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Rainbows, Eyes, and Lenses: Thinking about the Iris in an Age of Uncertainty

Kataoka Mami




At the heart of Japanese culture is a certain consciousness of invisible realms, whose existence we are occasionally made aware of when we come into contact with them. The sources of this sentiment span far and wide: from ancient rituals to religious ceremonies, to our understanding of architectural space and our interpretation of time, to literature and pictorial space.


Among these, the polytheistic religious consciousness in Japan, which can be traced back to nature worship of ancient times, transcends institutionalized religion and is deeply embedded within daily life and customs. The sensibility that is attuned to the presence of an anima (Latin for soul or spirit) in all things lives on in a definite form today in manga and anime that make up such a distinctive part of contemporary Japanese culture. Several collections of yokai (Japanese demons) drawings compiled by the Edo-period painter Toriyama Sekien (1712-1788) overflow with humorous creatures drawn from the entire length of the country. Each of these yokai is characterized as a concrete personification of some natural phenomenon. Perhaps embodying a sense of awe, wonder, or fear in the face of some uncertain sign. In Illustrated Night Parade of One Hundred Demons (1776), for instance, deities dwell in hundred-year-old trees, and examples of yokai with a physical form include kodama (tree spirit), yamabiko (a kind of mountain spirit), and shinkiro (mirage). After a long period of time, the animistic beliefs that things have a soul became linked to a belief in tsukumogami (tool spectres) essentially a belief that containers, tools and other instruments become animate and receive souls after a long span of time. Tsukumogami emaki dating from the Muromachi period (1336–1573) depicts the tale of candlesticks, pots, and other old tools discarded each spring despite having served their masters for many years. Irate and keen to exact their revenge, they turn into yokai and finally attain Buddhist refuge.


In the same way, while the Night Parade of One Hundred Demons picture scrolls are well known for depicting tools, musical instruments and votive objects that have been transfigured into yokai, the oldest examples, attributed to Tosa Mitsunobu, dates from the Muromachi period and currently resides in Shinju-an at the Daitokuji temple in Kyoto. This picture scroll has been passed down in posterity thanks to several reproductions: during the Edo period, with the development of woodblock printing techniques, yokai culture became disseminated on an even larger scale. There is no shortage of artworks that show us today how fertile and flourishing this culture was. Among them are Katsushika Hokusai’s Hundred Tales of Yokai, Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s Mitsukuni defying the skeleton specter invoked by Princess Takiyasha and The Earth Spider Conjures up Demons at the Mansion of Minamoto no Raiko, or works by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, who was active from the late Edo through Meiji periods.


This sort of animistic worldview is not just limited to Japan: the customs of nature and ancestor worship, and the magic and rituals that accompany them continue to be upheld by diverse cultures around the world. While religion, ritual, and magic seem to be at odds with modernization and developments in science and technology, the truth is that they have maintained a complementary relationship in response to their respective eras. Today, when the pace at which reality becomes more complex is accelerating, and where the future is unclear and uncertain, there is a sense in which we may be looking to depend on an all-encompassing power that transcends the realm of human agency.


A consciousness of invisible phenomena and signs without specific form is an important theme that has been continually explored by the New Zealand artist Dane Mitchell. Fusing scientific, analytic approaches with magical, non-rational perspectives, Mitchell makes the viewer aware of these invisible forces. In addition, by weaving historical, spatial, and cultural contexts into the space where his work is exhibited, his conceptual approaches acquire a multi-layered, ambivalent dimension, offering viewers a sensuous experience within a minimal, inorganic exhibition space. Although this makes Mitchell’s practice somewhat obscure and ungraspable at times, the act of deciphering these complex, intertwined circuits of meaning is also a tireless source of inspiration for our intellectual curiosity.


