|In December 2005 the Japan Foundation gallery hosted the Spirit of the Kami exhibition, by Australian artist Kara Yamaguchi. From delicate shafts of sunlight falling on a thatched shrine roof, to the uncanny visual power of a solitary stone monolith atop a mountain, Kara' s photographs of sacred sites provided a window into the mysterious worlds of ancient Japan. Complementing her photography were costumes of vivid colour made using traditional wasai (kimono-making) techniques, and intricate beadwork replicating sacred ornaments. Spirit of the Kami transformed the gallery into an ethereal space evoking ancient beliefs in the interconnection between humans and the spiritual forces of nature.Editor Catherine Maxwell spoke to Kara about her inspiration for this exhibition and her work recording ancient spiritual traditions in Japan.|
|How did you find the response to your exhibition at the Japan Foundation, Sydney?I was really inspired by how many people related to the idea of kami i and to the message of ancient Shinto. In Japan people tend to associate Shinto with religion and often the true essence of what it means is lost in doctrine or entangled in historical misinterpretations. That' s why I resonate more with ancient spiritual rituals because they didn' t represent any of that; people just communicated with the natural world. I think that' s what we' ve lost today, and what I' m personally trying to get back to.|
Could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you became interested in ' the worlds of ancient Japan' ?
Visiting these sacred sites somehow seems to change you and before I knew it, I had a new identity and I just sensed intuitively that this ancient world was one I needed to explore. I started documenting sacred sites and it expanded into a body of work spanning five years of research and pilgrimages all over the country. And I hope that it is a journey which will continue, because there are still many unanswered questions about so much of the ancient world. I am also compelled to carry on with this work as urban development coupled with recent environmental disasters is threatening the survival of some of these sacred sites. We can' t take the risk of losing such important keys to our understanding of Japan' s ancient history and how it relates to our history as a whole.
Could you give a brief overview of the ancient beliefs of Japan?
Ancient spiritual practices in Japan, later known as Shinto, adhered to the belief that spirits were to be found and honoured in everything around you: the rocks, the trees, the mountains and even in the tools that you used. There was a reverence for life in all things which we have sadly moved away from in our modern age. There was also a very strong tradition of shamanism which is not something often associated with Japan. The legendary Queen Himiko (3rd century AD), Japan' s most famous shaman leader, seems to forever fascinate the Japanese public. It is interesting to see how in recent years there has been a sudden surge in interest with anything to do with psychic and paranormal phenomena. It' s hard to be certain why this is all happening, but I feel it may be a sign that these ancient beliefs are returning to modern Japan and being readapted to the context of contemporary life.
It was just like following a mystery trail. There' s very little information about many of these places so in a sense I had to trust my intuition. But there is a growing number of people who are turning back to the ancient spiritual traditions of the Jomon period (10,000-300BC) in particular, and books talking about this ancient wisdom and energy which is coming back again to Japan.Naturally this exhibition does not cover every sacred site, so I was looking at ones that you could perhaps put in the ' unexplainable' category. How were they made, these monolithic structures weighing hundreds of tonnes? We tend to dismiss these people as primitive, into pagan worship. But when you really look at what they built, it' s quite phenomenal. And to go up mountains and find stone circles - it was like visiting Stonehenge! Most people don' t associate stone circles with Japan. And it still amazes me how few people have heard of the massive underwater temple ruins in Okinawa. There are new discoveries being made all the time. It is certainly an exciting time for Japan!
Some of the places I visited have been quite challenging to get to and knowing that I was only person around for miles in the really isolated areas left me feeling pretty scared! That is where I had to always trust that I was protected. Much the same way people in ancient times must have felt, I' m sure.
Do you have a favourite place, or one you feel special affinity with?
Okinawa, without a doubt. I don' t know why, but every time I' m there, something mystical happens.
Is there a specific site in Okinawa?
It' s the whole energy of the islands, the people, and the vibrant colours and fragrances of the land which intoxicate the senses! I have a growing feeling that Okinawa is going to help Japan move out of the doldrums it is in right now and interest in Okinawa seems to be greater than ever. How many places can you go where ancient spirituality is still alive and put into practice daily, despite the tragedies that the people there have had to endure? That' s why I love the Okinawan spirit.
Where does wasai (kimono making) and beading fit into this?
People look at beads and think ' Oh, a pretty accessory' . But beads have been a spiritual connection for humanity since ancient Egypt. And my interest in recreating shaman costumes derives from my belief that clothes have more symbolic meaning than just being something fashionable. For me, beads and costume represent a celebration of spirit in the same way that sacred sites do, so they are all interconnected in a sense.
What I found interesting about the clothes you showed here was that they were in modern materials and beautiful colours – a blend of ancient and modern design.
I like to think that is where we are heading now. We have to have a fusion of both. We can' t reject one for the other. And that' s probably where my own original spirit is coming through. I' m putting my love of colour into the costumes to give them new life. If I had just gone with the traditional colours, you could go and see that in a museum. So that was my touch.
I' m hoping to develop it now into a more modern line, but still honour the traditions of wasai. I love how nothing is wasted. With all the extra tucks the material can be pulled out later to mend the kimono. A kimono lasts for over a hundred years; how phenomenal is that? These traditions are dying out now – a problem heard of only too often in Japan today – so that was also a part of my motivation.
Tell me some more about the parallels between ancient Japanese spiritual traditions and other indigenous beliefs around the world.
I have a very strong connection to Canada, to the Canadian Indians. The calling on the forces of nature and the gods for assistance is very similar to ancient Shinto rites. I am very struck at how similar the rituals and the beliefs are with our own Aborigines too. The kami, or the idea of spirit gods, is central to all these people, as is a reverence for nature. Look at the Aborigines, they' ve been here 40,000 years. It' s basically barren out there, but they haven' t destroyed the environment, they live off that land. All these ancient people had knowledge of how to work with the forces of nature and they' re still doing it today.
Do you think these ancient beliefs will or can be revived in the modern world?
Well, I think that is the message of my work. Ancient beliefs are in the process of being revived and there are people all over the world tuning into this now. It has suddenly all become very relevant with the growing problems we have faced with our environment in recent years. It' s my personal feeling, but if we don' t start listening to these people who have a working knowledge of the forces of nature, then we' re in trouble.
Look at the weather here, it' s been very erratic. And Japan is experiencing an ever-growing pattern of irregular weather. How are we going to cope with it all? Our governments are going to have a hard time, not only in our generation but for those to follow. We have to turn back to the wisdom of our ancestors and listen to nature once more.
|i ' Kami' is usually translated as god, or gods. It is used to refer to the divine in Shinto religion, traditionally interpreted as a mysterious force which resides in natural elements, animals, and certain human beings (Kodansha' s Encyclopaedia).|
ii Asuka in Nara Prefecture was the site of several imperial palaces in the 7th century and is considered an ancient capital city.
iii A sacred mountain associated with the Buddhist saint Kobo Daishi (Kukai) in Wakayama prefecture.
iv The Izumo shrine in Shimane prefecture is one of the oldest and most important Shinto shrines in Japan.
|*Click photo to enlarge|
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