BYO Pillowcase: Zen and Craft



'BYO Pillowcase: Zen and Craft' Object (2/98) 29-33 (1998)

pillow2.gif (40960 bytes)'I am sure that we are nothing at all unless we are flesh.'
Peter Greenaway

Tsumi departs

Tsumi is a beautiful young woman whose mother had been abandoned by her husband. To protect Tsumi from men with false promises, her mother took the power of hearing away from her daughter. Only able to communicate through writing, Tsumi enters the paper trade and supplies the town with writing materials. Unfortunately, people have less and less time to bother with paper. These days, they prefer to write their messages directly on each other´s arms. That way, messages cannot be lost and they save the cost of paper.

Tadanobu is a very busy man. He supplies the town with ink. As the town grows in size, people send more and more messages to each other. He is struggling to keep up with their demands.

Eventually, Tsumi is forced to leave the town and travel far away to the Land of Forgetfulness, where they suffer a shortage of paper. Not only does it grieve Tsumi to leave her family and town behind, but it also breaks the heart of Tadanobu, who has been secretly in love with her.

Peter Greenaway’s Pillow Book was the quintessential ‘high-brow’ film of 1997. In its defining moment, the central character, Nagiko, lustily inhales the odour of a book and says ‘I like the smell of paper—all kinds. It reminds me of the scent of skin’. Her statement proclaims the cinematic delights of Greenaway’s film, but also its false pretences. It is by means of these pretences that we uncover a curious subplot in Australian craft—the life of Japanese craftspersons in Australia. To get there, we need to tease out the place of craft in Greenaway’s film.

The film of The Pillow Book delights the eye and ear in new and interesting ways. Embedding screens within the main screen allows parallel scenes to run together like a musical counterpoint. The soundtrack of Japanese chants, Chinese pop, and French new music reflects a cosmopolitan world of villains, angels and eccentrics. It’s a cinematic feast.

Greenaway bases his multi-layered production on a diary written by a courtesan of the Heian period, a thousand years ago. Nagiko identifies with the author, Sei Shonagon, and attempts to renew her legacy in an erotic style of writing. This ‘coming of age’ plot tracks a young girl’s maturation from passive to active participant in carnal calligraphy. This is about as much narrative development as you can expect from Greenaway. Nagiko’s quest is manifest in dialogue so reduced that it makes the Pillow Book seem like thinly veiled pornography. Fortunately, it is saved from prurience by that eighties quartet of theoretical concerns—woman, Oriental, writing and body. This contemporary ‘relevance’ leads us to question how true the film is to the highly aesthetised world of the original text.

In its erotic concerns, Greenaway’s film is actually in keeping with Shonagon’s text. Many passages in the Pillow Book concern the pleasures and pains of taking lovers to bed. Both film and book share plots that are largely about the exchange of letters. What distinguishes Greenaway’s film is the medium for those messages, or rather lack of one.

This treatment of paper is out of step with the world of the original Pillow Book. Sei Shonagon’s diary deals mostly with the exchange of witty verse between members of the court. Such verse might only be a few lines in length; it was the medium that mattered at least as much as the message. Heian period contained a set of rules about the appropriate combination of paper and blossom used in correspondence.

Greenaway’s film casts such niceties aside and goes straight to the heart of the matter—flesh. The director’s sympathies are obviously with the bodies of his actors (rather than the script). The demonised world of paper is embodied in the figure of the publisher, who sodomises Nagiko’s father in exchange for publishing his books. In the film’s morality, paper represents a worldly compromise of artistic freedom.

Why is paper cast in the role of villain? We can answer this question from either an Occidental or Oriental viewpoint. In the West, paper is seen as a screen that masks the true nature of power. Paper distracts us from the truth, as in ‘paper chase’, ‘paper tiger’ and ‘red tape’. When we look through the racks in the newsagency, what we find is speculations on the Presidential anatomy and photos of Hollywood bodies. How many publications are remarkable for their quality of paper? Paper is the curse of the information age.

