Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Jacqueline Nicholls' "Draw Yomi" Project

The tradition of joining the world-wide Jewish community commitment to study a page of the Babylonian Talmud  a day (2,711 pages in total) in a 7.5 year-long in a specific cycle -- is called Daf YomiSince the custom, minhag, began in 1923, then the entire cycle has been completed 12 times; the last one ending August 2, 2012. The current one is due to be completed in January 2020. 

I've not done it even for a day, but I have been following Jacqueline Nicholls' "Draw Yomi" Project in which she not only participates in the reading, but also she draws images from the passages and offers a short commentary or note about its contents for a decidedly personal,  21st Century feminist eye. It is a bit haiku-ish in that it is not work that is over thought, but definitely impressionistic. We are who we are when we enter the current of the big river.

A prolific artist who lives in London, Nicholls' other works are mostly in the fiber arts that address women's role in Jewish rituals, exploring the forms and intentions of minhagim, traditions, and projecting them on to personal experiences of life cycles of the body and the peoplehood. 

Today, after catching up on her daily impressions, I explored once again her website and entered "rooms" of her many thematic projects. I was struck particularly by her "Kittel" project today. A kittel is a very simple garment that an observant man (usually) will wear at his wedding, funeral and on the annual days of yom kippur in between. It is white, full length and has sleeves. A perfect canvas for such an inspired, skillful artist.

Here is her thought about the “Dignity Kittel” ...

“I used to spend Christmas volunteering at a temporary homeless shelter in London that provided basic services and support. In amongst the medical and dental care, food, hairdressing, there was a large clothing section. The guests could choose an outfit, and my job was to make sure that these garments fitted them properly, so when they stepped out in their new suit, they looked smart and dignified. We were instructed to make sure that they didn’t look like they were wearing hand-me-downs. The shelter also supplied practical warm coats, but by ensuring that there were people there to make adjustments, they recognized that clothing doesn’t just provide protection against the elements."

We have an obligation to help recognize the inherent dignity of all Beggars, Holy or not. Thus, I’m posting this in two blogs: “Trads in Contempo Life” and “Holy Beggar”.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Japan Goes Mod(ern)

Book Reviews by Lauren W. Deutsch
Originally published in 
Kyoto Journal  #58May 2004
Reprinted in support of LACMA's Kimono for a Modern Age Exhibition 2014

Turning Point: Oribe and the Arts of Sixteenth-Century Japan
Miyeko Murase, Ed. (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2003)

Mavo: Japanese Artists and 
The Avant-Garde 1905-1931 
Gennifer Weisenfeld (University of California Press, Berkeley, 2002)

Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions 
of Modern Japan
Stephen Vlastos, Ed. (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998)

Imagine … It's early 1924. Furuta Oribe XII's 20-something only son, Oribe xiii, is deep into an early mid-life crisis. Life as an heir-apparent is not cutting it. Endlessly attending and holding those stuffy tea gatherings every time a cherry blossom petal takes to wind or a maple leaf blushes. He's full-up-to-here with the pretentiousness of emptiness, with a capital "EMPTY". Besides, no one sits seiza anymore.

His family's legacy of quirky ceramics and interior design, so beloved by generations of aesthetes of yore, has not transitioned into the new social economy. The Western hungry ghosts have insatiable appetites for Japanese oldies-but-goodies Chinoiserie knock-offs. The nouveau riche industrialists are good to go 24/7 with assembly line versions of his great-great-great-etc. granddaddy's classics, but the output is so much vulgar stuttering, diluting the genius of spontaneity. They think a whack of a paddle, a swish of brown slip and a splat of green glaze and … a masterpiece. Ha!

Very soon he'll be installed with full rights as Mr. XIII. This will mean managing and supporting the dreary household staff. It's not his cup of tea.

Wriggling out of the nijiriguchi, he hangs up the "Sorry We Missed You!" sign on the roji gate and heads for the sento. In the genkan, the front page of the morning's shinbun blasts an editorial about the decline of morals of youth due to a dangerous and growing sense of individualism among the intelligentsia. Women are cutting their hair short, exposing their skin in public, and men are wearing unisex fashion. There's a notice about a group of artists who are staging an art show and poetry reading at a café in support of a petition for more affordable housing. Another about the round up of students hanging out at that same joint.

Slipping into his new brown hounds-tooth jodhpur, cream mohair jacket and forest green leather boots, he heads shitamachi to find that little café. His soul is dry. And he's very thirsty. Thirsty for a fresh look at the world.

Consider what might transpire if xiii had met the modernists of his own time, Picasso for sure … But this fantasy must serve this review, so he meets Murayama Tomoyoshi and his band of merry Taisho pranksters, the artists of the Mavo movement.

Turning Point is the long awaited book on about the impact of Momoyama generalissimo chajin Furuta Oribe on Japanese aesthetics. Hideaki Furukawa, the director of The Museum of Fine Arts in Gifu, offers in its early pages, "The impulse to challenge and defy convention could be called the defining theme of Japan's Momoyama period. 'Oribe' neatly captures this sprit of creative nonconformity…" The Oribe book made its debut in sync with the block-buster one-stop exhibition of the same name held at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art staged at the end of 2003 through early 2004.

