The creative and philosophical mode known as Utsushi is not easily explained in Japanese. Artist Tabaimo grew up with a master of the Utsushi tradition, her own mother, Tabata Shion. In spite of that, Tabaimo herself struggled for a very long time to understand the idea. She was, in fact, opposed to it for many years.
An uninitiated American viewer will not get clear answers about this artistic tradition from her solo exhibit at Seattle Asian Art Museum, Utsutsushi Utsushi. Tabaimo herself says that she is not convinced that the works there accurately reflect the tradition. They may be something else entirely, and it is up to viewers to determine for themselves.
Most viewers will not form an opinion, in part because they will lack context and authority on the matter, but mostly because the experience is more interesting than the judgment. The works of Utsutsushi Utsushi are as dense as they are diverse and immersive. They are a window into Japanese culture (both contemporary and traditional). But it’s dark on the other side of that window. You really have to press yourself against it to see through. Rather than seeing through, one is more likely to see a dim reflection of modernity as a whole.
That idea of a split vision pervades Tabaimo’s work: interior and exterior; past and present; idea and reality; essence and descent; light and falling shadows. One cannot simply speak of the work in binaries, though, because what is interesting is not the opposing qualities. It is the dynamics that occur between the binaries as we experience them.
Hence, certain motifs may be consistent in Utsutsushi Utsushi, but thematically the individual works are very different. That said, it is worth providing a little context for the original Utsushi tradition, as they share this as a point of origin.
What is Utsushi?
Utsushi is impossible to translate in a single English phrase or word. The wall texts at SAAM include a few possible translations, which are then tossed aside as inadequate. I am not sure if this strategy confuses or clarifies the matter.
The actual physical examples of Utsushi at the entrance to Utsutsushi Utsushi are more instructive. In a vitrine, one sees square cake plates created by Tabata Shion in the 21st century and Ogata Kenzan in the early 18th century. They are almost identical in design and execution. Tabata’s works are pristine examples of Utsushi.
An Utsushi art object is not a reproduction, though it may look almost identical. It is not entirely appropriate to even think of the earlier work as an “original.” There is a keen awareness that the objects are temporally and materially distinct, despite their surface similarities. The point is not a progression of time, but a flattening of it, a crossing of it through the creative act.
This more cyclical view of time is just one of the challenging aspects of Utsushi philosophy that western audiences face. As daily life is more focused on an incremental, linear, machine-based view of time, this idea of crossing time might appear frivolous or romantic. It is, however, much more in line with our experience of the natural world, which is so central to Japanese art, aesthetics and cultural festivals.
Furthermore, this repetition of forms is impossible to reconcile with a late-consumer pursuit of novelty and “authenticity.” (The latter is in quotes because it is constantly pursued and referenced as a value, but its signifiers are increasingly arbitrary.) Utsushi‘s pursuit is more toward an essence, the meditation on pure forms and phenomena experienced and then rendered by the human hand. Its practice is more akin to ritual, however personal.
What is Utsutsushi?
Tabaimo coined the word Utsutsushi by fusing Utsushi with another Japanese word, Utsutsu (現) meaning “reality” or “consciousness.” The neologism has a dual active and passive meaning: the gerund “making Utsushi” and the perfect passive “having been made Utsushi.” Hence, it applies simultaneously to the creator and the created. And given what we have just clarified about the process of making Utsushi (its timeless, ritualistic, cyclical quality), this makes perfect sense. The creator and the object are mutually altered.
Tabaimo has a deep, intuitive grasp of what Utsushi is, and her exhibition does an amazing job of bringing viewers into the essence of it. That said, one can still debate whether or not her works qualify as Utsushi. In many ways they are totally opposite the traditional view. The Utsushi tradition was centered in the ceramic arts, but not exclusively. The objects are small, static, specific. Meanwhile, Tabaimo’s works are immersive, animated and ambiguous.
A pair of 16th century Chinese cabinets provide the basis for the first installation in the exhibit, Two. I think this is also Tabaimo’s most literal application of Utsushi tradition. The cabinets stand against a scrim and are lit from the front. On the opposite side of the scrim, inside the long silhouette of the physical cabinets, an animation is projected. In the animation, the two cabinets are shown opening and closing, revealing a changing environment inside each. Though they originally held scrolls and books, Tabaimo fills them with other things. Linens moves in ghostly swirls. A door closes, and when it reopens it reveals a full-sized room, with another door ajar at the back.
In museums, exquisite furnishings like this are often admired for their craftsmanship and the preciousness of their materials. What is lost is the personal history of the things. Tabaimo can’t restore or retell their literal history. Instead, she unearths their essential “cabinetness”—their practical function, the binary of fullness and emptiness, and of course inside and outside.
The collapse of time in Tabaimo’s work makes it theoretically in sympathy with Utsushi, but the resulting objects are much too idiosyncratic and specific to the maker to be true Utsushi. That physicality matters to both the audience and the creator. It fundamentally shapes the process of making and viewing. We don’t need to bend the definition of Utsushi to include anything that agrees philosophically. Tabaimo’s work loses nothing by not being categorized Utsushi.
What is it?
I think Tabaimo already coined the perfect phrase for what her work is and does. It’s Utsutsushi. It shares the philosophical awareness of Utsushi, how it crosses time and subverts claims to a singular reality (or originality). But the passive Utsushi object quietly awaits the artist and viewer. Tabaimo’s immersive surrealism actively tests our assumptions and unmoors our perceptions.
There is also timely commentary in Tabaimo’s work, which sets it apart from more timeless Utsushi. The feminine experience, power and shadow is prevalent here. It is explicit in the shadow of a smoking woman in her installation The Obscuring Moon, whose setting derives from Hiroshige’s Ukiyo-e print, “Moon Cape.” The commentary is even more explicit in her room-sized installation, public conVENience, which immerses one in a public women’s lavatory with a lot of strange happenings.
Tabaimo’s work rebels quietly against assertions of ownership and control. For instance, two hanging scrolls from the 19th century show dozens of butterflies and dragonflies painted exquisitely. Many artists contributed to each scroll and each signed his name to it. (Yes, his.) In Tabaimo’s Utsutsushi, a digital rendering of the scrolls, the names are omitted and the individual specimens slowly come to life and flutter off, in a sense free of their captors.
But we hit peak Utsutsushi in Tabaimo’s work, aitaisei-josei, which is inspired by two stories: the puppet theatre play, The Love Suicide at Sonezaki (from the 1700s) and Shuichi Yoshida’s 2007 novel Villain. The central women in these narratives are separated by centuries, but Tabaimo noted that had they lived in the same time period, their lives would have been very similar. The resulting installation places one in a contemporary apartment, where the evidence of human activity comes and goes, bodiless and eerie, sometimes even sinister.
Instead of objects reflecting a connection between artists across centuries (Utsushi), we see the connection between two women across centuries. As they are both fictional figures, they are in themselves artworks. Tabaimo’s intervention makes them Utsushi to each other, and thus Tabaimo’s work is, again, Utsutsushi.
Whatever you want to call it, Tabaimo’s work is worth seeing for its fundamental empathy, playfulness and curiosity. You might spend just an hour in the galleries, but you’ll cross centuries.
Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi is on display through February 26.