From a Japanese perspective, this disregard for paper is very much in the spirit of Zen Buddhism. With an emphasis on gesture as opposed to object, writing on the body is true to an appreciation of the transitory nature of the world. In the parallel Zen art of Kyujutsu, the way of the bow, the principle aim is not to hit the target but to perfect the gesture of archery.

In this more charitable reading, Greenaway’s film is perhaps closer to the spirit of Zen Buddhism than the original text. We might even say that his film is more Japanese than the Japanese themselves. So how do Japanese differ from themselves?


The most famous Zen koan concerns the sound of one hand clappingis ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’. Ironically, this lesson applies to Zen itself. The discipline of Zen is achievable by a person who is completely centred. In real life, this self-composure is not always possible. What about those periods of great personal change, such as marriage or grief?

The Japanese solution is famously neat. For rites of passage, Japanese retain the rituals of the Shinto religion that existed prior to the arrival of Buddhism from China in the sixth century. These rituals represent an ornate packaging designed to contain the inner emptiness of a pure Zen spirit.

One of the dominant materials in the theatre of Shinto is paper. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict describes a typical Shinto rite:

The priest prayed and each participant in order of rank presented with deep obeisance that omnipresent object in old and new Japan; a twig of their sacred tree with pendant strips of white paper.

As a primitive animistic religion, Shinto is antipathetic tocontrasts with the more conceptual practices of Zen. Their opposition defies the standard ethnographic approach, which constructs a unitary understanding of cultures: the authoritarian Russians, class conscious French, etc. This seems self-evident from the outside, from our point of view as tourists or neighbours. Within a culture, of course, it’s a different story. Think of the contradiction between egalitarianism and hero worship in Australian society.

Without Tsumi

In the absence of Tsumi, Tadanobu goes about his business with a tired spirit. It just doesn’t seem the same without his beloved, and her paper. People don’t put as much care into writing on their bodies, as they would on paper. The ink doesn’t form a consistent line and good work can’t be stored.

Tadanobu tries to send messages to Tsumi in the Land of Forgetfulness. Unfortunately, his letters only travel a few metres in the sea before they wash off the messenger’s body.

The gods pity Tadanobu and so they organise a magic scroll that unfurls to form a bridge between the two lands. Tadanobu walks across this scroll to the other side.

Cultural dualities

The framework for this article consists of the following assumptions. A culture must answer to contradictory demands, such as feeding and fighting, or saying and doing. This bifocalism is represented by incompatible personal ethics, such as the ways of soldier and mother. The particular glasses used to focus on Japanese culture here distinguish between product and process—an object and its use. This is possible by the use of a variety of languages employed in separate contexts. Here, the particular contradiction is between product and process. When we look to Japanese society, we can see that concern for materials is relegated to Shinto religion, which accommodates spirit in sacred objects, such as votive offering and shrines. On the other hand, attention to process is offered by the Zen faith in its cultivation of inner states.

Keeping out eyes fixed on this division, but pulling our focus back, we notice also the vague shadow of world history cast by these opposites. While Chinese religion was successful in establishing orderly states throughout much of Asia, unlike Christianity it failed to extinguish local folk religions. The rift between imported and local traditions extends to other Cinicised countries such as Vietnam.

We concentrate mainly on how craftspersons from Japan re-negotiated this opposition after moving to Australia. As a synthesis between these two incompatible ethics is impossible, individuals can be seen to make their own way through this dilemma.

Here we The critical element in this cultural bifurcation is need for balance between opposing tendencies. To understand how this balance is struck, we consider the journeys consider how this balance is struck in the journeys of Japanese (and one Vietnamese) craftspersons to Australia. How does this balance maintain itself away from home?

Yuri Kawanabe

Sydney jeweller, Yuri Kawanabe, finds it more comfortable to be Japanese outside Japan. Kawanabe and I visit Quadrivium Gallery, where she and a number of other Japanese artists exhibit their work. She has a sparkling disposition and a very deliberate way of choosing her words.

