I visited London at the weekend especially to see the new exhibition that has been making great waves among the Japan blogging community here in the UK – Hokusai Exposed. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, but from what I had read I was hoping for something pretty special.
The exhibition is being held in an interesting gallery space in Ely’s Yard, just off Brick Lane by the Old Truman Brewery.
When I arrived I was early to meet my friend so I treated myself to some takoyaki from Juzu (the best in town!) and leant against the wall watching the world go by. It was bustling, people everywhere, market stall holders loudly declaring their wares and people excitedly chatting in the street. I found myself reminded of a similar ‘takoyaki time’ in Osaka, and felt a pang of nostalgia for Japan. なつかしい。。。
Entering the exhibition I was ready for a full dose of Japan. Bring on the ukiyo-e! Show me to the shunga!
The upper part of the exhibition was devoted to conventionally displayed reproductions of Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (富嶽三十六景). I have to say, I wasn’t crazy about the frame choices, especially the chunky metallic-looking ones.
The pieces, originally ukiyo-e woodblock prints, have been recreated using an advanced Japanese digital printing technology. The ‘re-create project’ aims to reproduce the colours of each piece as closely as possible to the original. The technique was originally used to recreate Vermeer‘s work in 2012, and now in 2013 the technique has been turned to Hokusai (葛飾 北斎).
Re-Create was developed by Dr Shin-Ichi Fukuoka. Born in 1959 in Tokyo, Fukuoka is a writer, translator, and professor of biology affiliated to the School of Cultural and Creative Studies, Aoyama Gakuin University, and also a visiting professor at Rockefeller University in New York City. Fukuoka noted that the focus of art restoration was more on conservation that trying to restore the work to a state equivalent to that of the original work, and so he set about creating a method of digital remastering using the latest printing techniques. His aim was to re-create, not reinterpret or imitate.
“Re” means both “once more, anew” and to “return to a previous state”; the “re-create” process achieves both. “Re-create” is the process of creating artwork again, with the new artwork appearing just as the original would have done when it was first painted or printed. The colour and detail that has been lost in the passing of time is restored, thanks to cutting-edge digital imaging technology, (re-)creating a “new” work that links the artist of the past to the audience of the present.
Having seen reproduced ukiyo-e at the ICN gallery before I have to confess I found this work slightly lacking in depth and purpose. The exhibition I saw previously (and the workshop I attended) showed ukiyo-e painstakingly recreated using the original woodblock printing techniques – a project which aimed not only to reproduce classic works of art but also to teach and maintain the skill of woodblock printing. These new works, however, have been recreated using computers. The Re-Create project has used detailed histogram analysis, colour matching techniques and original materials to attempt to capture the original essence of the image, but I found the images somewhat flat. They are colourful and beautiful though, and to anyone who hasn’t seen a woodblock print close up I expect they would seem quite marvellous. It certainly was quite lovely to see all Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji on display together, and I noticed a lot of details I hadn’t seen before (I didn’t realise there were so many horses in Hokusai’s work!).
However, the part of the exhibition I was really looking forward to was the basement, where the programme invited visitors to “experience a mingling of the old and the new… take a chochin (提灯 / traditional lantern) and carry it to light your way through each of the rooms… devised to suggest the back streets of an old Edo (Tokyo) pleasure district“. The chochin were a nice touch, and it was fun lifting the noren (暖簾 / curtains) to enter each room, but I think I was expecting a little bit more (perhaps I expected too much).
The rooms were divided by themes: Ghosts (Hokusai’s imaginary world), Hokusai Manga, Yoshiwara Yukaku (pleasure zone now and then), and Shunga (manpuku wago-jin) for over 18s only. In addition to the rooms, there was a huge screen showing Jisei no ku (farewell poem), a visual display specially ‘Re-created’ by projection mapping specialists ‘media drive unit cell’.
It was fun to walk around the dimly lit rooms with lanterns in our hands, especially the ghost room which contained some particularly freaky yokai (妖怪 / Japanese monsters and ghosts).
I also found the pleasure zone interesting, as Hokusai’s images of Yoshiwara (吉原 / Tokyo’s old pleasure district) were displayed next to glossy photos advertising Kabuki-cho (歌舞伎町) style hostess bars (Kabuki-cho is the modern-day red light district in Tokyo). I had never really thought to compare Yoshiwara with Kabuki-cho, but I suppose that is Tokyo’s pleasure quarter now even though the style has completely changed.
The shunga (春画 / erotic art) room was as graphic as I expected (especially having recently seen the shunga exhibition at the British Musem) and it was interesting to see some different pieces (so to speak!).
A lot of the images contained writing and it would have been nice to have been provided with a translation or even just the gist, although I know the writing would have contained stories or poems relating to the pictures. The shunga room also contained a 3D section for which we were provided with 3D glasses. I found it a bit gimmicky, and didn’t feel I gained anything from the 3D-ness, but it helped to keep the atmosphere light and people around me seemed to be enjoying the glasses.
The projection mapping by digital imagery specialists ‘media drive unit cell’ was probably the most interesting part of the exhibition for me. Hokusai’s images were animated and brought to life, whilst also being mixed with modern manga-style and computer generated images. The Great Wave Off Kanagawa (神奈川沖浪裏) was impressively splashing right off the screen, and we were led right through the Great Gate at the entrance to Yoshiwara, deep into the pleasure quarters themselves. The 5-minute long video projection was punctuated with a repeating phrase said to be the last haiku Hokusai spoke before his death: “Now as a spirit I shall lightly roam the summer fields”.
The theme of the exhibition, as designed by Kenta Kishi, is ‘tainai meguri’. Tainai meguri is “the journey from dark to light and eventual rebirth which is associated with the story of Daizuigu Bosatsu, mother of Buddha“. As my friend and I made our way out of the dark basement and back to light ground level, I’m not sure that I felt reborn, but I did feel slightly enlightened. The exhibition wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it certainly was interesting and I managed to lose myself in there for a couple of hours!
After all that hard work examining art by lamplight there was no better way to finish my trip to ‘Hokusai land’ than with a small glass of sake and a nose around the gift shop. A pop-up sake bar has been cleverly set up in the entrance of the gallery, and for a relatively reasonable price (starting at £2 a glass) punters can sample some sake. There are eight different types of sake on offer. We tried ‘Ugo no Tsuki’ (Moon After Rain) and ‘Hideyoshi’ (‘La Chamte’ Sparkling) and they were both really nice and very drinkable! The sake was also on sale by the bottle – the sparkling sake for £20 and the fruity ‘Moon After rain’ for £40 a bottle. They were a bit out of my price range but would have made great gifts.
The gift shop also sold a whole range of Hokusai related things, from postcards to pens, mousemats to phone charms, fans to furoshiki (風呂敷 / traditional wrapping cloths). I really has to stop myself buying something!
Hokusai Exposed (Re-Create) is on at The Old Truman Brewery, Ely’s Yard, 15 Hanbury Street, London E1 6QR until 17th November. Visit www.hokusaiexposed.com for more information.