In May of 2015, I had the privilege of joining a textile-focused trip to Japan. The group was led by Yoshiko Wada, author of several books on shibori techniques, lecturer, curator, founder of Slow Fiber Studio and co-founder of World Shibori Network. The trip was jam-packed with textile-focused workshops, artists’ studio and museum visits. We had the opportunity to browse and be inspired by shopping in antique textiles shops and specialty cutting-edge designer boutiques. Three weeks of full-on textile delirium. I addition to the regular itinerary, I chose to participate in the optional pre-trip extension which led us to three small islands in the southern part of the Japanese inland sea. The islands have been rescued from industrial ruin and restored to health by creating an economy based on art tourism. Unexpectedly, one of the most impactful experiences of the entire trip was one unrelated to textiles. The photos and the essay that follow relate to this experience on Teshima Island.
What do you call it when a work of architecture affects your soul? An extreme art experience? An epiphany? A re-assertion of the heart?
We were lucky to have relatively few co-visitors at the Teshima Art Museum in late May. It was of some significance in my experience. I was in a state of “beginner’s mind”, not having done any reading in preparation for this visit. It is only afterwards that I wanted to know that the architect was Ryue Nishizawa in collaboration with artist Rei Naito who conceived of the “living art piece” that interacts, complements and completes the architecture. I have never been in a structure, a piece of art, that has affected me this much.
I approached the entrance to the museum taking pictures of the setting and the exterior of the structure and completely missed the sign forbidding photography inside. Fortunately, the camera was set for “no flash” and thus my rule-breaking was not noticed until a few (now precious) photos of the interior space had been taken.
The structure resembles a slightly misshapen shell, convex side up, with two holes at opposite ends, not visible together from any outside vantage point. The entrance is deliberately designed low and narrow like a tunnel so that the impression of entering into the space below the “shell” is one of enormous opening. The color scheme is simple, the roof and interior ceiling are white and the floor is a soft, matte, light grey.
The idea exemplified in the Pantheon in Rome is employed here and amplified by having two openings instead of one. But because of the extreme abstinence of decoration of any kind, the effectiveness of the play of light and shadow is magnified as the beams of light falling through two openings influence and enhance each other. The wonderful expansion and contraction of light on the ceiling and on the floor changes every minute of the day, every day of the year, a visual and sensory reminder of our temporal limitations in the physical world. What would it be like to sit in one place, let the light spill and expand on your retina in one pattern, specific to that moment, then close your eyes to rest and absorb the image for a while? An hour later, consciousness would resurface to a completely new experience of the same space and location. It would be a way to refine, extract, distill the essence of nature because the mind would be focused on only one, life giving aspect of our natural surrounding: the Sun.
After taking in the glorious, expansive impressions and feelings generated by the light and space, the eye eventually settles down to the floor. A great expanse of floor, only imperceptibly curved here and there to contain little mysteries that capture the imagination and lead it on a journey of its own. Something is moving! What is that? Small rivulets of water emerge somehow from the floor, increase in size, merge with other larger, moving accumulations of water, halting briefly, then lurching forward, held together with surface tension strong enough to create three dimensional volume. Everything is constantly in motion, emerging and mysteriously disappearing from the floor and into the floor. The reasoning part of the mind interjects questions periodically: Wait a minute! How it this possible? Where is the water coming from and where it is going?
But reason stands no chance in the presence of wonder. The mystery is all encompassing in its complexity and simple beauty in the same moment. The experience is one of entrainment into the ebbing and flowing of life itself, the bliss of knowing without knowing. Being immersed unreservedly in this flow of energy and matter is like receiving a gift that is given without explanation or need for justification.
The detailed intricacy and complexity of the small moving bodies of water draws the attention to the ground as if to the details of our bodily existence. Add to that another aspect of physical reality: sound. The acoustics of the shell are intense and what starts as a whisper at one end of the space is magnified a hundred times at the other end, if it were ever allowed to be heard. What would it be like to hear a single child’s tender voice sing Ave Maria here? Or to have Yo-Yo Ma play a full-throated Astor Piazzolla solo? The imagination soars.
The shape and size of the shell-like ceiling have the effect of simultaneously feeling like shelter as well as encouraging the mind to sweep up through the openings, as birds would, to rise up and feel uplifted. It seems like the ultimate space for prayer, communion and contemplation, no matter what the original intent was. It is called a “museum” but the sum total of the spare architecture and art here creates a spiritual response.
I was left standing at the perimeter of this creation in tears for a long time not comprehending my own reaction. Whatever I was responding to was wildly moving: powerful, beautiful and magical.
Slowly and incrementally clarity flooded through me:
This is what it feels like to be in the presence of perfection.