Tuesday, November 27, 2007

when in Rome...

One of the cardinal rules of pregnancy in the States is "Don't Eat Sushi." I remember waiting tables at a sushi restaurant in San Francisco, and more than a few times it happened that there was a pregnant lady in a party of four, looking resentfully at her companions as they gobbled hamachi and maguro while she feasted on cucumber rolls.

The Japanese have no such rule. I've asked several women about it, and they've never heard of abstaining from raw fish during pregnancy; in fact, my maternity handbook even lists sashimi as a recommended source of protein in the "food pyramid" scheme.

Last weekend, J and I accompanied Shohei and Tomomi to Kanazawa, a lovely city on the coast of the Sea of Japan -- home of the 21st Century Art Museum, and famous for its fresh fish. We planned to partake of both.

A recently pregnant friend of mine spent part of her pregnancy in Spain, where she heard it was just fine for pregnant ladies to have a glass of wine a day. I'm not saying this to flout doctor's orders, or to suggest that alcohol really has no affect on the baby and those mean male obstetricians just don't want us to have any fun during gestation; I just want to point out that different cultures have different um, wisdom about pregnancy.

It's up to you to decide which rules to follow when you're pregnant, but I was in Kanazawa, and I figured, When in Rome... And the suzuki sashimi was delicious.

The next day we spent playing in the museum, which was truly delightful with its bright open design and interactive installations. It seems that 21st century art is not about looking at a painting or a sculpture, but about being enveloped in a concept. Many of the exhibits took up entire rooms, some even required us to stand in line and view the piece two, three, seven people at a time.

Here's a wall hand-painted in the particular pattern of Kanazawa yuzen.

One of our collective favorites was The Swimming Pool, by Leandro Erlich. From above, it looked like a regular pool, but actually the water was a 10cm layer at the top of a glass-ceilinged room below.

From outside, it looked as though a crowd of people had sunk to the bottom, fully clothed and heavy as rocks. Once inside, you could look up at the blurry figures of people standing poolside, and imagine that you were looking up from the blue watery deep end -- but could still breathe!

Shohei loved the Blue Planet Sky exhibit: a vast empty room with a high ceiling and a square hole open directly to the sky. The idea was so simple, but its effect so enchanting -- a great box of light, a three-dimensional sky painting, of changing texture and hue, dappled clouds and passing crows -- that we went back a couple times to experience it both in the sun and in the pouring rain.

Shohei snapped this photo afterwards, catching the framed sky in a puddle.

My favorite exhibit was a room lined with panels of cardboard, each one bearing a giant painted seed, a catalogue of a variety of plants in Japan. The center of the room was occupied by three large cardboard ships, round and tall and sort of pointed at one end. Seeds are ships, the exhibit explained, traveling far and wide with their information and influence.

I was struck at once by the parallel of having a little seed of my own growing inside, and how amazing it still is to me that from the moment of his conception he contained all the information for his development in a tiny cluster of cells. My breath caught in my throat and I wanted to cry a little, but I fought back tears because it seemed silly to be so moved by cardboard.

But I was moved. I am moved by the potential in things; by growing things, things that start small and seem inconsequential, but unfold and unfurl and astound you with their complicated beauty. All that happens, all that is possible, comes from just a little seed.

We stopped for oden after the museum, warming our bellies on daikon, tofu, eggs, chikuwa, and seaweed before getting on the road to drive back to Kyoto.

It rained the whole time, as it should on the way home. I felt happy and sleepy in the back seat, basking in the richness of friendship and the exquisite satiation of art and food.


Saturday, November 24, 2007

Thursday, November 15, 2007

in the dark

We finally made it to "the womb" at Kiyomizudera. I'd been telling J about it, and trying to arrange a trip with K, too, since before we left last summer.

I first went with my dad and his wife when they visited Kyoto -- my dad had read about it in his guide book and it sounded sufficiently weird and mysterious: enter the womb of Zuigu Bosatsu, little-known Buddhist Goddess, find your own light in the darkness, make a wish by turning the stone at the end. Or something to that effect.

