In the Eyes of the Spirit
The entrance to artist Nobuya Yamaguchi’s exhibition “In the Eyes of the Spirit” induces a sense of calm and wonder. Every so often one hears the soft chime of a bell, which grows louder over the course of one minute as the light brightens, and then gradually dims as the sound disappears. Silence returns to the space for the following minute, and then the cycle restarts. Positioned in the gallery space one alongside another are a number of sculptures composed of various materials. Most of the works are made of metal: rusted iron or stainless steel. Beside them are additional, ethereal works composed of Japanese paper. At first glance this combination of materials seems to create a stark contrast, yet an in-depth examination reveals that, from a conceptual viewpoint, the works are all intertwined – implicitly in some instances, and explicitly in others. Absence and presence come together in a compelling and intriguing manner.
Yamaguchi describes how the fragile Japanese paper is produced from fibers originating in the bark of the mulberry tree, and which are soaked in water in a manual, natural process. After they are dried, the fibers form a delicately textured sheet of paper. In contrast, when molding metal the artist uses flames to forge it and render it flexible, so that it can be shaped by means of a hammer. During one of my visits to his studio in Kibbutz Ein Carmel, he demonstrated the transformation of a metal sheet – a process he has been engaging in for the past four decades. He began working a small, cylindrical piece of metal, gradually softening it in the flames, hammering it in order to stretch it and manipulating it with various processes. The end result was the revelation of a new form, a stem with a leaf at its tip. At such moments, which wondrously materialize before the observing eye, the matter’s inner essence seems to be unveiled.
This process may call to mind the words of the artist and theorist Wassily Kandinsky: “Form, in the narrow sense, is nothing but the separating line between surfaces of color. That is its outer meaning. But it has also an inner meaning, of varying intensity, and, properly speaking, form is the outward expression of this inner meaning” 2 Kandinsky’s thought is part of a system of theoretical approaches to the deep spiritual dimension of art – a concern that is clearly also present, as I will describe below, in Yamaguchi’s work.
Nobuya Yamaguchi, who was born in Tokyo, immigrated to Israel at age 27. He established a family together with Shir Meller-Yamaguchi, the curator of the Wilfrid Israel Museum for Asian Art and Studies in Kibbutz Hazorea, and lives in the artists’ village Ein Hod. He began creating the works for the current exhibition prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and completed them in its course, as everyday existence underwent an unprecedented crisis worldwide. During this critical period, the artist’s mother passed away, yet due to the lockdown and related restrictions, he was unable to return to his homeland and accompany her on her last journey. The exhibition relates to the subject of death and departure from the body, as a stage in the cycle of life, seen through the eyes of the spirit and based on the belief that the soul does not perish, and is reincarnated in another body ready to receive it.
Belief in reincarnation is ancient and prevalent in many cultures, and especially so in the Far East. Yamaguchi was born into a Protestant family. His mother played the organ at church, and his father, a doctor, sang in the church choir. Later on in life, Yamaguchi chose to follow the path of Zen Buddhism. One of Buddhism’s many goals is to lead to the end of human suffering (“Samsara”) – not through divine intervention but through a process of enlightenment (“Satori”), thanks to the observation of the nature of the self. The experience of Satori is a turning point in human life – a spiritual revolution that transforms one’s character, and is accompanied by the understanding that one has returned home, to one’s true self.
The exhibition “In the Eyes of the Spirit,” like Yamaguchi’s earlier exhibitions, is based on his beliefs and his way of life. Zen Buddhism has led him to the understanding that his true home is within himself. The three sculptures placed in the gallery lobby – Empty House, Staircase to the Dream and Empty Piano – contain forms resembling houses, whose apertures invite viewers to glance inside. These houses, which are detached from any specific place, invite us, the viewers, to transport ourselves from the material realm, and pay attention to the dwelling of the spirit within us. The quest for one’s true home, which is not located in a defined place – neither in Japan nor in Israel – has led the artist to engage in a process of internal observation, while freeing himself of the attachment to a concrete, material home. These works are thus imbued with a belief in the home that exists within every human being. Their spiritual dimension is further reflected by the lighting: some of them contain a hollow human silhouette, reflecting an eternal cycle – birth, life, death and rebirth.
The work Ancient Soul, which is located in the central gallery space, is composed of a sheet of metal that was originally flat and square, before being softened and rounded by means of fire. At the center of the frame is a fetus, which appears to be growing and taking form in the uterus. As the artist states: “I believe that the soul encounters the body at the end of a journey composed of multiple stages. The layers visible within the metal frame allude to these stages. The fetus made of Japanese paper is naturally contracted, and his face is wrinkled like that of an old man.” The fetus’ umbilical cord is connected to the layers of metal, creating a connection between a vulnerable and a powerful entity. The work is illuminated by a light that comes from within, radiating from the interior outward, expressing the idea that light is the source of life. As the artist believes, life never ends. Zen Buddhism does not view incarnation as a goal in and of itself. Rather, rebirth is meant to endow humans with another opportunity to free their awareness of suffering and of the attachment to the “self” and to experience Nirvana – the state of consciousness enabling enlightenment, in which the soul is finally free of its incarnation in a physical body.