In The Dragon, The Purple Forbidden Enclosure, shown at the 3rd Singapore Biennale (2011), Mitchell trapped the invisible energy contained within a room in a building of the now disused former Kallang Airport within an enclosure that was astrologically aligned, with the assistance of a local shaman. During the 9th Gwangju Biennale (2012), in which this writer was involved, Mitchell created a space through a dialogue with a Gwangju shaman, based on a star chart dating from the Joseon Dynasty in the 14th century. At Mugaksa, a Zen temple in Gwangju city, Mitchell also exhibited a beautiful installation where moon jars, a classic ceramic vessel style from the Joseon Dynasty, were placed upside down on a record player. The bottoms of the jars were filled with holes that imitated the configuration of a star chart, allowing light to leak faintly through them. The word “now,” intoned in Mitchell’s own voice, could be heard repeatedly in the space coming from a locked-groove record. This installation resonated with the Zen philosophy of concentrating one’s awareness on the here and now, allowing space and time to expand within the consciousness of the viewer.


How did Mitchell’s thinking, and the process by which he puts it into practice, develop in the context of Japan? This was one of the motivations behind the planning of this exhibition. Begun as a joint commission between the Mori Art Museum and the Auckland Art Gallery[1], this project took its starting point from the “fragrance” that Mitchell had repeatedly used in his works as a “sculptural material.” The direction for the project was explored after a period of research conducted in Tokyo and Kyoto in August 2016. In concrete terms, this encompassed not just research on fragrances (interviews with fragrance manufacturers about the perfume manufacture process and headspace technology, experiences of monko, sniffing ceremony of the incense, which is expressed literally in Japanese as “listening to the incense,” and its sociological context, the incense manufacturing process, and research on typical woods used for incense, such as agarwood), Mitchell also investigated a variety of other topics like hand blown glass, acupuncture and cupping, Raku ceramics, yokai culture, the Koishikawa Botanical Gardens and Newton’s apple tree, and homeopathy. Over the course of this research, Mitchell developed a strong interest in the process of gathering fragrances using the latest technologies at Takasago International Corporation, a fragrance maker founded in 1920. This early research examined the relationship between the smells of inorganic materials like plastics and human memory, and extended to further research of the incense manufacturing process that he witnessed at Shoyeido Incense Co. and the visual refinement of the tools and machinery used, as well as the relationship between time and incense products, namely incense clocks. The results of this research form a story that unfolds over nearly a year, thanks to the multiple meanings of the word “iris.” In addition to referring to a plant from the iridaceae family, the word “iris” also designates the diaphragm of the eyeball, as well as the adjustable camera aperture derived from it. The original etymology of the word, however, comes from the name of the Greek goddess of the rainbow, Iris. Mitchell’s body of research, which developed by taking its point of departure from the fragrances that symbolize an invisible domain, became interconnected through the various “irises” — whether from eyes, lenses, or rainbows — that make the world visible and poetically connect the ocular and the olfactory.


At Takasago, the manufacture of flavors and fragrances, as well as the search for unusual odorous substances and changes in fragrances due to the passage of time, involves analyzing these fragrances in a headspace using cutting-edge technology. The company also develops technologies for the purpose of collecting aroma-molecules. A “headspace” refers to the space surrounding or the air above an object. Mitchell commissioned Takasago to create a perfume inspired by the iris (plant), which has no conspicuous or obvious fragrance. He also asked Takasago to analyze the headspace of three objects: the iris plant, a lens (the iris of a camera), and the iris of a janome umbrella, the traditional Japanese umbrella whose name literally means “snake eye” (that took its color from his own iris), layering the aroma-molecules in their headspace onto the spirits that reside in objects (in the sense of the tsukumogami tool spectres). Previously, Mitchell had created works such as the brass piece Alpha-Ionone (2015), which replicated a molecular structure in terms of a “sculptural” one. Because molecular structures exceed the scale at which human vision is able to grasp, it appears invisible to us. A symbol with a sculptural form, however, exists as an object, which allows something at the molecular level to begin to be perceptible. According to Takasago, which analyzed the three varieties of iris, the results showed that they contained substances with little actual aroma, even if some had been detected. On the other hand, even with substances that did not have a perceptible fragrance to humans, it was possible that other living organisms would be able to detect it. When fragrances are collected from objects with little aroma, in most cases the information obtained could be traced to environmental substances suspended in a given space. The naphthalene detected from the camera lens, for instance, hinted at the conditions in which the lens had been previously stored — an expression, perhaps, of the relationship between the “smells of inorganic objects and human memory” that Mitchell had been interested in since the beginning. These are substances that exist in a given place, even though they are invisible and give off no fragrance. In a sense, one might say that they are akin to the tsukumogami tool spirits that Mitchell had been anticipating. In the installation Iris, Iris, Iris, a special glass apparatus is deployed to collect the fragrances in the respective headspaces of an iris flowers, a camera lense, and a janome umbrella, intentionally creating an atmosphere reminiscent of a scientific, analytical laboratory. Inside a glass container with a stirrer, a perfume inspired by the fragrance of the iris flowers is continually agitated — a kind of device, then, for making these molecules, mixed with the “spirits” of three types of irises, float continuously without settling.