Weisenfeld's dense opus, Mavo,  is a chronicle of the activities, inspirations and impact of Mavo, the Japanese sociopolitical aesthetic movement dated 1905 - 1931. It primarily focuses on Murayama Tomoyoshi, the movement's mastermind, who seemed to have a whole lot of fun stirring up the already turbulent Taisho status quo, with a capital QUO. While a bit dense to casually, the narrative would serve very well if complementing an exhibition.

"Mavo was a self-proclaimed avant-garde constellation of artists and writers collaborating in a dynamic and rebellious movement that not only shook up the art establishment, but also made an indelible imprint on the art criticism of the period," she outlines.

Rigorous narratives supported by copious illustrations fill these two volumes. By re- and de-constructing reputations, myths and the physical remnants of the times, they address philosophy and production of art in a multitude of methods -- from clay and oil painting and sculpture, to architecture, theatre and the mass media. They also give us images of how Japan deals with errant aesthetes.

During each period, evolutions of artistic styles were inseparable from developments in Japanese enterprise, hegemony and industrialization, mass consumer culture, and social order. Bookending three centuries of isolationism, it may be argued that the volumes under consideration reflect "modernist" trends within its own time period, providing an interesting spectrum from which to explore the premise of Vlastos' book Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan

"Artists are too often omitted from sociopolitical studies [of the Japanese intelligentsia], here they gain their rightful place in the debates of the early twentieth century. Including those who dealt with art: educators, bureaucrats, dealers, collectors and publishers," notes Weisenfeld.

As an exhibition catalog, Turning Point is a font of illustrations of stunning dogu for chanoyu. It also contains generous helpings of mind -candy about the who / how / huh of Oribe. In addition, it offers literary works, screen painting and even Portuguese maps and diaries. Each points to Oribe's impact as a major "player" in volatile and changing political, social and cultural landscapes of his time … and now.

A major focus of the book and exhibition is the new archeological scholarship being undertaken at historic Seto kiln sites. Sifting through household waste and layers of potsherds, they are documenting the popularity and mass production of Oribe-ness. What is lacking in both book and exhibition is a sampling of today's Oribe-ish ephemera such as plastic sushi bar shoyu dishes. Do I ask too much?

The editor states, "During the era of Oribe, a common aesthetic language bound all the visual arts more strongly than any other time in Japan before or since, and intimate working relationships existed among artists in different media." Until the advent of Mavo, perhaps.

Like the French impressionists in the late 19th century, Murayama and his avant-garde cronies took on the gadan (art establishment) of their time, unabashedly challenging conventional taste and social norms. And like Oribe, Murayama was charismatic and drew tremendous inspiration from his collaborations with others.

Where Oribe's jazzy naturalistic designs were to be "seen" mostly dimly lit tea rooms set to promote harmony and tranquilly, purity and respect, MaVo was a brash, in-your-face under- and-above-ground collective tour de force affront to the bitter reality of life Meiji / Taisho.

The origin and significance of the "Mavo" name itself  seems to be contested among the group members. The most widely disseminated story has it coming from a random selection within a collective process with representation of the membershipitself. While a hotly disputed conclusion, it proved to be a useful "brand", replete with mystery. The actual composition of "membership" also waxes and wanes with opinions, however scholarly, but consensus contends it fluctuated.

What is quite clear, however, is that they played turned everything upside down and backwards.. For example, The "V" in Mavo on their publication covers is mimicked in several of the members' (men and women) hair styles … or is it vice versa?Like Andy Warhol's "Factory" in New York of the 1960s, the group of young, largely self-trained Mavo men and women spent as much energy promoting its manifesto as making the "art" itself.

"While drawn together because of a 'constructivist inclination,'" states the author, "the Mavo artists did not assert ideological solidarity. Rather, they maintained distinct convictions, respecting each other's personal goals."
On the serious art side, Mavo was deeply imprinted by German Abstract Expressionism and the "happenings" of Dada and other modernist movements in Europe and the USA. Illustrations include architectural designs catering to the lifestyle of the proletariat. Graphic designs for leftist literary works, periodicals and promotional materials for Mavo events incorporated typographic influences of Europe (including classic Germanic script and Hebrew!).

Weisenfeld writes:  "They strived to revolutionize the form, function and intent of Japanese art. They aimed to reestablish a connection they felt had been broken in the Meiji period with the codification of autonomous "fine art' based on the Western model … reintegrating art into the social (and political) practice of everyday life."

As a friend living in Japan said, it would take an exhibition in New York or Paris for Furuta Oribe to be publicly claimed by the Japanese as a favorite son in "mixed" (gai and Nihon-jin) company. And then there's Mavo. Can't imagine the French keeping Picasso a secret for 400 years, much less declaring the uniqueness of analytical cubism.
If you're reading Kyoto Journal, you have undoubtedly been in this situation: You're in the market check-out line; your basket includes tofu. The Japanese customer in front of you turns and, eyeing the tofu, says, "You can eat?" You nod, perhaps a polite grunt, and say, "Do you eat this?" "Yes, but I am Japanese."

In Mirror of Modernity, his excellent collection of essays on an eclectic assortment of "modernisms", Stephen Vlastos writes, "Modern Japan is widely regarded as a society saturated with customs, values and social relationships that organically link present generations of Japanese to past generations." (The accompanying article, "En Avant Garde" attempts to exercise this notion.)

A confession: I fell for it when I was a teenager. I believed in Japan's reverence for the traditional. I shunned rock 'n' roll for origami. I completely missed the party scene in the 60s and am trying to make up for lost time by getting high on matcha and eating dried breakfast cereal called "Zen".

