"...the world is primarily a division of land and sky. Land is the foundation of nature in
the Japanese perspective because it serves as the mother of all nature from the beginning.
This principle provides that anything upon the land has religious significance because
the land itself is the mother of everything."
...a human being belongs to nature and is simply a product of nature.
When a person dies, the person returns to nature: he becomes land. This is the circle...
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Artist's Statement
At the time that I completed Digital Art Chapter 4: Hara-kiri, I contemplated creating a corresponding project, which rather than having a base in Western/European art, would be set in the context of Japanese art history. This new project would be a counterpart to Hara-kiri, but the approach to the subject would be different. At the time, though, I didn’t have a clear idea for executing it. Hara-kiri was a conceptual vehicle for exploring western art and culture and it was exercised on the ground of western art history. The new project, I thought, would explore the same concepts but originate from a different foundation. It took some time to develop initially, but I eventually started to work on the visual aspect of the project. Then, in March 2011 the catastrophic events of the Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami occurred in Japan.
I was raised in northeastern Japan, the region that was in the center of the devastation. My family has a long history in the area and the disaster was personal. It was an indescribable feeling to me–I saw that the places where I had spent my childhood had been physically wiped away. It was undeniably a real event, but in my mind, it was something more like an abstract experience. I found it difficult to close the gap between the actual events and the acceptance of it as reality. I worried that the disaster would obliterate my entire country. At that moment Mt. Fuji crossed my mind and I wondered if it would be reactivated by the earthquake.

Outside of Japan it may not be well known, but the mountain is an active volcano and, technically, Mt. Fuji is just “resting” for now. I wondered, if this occurred, what would happen physically and psychologically to Japan and the Japanese people. Spontaneously, I realized that Mt. Fuji is not simply a symbol of Japan’s scenic landscape, but rather, it is a culturally complex entity. Mt. Fuji is the ultimate representative of “nature” to Japanese and significantly, the meaning of nature to them is quite different from its meaning in European/Western cultures. For a Western person, nature does not contain a meaning much more than that of the physical environment itself. However, for Japanese nature is that which is God, and God is many things.

This concept, the one and sameness of God and nature, is demonstrated greatly by the fact that the upper part of Mt. Fuji is actually a shrine, an official branch of the Asama Shrine of Japan. Mt. Fuji is also a fundamental representative of “land,” meaning both the Earth and the ground itself. In this concept, sea is just a variation of land–it is land with water upon it–and thus, the world is primarily a division of land and sky. Land is the foundation of nature in the Japanese perspective because it serves as the mother of all nature from the beginning. This principle provides that anything upon the land has religious significance because the land itself is the mother of everything.

Land and nature as a whole are perceived as both beneficial and detrimental to life in Japan. Nature supports life and prosperity. Yet, nature also reverses its role for time to time, like it did in March 2011. Extreme physical experiences through history have created a dual perspective of nature in Japan. Reverence of nature’s benevolence and fear coexist. These complimentary perspectives reinforce each other and Japanese people have an awe for nature that is, perhaps, similar to that which the ancient Greeks had for their gods.

It is an interesting comparison in my view, that the ancient Greek gods had different personality traits and some seemed to have two distinct faces. The gods could be beneficial to humans or punish them, sometimes capriciously, which I think is similar to the Japanese perspective of nature. This parallel also reflects another contrast between the Japanese and the western perspective of nature. In Japan, nature is seen primarily as an entity that one submits to. In contrast, for western cultures historically, nature is not uncommonly something to control, exploit, or a place to occupy. These contrasting perspectives of nature are obviously influenced by religious beliefs, and I think that this comparison illustrates the differences fairly well. However, through a deeper observation of people, their religion, and their relationship with the nature around them, the essential dynamics become clearer.