Another work represents Mitchell’s explorations and forays into the traditional Japanese culture and appreciation of incense and fragrance. Incense, which was imported into Japan in the 6th century together with the advent of Buddhism, developed into a cultural attainment among the aristocratic classes during the Heian period (794-1185). During the Kamakura period (1185-1333), Zen philosophy also encouraged the study of the essence of incense woods, with the naturally occurring, imported agarwood attracting particular attention during the 14th century. And it was during the late 15th century that Shino Soshin, said to be the father of incense appreciation, played an active part in this culture under the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. Subsequently, the Edo period (1603-1868) saw the widespread use of incense sticks, which helped the appreciation of incense to permeate even the lay classes.[2] One can imagine that incense in the lives of the aristocrats during the Heian period, as the Lady Murasaki chapter from the Tale of Genji (11th century) suggests, was an important tool for communicating without words. “A heavy perfume of costly and exotic scents stole from hidden incense burners and filled the room with a delicious fragrance. These perfumes were quite unfamiliar to Genji and he supposed that they must have been prepared by the ladies of the inner room, who would seem to have spent considerable ingenuity in the task.”[3] In contrast, the Edo period saw the popularization of Genjiko, where small pieces of five different types of incense wood are warmed on a censer, the task being to identify the similarities and differences between their fragrances. The titles of the 54 chapters of the Tale of Genji corresponded with the 52 possible fragrance combinations. The elevated refinements of incense appreciation did not just spur the development of extravagant, meticulously fabricated incense objects and accoutrements: the geometrical diagrams detailing the various combinations of Genjiko developed as abstractions of each chapter of the Tale of Genji, and designs of a symbolic order, deployed for various uses in everything from clothing and accessories to lifestyle objects. The richness of the history ofthis appreciation of fragrances is something that is still readily apparent today.


Another aspect of this appreciation of incense is its relationship to time. In ancient China, there were fire clocks: devices consisting of incense sticks inserted into grooves carved into a dragon’s back. As the incense burned, the threads hanging from it would break off, and a metal weight would fall onto a gong to indicate how much time had elapsed. In Japan, a reproduction of such a clock can be found in the Omi Shrine in Shiga Prefecture. There are also incense clocks called jikoban and jokoban that spread along with the dissemination of esoteric Buddhism. These devices consist of lit incense inserted into grooves traced into ashes that line the inside of a box-shaped censer, with the time indicated by how long they burn for. Today, the length of incense sticks for daily use is apparently determined by how long it takes to read a sutra. Inspired by this relationship of incense to time, Mitchell commissioned the venerable Kyoto-based incense maker, Shoyeido, to produce five years’ worth of incense inspired by the fragrance of iris. Five years is the period of time it takes irises to propagate by root division, which means that the length that this incense would burn corresponds with the lifespan of an iris. Ultimately, the installation Iris, Iris, Iris, which expresses a five-year period in terms of a material quantity — roughly 500 thick incense sticks measuring 80cm long and 1.8cm in diameter, propped up against a wall — overwhelms the viewer both visually and olfactorily. Some viewers may even be put in mind of the gentle blooms of the hanashobu flower in season, or the famous iris folding screens of Ogata Korin (pair of six folded panels, collection of the Nezu Museum).