An easy, entertaining read (with a great index, glossary and bibliography), the book takes us backstage to view the artifices of the Meiji and Taisho with compelling arguments to support his conclusion that there may be no there "there". It's done with mirrors.

Vlastos central question is, "How, by whom, under what circumstances, and to what social and political effect are certain practices and ideas formulated, institutionalized and propagated as tradition?"

While it is stated that Ito Hirobumi was the principal architect of Japan's modernization project in the latter part of the 19th Century, we are told that Yanagita Kunio invented the "tradition of Japanese tradition" by claiming, "Japan's preservation of its original culture made Japan unique among modern nations. Japan alone had achieved modernity without cutting itself off from its original culture."

"Every tradition trades between two poles: imagination and contrivance, creation and deception, he says."

The explosive growth of Japanese capitalism after World War I sparked new media technologies, new forms of entertainment and pleasure seeking, and the mass markets with their items of personal consumption. It's how the Daimyos became princes and evolved into CEOs.

Vlastos' selection of 16 essays by which to explore the social and cultural chaos is eclectic: the fundamental notion of wa, harmony, is hit head-on. Other checkpoints include labor management, shifting gender roles as reflected in the café waitress as moga (modern girl), the development of sentimentality for folksy village life, the challenges to tame colonial Manchuko with Imperial loyalty. At the same time the archipelago was evolving into a "modern" nation state, newly contrived prefectural identities were galvanized with neo-religious fervor.

One of the most intriguing discussions is the morphing of the classic warrior skills into more broadly accessible martial arts, budo, represented here by Kokudan judo. This provided a safe way to address the threat of the growing popularity of sports and the penultimate expression of world harmony, the Olympics  -- a Western construct which was considered dangerous to the populace as it could infect society with "individualism and liberalism". Author Inoue Shun notes, "Ideologues argued that sports must be "Japanized" through budo." These "games" became a much-needed "safe" expression of national identity and was consumable casually or otherwise by everyman.

Another intriguing piece deconstructs the notion of "home", the architecture of domestic life, in post-Meiji. Its author, Jordan Sands, notes one of the big jumps from the feudal to a modern, social construct could be found in the new practice of family dining. This meant synchronizing mealtimes and sharing an eating place. It required replacing individual meal trays with a dining table. He goes on to address other elements of domesticity such as interior design as it imposes and implies social status and carves out the possibility of privacy.

The author's own essay focuses on agrarianism. "At the end of the 1920s embattled farmers and rustic intellectuals transformed agrarianism into a movement of economic renewal and political activism. Farmers, desperately searching for practical solutions to the very real problem of economic survival, and rural polemicists, certain that capitalism and city culture were the root cause of the crisis, developed their own brand of agrarianism."  Capitalism's "erosion of social authority" was thwarted by "the enshrinement of the agricultural village as the well-spring of authentic Japanese culture."  As a result of the social turmoil of the 1930s, the reassuring image of harmonious and productive farm families served the ideological needs of many sectors of Japanese society, he concludes."

Vlastos calls upon to Miriam Silverberg for a glimpse of that new “traditional” phenomenon: the café waitress as representative of moga. Not to be confused with geisha and the kissaten, coffeehouse, staff, she was "bourgeois woman's challenge to established gender norms".

[The café was itself a modern construct. Unlike the coffeehouse, which is said to have been established in 1888 and could be considered a version of the pre-modern teahouse, the café, was considered a "modern success of the Taisho-period milk halls," the author says, but does not describe further. Puratan (Printemps) is considered the first Japanese café, modeled after the male-staffed French hangout. Puratan was opened in the spring of 1911 by the artist Matsuyama Shozo, a painter in the yoga (Western style) who served food and wine to go with the graffiti he had painted on the café walls. It catered mainly to the salaried middle class and intellectuals.]

Going back to the front of this article, it attempts to demonstrate how Japan draws upon the past to create and validate the present and uses this energy to illuminate the past. Sounds like a flawed plan for a perpetual motion machine. I maintain that one must go back as far as possible and cite the source. Rand Castile, the American scholar of chanoyu, once observed that Rikyu created wabi. Sabi, on the other hand, cannot be created. "Perhaps wabi exists only in opposition to something." I maintain this tension is similar for the notion of "modernity."

Taking Vlastos at his word, I can't help but look at the Momoyama's chado explosion, with its nostalgic bow to the artifice of wabi and chashitsu -as-cosmos construct. Are these any less contrived than the café and sumo's yokuzono system discussed in his book? Aren't the former "modern" for their time?

When asked why, despite the unbroken lineage and impeccability of presentation of the art, the oiemoto of a major chanoyu school is not designated a "living national treasure", I was told that no one can tell him he isn't.

I would suggest that this practice of self-alignment has something to do with encounters with gaijin. Perhaps it was an act of purification, much like the Biblical Exodus period of isolation and wandering in the desert to galvanize identity. While not discussed, it seems necessary to determine whether there was a lack of fabrication of tradition during the 300 years of Japan's isolation until "opening up".

Sunday, July 13, 2014

快樂 ☺ :-) (^_^)

Long before today’s ubiquitous Smiley Face replaced the multi-letter “Have-a-nice-day”  human beings communicated through pictures. About 3500 years ago, the Chinese began to create a written communication system composed of brushed line drawings – with one to over 33 strokes -- called hanzi, It remains the only complete living logographic writing system in the modern world and the only one serving as the primary writing system for hundreds of millions of people, including Korea (hanja) and Japan (kanji).

