June 4, 2012  |  Behind the Scenes, Intern Chronicles
Music as Weather: Reflections on a Journey East

Sitting before a large glass window at Narita International Airport, en route back home to New York, I contemplated endings. For the past two weeks I had been traveling across Japan on a travel grant, researching Japanese performance and print culture from the historical avant-garde to the contemporary. I packed my days visiting artists’ studios, galleries, museums, bookstores, and workshops, all the while enjoying the country’s daily graces, from fresh fish to meditation. Newly awakened by the journey and not yet ready to depart, I chose to spend my last hour across the Pacific intently observing the drift of clouds instead of flipping through photos or staring down the clock.

John Cage in conversation with Daisetz Suzuki. Image courtesy of the John Cage Trust

In retrospect, I attribute this shift in attention to the writings of composer John Cage that I had read some weeks earlier while preparing for my trip. In his Autobiographical Statement from 1990, Cage reflected on a formative transition in his career, when he decided “to move from structure to process, from music as an object having parts, to music without beginning, middle, or end, music as weather.” Informed by his interest in Zen and studies under Daisetz Suzuki, a Japanese scholar of East Asian philosophy, the statement reflects Cage’s proclivity towards chance, asymmetry, and methodological repetition in his compositions. I found these words and Cage’s greater pursuit to integrate art and life inspiring. Could staring at the clouds for one hour, I wondered, be my own humble score to bid farewell to the East?

Installation view of Ay-O: Over the Rainbow Once More at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo. Image courtesy of Eiji Ina

Cage’s influence is far-reaching, and I am honored to have had the opportunity to meet two renowned Fluxus artists during my travels whose works claim affinity with his own. At The Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, I visited the major retrospective of Ay-O, Ay-O: Over the Rainbow Once More and met with curator Mihoko Nishikawa and Ay-O to discuss the show and some of the artist’s works held in the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection at MoMA. The retrospective showcased 362 works from Ay-O’s oeuvre, ranging from his early Fernand Léger-like paintings of figures in rural post-war Japan to his 1960s environments, events, and tactile multiples made alongside Fluxus artists in New York to his most recent interdisciplinary explorations of the rainbow spectrum.

One unique room in the exhibition served as an installation as well as a ground for weekly performative engagements by the artist throughout the run of the show. Suspended at the center of the space was a 300-meter rainbow banner, which in 1987 hung for three days from the Eiffel tower, around which lay 150 found objects painted in the colors of the rainbow. Part of a series entitled Myth of Sisyphus, Ay-O repeatedly arranges the objects into new shapes and relations, equating his artistic practice to that of Sisyphus, the king from Greek mythology who endlessly rolled a boulder uphill only to have it roll back down again by its own weight.

From left: Ay-O and I being tourists in his Rainbow Environment No. 1 (1964) at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; Ay-O observing his audience during his final performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo on May 6, 2012

On the last day of the show, I was fortunate to attend a two-hour performance related to this series, in which he playfully called upon members of the audience to reposition an object on the floor. Directed by whim, chance, and revision the performance revealed the artist’s aversion to endings, not just of this installation, but of his own life and career as well. Ay-O’s retrospective was of a different sort than that of Maurizio Cattelan: All held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum last winter, which coincided with the artist’s proclaimed retirement from art making.

A few days later, I traveled south with my friend and colleague Lotte Johnson, where we met composer and visual artist Mieko Shiomi at her home in Osaka. In a room overlooking her beautiful garden, we discussed Shiomi’s recent projects, her artistic process, and her admiration of nature. While still asserting her adherence to formal structure, the music Shiomi produces as a Fluxus artist emerges from simple actions like tossing keys. Shiomi told us that to perform her seminal Disappearing Music for Face, a piece whose score reads “change gradually from smile to no smile,” it is best to do so joyfully, while observing the gradual decline of the sun. Like Cage, Shiomi finds inspiration from nature’s own processes, and just as the sun continues to rise and fall each day in an endless cycle, so too is the artist content to re-perform her scores.

Outdoor installation of Magazine Library in Nakameguro, Tokyo

Back in Tokyo, acts of wandering were met with great rewards as I stumbled upon the 10th edition of Magazine Library, a mobile exhibition and reading commons that showcases magazines and independent publications from over 50 countries. I was lured into the festival through its partial outdoor installation of pedestals that intersect with well-traveled streets in the hip neighborhood of Nakameguro. At Magazine Library I attended a city reporting workshop led by designer Luis Mendo, where I met a handful of individuals interested in mapping their own poetic engagement with the city. Among the group were the editors of TOO MUCH, a new Tokyo-based magazine of romantic geography, published in English and Japanese. I picked up a copy of the first issue at Utrecht, a small, attic-like bookstore in nearby Omotesando that presents a thoughtful selection of artist books and self-published magazines.

Installation view of exhibition photographs by Chihiro Manato, Mind the ‘Ma’, at Kurenboh. Image courtesy of Akiyoshi Taniguchi

A more intimate atmosphere is found at Kurenboh, a meditation gallery attached to the Chohouin Buddhist Temple in Kuramae, run by priest and curator Akiyoshi Taniguchi. Modeled on traditional Japanese tea ceremony rooms, the space is intimately minimal: the door is as high as your navel; all corners are round; and the ceiling, walls, and floor are painted a pristine white. Entering Kurenboh is like falling into a hush of thick fog in which we lose track of time, encounter images, and return attention back to ourselves. It may be some time before I make my way back to this place, but my collective experience in Japan has inspired me to revisit my journey from whatever point on the map I may be. The sky, after all, is always in reach.