IKEBANA: REGRESSION THROUGH TECHNOLOGY
-Matthew Weinstein. 2008
When I was seventeen years old, I was an exchange student in Kuruma City, Japan. Kuruma is a featureless but friendly industrial city on the southern island of Kyushu. The mother of my host-family was proficient in many of the Japanese traditional arts such as Koto, tea ceremony, cooking and Ikebana. The Ikebana interested me the most, but as a boy in the far south of Japan it was not appropriate for me to study it, so I stuck to Judo, which I hated. What intrigued me so much about Ikebana was that my host-mother's criteria for what constituted a finished arrangement completely eluded me. She was operating in accordance with the dictates of an aesthetic program that I had no access to. I liked that. I liked the fact that beauty is not a given, it is learned. Real beauty is an ethical aesthetic. We have to rise to it to enjoy it. It instructs. It changes our lives. And this is what the art of Ikebana; ancient, strangled in tradition and iron clad rules, did for me.
I don't have a palate for fine wines, rarified cuisine or hothouse flowers. I actually find big flower arrangements kind of depressing. Maybe that's what I liked about Ikebana arrangements; they are kind of ugly, punished and pared down. They are little lonely twisted spinsters in comparison to the bouquets of roses and fireworks of colors and scents exploding out of giant vases that are the Western dreams of beauty and romance. But, unlike the bouquet of roses, one suspects that the Ikebana arrangement/spinster has a trunk of heartbreakingly beautiful poems under her lonely bed, poems that she has written, poems that will die with her, poems that the world will never see.
Another thing that I became interested in while I was in Japan was cartooning. Not Anime, Anime was too theatrical, too bombastic. I liked the older Japanese children's cartoons, like Doraemon. They shared the blend if surrealistic narrative and innocence that my hero Winsor McCay employed in his Little Nemo series. I learned how to draw some of these characters, which gained me a modicum of admiration in my Japanese high school that my non-existent Judo skills did not.
I never studied art formally. I tried numerous classes in life drawing, but had absolutely no aptitude for it. They say that dyslexia causes one to think spatially in three dimensions, and they also say that it causes one to flatten out the world. I have no idea which theory describes the condition. I was dyslexic and I couldn't foreshorten to save my life. I couldn't draw, and I didn't.
I started to notice 3-D imaging. Max Headroom was a real actor impersonating a computer-generated head. 3-D technology in 1984 was not capable of really generating Max. But, as usual, technology catches up with science fiction. Cartooning was obviously changing. The moving comic book had mated with the virtual reality experience with some help from military technology and became Toy Story. Finally, 3-D programs were available for regular computers, and people with no knowledge of programming could use these programs. The learning curve was, and still is, incredibly steep for these programs, but I was completely sucked in the first time I saw objects that were drawn in a simulation of three dimensional space, and could be moved around, lit and textured in this space. The computer screen was no longer a window being looked through; it became a window I was flying through. I could see this virtual 3-D space more clearly then I could see 'natural' space. My brain liked it in there better. My computer was calculating the impossibility of reconciling three dimensional and flat spaces for me. 3-D technology fulfilled my dream of acquiring the academic proficiency in drawing that I was never even remotely able to attain in a traditional drawing class.
For some reason, Ikebana came back at me the minute I had some proficiency with the 3-D interface. Like learning how to draw, one cannot think beyond the program when one is learning how to make and animate images in a 3-D program. Only when the mechanics become second nature do the ideas start to form. And there it was, my memory of these perplexing little flower arrangements.
I found an Ikebana artist named Junko Miura on the Internet. She came by my studio and we talked about Ikebana. I told her that I didn't really like flowers. She shook my hand. We had agreed (as if we were two high school rejects who agreed that all cheerleaders, prom queens, jocks and talented musical theater queens were awful because anything that wears it's beauty too much on the outside was suspect and probably evil) on something important.
So I was surprised when she came into my studio the next day carrying a huge bunch of sunflowers. 'Junko,' I said, 'what's with the flowers.' 'No, wait, you see!' she replied. She laid out her materials and began ripping the petals off of the sunflowers. What emerged was a neck, gracefully bent, Audrey Hepburn; naked and green. A blank brown face. A zero. One of Little Orphan Annie's eyes. She combined this with some artichokes and some twisted branches. I had never seen anything so completely perfect.