This time was slightly different; I knew what to expect, and was preoccupied with what my companions would think. But the experience is nevertheless memorable, no matter how many times you go through (skip ahead if you think you might come to Kyoto to do it in person):

You take off your shoes and descend a short staircase, keeping your left hand on the banister, which becomes a succession of large wooden beads along the wall. You pass through a hanging noren curtain, and are suddenly in total and utter darkness. The wooden beads disappear and all you have is your hand on the wall, which has been worn smooth by thousands of hands doing the same thing. The floor feels smooth too, gentle but uneven, like slabs of stone; and the darkness itself has a presence, a thickness that feels at once close and expansive. Waving out with your right arm yields nothing; you keep to the wall. And when the wall turns abruptly to the left, it feels like the floor dropped away, like you might lose your balance... your senses are heightened, you feel almost giddy in the not-knowing, wondering is this what it's like to be blind?

Voices are closeby, but direction is skewed. The space is probably no bigger than your basement, but has the boundless feeling of the inside of your mind, the inside of your own womb. So you wonder, too, is this where you are, little one? Warmer, of course, and without language -- without having been to the bright world out here -- but in the boundless space inside you, in the dark.

Soon enough (maybe too soon), the darkness diffuses around a pool of dim light, illuminating the the sanskrit character, "hara," on the top of a great round rock. It reaches to your breastbone, and is mounted on its axis so that it just takes a gentle, steady push to turn it around. It feels like an ancient ritual, somehow. Your hands come into view, other faces. You turn and walk through another curtain, you see the stairs, the bright day; you walk out into it and put your shoes back on, amid other tourists jostling eachother on the stairs and looking at omamori. Entirely surreal.

It occurs to me later when I get into bed, nestle into blankets and curl around my expanding belly, that we replicate this feeling of being in the womb, night after night. Safe, warm, dark. I feel closest to my baby then, compelled to talk to him and conspire behind closed eyelids.

I haven't written much about this internal world of being pregnant, perhaps because it's hard to say exactly why it's so magical (or because I'm hesitant to use words like magical...). But really I can't talk about it enough -- there's a sentient being inside me! He can hear sounds! He is capable of coordinating brain and muscle and nerve, he kicks and digests, he maybe has eyes like mine, hair like his daddy's... this stuff is obvious, even mundane, but is it not still a miracle? He is utterly mine, part of my body, and yet he exists in a space much bigger than me, already teaching me so much about how we unfold according to our pattern.

It reminds me of a poem written by a friend from years ago in San Francisco, which included something his friend overheard his young daughter say to their new-born baby: Tell me what god looks like, I'm forgetting.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Montauk: closing party

Saturday night I hosted a closing party for the kami kami show at Montauk. It was small, but lots of fun. Lots of friends came out, brought their friends, ate, drank, and listened to me wax cultural about Japanese hair and paper.

I got a little repetitive in my description of the work, but I figure this is bound to happen with my limited vocabulary. It would be amusing to hear a direct English transliteration of what, exactly, I said... I think it was something like this:

"I go to used book stores and find? look for? different kinds of paper. If I like the color, or the pattern. Then I put it together. With old maps, and train time-tables, the collages have a travel feeling."

"I don't know why I'm interested in the Japanese hairstyles. There's a museum? in Gion, for the hairstyles. I went there and sketched. You can see Japanese culture and history in these hairstyles, I think."

You try being articulate in another language!

But, people got it. Thank goodness. I sold two of the title pieces, and several of the smaller postcards. Of course the hand pieces were the most popular, and went quickly.

I know Tomomi and her husband, Shohei, especially love the hands... so I made two pieces for them, to thank them for providing such a great space for my art, for and such sincere friendship and support, to boot.

