What can you tell us about your new exhibition, Noh to Mata Hari: 2000 years of Theatre in Asia?
Aurélie Samuel: The exhibition is an exploration of scenographic art in over 2,000 years of Asian theatre — from its birth in India, with Epic theatre, to its spread across the continent. The first part of the exhibition focuses on Indian Epic Theatre, a movement that drew upon Hindu mythology. It’s a form that’s heavily engaged in ideas of ritual and religion, and is intended to be didactic — for the audience, the actor is a visible manifestation of God on stage.
A second section considers the different genres of theatre that have developed in Asia. Much of these are inspired, not by religion, but by literature, history and poetry, giving the actor much greater freedom of expression. The form of the exhibition is intended to replicate the experience of attending the theatre. I want visitors to feel that they are both participants and spectators.
Opéra de Pékin, scène réunissant les personnages de l'opéra Troubles dans le royaume du ciel, 1983 © Suzanne Held
What do you hope the exhibition will achieve?
The exhibition aims to explore the West’s relationship with Asian theatre, highlighting points of commonality whilst acknowledging the potential for mistranslation — even alienation. I also wanted to show how certain directors, such as Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carrière, have responded to Asian theatre. Often, when a Western audience watches a piece of Noh or Kabuki theatre (both forms of Japanese musical drama), it seems hermetic. As an audience, we don’t feel we have the necessary codes to understand it; I hope this exhibition will change that.
The exhibition covers incredibly broad period; how did you prevent it from becoming disparate?
Though the exhibition engages with a huge range of cultures, periods and genres, what joins each of these forms of theatre is the incredible importance of costume.
Left: Itchiku Kubota, Ohn/ Fuji Glittering in Gold, 1991. Tie-dyeing, ink painting and embroidery on silk crepe (chirimen) with gold wefts. Mt. Fuji stands tall in the golden glow of the rising sun, with the sea of clouds at its base reflecting the shining morning light. Tiny delicate stitches of embroidery outline the ridges of Fuji’s snowy cone, giving it extra emphasis against the luminous sky. Right: Itchiku Kubota, Ohn/ Covered in Menacing Clouds, 2001. Tie-dyeing, ink painting and embroidery on silk crepe (chirimen) with gold wefts. A threatening atmosphere is created by the menacing clouds in the sky and at the base of the mountain that seem about to envelope the mountain.
For the majority of productions from this region, set design is extremely minimal — even non-existent. It is costume, therefore, that becomes the décor — that fills the space and indicates context; the actor wears the set design. Costume is also used to indicate the nature of a character — whether they are a woman, man, god or demon. It should echo the actor’s gestures, and follow the action. Each piece of clothing is loaded with detail and charged with meaning.
Are there any works that were particularly exciting to you as curator?
Perhaps one of the most outstanding components of the exhibition is a series of kimonos by Japanese textile artist Itchiku Kubota (1917-2003). We’re displaying 14 kimonos from two collections: Symphony of Light and Mount Fuji. Shown alongside each other, they form a panoramic landscape — like the canvases of a polyptych.
One of the artists Kubota most admired was Monet, and there is something of the artist’s Nymphéas, or Water Lilies, in this work. Viewed together, they’re incredibly striking.
How do these kimonos relate to the rest of the exhibition?
Though these kimonos weren’t conceived for a specific play, Kubota was very invested in the theatre. He wrote and directed pieces of Noh theatre to provide a forum to display his kimonos — occasionally performing in plays himself.
Left: Itchiku Kubota, Ohn/ Fuji Standing Against Golden Layers of Clouds, 2000. Tie-dyeing, ink painting and embroidery on silk crepe (chirimen). A unique tie-dye technique depicts a veil of clouds in the sky over Mt. Fuji. The brilliant red clouds that swirl around the mountain’s base are perhaps intended to recall Fuji’s origin as a volcano. Right: Itchiku Kubota, U/ Deep Space, 1999. Tie-dyeing, ink painting, embroidery and gold leaf on silk crepe (chirimen) with gold wefts. Swirling clouds of golden flames fly with abandon over the kimono, while yet others reach out from below. Kubota’s vision of the captive and restive universe at Mt. Fuji’s core is ever-dynamic, reflected in eye-dazzling bursts of colour and light.
The works in each collection are incredibly intricate. What was Kubota’s method?
Kubota was inspired by an ancient Japanese weaving technique called Tsujigahana, a highly complex method of textile colouration that saw a single kimono take a year and a half to complete. His exact technique remains something of a mystery: his method remained secret at the moment of his death in 2003.
Where is the Kubota collection held today?
Kubota’s greatest wish was for the works to be exhibited as a single work. Today, his kimonos are exhibited at the artist’s own Kawaguchiko Foundation, near Japan’s Mount Fuji. For me, the kimonos are this exhibition’s apotheosis — the play’s grand finale.
The exhibition is to be accompanied by two London-based conferences, held in association with The Japan Foundation: Worn with Pride — Textiles, Kimono, and Propaganda in Japan, 1925-1945 and A Lost Art Revived: Tsujigahana, Itchiku Tsujigahana and Ichiku Kubota — A talk by Dr Jacqueline M. Atkins
Main image at top, left: Itchiku Kubota, Ohn/ Fuji at Sunset, after a Late Afternoon Shower, 1993. Tie-dyeing, ink painting and embroidery on silk crepe (chirimen) with gold wefts. A brilliant summer sunset reflects off the melting snow on Mt. Fuji’s cone in a soft rainbow of colours, enhanced by embroidery. Flowers drawn in tsujigahana style flow down the mountain and are also seen in the terrain exposed by the clouds. Right: Itchiku Kubota, Shu/ The Dragon Soars High, 2000. Tie-dyeing, ink painting, gold leaf, and embroidery on silk crepe (chirimen) with gold wefts. As the dragon soars high, his body may be out of view but his long, scaly tail can be seen floating across the top of the kimono. The dragon is an important motif in Asian art and one of the four sacred creatures that represent the four quadrants of the universe. (SL/U)
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