Rewriting the Canvas of Tradition

The
Art of Masako Takahashi

Each library is a type of Tower of Babel: the literary traditions, the languages, the images generated by diverse cultures of the world are intermingled on the shelves where the books are squeezed together. In between the Babel of the high bookshelves in the library of the Instituto de Artes Graficas de Oaxaca, on the reading tables, the artist Masako Takahashi displays before me, silently, a series of text written on silk canvases, which speak from a writing and language invented by her.

This tongue, and the alphabet she has configured on precious fabrics from India, Thailand and Japan, gives form to a language that to be written requires a needle instead of a pen, a paint brush or a pencil, embroidered writing which uses hair instead of thread. It is about a language that is read but not pronounced, that when it’s read, it is felt but which does not enclose a precise and closed significance. Each word is new; each paragraph is conformed by ideas or “phrases” which had never before been registered.

The idiomatic rules are as simple as the elegant esthetic on display: The only “grammatical” rule is that the terms be written with regular sized letters and that each word has the extension reached by embroidering one hair. So that the writing does not become disordered, the creator follows the subtle lines, which appear on the surface weave of the fabric. It is about a purely expressive language, not preoccupied with absolute signifiers and sentences.

It would seem then the language created by Masako is related to Taoism, the philosophical current in which Lao Tse affirmed that only in emptiness resides the truly essential. The writer Kokuso Okakura, in his celebrated and aromatic defense of Japanese tradition titled The Book of Tea, summarized Lao Tse’s statement about emptiness: “You will find, for example, the reality of a room, not in the ceiling and the walls, but in the space that these entities delimit. The usefulness of a pitcher resides in the hollowness that contains the water, not in the form of the vessel or the clay with which the ceramist modeled it.

Emptiness is powerful, because it can enclose everything. Only in emptiness is movement possible. “That person who would be able to open herself to the point where everyone could fit and enter, would be the lord of all the situations.” In this way Masako, by spelling the world with an inexistent language, empty of significances, would be opening up her letters to all the languages in all the existent universe, given that her “ideograms” would no more desire than to suggest, and the reader be open to interpret or find the ideas he would like, that is, his own imagination discreetly pulled by the thread of the artists’ hairs.

It is inevitable not to stretch ones hand and caress between ones fingertips those precious Asian silks which serve as support to Masako’s artistic proposals, and while the texture of a pistachio green sheet slips through my fingertips, I think that the artist, born in the United States of Japanese parents, has created her work on these silks to have a thread with her cultural origins. What other material, if not silk, makes us immediately think of classic China or Japan? Masako has decided to develop her creative proposal on the canvas of tradition, even though her works are completely contemporary, because by using her own hair as her primary material, her works relate with body art and with dozens of contemporary artists, specially women but also some men, as ceramist and sculptor Gerardo Azcunaga, who have made hair part of their artistic language.

Returning to the bridge Masako traces to her Japanese roots, one is reminded that the literature of Japan had as a first figure the writer Lady Murasaki Shikibu (end of the tenth century beginning of the eleventh century). History tells us that during those years the monks, diplomats, philosophers and scientists wrote in Chinese, because it was considered in bad taste to write in Japanese. The monk, Kukai, had already invented the characters for Kana (Japanese writing) to express himself in Japanese, and the women of the court used them to write their messages. Murasaki Shikibu was born in AD 978, an era in when women did not receive a cultured education. But she remained in the room during her brother’s lessons, and she learned quickly.

Widowed at a young age, she was sent to serve the Empress Akiko. Living as a prisoner of the courtesan world, she collected minute details of the life of the royalty until she decided to write the novel Genji Monogatari (in English, The Tales of Genji). In it, she relates the amorous adventures of the hereditary prince. The book formed the foundation of Japanese written literature, and is also fundamental to the history of traditional Japanese attire, given that thanks to her prodigious recording of ceremonial details and references we know the manners of dressing used in certain rituals of the times, and which dresses were used during what occasions or seasons of the year (then, as now, in Asia, the textile arts were valued as highly as any other art form).

The reference to Genji Monogatari weaves the relationship between silks and the narrations of the literary mother of Japan. If I have extended myself in the passionate personality of this ancient woman, it’s to dramatize the bond with Masako’s work. She too practices a foundational writing, a unique visual literature on the silky fragments of vintage kimonos gathered during her travels. Yes, not all of Masako’s “writings” have been embroidered on Japanese silks, but that is what makes her creative language a contemporary expression, because if her art looks at tradition, it is the vast and varied Asian tradition, and her link is also with Hindu, Thai, and Korean women as well as her Japanese grandmothers. A woman of the past wouldn’t have this international vision and would not have been able to travel as extensively as Masako Takahashi.

In the illustrations inspired by the Genji Monogatari a century after it was written, the women in the story and the image of the author, are depicted dressed in beautiful multicolored garments, and all have long loose hair. It seems they belong to a generation before women acquired the fashion of complex hairdos kept in place by ornamental combs and elaborated sticks. Observing the fine paintings, one thinks about Masako’s hair. This woman’s patient care of her long hair is an indisputable connection with the traditional world, and it also constitutes an inextricable part of her creative process. For Masako to brush her hair represents carding her threads. The hairs which fall from her head and are entangled in the brush or comb, will carefully be separated to then enter the eye of the needle and then to write, becoming entangled in the silk.

If I have written about the links between Masako and tradition, I also want to sketch what the essence of her embroidery suggests to me. I wouldn’t want to finish this text without referring to specific works of the exhibition. I’d like to mention the circle with cuneiform marks the artist sewed on flesh colored silk. There, the end of the hairs have been left loose, in such a way that the perimeter of the circle vibrates and so too its inside, truly generating a star, a palpitating sun on the fabric.

And I want to refer to a work that the artist was making when the ominous tragedy of the twin towers in New York happened, which signaled the beginning of a ballistic decadence which has not ceased. The work is divided in two parts, in this work Masako decided to include the red hair of a friend to dramatically accentuate the change that occurred on September 11th of that year. The major section, embroidered during the earlier months of that year with her own long black hair, was written with very straight characters in rectangular paragraphs. The lower section, traced in red, was written closer in a style to hand writing, as if the artist felt the need to loosen her style, to turn it less rigid to be able to speak from undulations of pain.

I wanted to refer to these two works to emphasize how the artist takes advantage of her medium, always respecting the visual and tactile qualities of the silk supports. The fabric of the back of a kimono is always in touch with the loose hair of the woman who wears it, and Masako with her poetry has taken this relationship to its extreme, into weaving both materials. I cannot help but imagine the artist in the night of her bedroom, vigorously brushing her hair in the penumbra in front of a mirror, searching in silence for the matter and form of her next embroidery, while sparks fly out of her hair.

Fernando Galvez de Aguinaga
Director, Graphic Arts Institute of Oaxaca/Instituto de Artes Graficas de Oaxaca (IAGO)

Translation: Adriana Larios