It's remarkable how people instantly gravitate toward such a familiar thing as hands... I fumbled a bit with an explanation of these, as well -- the lay-person's mudra? the language of hands? what? -- but J summed it up simply and gracefully: it's the "ah" and the "om." At the gates in front of many grand temples, there are statues guarding either side; one statue has his mouth and hands open, the other's are closed. Ah, om. Birth and death.

Perfect. Just what I meant.


Friday, November 9, 2007


During the day, I hang out with Tomomi at the Atelier, and despite my halting Japanese, we've managed to have some great converstations. The simple reward of making yourself understood cannot be underestimated.

So I've been learning lots of fun new words, one of my favorites is ochokochoi, which is sort of like messy or clumsy. Say it, it's fun!

It came up because I was describing how I've become quite clumsy lately -- loosing my balance when I get up out of my futon, or when I go to put on my socks. I've always been a pretty coordinated person, but it's literally throwing me off to have all this extra weight.

The funniest moment came the day my butt got big. K and I were in the kitchen, on round two of banana bread (we have to use all those bananas somehow), and she had the hand-mixer plugged into the wall. To understand the following configuration, you have to appreciate just how small Japanese kitchens are: the space between the range and the refrigerator is about three feet, and the refrigerator is so small that you must crouch down on the ground in that three-foot space to get into it. The electrical outlet is positioned at about belly-button height on the wall between the range and the fridge, which means the cord hangs inconveniently right in the middle of that space during use. Underestimating my new girth, I turned to put something back in the fridge, and was in mid-squat when I realized I was sitting on the cord and pulling the mixer down with me.

I don't know if K was laughing harder at my awkward squat or the look of utter surprise on my face as I shot upright and apologized -- the whole thing no doubt looked like some unpracticed or unwitting slapstick. To say the least, it certainly made an impression. The next week, when we were about to watch the Charlie Brown Great Pumpkin movie on Halloween, she was waiting in my room didn't waste her chance to say, "Hey, get your fat ass in here!"

I know it doesn't look like much, but 15 pounds have really made a difference... believe me, I'm wasn't happy about being a waif-ly 110 at the outset of the pregnancy. I've never been able to gain weight, and I'm not saying that like an annoyingly self-congratulatory sorority girl. It's just in the genes -- me & my mom & my siblings are all wiry and tiny. I'm actually enjoying the extra meat immensely: I'm hoping I can keep the butt and the boobs after the baby comes.

What's the secret? It's the appetite. I've always been a healthy eater, but I'm astounding even myself these days. I've begun combining first and second breakfasts, so that one just blends right into the next. Eggs, cheese, toast, potatoes, then oatmeal? Sure! Pancakes? Don't mind if I do. And how about a slice of banana bread, too.


Monday, November 5, 2007

the show

At last! Pictures from Kami Kami.

The pieces fit beautifully at Montauk, Tomomi's Atelier, and of course she has an impeccable eye for design touches, like the sweet tamoe-bana branch hanging from the ceiling. (Those are her works to the bottom right, which she's been busy making and selling since she opened last month.)

Despite my limited Japanese, we've managed to have great conversations about inspiration, making art, and the way things always turn out differently than what you originally intented.

I explained that most of the time I can't think too much about the meaning of a piece before I start, otherwise I get too hung up on that and there's no flow. But then sometimes I worry I didn't think enough, and and maybe there's no meaning... That's when it's gratifying to show my work to other people and get their ideas.

Today a friend stopped by to see the art, and offered the kind of articulate reflection I'd been craving. We talked about how it's harder to see your own culture, and sometimes it takes a foreigner to show you the things you take for granted about what's all around you. She was thrilled that I'd taken pages from cast-away books, like old maps and train timetables that Japanese people might have simply overlooked.

She went on about different historic travelers who have come to this island and been influenced by its aesthetics; how art can be like a conversation between countries, and how the maps combined with the kami no ke illustrated this exchange. Perfect! Exactly what I meant.

I also created smaller post-card sized pieces that look like this:

And this:

The brown paper is ever-popular, as are the hand drawings. Let's hope they're a hit!