toward silence, or how to think about time

by Georgiana Uhlyarik

The first temple Akira Yoshikawa tells me to visit in Kyoto is Shisen-dô.1 It is small and seldom visited by tourists, out of the way in the northeast corner of the city, on the side of the Higashiyama mountains. An uphill walk on narrow streets and through a rustic gate brings me to the temple’s bamboo groves and clipped azaleas in bloom. Stone gravel pathways are surrounded by trees and lined with bushes, ponds are filled with lily pads. Moss spreads everywhere along rocks and trees and ground. It is a warm, sunny day, at the end of May and I sit on the tatami floor of the Shisen-no-ma, the temple’s open main room, taking in the garden across the pond. Carefully arranged and meticulously maintained, this is a place of slow time and contemplation. There is soft wind, the ripples of the water, birds, and the voices of others heard from a distance. The wind is the surrounding sound, punctured by the knock of the sôzu2 like a very slow, strong heartbeat.

The sôzu is a bamboo stalk, sealed at one end and built like a seesaw. Placed by a small spring on the garden grounds, the water fills the bamboo shaft. The weight of the water eventually, inevitably, tips the bamboo over and it empties. Returning hollow it strikes the rock on which it rests while it replenishes – a loud knock fills the air. It begins again. Originally created by farmers to frighten animals, this animated scarecrow keeps mindful, deliberate rhythm in the quiet but abundant garden. At the same unhurried pace, the water endlessly flows to fill the core and it spills suddenly and sharply – the sôzu’s emptiness shatters the silence. The sôzu’s beat is the sound of now.

Time is an uninterrupted sequence of nows. To imagine the intervals between them is to consider the impossibility of silence. Silence is empty. We cannot know silence, for absolute silence would be one singular, eternal now, which we can only imagine as the absence of everything, the opposite of existence.

Akira Yoshikawa, the way of now (installation detail), 2008. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

In the way of now,3 Yoshikawa’s installations invite the viewer to consider the relationship between time and silence, and thus to concentrate on the knowable present and escape “the obsolete past or the unknown future.”4

In Visualizing Silence, a new work created for this exhibition, the artist has leaned a sheet of glass against the wall, precisely on one corner. This sole point of contact achieves the required balance and speaks of origins. The glass slices space and defines two distinct realms: here and there, now and then, being and non-being. These are further delineated by the eraser debris and the perfection of the small drawn circle on the floor.

The debris is noise. It was created by erasing a drawing on the wall above. The rubbings slid down the pane and gathered on the floor, once more reinforcing the transparent yet material divide. An action performed in the past, leaving its marks in the present. The circle in Yoshikawa’s works, as artist Ted Rettig wrote, allows for an “intuitive awareness of emptiness.”5

Akira Yoshikawa, Visualizing silence, 2008. Courtesy of Leo Kamen Gallery, Toronto.

Spending over a month in residence at the Koffler Gallery, Yoshikawa has created a purposefully sparse environment. The works have unfolded in time and space, shifted, changed, and are now, for the duration of the exhibition, complete. Their becoming is bound to the space in which they are realized. Yoshikawa combines the use of ‘pathetic materials’, to borrow Richard Tuttle’s phrase, such as tissue paper, cloth, flour, string, branches, graphite powder, with the solid matter of glass, salt, steel, stone, wood. A geometric drawing often appears as the element of reason, or consciousness, which marks a limit and sets a complementary contrast.

Much of Yoshikawa’s inspiration comes from the daily intake of experiences, informed by Japanese aesthetics and discipline. He seeks beauty in chance, simplicity, and immediacy. He encounters marks, arrangements, and objects, and reoffers them as means “to reflect and think about one’s life.”6 John Cage once said that sounds do not have to mean anything to give us very deep pleasure – he loved them just the way he found them. Yoshikawa’s installations are rooted in this conceptual tradition.7

No longer confused by what confronts us, 20088 rests on the floor. It is comprised of a stack of plywood sheets covered with a thin layer of brushed flour. Its delicate surface is a white expanse of deliberate, patient movement. On the wall in the other gallery is its counterpart, Untitled, 2008, an explosion of matter. The dark apparition drawn with graphite powder directly onto the gallery wall announces its presence with singularity and force. Through simple gestures traced in fleeting materials, the artist translates time into presence.

