Credit (c) Ishimoto Yasuhiro, Interior of the Old Shoin Viewed from the East
The Portland Japanese Garden's
Katsura exhibition and The Ma of Modernism
offer a rewarding look at Japanese
architecture and form.
is one of those all time masterpieces of architecture, like
the Parthenon, St. Peter's Basilica or The Great Pyramid... its mere existence
conveys much more than a series of rooms and an exterior form. It's an embodiment
of an idealized worldview and therefore acts as a symbol of national identity that goes
way beyond individuals, becoming so emblematic that its reputation transcends
that culture. In fact, it so impressed the Bauhaus' Walter Gropius upon visiting
it that in many ways its design DNA can be found everywhere in high modernist
architecture. It has gone beyond architecture and become an idea. Yet, the palace
itself is more of an incidental jumble that conveys a sense of enduring imperial succession rather than Gropius's high modernist architectural
language. Lately, deconstructionist architects like Herzog & De Meuron
and Rem Koolhaas have made careers of this elegant type of structural dissonance.
credit (c) Ishimoto Yasuhiro, Moss Garden and Stepping Stones in front of the Middle Shoin
Master photographer Ishimoto Yasuhiro, a Japanese American who took up photography
while being held in an internment camp during WWII, found Katsura as a subject
just as incredibly loaded as his street photography. With the advent of the
cold war suddenly Modernism and Japan were key to Post WWII politics and Yasuhiro
found his voice in that discussion. In fact, the photos were originally commissioned
by The Museum of Modern Art and are related to other modernist photography like
and the modernist paintings of Hans Hoffman.
credit (c) Ishimoto Yasuhiro, Right to Left: Old Shoin, Middle Shoin and New Goten Viewed from the East
The Katsura Detached Palace is Shindin-Zukun
style (palace and garden
with the building as the focal point) and was originally constructed for holding
poetry readings and observing the moon during the tsukimi
the Heian period (710-1185). During this period gardens and their structures
shifted from being sites of religious focus to places of amusement, contemplation
and the arts. Also, the architecture is less about its interior than the way
it relates to the nature outside. In fact, the moon viewing platform is the
focal point around which the entire complex is constructed.
credit (c) Ishimoto Yasuhiro, Middle Shoin Right and the New Goten left Viewed from the East Veranda of the Music Room
What Yasuhiro grasps so well is the inherently poetic play of the structure
which is in itself a amalgamation of three separate structures whose divergent
details still act as a harmonious whole.
Installation view (photo Jeff Jahn)
Thus, despite being highly formal, like any building built for feudal court
life the structures convey an incidental ease. Yasuhiro grasped these concepts
incredibly well and his photos compositions make use of the cascading framing
devices in the palace. He captures the incredible lining and perspectives perfectly
in photographs like Interior of the Old Shoin, Viewed from the East
Main Room of the Old Shoin,Viewed from the North-east. Second Room in the
credit (c) Ishimoto Yasuhiro, Interior of the Shokatei Pavilion Preparation Space for the Tea Ceremony
What's more his photos always seem to highlight subtle changes in materials
and textures of the structure. Yasuhiro's photos are highly formal and the light
he captures is soft and diffuse... any streaks of sunlight as in Interior of
the Shokatatei Pavillion, Preparation Space for the Tea Ceremony
more like quiet guests, showing off Yasuhiro's abilities in the darkroom (akin
to the Tea Ceremony in its own ways).
Installation view of Part of the Formal Stone Pavement and Moss-grown Stone Near the Main Entrance of the Old Shoin
These are generally not very high contrast B&W photos and instead consist of
a soft diffuse cascade of shoji walls and support beams, which remind me somewhat
of Robert Irwin's scrim pieces. Yet these are different as the images constantly
shift from more documentary architectural shots to abstracted textural studies.
In fact the only prominent photographer who reminds me of this very refined
sort of macrocosm/microcosm work is Todd Eberle (whose Donald Judd and Cern
Large Hadron Collider images convey a similarly enlightened zen-like outlook).
credit (c) Ishimoto Yasuhiro Main Room Right and the Second Room Left of the Middle Shoin Viewed from the NE
The Japanese Garden can only show 25 of the 50 images at a time so it's worth
visiting this weekend then for a return visit next week when there will be another
batch on display. The exhibition pavilion itself is remarkable since Portland's
Japanese Garden is rightly considered one of the very best outside of Japan.
Placing images of a Japanese Garden within the pavilion of another Japanese
Garden turns out to be a surprisingly inspired idea. Thanks to The Japan Foundation
for bringing this to Portland.
Daniel Fagereng's Semi-Habitat (photo Jeff Jahn)
There is also an exhibition of Daniel Fagereng's the Ma of Modernsim box constructions
in the same space which enhances the exploration of Japanese style construction
and materials. Fagereng studied Nog mask carving in Kyoto and these poetic structures
have a lightness that remind me of the pavilion they are housed in as well as
the Detached Katsura Palace. Highlights by Fagereng include Semi-Habitat
Unfortunately many of these works though meant to be seen from two sides were
positioned against walls, as a group they show an intense familiarity for modern
Japanese living but are perhaps outclassed by the poetic images of the Katsura
Detached Palace, which is a living shrine... whereas Fagereng's boxes feel like
nostalgic mementos related to a tradition of craft and his time in Kyoto. I'd
like to see Fagereng's take on more present materials as the boxes show promise
but feel... just a bit too contained in size and ambition.
Overall the two shows have a nice symmetry and I like the non white box arrangement
of the exhibition and bucks the modernist-postmodern legacy of sterile spaces
with zero personality. It is also nice to have such a world class venue like
Portland's Japanese Garden doing significant contemporary and modern shows that
stretch their cultural mission. In many ways Portland's art scene is closer
to Asia than it is to New York (though it is a very small planet these days).
Through February 20th