I put the arrangement next to my computer. Over the next three weeks, I modeled and textured every piece of this arrangement and rebuilt it in virtual three-dimensional space. No photography, just vectors and texture maps. It was still life painting without paint, without a surface, and without actual coordinates in the physical world. When this piece was done, I had Junko come back again and again to make more arrangements until I had a series of Ikebana pieces.
Of course, every rubric or plan becomes a parent that one must inevitably disobey in order to move one's work forward. The arrangements started to fight and argue with each other. They began to tip over and even tip over furniture. But in them there is always a hint of Junko's ascetic arrangements. And all the time I keep trying to puzzle out why there is this connection for me between 3-D technology and this ancient Japanese art.
Technology always becomes a metaphor for the culture that gives birth to it. 3-D technology is no exception. Never before has reality been more tweaked than in the moment in which we live. Kids are being given Pixar along with their corn flakes and Ritalin. 'Real people' on television are reacting spontaneously to artificially generated stimuli for our entertainment. Political jargon has become more and more of an art in itself, judged by form and not by content. And there it is, a computer program that allows us to make real fakes. And what is the holy grail of 3-D technology? To replace the human.
What is entertaining sits in a precarious balance between the real and the abstract. If it is too real it is not entertaining, and if it is too abstract it isn't either. On the one hand we aren't allowed to escape, and on the other we have a difficult time meeting the challenge of escape. 3-D technology offers the perfect balance. 3-D characters are constantly winking at us. They're scary, no they're cute, they're real, and no they're fake.
Ikebana also involves precarious balances. Not just the balance of forms, which makes this art form intensely sculptural, but also the balance of nature and artifice. The Ikebana arrangement is like a hallucination in which the isolated plant form is viewed with hyper-clarity. A familiar plant is seen is if it has never been seen before. Ikebana is a very ancient example of the fact that we test the boundaries of reality through the hallucination. The familiar is estranged and never experienced in the same way again. We think we know what something looks like and we realize that we do not, because the shifting nature of the visual is due to the forces of context and distortion.
Sixties and seventies science fiction writers (Dick, Asimov, Lem,) as well as the Cyberpunk novelists were preoccupied with the idea of the robot or hologram that was so real that it became human. The more real, the more baffling and unidentifiable the simulacrum became. We are living in that future. This is the future where the reality of our perceptions is no longer an adequate testing ground for what is real.
The United States and Japan have become unlikely twins. Both countries complain about their weak economies while harboring lifestyles and habits of consumption that are unheard of in most of the world. Both countries are looking back to a past of accelerated economic growth and power, which is not unlike looking back at the prowess of youth when we reach a certain age. Both countries are obsessed with fictions, dreams, cartoons and hallucinations that they reify in the form of high-tech entertainment products. The steely work ethic of bygone times is infiltrated with escapist fantasies. America has its Hollywood and Japan has its Manga. Both countries incubated the seeds of their culture of hallucination during their periods of relentless growth so that in their declines they could enjoy it full blown like a post-coital cigarette.
The Catholic Church of the 16th and 17th centuries created imagery that encouraged the contemplation of the abstract through idealized yet familiar forms. 'Leave the body and its desires behind,' was the Church's message, as it financed the portrayal of voluptuous Marys and hunky St. Sebastians. The Buddhist and Shinto ways of life spawned a number of impossibly elegant art forms based on the control, distortion and admiration of nature. Aesthetic rapture is achieved through the contemplation of the hyper-real. This contemplation has as its goal the escape from the forces of desire; the lures and lies of what we mistakenly consider to be real. The real and the unreal hand in hand, pulling apart as they clasp together firmer and firmer.
Perhaps both cultures are seeking a final liberation from the physical. The final Out-of-Body experience is the ultimate moment when our heads swell up like balloons and float our minds away. What is that disembodied voice at the other end of the telephone? It floats in the void, it communicates outside the physical, and it is the Out-of-Body version of the self. If we could only be that voice to ourselves and loose the excess baggage we'd really be flying.