Kawanabe began her artistic training as a ceramicist at National Art School in Tokyo. There she found herself ‘in the shadow of the masters’—expected to silently follow their instruction. At that time, the movement known as Mono-Ha (the ‘substance group’) dominated this nineteenth-century style academy. Consisting mainly of sculptors, they advocated an art that brought to consciousness the material substance of things. The one jeweller in this group was the late Kazuhiro Ito. Ito ‘elevated’ jewellery into Mono-Ha and the gallery network. One of this last works, I lift up my eyes to the mountains (1994), submerged a necklace into a box of wax. Despite appreciating their work, Kawanabe felt there was no place for a woman like her. The only path was to join a group. She says, ‘I had a physical reaction to that kind of society. I wanted to let things out, not contain them’.

Kawanabe’s awakening occurred during her grand tour of Europe. In Munich, she was surprised to find a Japanese jeweller who prefaced her sentences with the words ‘I think…’ Back in Japan, this licence was extended by a visiting teacher from Sydney College of the Arts (Mary Rose Sinn) who offered Kawanabe a bridge to Australia.

Today, Kawanabe’s work is easily distinguished by its openness and deceptive paper qualities. Her aluminium necklaces look as though they have been snipped into shape in a few minutes. These appearances are deceiving on two counts. First, the detailing necessary to give this simple appearance is extremely labour-intensive. Second, when designing her work, Kawanabe often uses clay rather than paper. Like many Japanese artists I spoke with, she has admits to great pleasure in manipulating material with her hands.

For Kawanabe, jewellery fulfils a decorative function that strikes deeper than mere display. Her paper for the Peripheral Visions conference in Hobart (Jan 1998) described a recent visit to Bali, where she was impressed with the ornate arrangement of flowers and stems on plates. This decorative impulse seems to emerge not from any obligation, but from simple pleasurethe uncomplicated joy of making. Such modest kitchen craft provides an important reference point in her work.

In Yuri Kawanabe’s story, her move out of Japan allows her to invest her work with the familiar pleasures of handiwork. Kawanabe finds expression not in the pious devotion to art, but in the Asian folk practices of domestic paper decorations.

Naomi Ota

As a fibre artist, Naomi Ota sometimes finds herself confined by her materials. Like Kawanabe, her path leads to the folk cultures of Southeast Asia. We meet at the VCA textile department where she currently teaches. She has a demure elegance and one I senses a resilient pride in her culture.

At Kyoto University Naomi Ota chose to study craft rather than art or design because ‘I like to use my hands’. Since a child, she had been interested in archaeology, particularly the Jomon period of Japanese history, prior to Chinese influence. She is impressed particularly by their pots, which display patterns made from rope impressed onto the clay.

While studying at Kyoto, she envied the sculptors because they were given a freedom of to choose their materials, yet she was limited to fibre. In reaction, she extended her medium beyond the loom and back into folk traditions. She was fascinated by an indigenous maritime tradition: elaborate decorations are applied to retiring boats in order to console their spirit. Her response was to ‘weave’ an entire boat.

In 1986 she made her first trip to Okinawa, one of the southern islands of Japan that form an arc towards Taiwan. She was impressed with the way weavers worked ‘from the plant up’ in producing their textiles. It was here that she developed an interest in Ikat, which led to her latest exhibition at Craft Victoria. The fluidity of Ikat traditions matches her feelings of being ‘in-between’: ‘I was in between Kanto (Tokyo area) and Kansai (Osaka area), Japan and Australia, tradition and contemporary, craft and art’.

Since her first boat, Ota has been resolved to ‘make everyday life things’ and thus overcome the physical restrictions of a loom. Her sculptural work includes a woven cylindrical structure and pieces made entirely of knots.

As with Kawanabe, Ota found herself in the shadow of sculpture. While her solution is also to draw from the rich folk history of her craft, Ota is more concerned than Kawanabe to produce work that stands on its own as sculpture, beyond the practical constraints of craft.