These ink brushed images evolved from over 200 basic symbols or radicals, that, when combined and sometimes even contorted, could be basically understood because of the graphic similarity to a well-recognized symbol. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then by adding three more zeros to the already 54,000 distinct hanzi, the opportunities for expressing ideas to this day seem endless. (The total is unknown, as are some of the meanings and vocalized values of many today.)

“You can put so much in the volume of Chinese words because the structure is so symbolic and dense with meaning, said bilingual Ai Weiwei, China’s renown contemporary artist turned political dissident in the August 2013 Interview magazine. Ai, an inveterate Twitterist noted, “I can write a novel in 140 characters. ”His @aiww is automatically translated into English.

While it is possible to conduct daily life (and read a newspaper) in the 21st century by knowing how to read “only” 3500 of them, the average East Asian needed something simpler that would enable literacy to spread, not to mention to allow “new” ideas to be expressed.

According to tradition, the 9th century the Japanese Buddhist priest Kukai invented the bilateral Kana system: two sets of 51 characters, with one set for foreign (originally Chinese Buddhist scripture) words and, later, another for the vernacular. In 1443 Korea’s King Sejung the Great created the 24 characters for Hangeul, to expand literacy and were designed to replicate the position of the tongue in the mouth when speaking. Around the same time, Koreans invented moveable type (78 years prior to Guttenberg.) Much later, during the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s, the progressive linguistic democratization movement simplified the written hanzi system, and the majority of the population was lifted out of illiteracy. (Taiwan does not use this simplified system.)

A major challenge to rendering meaning through hanzi and its related brush-and-ink system of writing. Because 1/ a single character have many meanings and 2/ many characters produce a similar vocalized sound, all writing must be understood in context of cultural realities, historical and cotemporary.

All of this accommodation to language follows the evolution of the complexity of life; while verbs and modifiers haven’t changed much, the stock of nouns have grown with each new planetary exploit and thing-a-ma-jig. So, while the sounds value of the characters didn’t change, the choice of appropriate written character to render a new word required a creative, open mind. It is not unusual for a reader of hanzi (or its cousins) to be stumped about meaning of a statement when seeing an unexpected logograph in an “unlikely” place or rendered with a writing style that seems illegible. In the case of the later, a character may be reconstructed through its official stroke order by tracing it with one’s finger in the palm of the other hand.

As the distance between East and West grew shorter, the use of the Latin or Romanized alphabet became known in the East. Not only did it enable the learning of proper vocalization of Germanic and Romance languages, but it also became fashionable. In Japan, it is possible that four writing systems (kanji, katakana, hiragana and Romaji) might appear in a single sentence, if only to lend a splash of westernized spice.

What seems more important is that , for all their complexity, hanzi logographs themselves do not fully convey emotional intent of the writer. This is inferred from the style of the calligraphy. There are five to eight recognized basic calligraphy styles of the hanzi-based symbols. It is easy to see how brush rendered “words” have been seamlessly incorporated into paintings, including the artist's signature as well as poems. In the case of literature, the choice of one character over another can add a critical poetic / thematic / historic reference.

No matter which character is used, however, emotionality has been lost since the mechanical renderings of hanzi, from moveable type utilized in early printing to the digital forms familiar today. Despite its other limitations, this is not a problem for Romanized writing. All Latin-based letterforms but “I” have no intrinsic meanings. Computer keyboards, reliant on Unicode text, are even more limiting, however compact. Sourcing hanzii via phonetic Romaji spelling is laborious. Beyond the @ and # symbols that have been appropriated for a variety of technical functionality, it is no wonder that symbols, such as began to creep into communications.

With the explosive use of mobile phones for text messaging, emoticons, emotional icons have been informally crafted and widely adopted to efficiently express emotionality for written communications. Wikipedia defines “emoticon”, emotion icons, 表情符号 in hanzi (literally, surface sentiment feeling mark) as “metacommunicative pictorial representations of “facial expression which in the absence of body language and prosody serves to draw a receiver's attention to the tenor or temper of a sender's nominal verbal communication, changing and improving its interpretation.”

Unlike brushing a hanzi character with a just a breath of ink onto a thirsty piece of rice paper or playing a piano with a soft touch to produce a quiet sound, or might both be appropriate for a lullaby, pressing lightly on the keypad will not make a difference in the sentiment of a Twitter posting. “Spelling”, or in this case, constructing a prs did.oper image from available elements, is the key to uccess.

There is almost universal consensus that for Westerners, the Smiley Face is rendered from the keypad as :) or :-). On the other hand, Japanese emoticons, kamoji (literally “face mark”) render it as (^_^).  Beyond the distinct vertical vs horizontal readings, there is a critical difference in these two basically similar anthropomorphic symbols.

According to a behavioral scientist in Hokkaido University, the selection or creation of the right “mouth” or “eye” styles are critical to meaning. “In Japan people tend to look to the eyes for emotional cues, whereas Americans tend to look to the mouth. ... Perhaps it is because the Japanese, when in the presence of others, try to suppress their emotions more than Americans do.” He further notes, “American subjects in the research rated smiling emoticons with sad-looking eyes as happier than the Japanese subject.