The work Inner Light – mentioned above – is based on an image of a monumental bell measuring two meters in height and 1.45 meters in diameter. Set into the bell is an aperture in the form of a human figure, from which light and sounds emerge in synchrony. The light gradually grows brighter, until a lit, elongated figure is reflected on the floor. In this manner, the work comes to contain two entities – one emerging out of the other. The light then gradually dims and vanishes, parallel to the slowly subsiding chime of the bell. This work compels us to look into the space of the empty bell, to enter the dark void, experience it, and reveal a new and different meaning within it.
Emptiness has been given various expressions in Zen Buddhist culture. As the architect Isozaki Arata writes in the poem “Ma,” which speaks of the Zen garden Ryoanji: “The garden is the medium / of observation / attend to the empty space / listen to the still voice / imagine the void being filled.” In the Japanese home, “ma” exists as both an actual and a philosophical space; in painting, “ma” is the empty space that enables the ink, with its various shades, to stand out; in poetry, “ma” is what remains unsaid; in theater, “ma” is the untaken action, and so forth. “Ma” is closest to the idea of emptiness, or more precisely to the description of the mutual dependency between emptiness and form.
Yamaguchi shares his experiences of listening to chiming bells, as well as to silence: “In my youth I worked in a bronze foundry, where monastery bells were made. I always wanted to understand the source of that powerful sound, which can be heard from afar. How is that sound created? It made me think of the space itself, of the silence between the deep, resonant sounds that reminds us to return home, to the self. Tokyo, the city where I grew up, is busy and crowded. Yet sometimes, hearing the bells tolling in the temples, I felt that I could rest on the waves created by their echo, and enter another reality, in which time was infinite and immeasurable.”
The installation Inner Home, which is displayed in the smaller gallery space, is composed of a series of layered sheets of paper, whose center contains an aperture in the form of a diminishing figure. It is reminiscent of the figure in the work Inner Light, yet the effect is different. We are accustomed to seeing reality as it is perceived by our senses and to relate to what is visible to the eye, yet due to the influx of information, we are unable to observe the empty space that remains invisible. Here, the figure’s dimensions are reduced, as if it were returning to the point of origin where it was born. Two hollow tubes are connected to the sides of the first sheet of paper, and the viewer is invited to strike them and listen to the resonating sound, which gradually subsides. The delicate sound, like the light, spreads through the empty space, and is not limited like matter or form. One can note the concept of “ma” as relating to the empty space between the layers of paper, and to the deep silence between the sounds, which viewers are invited to contemplate. In this context, one can also call to mind earlier works by other artists which invited the audience to listen to the silence, such as composer John Cage’s well-known “Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds” (1952), in the course of which no sounds emanate from instruments, in an attempt to encourage attention to inner experience, in contrast to the constant noise of life.
The work Ascension features a flock of copper birds covered in a patina – a thin green layer formed over time on metal surfaces. The birds are suspended from the ceiling, alighting from a copper half-dome that is illuminated from within. The light underscores the emptiness left behind when embarking on a journey towards the unknown.
Identifiable in the space left behind by the birds is a layer of salt, perceived as having a purifying power in Japanese culture. So, for instance, in Sumo – a Japanese martial art in which two heavy wrestlers combat each other – salt is thrown into the air prior to the match, as part of a ritual meant to purify the ring. Another ancient custom involves throwing salt on a person returning from a funeral.
In the work Release, a figure appears to be floating out of a polished sheet of stainless steel. Light emanates out of the narrow gap between the figure and the surface, so that it is surrounded by an illuminated frame resembling a halo. The gleaming steel resembles a polished mirror, in stark contrast to the rusty metal of which the other sculptures are composed. Thematically, this work is similarly related to the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. The floating figure appears to be simultaneously in the process of being born and of disappearing, weightless and freed from her body. As Yamaguchi recounts: “My mother, who had been hospitalized many years before her death, lay in a metal bed, unable to move. The sense that she had been freed of her body accompanied me in this work.” The other works in the exhibition are similarly related to Yamaguchi’s life story. This is, in fact, a visual autobiography, transmitted by the artist with the modesty and aesthetic precision that characterize his work. In this context he treats his mother’s death as a natural stage in the cycle leading to reincarnation. Another example of a loss related to the creation of this series of works is the fire that broke out in Ein Hod in 1998, destroying the artist’s home and leaving the surrounding natural environment scorched and blackened. Yamaguchi used pieces of carbonized wood that survived the fire, combining them with forged metal. The combination of contrasts – creation and destruction, revelation and concealment – was given expression in a series of works presented in 2011 in the exhibition “Inner Fire” (Yechiel Nahari Museum of Far Eastern Art, Ramat Gan, curator: Oded Avramovsky). As Shir Meller-Yamaguchi wrote in the exhibition catalogue: “With the arrival of the first rains, the first blossom appeared in the space left behind by a black tree stump, and the earth was covered in a fresh carpet of green. The rapid recovery of nature revealed that the force of life, with all of its power, awaits beneath the surface of the earth. The understanding that the fire was not the end, but part of the natural cycle of life, also influenced Yamaguchi’s treatment of the material.”