Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens.

– Carl Jung

Le Corbusier in Urbanisma indicated that modern art and thought were tending in the “direction of geometry” and that ‘the age’ was essentially a “geometrical one.” He was advancing claims in 1925 that today govern the totality of our visual existence. In addition, the confluence of geometrical regularity, psychoanalytical identity, hyper communication and capitalistic transaction have left zeitgeist fingerprints all over contemporary art. The preternatural peaking and troughing of trends that facilitates the rapid – often vapid – careerism at the epicentre of the new art world today means there is little space for the slow germination of creative thought and development. Think Hirst, Emin, Koons et al as the figureheads/ godheads of the ‘over-night-er’ epoch. Bright, unapologetic, in-yer-face, referential, postmodern Art- with a capital A.  The very epitome of our modern consciousness; see the postmodern juxtapositions, the play, the inner trauma, the sense of spectacle, provocation, spiritual vacuum, isolation, elevation of the mundane, nuance and posturing.

Modern art (its antecedents found in the ideologies of nineteenth century bohemia and the early twenteeth  century avant-garde) was born out of historical periods marked by great social and political change; ones that saw old Edwardian certainties collapse, together with the meteoric rise of the urban environment. Robert Hughes in Nothing if not critical explains: “the idea of  avant-garde was born in the nineteenth century, in the ideas of men such as Baudelaire. And it was linked to city life. Cities inflicted rapid change on human life; the country stood for slow change or not at all”. He suggests, “this image of the dynamic capital against the torpid provinces was tied into all the main cities of modernism – Moscow and Leningrad, Vienna and Berlin, Milan, Barcelona and New York.”

It’s out of world cities like these that the modern-art movement escalated into the goliath it has become today. Urban reality; the density, anonymity, autonomy, isolation, distraction, rapidity, freedom, expression, threat and indulgence has turned human behaviour, like a sweater, inside out. Private inner life (once jealously guarded) now compulsively competes for the public space.  The very cities that gave rise to creative bohemia are choking on the deluge.  Competition has become stiffer, the attention-grabbing gestures greater, the rewards higher, losses lower, and the circle goes round and round.

Against such a background, I visited a project called IKIRO commissioned as part of Cork’s ArtTrail 08.  Along the sprawling docklands of Cork city harbour, I entered the Southern Fruit Warehouse via the dilapidated offices of  a once thriving factory, down a corridor into the large, cold, dark body of the factory shell, and rounded a corner to bails of hay and scattered straw debris. A large makeshift structure dominated the corrugated industrial hanger. I grew closer, realising the structure was fabricated from wooden palettes. These palettes loomed approx 7ft high, to form a boat-type shape. Accessing the structure through a side opening, my attention was immediately drawn upwards. What looked like washing lines of  book pages (filled with Japanese symbols) hung overhead. Rows upon rows upon rows of them. On the ground below, a large square of white canvas lay, its surface energised by a chaos of soil. Two key components catalysed the site-specific context of Noah’s Ark. Firstly, the ‘outsider’ impression of the illustrious history of Cork harbour; one that saw the economic prosperity of the city rise through the provisions trade of the eighteenth century, alongside the unrivalled ability of the harbour to accommodate the biggest fleets during the American War of Independence and the Napoleonic Wars.  Secondly the discovery of found objects such as the palettes precipitated the means to form a structure.  This was IKIRO: Noah’s Ark.

It’s creator – Takahiro Suzuki – a Japanese artist, has been working on the  IKIRO  project for the last eleven years. The Japanese word ‘ikiro,’ meaning ‘be alive,’ is a script he rewrites (often hours at a time) in varying ways, in varying contexts throughout the world from eastern temples to western galleries. The word/ symbol has been written: in red sand, as ink on paper, straw, soil, drawn on the artist’s body and extended into dance.  Suzuki has written it every day since May 1997. Much like a Kabuki actor playing the same part for a lifetime, the IKIRO project will end with Suzuki’s last breath.

Suzuki talked me through a catalogue of his work. In so doing he revealed what can best be described as art from the inside out. The oeuvre exemplifies an ascetic spiritual simplicity. It is arguably without pretension, ego or contrivance, an art of ritualised practice; it simply is. He explained to me that as a student he kept diaries where the word ‘ikiro’ manifested itself and resonated with him. Concurrently, city life in Japan made him feel trapped and dark, resulting in a kind of human, spiritual and creative bankruptcy. To explicate, he showed me images of the work from the period. The work is aesthetically robust and forthright, but dark and claustrophobic. One installation project (Room for thinking of Beuys) sees Suzuki enshrined in a metal box with only his midriff visible. Cut off (but present), he tells me how people would laugh, talk and indeed gasp should he move.  The audience literally expected him not to be alive. In many senses, he wasn’t. About this time he turned to the word ‘ikiro’. Its philosophical/ spiritual energy so emboldened him, he felt compelled to share its essence with the world. This simple word and the energy of its conception has subsequently taken  Suzuki out of Japan on a worldwide, ‘transcendent’ journey.

The genesis of the project reminds me of  a passage from Porzio & Valsecchi’s Picasso; his life, his art, where Picasso explains: “In modern painting, each brush stroke is a precision operation; it is much like clockwork. I have always wanted to avoid all this, to be able to paint as one writes, with the same swiftness of thought, following the imagination. Had I been born Chinese, I would not have become a painter, but a writer: and I would have written my paintings.” The IKIRO project  is the very embodiment of such a process. Suzuki uses a word, painted as a symbol, repeated as a custom, adapted to its surrounding and created in real time. The IKIRO project is conversely immediate and transcendent: a word and a situation. Pointed westward, awaiting a tide that would never come, Suzuki’s ephemeral boat, his boat of dreams, looked strangely at home in that derelict quayside warehouse and I couldn’t help but see IKIRO: Noah’s Ark as a zeitgeist compass pointing to the possibility of a burgeoning ideology, a new era in the art world, one that might see a return home to the soul and humanity of the creative question. If the opportunity arises, go and see this peripatetic exhibition, if for no other reason than having the experience of art without human noise.

Sarah Tully is a freelance writer and researcher.

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