When you're happy and you know it, clap your hands!!!!

Kim Keumhwa's Everyday Shamanism


Photographs and Text © Lauren W. Deutsch 2013
Originally Published in Kyoto Journal (Fall, 2000 Special Issue: “Just Deeds”) by Contributing Editor Lauren W. Deutsch Reporting from Seoul, Korea 

IT'S FIVE A.M. o crisp spring morning in the densely populated hillside community of Immun-dong in Seoul. The sun is just sparking on the dew settling on lids of the huge brown onggi ceramic jars that nest all over patios androoftops like odd eggs awaiting their mother's warmth. Like most of their makers, even the kimch’i vegetables and bean paste sauces curing and pickling inside are still snoozing. The air is uncharacteristically quiet and blessedly clean for this otherwise manic metropolis.

Kim Keumhwa, Korea's renowned charismatic naramansin, “national” shaman, is already awake, dressed casually in slacks and a polo shirt, quietly moves about her small granite faced home’s second floor preparing to greet the spirits lodged in her small sindang (spirits’ shrine room) next to her bedroom. Next door, in a small room shared with beautiful laquered wardrobes decorated with abalone shells, I am already awake anticipating another very exciting day as a guest in her home. The great challenge for me is to observe silently. We do not speak the same language, and I, one who uses words extensively, must resort to relying on almost nonexistent performative patterns of communications. Lucky for me, she has a sense of humor!

With a few silent gestures she invites me to help her remove the half dozen brass and ceramic bowls resting on the three-tiered altar that runs on three sides of the room and to replace the water therein. We rinse and refill them with water from a nearby sink and replace them on the shelves. She offers me a box of matches by which to light two large candles in the center, by which to light and offer incense in the large brass urn filled with clean ash. As my eyes adjust to the candlelight, sword-brandishing, mounted mustachioed warriors, flanked by esteemed high administrative officials and Judges of Heaven, Hell and Earth, venerable philosophers, scholars and kings, dragons, turtles, constellations of stars and tigers portrayed in colorful paintings and statues leer at us from the walls and shelves. They are nonetheless wide awake from their night's watch. I smile back sleepily. In a dozen full prostrations, we entreat her spiritual intimates to continue to uphold peace among themselves and us mortals.

Downstairs, this tall, athletic-looking woman of almost 70 years tiptoes past rooms full of sleeping extended family members and her housekeeper. Sliding open the glass door to the front patio, she slips on sneakers picked from a dozen or more pairs of shoes. I follow her down the steep lane to the main street of a Seoul neighborhood that long ago lost its rambling rooflines of hanok, traditional Korean architecture, that were raised (or fallen due to the test of time). Now the area is filled with a sprawling modern apartment complex of huge, look-alike concrete structures that line up like a set of encyclopedia volumes, each sporting a number and name on its side. We walk along for one block past metal streetside roller doors that cover shop windows and doorways like closed eyelids and then begin to ascend back up another hill to the small forested woodland behind her home. Stopping by a small residence, we are joined by "Ajumoni", a friend of hers and together we continue to our first destination, a small community center playground, for a three-quarter hour set of aerobic, gymnastic and tai-chi exercises. 

Keeping up with this extraordinary woman, recognized by the government as the lineage carrier of Korea's Important Intangible Cultural Asset #82 -- the Beyonshingut and Daedonggut, West Sea Fishing Ritual --  is not easy for me, almost two decades her junior! The heart-pounding routine is only the beginning. We bid good morning to her friend and proceed at a spirited clip up paved and dirt paths past Kyung Hee University’s Neogothic-style buildings and finally arrive at a small clearing deep the woods. We take a brief rest at the reputed site of a venerable philosopher's tomb. As the sky becomes lighter we see other early-morning fitness enthusiasts who are undergoing their own regimens of energetic twists and stretches, happily chatting and encouraging each other. She greets some friends and explains that I am a guest from the USA. Finally at the top of the mountain, we sit on granite boulders shaded by pines and maples to take in the vista of one of the world’s most burgeoning metropolises.

By now the sun is fully up, clearly illuminating brick bathhouse steam spouts and metal church steeples with their names in square white block Hangul, Korean letters, Huge cranes loom over the ever-present construction sites. We can hear Seoul waking up. With no time to waste, we head back home.

This rigorous nearly three hour daily work-out keeps Kim Keumhwa's constitution in shape for the strenuous hopping and whirling, chanting and praying that is characteristic of multi-day Korean shaman rituals. Many women (and a few men) in her troupe of more than 15 senior and apprentice shamans and master musicians (including two other nationally-renown ritual specialists) were war refugees like herself from the former northern Hwanghae-do province. The group "performs" its rituals frequently throughout the country and abroad, whether commissioned to present pageantry of Korea’s indigenous religion at international arts festivals or to  gather in private service to help deeply troubled individuals plagued by malevolent spirits. On many occasions they attend to the spirits' needs at Keumhwa-dang, Kim Keumhwa's cultural center on Kanghwa-do, an island in the West Sea near Incheon.