Throughout their history, Japanese communities have been surrounded by nature that was modest in scale but rich in resources, and this nature was perceived as a benefit to life. On the other hand, the area where western religious culture originated was an arid, harsh environment that may have been perceived as generally hostile to life. (Manna came from Heaven, not from the Earth). These perceptions of unsustaining nature were passed on as the religion, Christianity particularly, spread from the ancient Levant through Europe. In my view, these early environmental experiences in each culture correspond to lasting ideologies in the distinctive religions and societies. This historical and geographical evidence of both worlds, Japan and the West, shows that the perception of nature plays a role in forming the character of religion, regardless of the geographic location in which it arises. As a result, like a full circle, the character of the natural environment is reflected in a culture’s perspective of nature itself.
As a logical consequence, the dynamics of perceived nature and religious ideology are accordingly reflected in the character of a culture’s art, whether Japanese or Western. In much of western art history, the portrait of an individual person is the dominant subject. Whereas in Japanese art, traditionally, nature is the dominant subject. These dynamics, I believe, demonstrate the basis of what art represents in each respective culture. Comparing Japanese art and Western art as corresponding pairs of dynamics, this idea can be observed as Nature vs. Portrait and ultimately, Animism vs. Monotheism.

This comparison illustrates essential cultural characteristics of art, and it also reveals where there is a hierarchy of subject matter in a culture’s art. Therefore, in a culture with a single god, it makes sense that the (individual) portrait is a dominant category of subject matter and that portraiture is stationed at the apex of the hierarchy, as it is in the West.

In the Japanese perspective a human being belongs to nature and is simply a product of nature. When a person dies, the person returns to nature: he becomes land. This is the circle. For a person, this means that they are part of the circle and that they too will become part of God. Perhaps this is why Japanese do not see themselves as having a distance from God. There is no separation, no intermediary, nor a hierarchy to experiencing God. The concept of a distance existing between a human being and God is not conceivable in Japan and in accordance, this is reflected in historical events and in art. This Japanese cultural perspective ultimately signifies a kind equal status for every person, every thing and whatever else on the earth.

This view of nature, human beings, and God, is the foundation of the Japanese perspective for life in general and it is reflected in the character of Japanese art. In my opinion, this has resulted in an egalitarian–or flat status–of artistic subject matter. Interestingly, the result is images that are both visually flat and also conceptually flat; equal status for every thing represented. “Realistic” depiction was not historically valued in Japanese art and was perceived as a raw type of representation; the flat perspective was considered to be more a refined form of visual representation. In comparison, (classical or pre-modern) visual representations of western Christian cultures particularly, tend towards hierarchal subject matters and an emphasis upon realism. This suggests that the artwork reflects the aspiration of experiencing God and it is evinced by realistic, three-dimensional representation. I believe that this emphasis on the perfection of realistic depiction reflects a desire to close the distance between God and human beings. Therefore, in western art religious purpose was a primary stimulus toward the development of three-dimensional realism. On the other hand, Japan’s culture and the lack of a concept of distance from God did not encourage a desire to be closer to God. God is not a subject to be independently experienced, but rather, is all-encompassing fact, everywhere, as land and nature. In my view, because of this, Japanese art traditionally did not encourage a realistic approach and resulted in the flat representation form.

Paradoxically, these differences confirm the universal truth that, whether Western or Eastern, art is a product of culture and culture is a product of society. The Japanese conceptual circle of human beings, land-nature, and God also suggests an allegory in which the multiple circles of nature, culture, religion and art, layered together on an axis, ultimately resulted in the spheroid shape of the Earth.
When I finished this project, I was still not certain if I had completed my intention through this body of work. However, when I see all of the images laid out, I realized that what I actually see is nature and I feel a kind of sacredness for the images. On the other hand when I look at the works of my earlier Hara-kiri project, I see the emptiness and vacancy and I feel that the work lacks something important, some spirit. I realized that this missing thing must be God. By removing the human portraits from the original masterworks, I realized that it was not mere icons that I had removed, but that God was removed from the works. When I completed Hara-kiri I had not come to understand the true meaning of western art well enough to come to this conclusion I have now. This means that these two projects, Hara-kiri and Animism, need each other in order to complete their purpose as artwork and that this must be their destiny.

Koya Abe



All images and text on this website are copyright Koya Abe 1997-2017. Digital Art Chapter 6: Animism series images copyright Koya Abe 2011. All rights are reserved.

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