Five Thoughts on the Sculptures of Nobuya Yamaguchi

By Oded Avramovsky

“And they beat their swords into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4)
For over seven hundred years, from the beginning of the Kamakura period (1185-1333) until the end of the Edo (1603-1868), the Samurai class ruled Japan. Of central import to the samurai warrior was the sword, called the “warrior’s spirit.” Sword makers were considered artists, and from the beginning of the tenth century it was customary for the sword maker to add his signature to the sword handle. During the process of forging the blade the smith hammers and folds the steel thousands of times, with the resulting blade made of innumerable layers of fine steel. The swords were decorated with breathtaking designs, either by the technique of hammering or gold, silver and copper inlay. In 1876, with the end of Samurai rule and the return of the emperor to the throne, a decree was issued forbidding the carrying or creating of samurai swords. Sword-makers were forced to find new avenues for their art and, in the spirit of the verse from Isaiah, “And they beat their swords into plowshares,” they began creating beautiful decorative steel utensils. Nobuya Yamaguchi, it seems, follows in the footsteps of those Japanese metal smiths. Through the banging of hammer onto metal he succeeds in turning crude iron into a shining drop, into movement, into music.

Wabi Sabi
The literal translation of the Japanese term “wabi” is loneliness, sadness or simplicity. The meaning of “sabi” is wear that comes with age, rust or gauntness. The two words combined, “wabi-sabi,” is an intentionally ambiguous term difficult to translate into words. It means something that is roughened, not perfect, simple, old, transient – materially as well as spiritually. For example, the lip of a tea cup that is not perfectly rounded and slightly imperfect; the autumn leaves; a damp wall; a rusted iron plate; a charred tree branch; an iron sculpture standing in a garden in the rain and in the sun. Wabi-sabi can be compared to modernism. Both concepts came about as a reaction to the dominant aesthetic sense of the times. Wabi-sabi came about in Japan in the sixteenth century as a reaction to the dominant Chinese aesthetic of perfection and opulence.] Modernism was a reaction to the Neo-classical aesthetic that dominated Western culture in the nineteenth century. Wabi-sabi and modernism emphasize simplicity, the temporal, avoidance of the overly ornate. They refer to the spirituality that is inherent in things. The combination of the two concepts, the aesthetics of east and west exist together in Nobuya Yamaguchi’s metal sculptures.

The Japanese word “ma,” which originally referred to the distance between two pillars, has developed into a central concept in the Zen Buddhism theory of beauty. As opposed to the Western approach, which focuses on the object, the concept of “ma” gives equal importance to objects and to the space between the objects. Ma demarcates a vacuum, a space between objects, or an empty place. Ma is not an absence or just plain emptiness, but is something that is present and a bearer of meaning. Ma marks the space between the walls of a room, the silence between sentences, the distance between the stepping stones in a tea garden, the blank space on a page of calligraphy, which is no less important than the brushstroke. Ma is the space between the steel butterfly and the charred branches on a rusted iron surface. Ma is the iron surface. Ma is the space between the sculptures presented in this exhibition.

David Smith
The American sculptor David Smith (1906-1965), is considered the most influential metal sculptor of the twentieth century. As a young boy, Smith, the son of an engineer, was especially attracted to trains and train tracks. At the age of nineteen he began working as a welder in an automobile factory. His first sculptures were influenced by the assemblage works of Pablo Picasso and Julio Gonzales. David Smith was the first sculptor to work with iron in its industrial form. He saw in the iron not only an expression of the urban and industrial character of modern society but also beauty and a unique poetry of sorts: “Nothing is so impersonal, hard and cold as straight rolling-mill stock. If it is standing or kicking around, it becomes personal and fits into visionary use. With possession and acquaintance, a fluidity develops which was not there the day it was unloaded from Ryersons’ truck ” (Arts, 1960). David Smith was killed in a road accident at the age of fifty-nine. His last series of sculptures is entitled “Cubi.” In this series made out of stainless steel, he sought to study the integration of shiny metal sculptures in open landscape. One of the sculptures is exhibited in the Israel Museum’s sculpture garden, which was designed by the Japanese artist Isamo Noguchi (1904-1988).

Charred Trees
In 1998 a fire broke out in the Carmel forest. A strong easterly wind fanned the flames, which quickly spread toward the artists’ village of Ein Hod. Nobuya Yamaguchi’s home situated on the southern slope of the village was burned to the ground. I met Nobuya Yamaguchi at his home in 2010. The entire house, rebuilt in a unique Japanese style, was surrounded by new trees which had taken root in the charred ground. The charred tree symbolizes the end of life in Yamaguchi’s works. It contrasts to the shiny stainless steel, which symbolizes the existence of life. The combination of the two symbolizes the unity within the circle of life, the union of life and death. The charcoal – the burnt tree in its processed form – is considered a miraculous substance in many cultures. Charcoal enabled the use of metals, fostering the development of society and industry. Charcoal symbolizes acceptance and personal sacrifice (it destroys itself for the benefit of the other). In Japan, charcoal is an important part of the traditional tea ceremony as well as of the calligraphic arts (the ink is made out of charcoal). Charcoal is an important component in the compound of iron and aids in melting and casting it. The charred tree and the iron, like cause and effect, like a master and his creation, are joined together in the sculptures of Nobuya Yamaguchi.