it produces both tension and some sort of force. It’s important that the space has nothing in it, and in such a space a tension is generated by encounters between people or between things. That seems to be the driving force behind the tea ceremony.

Sen – That’s a good point.

Hara – It’s a question of how to utilize an empty space, isn’t it? From my personal point of view, that sense is always working in the background as part of the process when I’m trying to perfect a design. There’s a definite tension produced when you make use of something empty, and it feels wonderful to be able to share it.

Sen – I wonder if that sense is the same worldwide? It’s a point that I’m very interested in at the moment. In some ways it’s intertwined with the identity of Japanese people. A new tea ceremony room is still just a space with nothing at all in it. It’s simply a shell. However, as soon as you hang up a scroll and put your utensils in place, the atmosphere tenses up, even if there is no one there. Later, after the tea ceremony has finished and everything tidied away, the room returns to being just empty space with nothing in it.

Hara – Yes, I can appreciate that.

Sen – There’s another place where I felt that same sense. Can you guess where?

Hara – On a stage, perhaps?

Sen – No. Let me give you a hint. The place I’m thinking of is considered to be the roots of Japan.

Hara – That has to be Ise Jingu, the Ise Shrine.

Sen – That’s right. And I’m thinking in particular of the days before and after the transfer ceremony
when the shrine building is replaced once every 20 years.

Hara – That makes sense.

Sen – I once spent two days in Ise for the Shikinen Sengu Ceremony. On the first day, the kami (the deity) still resided in the old building, which was by then 20 years old, and seemed very solemn. I could definitely sense the presence of something there. In contrast, the new building constructed next door to the old one was bright and clean, but had no solemnity. Instead, it felt a little like one of those new houses constructed on spec before a buyer has been found. The next day I went back to the shrine after the transfer ceremony the night before and was amazed at the change. I could no longer feel anything for the old building. It was just an old wooden structure. On the other hand, the new building next door was no longer just bright and clean. It seemed full of energy, and there was a powerful sense of the presence of something or someone. That was the moment when I first gained an intuitive appreciation of Ise Jingu as part of the roots of things Japanese.

Hara – That story really interests me. To be honest, for a long time I didn’t really understand what was meant by ‘space.’ Then one day, I was playing around with a cigarette and stood it on its end on the table. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to do that, but cigarettes are long and thin, so standing on end is very unnatural. However, when I stood it up, there was suddenly a sense of tension around it. When I noticed that, I realized that I might have finally understood what a space was. A space can be thought of as a place regulated by a sense of tension. If there is no tension, then the ‘space’ concept is inappropriate. I guess that Ise Jingu is like that, and I’m sure that a tea ceremony room is like that. If nothing is done to produce the tension or force, then the space is dead. That’s why it’s appropriate to say that that space doesn’t exist. Then, perhaps by putting a stone down on a table with nothing on it, or by providing something else that produces a little disturbance in your mind, a space suddenly comes into existence.
The question of whether the concept of an empty space is shared worldwide came up just now. Sergio-san, what does an empty space, or a space of nothingness mean to you?

Sergio – I think that nothingness should be left as it is. When that is done, the empty space itself begins to talk. It produces the sort of expressions that could only be produced by nothingness.
Sen I recently heard from Hiroshi Sugimoto that when he was giving a talk in Germany, his comment on the bad taste of Western art collectors in their approach to hanging art works-putting up every piece they have in the house-drew a round of applause from the Western collectors he was addressing. When he went on to say that collectors in Japan have a different approach-selecting and presenting just one work that was appropriate for that particular moment and those particular circumstances-the audience empathized very strongly. The way of thinking in the West has changed somewhat, and a sensitivity that shares a Japan-like approach to emptiness is slowly gaining acceptance.

Hara – I have that impression, too. All around the world, sophisticated people are beginning to intuitively grasp that concept, and so are people with a strong sense of curiosity. The corollary of that is that the Japanese themselves need to make an effort to become more aware of it, too.Where something that is actually strong comes across as weak and ephemeral, or where things that are delicate and easily broken actually have an underlying strength.Hara – Sergio-san, you always say that you are deeply fascinated with Japan. I hear that you are so enthralled by Japanese culture that you live in Japan, while your Japanese wife lives in Milan, which is her own favorite city. I’d like to ask what it is about Japan that attracts you so much. Alternatively, perhaps you could comment on what you feel is the significance or role of the culture of Japan in a global context.

Sergio – As a country, Japan has always been a question mark to other countries. It’s inscrutable and enigmatic. Westerners definitely do find Japanese culture difficult to understand. I think the reason for that is the number of mysterious contradictions that it presents-such as where something that is actually strong comes across as weak and ephemeral, or where things that are delicate and easily broken actually have an underlying strength.

Hara/Sen – That’s interesting to hear.