She is also forever being taken by car or subway to meetings with government culture czars, businessmen, scholars and fellow artists to discuss upcoming festivals, the status of the traditional arts, the pressing issues of reunification and the preservation of the natural environment.  The author of several autobiographical books and the 2013 documentary biogpic Manshin: 10,000 Spirits, Kim Keumhwa is the first Korean shaman to discuss the rituals from the perspective of a practitioner. Her huge memorized repertoire of liturgical chants, instrumental music and ritual stagings not only enables her to perform rituals with unparalleled precision, but also to teach the long operatic libretto and scenarios to her apprentices with the benefit of written notes. And she participates in all pre-ritual preparations with her apprentices and assistants, from preparing the food for the offerings to creating and cleaning the ritual implements. She is a demanding teacher ... actually, the spirits are demanding! 

On an average day when she's at home, a steady stream of clients consult with her on all matters of life begin to arrive about 8:30 am. They arrive by appointment, made with the assistance of one of her initiates, and await in her living room as the family goes about its’ daily routine: grandsons getting ready for school, daughter-in-law preparing to go to Incheon to deal with the business matters of the Society for the Preservation of West Sea Baeyonsin-gut and Daedong-gut, the name of Kim Keumhwa's group, one of the coastal city’s signature unique cultural art forms. In turn, one by one, or in family or collegial groups, they are welcomed upstairs to enter the sindang where she will perform a variety of rituals, whether at her small divination table, lighting candles for their deceased loved ones, seeking special favors of the spirits to repair a distressed marriage or find a new one, to ask for the restoration of health of the body or business.

But today will be different; we cut our exercise routine short and hurried back to her home. The a large troupe of 22 members, including several retired fishermen who support her as roadies and as a choral/instrumental ensemble, were arriving at her home at 6am. Together they busily pack up cases of food offerings for the spirits, a small arsenal of swords and other traditional weapons, suitcases full of brightly colored costumes, musical instruments and other essential ritual paraphernalia and loaded them into the society’s two vans and a few private cars. The troupe has been commissioned to join two other nationally renowned shaman groups at a two-day Sea Festival in Gyeongju on the eastern seacoast. Mansinnim’s group will perform their unique daedong-gut ritual, a village ritual for harmony and reconciliation.

After bouncing around for six hours crammed into the vans (with requisite breaks for smokes, snacks and toilet at auto plazas on the highway) we arrive at our accommodations at Taebon Beach. Our accommodations were a ramshackle hanok with several rooms (empty of furniture but full of bedding) connected to a common open wooden porch and courtyard. The resort town appreciated for both its historic site --  the offshore underwater tomb of Shilla King Mumu -- and its sandy beaches, boat rides and fresh fish restaurants. Dinner is a seafood feast in one of them, and we retire early from our ordeal on the road. The festival will begin tomorrow and there is a lot of preparation needed for the ritual.

In the morning, Kim Keumhwa substitutes our sunrise city workout with a quiet walk to the surf to greet Yongwang, the Dragon King of the sea, for whom she has a deep fondness. At the water’s edge she utters her prayers facing the rising sun, her palms together at her heart, and she bows. Our physical energy is invested in picking up candles, candy wrappers, cigarette buts, empty soju bottles and other trash carelessly discarded on the beach by late night revelers. I am very moved by her focused attention to this menial task, certainly one which would not be expected of a person of her status, but which reflects her deep reverence for nature. She points to places where the remnants of melted candlewax attached to ribbon of five colors stuck in the sand. “Shamanism”, she utters.

The plan for the festival was that each of the three shaman groups would begin their rituals on the first day and finish them on the second day. At the lodging, the assistant and apprentice shamans began to prepare rice cakes by steaming the ssal, raw rice, and dried red beans in aluminum pots on portable table top butane stoves; other stoves were used to fry tofu and vegetables. At the festival site, a hastily constructed stage with a long altar along the back wall, others  were busy by carefully piling brilliantly colored sugar “candies” into towers of compelling patterns. (Ancestor spirits love sweets!) Cases of apples, bananas, melons, Asian pears, clusters of huge concord grapes and other fruit were opened and their contents wiped and also piled high into towers with plastic plates in between rows to stabilize them. The brass bowls and candlesticks, gongs and swords that had been polished in Seoul were set out and dozens of colorful hanbok, traditional Korean clothing, were unpacked from suitcases. The back board was festooned with a large array of brightly painted taenghwa, spirit icons brightly rendered in paint on cardboard, placed tightly next to each other. Many of these icons have been used in Kim Keumhwa's rituals for decades. Everyone knew his or her task and undertook it with quiet joy, intention and cooperation. As a gesture of respect for the situation and as a guest, I did not impose my desire to be of use.

The audience crowd was very sparse when the ritual began in the afternoon, making it seem that the shamans were  entertaining more the underwater sea life than humans, but all was undertaken with professionalism that befits groups of these master ritual artists. The day was beautiful, with blue sky and a light summer breeze. During breaks the members of the group were upbeat; we laughed, they would sing what seemed to be folk songs, smoke cigarettes and enjoy the fresh air. Each group presented the first half of their respective rituals in turn. At the end of the program, we packed up everything except the stage. While beachgoers were rolling up their mats for the day, we ate dinner and retired early.

On the morning of the second day of the festival, the troupe learned after breakfast that the promoter who arranged the festival would not honor his contract; they will be paid only a third of the promised fee. I was told he makes an excuse that the sponsorships were short of what was budgeted. Furthermore, the restaurant owner where we ate our meals came asking for payment from the group, but the costs were to have been born by the promoter. The situation is falling apart. The heads of the other shaman groups arrived at our lodging, and a meeting among three of the top shamans in Korea-- all recognized as master ritual artists of Important Intangible Cultural Treasures -- to discuss the difficult matter at hand. They all have had the same problem with the promoter. Meanwhile, members of her troupe prepare food offerings and entertain themselves with jokes, hearty joyful singing and abiding patience. Occasionally snacks are brought in, and through the crack in the doorway, one can see and hear the meeting conversation continue with alternating periods of intense audible conversation and deep silence for over three hours.

