Shimogamo Shrine, Kyoto, fence of bamboo branches; Imperial Pathway, Katsura Imperial Villa, Kyoto, mosaic pavement of blue-black cobbles; Sa-an teahouse, Gyokurin-in Temple, Daitoku-ji, Kyoto, earthen wall with straw mixed into a blackened crust over reddish clay; Imperial Gate, Katsura Imperial Villa, bamboo ceiling supported on a ridge beam of unstripped oak (clockwise from top left)
Even something as monolithic as an earthen wall is transformed by Japanese hands into a realm of unlimited discovery. While the earthen mass may be simple, its surface opens up to human inquiry through a heterogeneous composition and a crust that is brittle, cracked and abraded. The granular texture and mingled colours of different clay and soil are complicated by small bits of straw, and in the walls of teahouses such as Taian at the Myokian Temple and Sa-an at the Gyokurin-in Temple in Kyoto, these small stalks protrude from an earthy substrate to imply unseen strata below. As the harmonious yet seemingly infinite depths – as involving as a landscape seen from the air or, conversely, through a magnifying glass – continue receding before an advancing eye, they embody the notion of life as a process, opening up a world in which people can probe beyond the outermost surface of reality.
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The most iconic wall of this kind, the rammed-earth perimeter of the dry garden (kare sansui) at the Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto, is also the most stimulating. Clays employed in the ‘oil-earth wall’, as it is called, were boiled in rapeseed oil to make them more durable. Over the years this oil has gradually leached out, along with the uneven iron content of the clay, to stain the surface with evocative patterns of subtle brown and orange tones mixed with cool greys. The abstract images are not static but change with viewing distance and angle, at every moment eluding logic while delighting human intuition. 106
The investigative powers at Ryoan-ji are related to the more evocative crusts of twentieth-century art, from the haphazard scratches and earthen grounds of Jean Dubuffet and textured pigments of Antoni Tapies to the peeling paint, eroded wood and abraded objects in the exquisitely detailed photographs of Edward Weston and Minor White. Materials conducive to impacts of time and weather have been seemingly infused with their own experiences and memories, turning the surface into a site for inspired vision and for active searching, inducing us to move closer and closer, to visually dig into and under the external skin. Beneath its rational operations, a liberated play of the mind is urged to probe the mysteries found before us, and to plumb one’s own inner depths to disclose an unconscious pool of memories or make astonishing discoveries in the imagination. A mouldy wall might be simply a wall, or it might allow us to peer into its history, perhaps becoming a vast mountain range, its splash of brightness a molten planet or field of stars.
Our ability to uncover new aspects of the world by the force of our own voluntary acts vanishes in a building whose features are either so scant or unchanging that there is no incentive to draw us near. The sterile volume declares at the outset it is not worth exploring, whereas eye-catching features that fail to mutate with differing viewpoints assure us more slowly, but no less completely, that we are mere spectators to a preordained display.
Either scenario negates our existence and denies us the chance to take control of our immediate future, rather than having that future defined in advance by somebody else.