Sergio – The way that masses and voids coexist is a mystery, and Japan doesn’t readily provide answers to throw light on such mysteries. Perhaps it is because Japan is a country where explanations are not made through the medium of words. The country contains complexity, but explanations of that complexity are not sought. To the outside, however, it is a country of complexity that defies explanation. Another point that differs from the West is in the way that people consider the passage of time. The Japanese language has no grammatical tense for expressing the distant past. That leads to one of the largest contradictions in Japan’s culture. Perhaps you could say that contradiction is culture, and that complex contradictions are a manifestation of new energy. My attraction to Japan probably comes from these mysterious elements that make up Japanese culture.

Hara – To express the sensitivities tucked away in Japanese culture I often use words like ‘careful’ or ‘conscientious,’ ‘delicate,’ ‘finely-detailed,’ and ‘simple.’ Each of these concepts is sympathetic to the idea of fragility, the feeling that “something is like this today, but I don’t know what it will be like tomorrow.” That sort of contradiction is very Japanese, isn’t it? The ephemerality or transience in these concepts has always been awkward to express.

Sen – I find that one of the cultural keywords useful for understanding the West is ‘eternity.’ The reasons for that probably lie in religion, but there is a belief in an unshakeable, absolute eternity, and that is where value systems are based. That’s very different from Japan, where all things are seen as transient, and where that ephemerality leads to value systems where everything is contained in the present moment. Consider the differences in architecture. Western buildings are constructed from stone, which is an infinitely robust material, solid and largely unbreakable. In contrast, for Japanese buildings it is wood that is the material of choice. Sergio-san talked about strength and delicacy. The concept of delicate but strong reminds me of the Silver Pavilion at the Ginkakuji Temple in Kyoto. This applies to all Muromachi-period architecture, but the pillars and posts holding up the structure are very slender. In addition, the Pavilion juts out over the water so the wood must be affected by moisture. The whole impression is of a very weak structure. It has of course been repaired from time to time, but despite its apparent weakness it has basically stood there for 500 years without any changes in form. Foreign visitors must be puzzled by how that could happen. In fact, I think this is an example of the thoroughness of Japanese technology, and particularly the result of building with materials carefully selected to fit in with the environment. Materials are used carefully and conscientiously. For instance, the builders knew that the pillars would last longer if they were erected to face the same direction as when they were growing as trees. That careful attention to detail is why architecture that at first appears slender and delicate is in fact very tough. The same sort of principles apply to tea house architecture, too. A chashitsu is basically constructed from paper, earth, and wood, so it’s only to be expected that the result is delicate. Nevertheless, there are tea houses such as Tai-an and Jo-an that have lasted for 400 years.

Hara – This is the technology for transforming fragility into strength, isn’t it?

Sergio – Rather than transforming fragility into strength, I see fragility or ephemerality as being another sort of strength. A stance of longing for eternity and rejecting the transient is definitely a Western syndrome. Westerners, including me, have a tendency to see fragility as a negative concept, but that is not the case. Vulnerability is actually very positive, a strength within weakness. The Japanese people have always taken the fragile and metabolized it into a powerful strength. Being fragile actually means having a power resulting from within the process of metabolism.

Hara – That’s a wonderful point.The sophistication came from generating a slightly different significance while doing a perfect trace.Hara – Sen-san, have you ever done kendo?

Sen – No, I’ve never been attracted to the martial arts. My father wanted to get me to do kendo, but it never happened. Why do you ask?

Hara – I learned a little kendo as a child. I also did an awful lot of painting, and eventually went to art college. It’s strange, but when I recently thought about what I did back then, I realized that in some ways the senses that I employ in my design work are closer to those important for kendo than to those used for painting. Kendo has the concept of ‘ma-ai’, which refers to the distance maintained between you and your opponent. The opponents are each constantly trying to maintain an appropriate distance for striking, while at the same time preventing the other from doing the same. It’s very clearly an art of spaces and intervals.

Sen The tea ceremony and kendo are alike in that they both require a counterparty. You can’t do them alone. Painting is different, because you complete each painting all by yourself. Tea and kendo fall apart if there is no one to take the other part. In fact, the similarity goes further, because tea is like kendo in that success comes through confounding the other party’s expectations, albeit in the nicest way of course. Even if you were to perform a tea ceremony that matched your guest’s ideas and predilections one hundred percent, it would no longer be true to the ceremony’s spirit of hospitality.

Hara – Does that mean you’re scoring points in the tea ceremony, too?

Sen – That was very much the relationship between Sen no Rikyu and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Fond of the morning glory flowers that grew in Rikyu’s garden, Hideyoshi invited himself to tea at a time when they would be in full bloom. Rikyu’s response was to cut down all the flowers, and then just place a single morning glory in a vase for the tea ceremony, thereby focusing on the beauty of the flower itself. Rikyu definitely scored a point over Hideyoshi there.

