29.3.10

Japan musings 2

It's interesting to look at one of the most famous Japanese prints made by the artist Hokusai, and here find relevance to the idea of the vacant center, which i referred to earlier.  The print i'm referring to is "The Great Wave":


Whats interesting for me about this image is the way the wave implies a circling of the mountain in the background (Mt. Fuji).  Its not a circle completed, but one implied, and it has an interesting relative in the 5 yen coin, where a rice shoot is shown to be bent in the wind, creating, or reinforcing, the vacant center.


And what is the "vacant" center in the print?  It is Mt. Fuji, the spiritual center of Japan, and perhaps its primary symbol.  This print verifies the central role a "Great Wave" has in the history and making of the Japanese nation, as i alluded to in the first post, but beyond this narrative, there is another layer of information contained in this print that alludes to the fundamental quality of Japanese being.  If one looks again at the print, Mt Fuji appears as any other mountain, but it differs greatly in its formality.  Mt Fuji is a volcano, and as such may be said to be "empty" in the sense that it is but a conduit for the molten center of our planet.  If one were to look down onto a volcano from above, Mt Fuji might appear as the coin does, with an empty center and full perimeter.  In this sense, a volcano is the ideal iconic image of the history and collective experience of Japan, as it is simultaneously at peace in its harmonious, singular composition, and menacing in its reality as a volcano.  It duels with itself in appearing to be central while simultaneously denying center, or rather presenting center as something empty, vacant.  Many of Japan's sensibilities and customs come from this tension between center and perimeter, order and disorder; where often the perimeter is activated by en emptied center, and as i'll later demonstrate, the appearance of "empty" is anything but.

Roland Barthes explored this notion in his musings about Japanese train stations, which in his mind were the genuine "centers" of Japanese cities, rather than the Town Halls, Squares, and civic buildings of western cities.  He noted that the train station, which was generally full of people and thus heavily populated, was in a constant state of flux between emptying and filling, much like a heart, filling with blood only to send it away.  This state of flux makes it a very unique kind of "center" as it is one that does not hold its contents, but expels them, both inward and outward.  It is a center that exists in and celebrates the moment, the moment of arrival and departure, rather than the passing of decades and centuries.  This celebration of the moment over what elsewhere might take the form of a collective salute to history is also a very Japanese notion, and not unrelated its inclination to reset its calendar, or design with an acknowledgement of disorder, upon the arrival of epic "moments".

18.3.10

Japan musings

For much of its history, Japan has been isolated from western influences, with the exception of 200 years between the 15th and 17th century, when the Portuguese "discovered" Japan. Japan closed this opening in 1639, and it wasn't to open again until the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1854. The result of this relative isolation is an incredible unity of thought and purpose that crosses all aspects of its culture, and which struck me dumb when i visited in the early 90's. i plan to ramble about many of the visual aspects that struck me, and no doubt you will recognize the thoughts of others, such as Bataille and Barthes, though i've forgotten which are the pillaged thoughts.

Japan is a "frame" culture, as can be said of American culture.  But the idea of frame in Japan is very different from that in the US. Whereas the American frame is one of extension and allowance, it doesn't deal well with disruption, and is averse to variation, though of course has had to allow for it. The American "frame", if one is to think in these terms, is also very "center" oriented; the Japanese frame not so.  The Japanese "frame" culture is one that celebrates the interruption of the frame, and relishes these interruptions as though works of art. As it must. For Japan exists in the ocean, at the edge of a tectonic plate, and so has a history pierced, and to a degree defined, by natural disasters in the form of earthquakes and typhoons. These cataclysmic events are not welcomed per se, after all they are cataclysms, but they have been "let in", and one could say the aesthetics of Japan are partially characterized by a "disaster mentality", a mentality that from a formal standpoint favors the perimeter over the center, and celebrates interruption of the standing order, the flecks of disorder. The traditional Japanese calendar, for example, is marked by eras, most of which are defined by the arrival of a new emperor, but some of these eras are defined by the occurrence of an earthquake or tsunami, at which, in one sense, the calendar is "reset", and a new era defined.  Thus a natural disaster, a disruption of the established order, is celebrated as the birth of something new, rather than the demise of the existing order.

From a formal standpoint, Japan is all perimeter. It is a number of islands with a variegated coastline and high, dense mountains. The "center" does not want to be occupied. And so most of the population has lived on or near the coastline, and the Japanese people have long favored fishing over agriculture and animal husbandry (fishing can be seen as the taking from without, farming as a taking from within, and so it involves a "reach", a distention from the self, the home). Even the production of rice, which is central to their diet, involves the creation of many small "seas", or paddy's, which i will discuss again later. This notion of favoring perimeter over center can be seen throughout Japanese culture, from the treatment of packages to the presentation of their food, and from their way of greeting to the way they build their temples.  It permeates everything, but this is not the most interesting feature of the Japanese "sense"; what is most interesting to me is the consistency of this feature as an aesthetic, as if it were a gene all Japanese are born with, a folklore passed on through generations, and the amazing ability of this aesthetic to extend throughout Japanese culture, from teenage fashion to fortress walls.



More to follow...

9.3.10

VW Bug

The VW Beetle is considered one of the great cars of all time, and the design an icon of automobile design. From a formal standpoint, it describes an almost primal arrangement that goes back to the origins of shelter: 4 corners (the wheels) describing a perimeter that shelters a center (the cabin). Of course, all cars have 4 wheels and a cabin, but the articulation of the wheels through the fenders in the Beetle, and the shape of the cabin reduce these forms to archetype. Its really beautiful in its simplicity.

When the new version of the VW Beetle came out in 1998, it jumped on the tendency of car designers of that period to ape an older design with a few tweaks for an "updated" look. The New Beetle was considered a success in terms of design, though maybe less so as an automobile. But i never liked it. There was something really clumsy about it and i could never put my finger on it until a few months ago (!). And no, i have no idea why it took me so long to discover what it was in that design that bugged me no pun there. i knew the new design was awkward/clumsy in a number of areas, but where it really fails is at the rear of the car. Here is the original:



Notice the flow of the roof line into the trunk, which acts to separate and define the cabin from the wheels. It flows, and is such a graceful line uniting the pieces into a whole.

Here is a view of the New Beetle. What a wretch. This is what happens when designers try to be too clever for their own good.



Notice how the flow of the roof line is interrupted by the fenders trying to unite themselves through a bent horizontal of sorts. This kind of interruption/distortion of the lines is typical of modern car design, where there is an obsession with "clever" lines that bend and connect in all directions, as if on a transformer toy. In this case, the fender line has disrupted the reading of the "4 corners" discussed earlier, a sad omission.

Of course, when you try to capture an aspect of the past by aping it, you are doomed to these kinds of comparisons, and are bound to fail (Mini aside). They should have gone the Golf route, creating a new design belonging to this age.

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