The two fusego that form a part of the installation are baskets that were originally made of bamboo or metal, designed to transfer the fragrance from incense to a kimono or other such costumes. The basket was placed on top of the incense burner to be covered by fabric. The Lady Murasaki chapter of the aforementioned Tale of Genji describes a pitiful scene in which the sparrow that Murasaki has hidden in her basket escapes. “Inu has let out my sparrow — the little one that hides in the fusego.”[4] When not being covered by kimono, the fusego seems to have also been used as a birdcage. In Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s multi-colored woodblock prints, one can also see depictions of baskets covered by bridal costumes. The foldable baskets in the style of a fusego that Mitchell has created in brass for this exhibition, however, apparently date from after the early modern period, and were even used as bridal furnishings during weddings for daimyo lords. Instead of kimono, the fusego baskets on display are draped over with silk cloth printed with images of Mitchell’s iris at the age of 10, which were taken by an iridologist for the purposes of a medical experiment. Below this, incense sticks from Shoyeido and perfume from Takasago have been placed.


While Iris, Iris, Iris might come across as a minimally configured, laboratory-like space in installation view photos, an actual experience of the space first overwhelms the viewer with the invisible, lush fragrance of irises. Ever since the modern era, which privileges the sense of sight, and particularly in an era recently saturated with images from social media, this sort of exhibition, which seeks to evoke our consciousness through faculties other than the visual, can lead to a sudden understanding of the world through an alternative circuit. Toriyama Sekien’s Konjaku Hyakki Shui (1781) contains a multi-eyed apparition called mokumokuren that emerges within the gridded pattern of a sliding paper screen. If humans become conscious of the existence of invisible beings, then these spirits will start to emerge inside our brains. In the Greek pantheon, natural phenomena with no specific form and human emotions have also been deified and given shape, narrative, and personality, whether as hero or beast, all also as a result of human consciousness. Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, dispatched messages to earth from Mount Olympus, where the twelve gods led by Zeus lived. Rainbows, which render objects visible thanks to light and its spectrum, connecting heaven and earth and symbolizing transience and uncertainty in a mystical way, can be explained in scientific terms. Insofar as they evoke a sense of poetic imagination, however, they resonate quite remarkably with Mitchell’s ambivalent, multi-layered concerns. Naturally, the fact that the camera lens used by Mitchell in the exhibition is made by the Japanese manufacturer of optical devices, Olympus, shows that he was thinking about the relationship between irises and the place of Mount Olympus in Greek mythology.


Dane Mitchell’s research in Japan, which took its starting point from the idea of “fragrances,” is an important means of communication with invisible realms: it illuminates the history that has shaped the unique culture in this country through the ages, and in accordance with shifts in its social structure. In addition to making us aware of the diversity of meanings embodied by the iris, which symbolizes the act of seeing, it also alerts us to the space that exists in between this act of seeing and invisible presences. In an age marked by uncertainty — a trait common to both rainbows and mirages — where reality is just something that we presume is visible, fragrances and irises transcend the realm of culture, prompting us to reflect on the fundamental existence of objects and their meanings. I look very much forward to seeing how this project will stir the consciousness of the audience in New Zealand, where other gods reside.

[1] Supported by the New Zealand national arts development agency, Creative New Zealand, who has the grant program that aims cultural exchanges between New Zealand and Asia. This project will be exhibited in Auckland Art Gallery in 2018.

[2] Hata Masataka, Shang Qing story-listen to incense and incense, Tankosha Publishing, Kyoto, 2011.

[3] Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji: A Novel in Six Parts/Lady Murasaki; translated and with an introduction by Arthur Waley (Random House, Inc., New York, 1993), p. 100.

[4] Murasaki, p. 98.


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