Hara – That’s an example of interrupting the other party’s space isn’t it? To do that, of course, you have to be able to perceive and interpret the spaces and intervals that you each maintain. That’s why in kendo it’s difficult to fight a poor opponent. Does the same sort of thing apply in the world of tea?

Sen – It does in some ways, but it isn’t a lack of knowledge of tea techniques that causes problems. Rather than someone who has carefully studied the techniques and sticks to them rigidly, it’s much easier to serve tea for someone who does not know the ritual at all, but who responds well to a prod in the right place. It’s always interesting to encounter a guest like that. That’s been one of the things that stood out from spending a year explaining tea to beginners. I started to miss the opportunity to do a tea ceremony in earnest and began looking forward to times when I could serve tea to someone who could sense what was going on without any need for explanation.

Hara – I know what you mean. The tea ceremony is actually about design. The same applies to kendo, too. Each has predefined forms-kata in Japanese-and you start by tracing the forms. That contrasts with creative pursuits, where the basic rule is “No copying.” Tracing a form and following a fixed pattern over and over again is very relaxing, isn’t it?

Sen – You can think of tracing a form as a way of synchronizing with someone else.

Hara – In areas categorized as creation, there is effectively a rule that you must always be making new steps, discovering and striding out into previously untrodden land. Personally, I don’t think that’s really necessary, though. Since it’s impossible to trace something perfectly, I suspect that attempting to trace is actually a creative act. Most traditional Japanese arts include a substantial amount of tracing of what has gone before, don’t they.

Sen – Very much so. There were even times when the abilities of artists were evaluated according to how well they could trace or copy works from earlier periods.

Hara – The idea was that the sophistication came from generating a slightly different significance while doing a perfect trace.

Sen – Yes, that’s right

Hara – People are always told that creation means “No copying. Think of something new.” On the contrary, I find that if you attempt to think like somebody else, and actually manage to think of something in virtually the same way that the other person would have thought, you suddenly begin to discover where the differences in thinking are. I have a feeling that such an approach actually leads to a deeper understanding than an approach of actively trying to think of something new. It’s actually a vitally important part of our creative work.

Sen – The same sort of thing applies when you make a tea ceremony bowl. The shape of the bowl is already more or less fixed. What’s interesting is to see how creative you can be within those limitations. Using a potter’s wheel is also interesting, because it’s your own movements that you’re following.

Hara – You’re right. Tea bowls probably represent the ultimate in tracing. Sergio-san, what do you have to say about that? What are your thoughts on the minute differences that emerge through tracing something else?

Sergio – I’m still a Westerner, and I retain the Western sense that everyone is a unique individual, different from everybody else. I strongly believe that there’ll never be another me. That said, I agree that imitation is important. Carefully, respectfully observing and copying things that were in existence before I was even born is important. However, I believe that once you have captured what you need from that process, you must strike out and discover your own way. The most important part of this stance is an attitude that you must not create something that would represent a backwards step from whatever you observed. Think of classical music. If you want to play beautiful music, you must first completely master the playing techniques. However, no one will be impressed by your performances unless you go one step further and surpass those techniques. In the purest sense, I am convinced that creation does come from somewhere different than copying. However, I am equally sure that you must never forget to observe and look carefully at the creations of others and of your predecessors. Even if you start by tracing or following what they have done, it is vital to move on from there and bring out your own differences.

Hara – One of the things I admire about Sen-san is what Sergio-san just described-the ability to bring out your own differences while following a pre-established pattern. I’m sure I wouldn’t be attracted by the idea of a ‘modern way of tea’ or a ‘modern tea ceremony.’ Importing something like a new modern design into contemporary circumstances and presenting it as a new form of tea ceremony is not the way to go. One of the things I personally find fascinating about tea is the lack of hesitancy to think things over again and again, together with the toughness that emerges from that approach. I suspect that what Sergio sees as the strength of Japan arises from that approach.

Sen – I’m certain that things that have kept going over time are strong and convincing. Absolutely.

Hara – That’s what tradition’s all about. Going back to where we started, this is probably the point of contact between Sen-san’s not having the slightest intention of doing tea in a modern style, and my not having any intention of bringing traditional icons into modern design.

Sen – The moment you label something as ‘modern’, it stops being modern, doesn’t it?

Hara – Yes, and the moment you talk of bringing the traditional into something modern, it stops being traditional. These are very fine distinctions, but it’s at the edge of these distinctions that real value is created.
Sooku SEN, Grand Tea Master

Sergio CALATRONI, Architect / Product Designer
Guest Professor of the University Museum, the University of Tokyo

Kenya HARA, Graphic Designer / Exhibition Director