Every week we interns spend Mondays and Thursday afternoons talking with curators, taking field trips, etc. Yesterday we met the Curator of East Asian Art. She showed us three Japanese objects: a bowl for a tea ceremony, a writing box, and a scroll with silver cranes. I learned so much and was mesmerized by the Japanese aesthetic encapsulated in these three things. The curator, Felice, said that the participatory nature of Japanese art is what she loves so much; she finds it much harder to stand in awe in front of a huge painting than to handle a tea bowl or unroll a scroll. The Japanese make handling any of these objects an experience in itself, before you even begin to use them; they're all packaged in beautiful boxes tied with interesting knots, or wrapped in patterned fabrics that you unfold slowly...It's all about being involved in the moment, paying attention to and participating in every moment of unwrapping each object. Felice said she thinks the Japanese are so good at animation and film because they have the scroll experience: remembering what has been, attending to the present image, and also anticipating what is about to unfold.
Here is a [mediocre] photo of the box, made by Hon'ami Koetsu. Some of his works have been declared national treasures in Japan. This box is from the early 17th century, but when I first saw it I thought it looked shockingly modern - Art Deco, perhaps? It's lacquer on wood with mother-of-pearl inlay and lead. I wish this picture could give you a true sense of how beautiful it is. Inside there would have been brushes, ink, etc.These and other decorative arts objects are so interesting to me because I think they show the remarkable instinct mankind has to embellish our surroundings, our everyday implements. A box doesn't need to be anything more than a bottom and a lid to do its job; but Koetsu wanted it to be beautiful to look at, too. Windows only need to be panes of glass to keep weather out and let light in; yet people loved using colors and shapes to build stories into them. A plate just needs to be large enough to contain food and have a rim one can grip; but we want it to have a pleasing pattern or illustration, as well. We love beauty, we love to create, and it is not enough that our creativity extend only to paintings, drawings, sculptures, or performance. We want to experience beauty in the objects we live with. I don't know why but I find that wonderful and intriguing.