Yoshikawa’s installations order the disarray of life into the harmony of connectedness. Living in the Present Moment, originally conceived in 2003, and Imagining change of time, 2008 – two floor pieces – are arrangements of precision. Each contains a solid mass set in contrast with an impermanent material. A granite block holds down a folded paper outside a large circle, in the older work. In the new work, he builds a cone of salt adjacent to a thin string tied to the floor and ceiling. Yoshikawa’s compositions evoke the characteristics of Toru Takemitsu’s music. The composer’s central concept was that of ma – the ‘powerful silence’ out of which sound is created and to which it returns. This powerful silence is made apparent through the creation of an equally powerful sound. This fundamental opposition is not one of tension, but rather of completeness. The two distinct realms form a whole. And this whole leads to contentment.

Yoshikawa’s installations are uncomplicated propositions to the viewer to investigate temporality and achieve a heightened awareness of the presence and passing of time. Time, having been created out of silence, hurls us toward silence once more.

Yoshikawa makes slow art. In the way of now there is no waste, no excess, nothing precious. There is only the striking beauty of right now.

Akira Yoshikawa, the way of now (installation detail), 2008. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

This exhibition is dedicated to my sister Hatsue Yoshikawa, who was exposed to the bombing of Hiroshima when she was two years old. She consequently developed cancer at age fifteen and passed away fifty years ago. – Akira Yoshikawa

1 Shisen-dô Temple was built in 1641 by the poet and scholar of Chinese classics and calligraphy Jôzan Ishikawa (1583-1672) as his personal, mountain retreat. It is highly regarded for its tranquility and its azaleas which bloom yearly in May. The building includes a small moon-viewing room which juts out from the roof (unfortunately, inaccessible to visitors today). A temple since 1716, it now belongs to the Sôtô sect of Zen Buddhism.

2 The sôzu is a unique garden feature at Shisen-dô and is the only original functioning sôzu today.

3 The exhibition title references the Japanese phrase do (the way of) in describing the arts, such as ju-do (the way of balance), ken-do (the way of sword), cha-do (the way of tea), sho-do (the way of calligraphy).

4 Artist statement, March 2008.

5 See Ted Rettig’s A Clear and Open Poetry of Suchness: Recent Works by Akira Yoshikawa (Art Gallery of Peterborough, 2004).

6 Artist statement, March 2008.

7 For a discussion of Yoshikawa’s work negotiating two cultural traditions, Japanese philosophy and Minimalism, see Rettig, 2004.

8 The artist recalled seeing images from the World Trade Centre attack in September 2001, in particular the ash that covered everything in the vicinity. This vision stayed with him and recently resurfaced when Yoshikawa was struck by the beauty of bread crumbs on his plate. He began to experiment with recreating the texture, composition, and intensity of this chance finding. He considered several materials, and discovered that flour brushed gently and patiently on a block of plywood evoked the initial vision to which he was drawn.

Akira Yoshikawa was born in Hiroshima, Japan in 1949 and immigrated to Canada in 1961. He graduated from the Ontario College of Art in 1974 and has since exhibited nationally and internationally. His solo exhibitions include Select Works (2006) at the Gendai Gallery, Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto; Random and Imposed Order (2004) at the Art Gallery of Peterborough; The Champions of the Freedom Seekers (1997) at Red Head Gallery; and Akira Yoshikawa (1993) at the Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery, Owen Sound. Group exhibitions comprise order/disorder (2008) at the Latcham Gallery, Stouffville; In Case of Rapture (2002) at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston; and Take a Closer Look (2001) at the Robert Langen Gallery, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo. Yoshikawa’s works are in the collections of numerous art galleries in Ontario as well as in private collections. He is represented by Leo Kamen Gallery in Toronto.

Georgiana Uhlyarik is a curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario where she has been working on the installation of the Canadian collection for the reopening in November 2008. Independently, she has recently curated order/disorder at Latcham Gallery, Stouffville, ON, as well as transient at Terminal One, Pearson International Airport, Toronto, both featuring the work of Akira Yoshikawa. She is also the co-organizer, along with Flavio Trevisan and Scott Sørli, of the Parkdale International Art Fair at convenience gallery, Toronto, in October 2008. Uhlyarik received her MA in Art History from York University in 1998, and her Honours BA from University of Toronto. She grew up in North York but now lives in downtown Toronto with her twin sons. This past summer she traveled to Japan to visit Kyoto temples as well as Hiroshima, Yoshikawa’s native city.

Design and Editing: Tony Hewer
Digital publication to the exhibition Akira Yoshikawa: the way of now
Presented by the Koffler Gallery | September 11 — November 30, 2008 | Guest Curator: Georgiana Uhlyarik

© Koffler Centre of the Arts, 2008, in collaboration with the individual contributors.
All rights reserved. ISBN 978-0-920863-83-1.