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Art in silence

Rie Hachiyanagi’s show at BYU employs blank handmade paper

"Ritual transforms.

It alters our perception and state of being,

Renewing the world that surrounds us.

Marriage. Funeral.

Marking of our paths."

— Rie Hachiyanagi

For those thoroughly enmeshed in occidental reasoning, "getting" Rie Hachiyanagi's installation "Rituals of Being" may be an arduous task. If, on the other hand, we can enlarge our concept of what art should and could be — even for a small moment — there are genuine rewards.

Besides, according to Hachiyanagi, "there's nothing to, quote-unquote, 'get.' There's no right answer."

Viewers/participants need only enter one of the dimly lighted installation domains and wait. With patience and a little mental effort, the art will eventually wash over them with stunning silence and stimulating lucidity.

"I always want my work to be experiential," said Hachiyanagi. "Something that's not necessarily explainable but something experienced by the body and mind."

The 32-year-old Hachiyanagi was16 when she first came to the United States as a high school foreign-exchange student from Japan. Unable to speak English, she began drawing to communicate. For her, art became a necessary vehicle of expression.

Though educated and trained at American universities in the traditional modes of art — today she teaches freshman drawing and advanced studio art (painting, sculpture and printmaking) at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts — Hachiyanagi chose a more conceptual way to express herself: blank, handmade paper.

"Paper without markings remains silent," Hachiyanagi said. "I create blank sheets of paper in order to let this speechlessness be visually loud and to let silence penetrate itself."

Hachiyanagi's philosophy is very much shaped by her Japanese traditions and culture. She grew up with a reverence for paper. "We use paper in Shinto rituals," she said. (Shinto is the ancient Japanese form of worship where plants, animals, deities and humans co-exist as equals.) "Our altars tend to have blank pieces of paper, something without words. It symbolizes cleansing, purity, something that is unspeakable."

According to Hachiyanagi, Shinto does not have texts or a doctrine; rather, worshippers try to learn the way of living by simply living. In their rituals they tend to have lots of blank pieces of paper, folded in certain ways and placed in certain places, which signify or create meaning.

While influenced by Shinto — whether consciously or not — Hachiyanagi doesn't think her preoccupation with the inadequacy of language has much to do with it. "It's about me living in between two cultures, in between two languages."

She explained that it's similar to when you think there's a certain word in your language, and when you learn a new language you expect there to be a corresponding word. "But in reality, there's not. There are certain words in English that cannot be translated to another language. It's like the blank paper I make from plant fibers. I deal with the unspeakable or inexpressible."

In her installation "Rituals of Being," there are eight works: "Benevolence," "Houses of Beings: Language," "Houses of Beings: body/spirit," "Houses of Beings: morgue," "Houses of Beings: identity," "The Golden River," "Paper Shrine" and "Threshold."

Each work involves handmade paper created by the artist, which requires the collecting of organic materials, the soaking, boiling, pulverizing, catching and layering the pulp, then drying it.

When viewers first enter the installation, they encounter an architecturally severe staircase made of wood and plastic. On opening night, Hachiyanagi, clothed in a colorless robe and sporting a shaved head, slowly and methodically climbed the stairs. At the top she stooped to retrieve a long, blank, folded sheet of paper. Standing, she let the paper fall from her hands down to the ground below. She then backed down the stairs, again in painstakingly slow movements, retrieved the paper from the floor and repeated the process for the next two hours. (Through March, viewers can watch the performance on a video screen positioned next to the stairs.)

"I shaved my head for the performance," Hachiyanagi said. "I had shoulder-length hair before, but when I tried to visualize the perception of the audience, I decided to shave it."

With long hair the artist worried the audience would think more about the female body. With a shaved head, Hachiyanagi believed she became more genderless. "You'd think more about a human being than a female actor," she said.

Before the performance, Hachiyanagi said she pondered the condition of the world. "A lot of what goes on in the world is bad, like what's happening in Iraq or at that Russian school recently. I was thinking about how each of us can give or be grateful for what we have as precious life.

"Each time the paper fell, it landed differently. It's like each day for us. We always get up in the morning and we go to work and we talk, but each day is a little bit different. And if we slow down, we can see more as we live our life."

Hachiyanagi said "Benevolence" doesn't try to emphasize the quality of ritual per se, but her slow movements force the artist and the viewer to engage in the process rather than the results. And "actions that appear mechanical or mundane are elevated to a heightened level of awareness."

Each of the other works in Hachiyanagi's installation evoke thoughts and feelings of reverence and peace, of being connected with something that isn't requiring a verbal or physical answer. "The Golden River," which references D.H. Lawrence's poem "The Ship of Death," presents viewers with a multitude of miniature vessels, made of handmade paper, folded with rare tenderness and hanging as a long stream at various heights from a grid by thread. The boats stir with each breeze made by viewers, as if moving along on the waters' current.

In the artist's piece "Threshold," viewers enter a room to discover layer upon layer of handmade paper on the ground. Isolated lights shine up through the paper, and, depending on the amount of paper over the light, the installation glows in patches. It is visually striking.

Hachiyanagi said "Threshold" has multiple meanings. "There was this experience I had as a result of a serious automobile accident. While I was in ICU, I saw myself outside, standing in a field of the most beautiful white, warm light. I stood there for the longest time. I wanted to be immersed in the light, but something made me turn around and come back. I feel that if I would have stayed in the light, I would not have come back."

It has been 10 years since Hachiyanagi's accident, but it's only recently that the experience has come back to her in sketches. "It seemed like the right time to do it (the installation)."

Each of the eight locations in "Rituals of Being" will inspire viewers to a quietness of being, encourage a reverence for the process of thinking and seeing, but only if they choose to participate in the ritual.


If you go . . .

What: "Rituals of Being," works by Rie Hachiyanagi

Where: Museum of Art, Brigham Young University, Provo

When: Through March 26, 2005

Gallery hours: Monday and Thursday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday, noon-5 p.m.; Closed Sunday

How much: Free

Phone: 422-1140

Web:www.byu.edu/moa


E-mail: gag@desnews.com