Art

Reconnecting Japan's ancient cultural hub

by Sachiko Tamashige

Special To The Japan Times

“When I visited Todaiji Temple in Nara, just after I arrived as a Chinese student in Japan about 30 years ago, I felt somehow nostalgic as it had an atmosphere of old China,” says Cai Guo-Qiang, as he explains his work for Culture City of East Asia 2016, Nara, a cultural project that launched in March. “I think that Todaiji is a symbol of cultural exchange between Japan and China, which crossed over the ocean by ships, bringing Buddhism, technology and culture as well as goods such as silk or ceramics. That’s why I wanted to build a ship here to remind us of our close relationship in ancient time.”

Todaiji Temple has quite a history. It is well known for its Birushana Daibutsu (Great Buddha) statue, a national treasure that was originally built in the mid-8th century as a prayer monument to peace and prosperity. It was a symbol of the power of Buddhism and its stabilizing influence on the nation as it was being formed by the adoption of Chinese culture during the Nara Period (710-794). As the capital of Japan at that time, Nara was being modeled after the Chinese city of Chang’an (present-day Xian). “To Build a Ship,” the work of Cai, an international Chinese artist based in New York, is currently being exhibited in Todaiji’s Kagami-ike pond, which the artist explains is a metaphor of what he calls the “sea of East Asia.”

Based on traditional-style ships that once traveled across those waters, Cai’s work was publicly built at Todaiji in March by 10 shipbuilders from China and is the Nara symbol of the Culture City of East Asia project, which promotes cultural ties between Japan, China and South Korea at different host cities in each of those countries every year.

In 2014, when the project began, those cities were Yokohama in Japan, Quanzhou in China and Gwangju in South Korea; last year saw events in Niigata, Qingdao and Chongju. Tri-national cultural exchange in these cities took place in the forms of contemporary art, traditional arts and crafts and other activities, and this year Ningbo in China and Jeju Special Self-Governing Province in South Korea join Nara in hosting the year-long celebrations.

“Since this year the national project takes place in Nara, an ancient cosmopolitan capital with close relationships with China, Korea and other countries along the silk route, we are focusing on historical context and legacy in organizing events,” says Fram Kitagawa, an adviser to Culture City of East Asia 2016, Nara. “I also thought we should get major significant temples and shrines involved. It was so fortunate that Todaiji accepted our request and allowed Cai Guo-Qiang to create a work there.”

“Nara was, 1,300 years ago, an ultra-modern city with high-tech facilities, a progressive spirit and cutting-edge arts.” says Gen Nakagawa, the mayor of the city. “It may seem like a city of austere colors, but the old temples and Buddhist sculptures were colorful and vibrant when they were built, and we want visitors to discover new (similarly vibrant) aspects of Nara. Contemporary arts can also help revitalize the city as they often deal with relevant issues of our time.”

“When Nara was the capital, Japan sent many envoys to Tang Dynasty China — then the most civilized and greatest empire — so that we could learn from there and bring back advanced knowledge, technology and culture,” explains Kitagawa. “Although Japan was a marginal developing country located on the edge of the Far East, it had a good relationship and mutual respect with China. My hope is that this project in Nara will help us reflect on this ancient friendship between the nations in East Asia.”

“There is (current) tension between nations surrounding the sea of East Asia,” adds Cai, who says his “To Build a Ship” piece “raises the question of whether we can build friend-‘ship’ and peace like that of ancient times.”

The Culture City of East Asia 2016, Nara project aims to make autumn a particularly eventful time. “Art Celebration in Nara: Beyond Time and Space” opened in September and runs until Oct. 23 and its lineup of art exhibitions features works by leading contemporary artists from East Asia, India, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Artworks are on display at popular locations, including Kasuga Taisha Shrine, Todaiji and six other temples, as well as at venues in the old town of Naramachi.

It’s hoped that the event will bring attention to lesser-known sites such as Saidaiji Temple, where Ayse Erkmen from Turkey has installed “Pond to Pool to Pond.” Saidaiji Temple, or the Great Western Temple, was commissioned by Emperor Shotoku in 765. Although it was once one of the most powerful temples in Nara and a counterpart to Todaiji Temple, it declined drastically after the capital was moved to Kyoto.

“The weedy site in the west part of the Saidaiji Temple had an atmosphere of forgotten ruins. There is a stagnant pond in front of a teahouse, the area in which the west tower once stood during the Nara Period, and I saw that as a symbol of the Eastern end of the silk route,” says Erkmen. “I created a Western-style swimming pool next to the pond to symbolize Istanbul, which is where I am from and is the Western edge of the silk route. I connected the (two bodies of water) with pipes that circulate and purify the water to infuse life there. It is an analogy of the union of the West and the East through water circulation.”

“Art Celebration in Nara: Beyond Time and Space” runs until Oct. 23 and is part of the Culture City of East Asia 2016, Nara project. Viewing artworks is free, though some venues require admission charges. For more details, visit bit.ly/cultureartnara.