For those of you who don’t know him, “Wil from Japan” (as he is known throughout the English-speaking suiseki world) is an American who lives and works in Japan and is a director of the Nippon Suiseki Association. Besides helping English speakers communicate with the Japanese suiseki community, he has also provided the English translation for various publications, including “An Introduction to Suiseki” by Mr. Arishige Matsuura and the catalogs from the annual Japan Suiseki Exhibition.
Wil has published several articles in the newsletter of California Aiseki Kai (our sister club in southern California). Both Wil and Nina Ragle, the editor of the California Aiseki Kai newsletter, have very kindly given me permission to republish here the most recent one from the March 2015 issue. (For more information about California Aiseki Kai, please visit their website at http://aisekikai.com/. You will find an archive of all their past newsletters as well as information concerning membership).
What follows is Wil’s article:
Thanks to the enthusiastic response to last year’s inaugural Japan Suiseki Exhibition, the Nippon Suiseki Association began preparations for the second installment of the show with renewed energy this year. Staged alongside the world—renowned Kokufu bonsai exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, the show attracted more visitors than anticipated, and this year was a repeat performance, with large crowds every day.
Before commenting on some of the individual exhibits, I would like to take this opportunity to address a couple of questions that have been posed about the show. The first is its rather simple name, the translation of which is more difficult than one might expect. The Japanese title could be rendered in English as “The Suiseki Exhibition of Japan,” which implies that there is only one show in the entire country, or alternatively, it could be taken to mean “The Exhibition of Japanese Suiseki,” which may be appropriate for an exhibition of Japanese stones only, but does not accurately reflect the content of the show. For these reasons, translating it literally, if somewhat clumsily, as “The Japan Suiseki Exhibition,” was thought best.
The idea of content brings us to the second point: Is the exhibition limited to Japanese stones only? For the first installment of the show it was thought ideal to focus on Japanese stones as a way of introducing the average Japanese museum-goer to a wide variety of domestic material, showcasing the tradition of suiseki in its original form. It was decided that from the second show onward, however, stones from around the world would be accepted for display, in an effort to strengthen the bonds between the NSA and enthusiasts outside of Japan. This year, stones from Europe, the United States, and three Asian countries are displayed alongside their Japanese counterparts, giving the show a greater international presence, which will hopefully develop further in the years to come.
Next, a few questions made it clear that people need to rethink what they mistakenly consider to be the steadfast “rules” of tokonoma display and suiban usage. The show is in February, yet there are autumn tokonoma displays (and spring and summer for that matter). Matsuura’s 2010 An Introduction to Suiseki clearly states that suiban are not to be used in winter, yet there are many suiban being used. Are these contradictions? Are different people following different rules? No, and no. The answer lies in contextualizing these guidelines, understanding how they came to be in the first place, and recognizing the different objectives at play. The tokonoma is an intimate, private space in which people display art objects or family heirlooms for their own enjoyment, or for the viewing pleasure of specially invited guests, particularly in the case of the tea ceremony. In the privacy of one’s own home displays are rotated in accordance with seasonal changes and special occasions, and certain tendencies — such as preferring the “warm” feel of wood over the “cold” feel of ceramics in winter — begin to emerge. Over time, these tendencies became common practice, and rather than codified rules, have been generally accepted as common sense norms. Different schools of tea may in fact establish strict sets of rules to distinguish their style from others, but no such rigid code has ever been fixed or accepted nationwide in Japan as “the” way of doing suiseki. (Ed Note: Please see Wil’s previous articles published by California Aiseki Kai in their July, August, October and November 2009 Newsletters.)
The concept of annually hosting a public exhibition in a museum is very far removed from that of creating private displays in one’s own home. Imagine if year after year as this exhibition series continues into the future, nothing but winter tokonoma displays were ever allowed because it is scheduled alongside the Kokufu in February, and no suiban were ever allowed because of the cold feel of the ceramics. This, while adhering to certain norms that came into being in a completely different context, would utterly defeat the purpose of such an exhibition, which is to showcase the rich cultural breadth of stone appreciation and the variety of forms it may take. To have displays of all seasons not only eliminates the inevitable monotony of a one—season show (year after year), but also exposes visitors to the full potential that stones have to evoke natural scenes throughout all of the seasons. To use suiban in these displays maximizes the expressive power of exhibitors, and demonstrates a fundamental aspect of suiseki appreciation. A large—scale exhibition of suiseki without a single suiban is simply unthinkable. Exhibitions such as this are meant to be as educational as they are aesthetic, and after having taken in the full range of what suiseki has to offer, visitors can then go home with what they’ve learned and venture forth with their own practice, incorporating any new ideas they may have picked up along the way.
Lastly is the question of accent plants. To date, NSA shows have always featured accent plants to bring life to the exhibits, yet many visitors to last year’s show were understandably disappointed to see this fascinating aspect of display absent. And why are all of the suiban dry? Normally, staff are present to regularly water the stones shown in suiban, yet at this show there are none. Unfortunately, museum rules have it that in the gallery where the exhibition takes place, no water can be used. In fact, apart from the basement space where the Kokufu is held, water is prohibited from use in all galleries of the museum. A suiseki exhibition without water seems a great irony considering the origins of the word, but as the NSA develops a history of responsibly using the space and with a bit of careful negotiation, it is hoped that this can be changed in the future.
It is the sincere hope of the NSA that, if nothing else, both visitors to the exhibition and those who can only enjoy it vicariously via the catalogue, come away inspired and encouraged to learn and explore further.
The following gallery of photos from Wil shows a variety of stones exhibited at the 2015 exhibit. Please click on any photo below to view a slideshow complete with Wil’s insightful commentary.