Finally, Kim Keumhwa decides they all must uphold their commitments to complete the remainder of the program as scheduled and will perform the final rituals in the afternoon as planned. After extensive negotiations, the other two agree. Mansinnim then decides to take a nap and invites me to do the same. Knowing what lies ahead for her personally in the ritual, I wonder how rested she can become after such reversal of fortune and   what her dreams will be.

The second “half” of the ritual proceeds as planned in the afternoon, one scene scripted to follow another according to the integrity of the program and the spirits' will. At the beginning of the ritual, as would the officials of a town or business that has commissioned such a ritual, the promoter is invited to come up to the stage to make the formal offering before the altar. His hubris is showing through gleaming eyes, and he enjoys his moment under the bright sunlight. As he makes a much too theatrical bow, officiant of this part of the ritual, clearly “inspired” by the spirit of the ancestor of all maligned shamans, deftly trips the promoter to his knees, forcing him into a more humble position! Yes, the spirits have many ways to teach humans how to get along.

The ritual continued for about two hour; different shamans donned appropriate costumes to enact the scenes for the appearance of unique spirits. Some were very comical and others deadly serious, each ritual artist dancing and chanting as the spirit literally moves her in a clearly improvisational manner of the charismatic, northern  Korea shamanic tradition. Members of the public were welcomed to come up to the altar and make personal offerings of money; about $10 was the norm. Most were older women who have made up the bulk of adherents to Korea’s indigenous traditions for generations. Their eyes were sparkling as they interacted with the shamans.

Next, a huge, slaughtered but unbutchered boiled pig, was brought up to the stage; its’ legs spread fore and aft, eyes wide open, ears perked upwards as if it were taking a huge leap into the beyond. Eventually one of the shamans thrust a heavy handled trident into its slit belly and raised it up on the handle's end to balance atop a bag of uncooked rice. Makkoli, unfiltered rice wine was poured onto it from a ladle with bold gestures, and 10,000 won bills were stuck to the liquid on the still cold pink skin; others bills stuck into its ears, mouth and snout. When the pig finally balanced like a merry-go-round animal from a pole, it was declared that the spirits were appeased, and this part of the ritual was considered accomplished successfully.

At once the instrumental music (cymbals, changgo, hourglass drum, reeded horns and various gongs) came to a frenzied crescendo and overtaking the sound of the swelling surf off-shore. The chaktu-kori will begin. Dressed in the five colored streamer-decorated costume of the Knife-Riding General, Kim Keumhwa whirls in the traditional circular pattern of her shaman ancestors and points dagger-like short brass swords at her breast, arching into a deep back-bend. She then picks up the pair of chaktu, two-foot long, razor-sharp iron rice straw cleavers, each weighing over five pounds, and begins to swing each one at her bare arms and legs. They are so sharp that they almost attract skin to their edge! She presses the edges into her cheeks and tongue. No blood is shed. Giving her assistants the blades, she dances with the spirit to the edge of the stage and accepts tribute from the by now over 100 people assembled on the sand. She is renown for this unique ritual element.

Turning with explosive physicality, she takes a running barefoot leap up a small ladder next to toward a seven foot tower assembled by standing two oil drums atop each other, and then adding a large crock filled with water, upon which sits a wooden box filled with uncooked rice and, finally, the upturned chaktu, now bolted together in parallel about six inches apart like railroad track. Holding onto fifteen-foot bamboo poles festooned with five-color streamers placed on either side for balance, she mounts the blades, turns first to bow to the altar and then to the audience. Her strong, clear voice is at once singing, praying and offering the spirit's oracles for hope and good fortune of the assembled. Staring off into the distance, she is ecstatic and invincible - and I'm exhausted just from watching.

There is no question in my mind that I don’t need to believe in what I am seeing, any more than I believe that King Mumu is under that rock out there beyond the surf. I saw the assistant sharpening the blades that morning. I saw her spend three hours discussing the sad state of affairs for shamanism and greedy promoters. They all had spent a lot of time and energy to prepare a ritual full of integrity for a very small number of people. What more can one do?

POSTSCRIPT:  Two days later, on Veterans Day, Kim Keumhwa again performed the chaktu-kori at a major rally she herself had convened on the banks of Seoul's Han River, in support of reunification and to promote environmental sustainability. One week later, the "other" two Kims, presidents of this divided land, pledged to work toward just that. She continues to keep trying to this day. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Ikea Wins India’s Accha! / OK! Captures Sub-Continent’s Demand - Side, Too!

Even Happier Than Disneyland!

Ikea is no stranger to the land of the Taj Mahal. It has been sourcing a large volume of its rugs and other fabrics from India’s huge export textile manufacturing industry, and expects to step up its supply – side activities and improve the lot of its labor force. After much deliberate cultural engineering, the world’s largest specialized furniture manufacturer, Sweden’s IKEA, was finally and recently given the government’s official “Accha!” (Hindi) / “OK!” (Swedish), to move ahead with plans to build, solely own and operate the first four of about 25 retail stores in the sub-continent.

With 301 stores already in 37 countries (as of 2012) and many first time enterprises planned in the Slavic countries of the former Soviet Union, as well as in New Zealand, Indonesia and South Korea in the coming years, Ikea has trumped the Disneyland enterprise, with outposts only in the USA, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Paris. While Ikea’s mission, “Creating a better life for the many people!” it seems not to mean “all people”, as it has no signs of moving into South America or continental Africa, save the unlikelihood that its proposed opening in September in Cairo proceeding on schedule.

These premiere emporia of good life and style will serve the targeted middle classes living adjacent to Mumbai, Hyderabad, New Delhi and Bangalore, cities with total population over 50 million. Like Target, the presence of an Ikea store is a sign of an upwardly mobile, culturally Western-leaning population in a nation with over a third of the world’s poorest people.

Like the Happiest place on earth!” (aka Disneyland), Ikea wants its customers to come to a store that is more than a place to get stuff. It is an entire experience: a museum (whose works you can interact with buy and replicate exactly in your own home or office), a warehouse that makes purchasing efficient and a place to enjoy with the whole family.

In addition to its products, Ikea stores are known for their restaurants and accommodations for children. We will be interested to see if the new India branches will have the iconic Småland, a supervised play area for children named after the province in Sweden where Ikea’s founder was born. In addition to the ultimate focus group (your kids) having the opportunity to test some of Ikea’s products, shoppers can also enjoy the store’s Swedish-themed restaurant. Like those iconic Levy’s Rye Bread ads, you don’t have to be Swedish to love Ikea’s ligonberry juice, but in Ikea Israel the food will be Kosher in accord with dietary laws. In Dubai or Abu Dhabi, hotdogs and soft-serv frozen yoghurt will not appeal to the locals, so they have adapted the menu that includes meatless options. We can expect the same in India, with 42% of the population being vegetarian.

108+ Words for Elephant

It is not yet clear whether Ikea will create its promotional materials in Hindi, or just rely on the fact that in India, a country that has had upwards of over 1600 languages spoken daily, English (of British lineage) is the most common language used by its target market: the upwardly mobile middle-class. Ikea’s paper catalogs are still published in 20 languages in 62 versions amounting to 211 million copies annually. Each regional version of the look-book is tightly edited to visually reflect what Ikea marketing gurus believe to reflect the appropriate lifestyle for a locale. (Exactly what are those storage bins holding?) Last year The Wall Street Journal reported that Swedes and Saudi Arabians were both up in arms about a page in the latter’s book that edited out images of women in some of the photos.

Of course Ikea has been actively using digital technology, including websites (which are offered in English as well as local languages), the new Ikea Now app and regional advertising.  It will save many trees, part of the company’s environmental policy.

Whether promoted in bricks-and-mortar stores or in print or online, only time will tell whether iconoclastic Ikea’s products “translate” into the Indian culture. In the land of Lord Ganesha, the god with the elephant head (and over 108 Sanskrit words for “elephant”), will Ikea repurpose its child-pleasers, such “Sagosten”, to better fit the traditions or rewrite its “LEKA CIRKUS“ to accommodate the beloved popular devotional tale, or will it take the lead from the ever accommodating webtailer Cafe Press and just sell whatever the market will bear?

Each of Ikea’s product names is an actual word in Swedish that was selected because it somehow relates to the product. The website "Ikea in Swedish" can provide assistance in pronunciation. Perhaps when Ganesha’s mom, Goddess Parvati, tells him its time to put away his ritual weapons for the day, he can use one of Ikea’s many storage systems, such as “Trofast”, which coincidentally means “faithful” in Scandinavian languages. Can we anticipate new Swedish language programs in India’s universities, utilizing the catalog as text?

Ikea’s Do (Weave, Assemble, Etc.) - it Yourself Ikea: Gandhi-ji Would Approve

Ikea is no stranger to the land of Gandhi. It has been sourcing a large volume of its rugs and other fabrics from India’s huge export textile manufacturing industry, and expects to step up its supply – side activities and improve the log of its labor force.

Beyond the typical marketing research that a powerful multi-national corporation must undertake before asserting itself into a new market, Ikea has been engaged in corporate system-wide campaigns of social responsibility assessment and realignment through the company’s signature  ”management by running around” style.

Ikea’s corporate executives, in tandem with local executives and scholars have been considering viable ways to continue to maintain profit margins and competitive edge while working with local public and private sectors to blend seemingly incompatible ethical, social, cultural and economic standards to achieve a positive bottom line for all, including its subcontracted indigenous labor force, many of whom are children. Ikea’s social and environmental responsibility campaigns are engaging international and local NGOs and even the United Nations around the table; although, its “Galant” model seems much to small to accommodate all the players. 

The Ikea Foundation, touted in The Economist as being the largest philanthropic entity in the world, has been working in India to find appropriate ways to improve the quality of life for its supply-side laborers, including women and children living in poverty. This will no doubt take longer than it does to build the new stores.

In the mean time, India will be an interesting lab to test the “Ikea effect”, where “labor leads to love”, a well-documented marketing phenomenon that individuals were in fact willing to pay more for the box they built themselves as opposed to an identical pre-assembled box. The test markets are in Ethiopia and Iraq where Ikea has worked with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and other groups to create set-up-youself shelters for Syrian refugees. Gandhi-ji would no doubt approve.