Junji Konishi

Junji Konishi’s story is less about the cultural freedoms available outside Japan, than the active role that is played by Australian craft courses. I meet Konishi in his studio at RMIT, where he has been studying since 1990. His unassuming character belies an immense dedication to this craft.

Konishi was born in the island of Hokkaido and trained first as a metallurgist and engineer. Despite a demanding job, Konishi was drawn to after-hours creative work—‘I loved to make my own things’. In 1983 he took this more seriously by enrolling in a silversmithing at Tokyo Art University. While there he was given little direction and encouraged to follow his own path.

Midway through his course, the university decided to abandon craft teaching in favour of more lucrative computing courses. Konishi then had to find somewhere to continue his studies. For the past eight years, Junji Konishi has been completing a series of degrees at RMIT Department of Gold & Silversmithing.

As well as a perfectly polished surface, Konishi attempts to achieve in his work a kind of ‘balanced unbalance’. Konishi is concerned to place the spiritual meaning of sculpture ahead of the functional ties of silversmithing. Function is an afterthought in Konishi’s work: the form is everything.

Konishi’s pieces have a strong resemblance to the ethereal granite installations produced by compatriot Akio Makigawa, also living in Melbourne. Konishi’s commission for the Aomori Cultural Centre in Azigasawa includes two forms using steel and 30 kilo of silver, over which ‘floats’ one ton of granite. Like Kawanabe, Konishi’s work aspires to weightlessness. However, the values he subscribes to fit more within the world of established sculpture than any outsider tradition.

Mari Funaki

While Mari Funaki embraces a sculptural truth to materials, she still preserves the preciousness native to jewellery. We talk in her Gallery Funaki, nestled in Crossley Lane among art bookshops, Japanese restaurants, and around the corner from the sacred site of Melbourne intelligentsia, Pelligrini’s Café. Mari Funaki is brimming with the formidable good humour that has attracted so many to her gallery.

Mari Funaki’s story begins in the idyllic setting of the Japanese countryside. Her father was a veterinarian and she grew up surrounded by animals and fields. Until her arrival in Melbourne, she had been pursuing her ambition to make impressionist-style paintings. To this end, she began negotiating an art education. She was surprised that others expected her to be interested in calligraphy, rather than modernist art forms. In the end, Funaki decided on Gold & Silversmithing at RMIT in order to work on a more ‘human scale’. Painting was just too flat.

Her current professional work could not contrast more with impressionism. Her metal boxes are never polished and absorb rather than reflect light. Funaki associates her work with a taste for minimalist music and food where you can still taste the raw ingredients.

Despite the resistance of metal, she still attempts to work spontaneously. Unlike most jewellers, Funaki eschews tightly conceived plans and attempts to respond spontaneously to her material. Like Yuri Kawanabe, her working method defies the resistance of metal.

Of course, it could be said that one of Funaki’s most esteemed jewellery pieces is her gallery itself. This elegant shoebox has exhibited an impressive range of local and overseas artists, including Otto Kunzli, Blanche Tilden & Warwick Freeman. As a jewel in the city, it aptly represents its craft.

In form, Funaki’s work is close to Konishi’s, though the material she uses stays much closer to the language of jewellery. Unlike Kawanabe or Ota, she remains tied to an urban aesthetic—as you might expect from a country girl.

Miyuki Nakahara

Like Mari Funaki, Miyuki Nakahara’s work is largely concerned with boxes. We share a sandwich in Hindley Street, around the corner from Adelaide’s JamFactory where she is resident for a few weeks. Nakahara exudes a wily confidence that seems borne of survival.

In 1998, Miyuki Nakahara started practice as a trainee under Marion Marshal, and since then has been working in Melbourne jewellery collective Workshop 3000 with Susan Cohn. During that time, Nakahara has developed an interest in containment. Her earlier Asparagus Box (1992) aeasily connotess a clear link with the loving care that Japanese devote to presentation. She recalls quite fondly the importance given to packaging in her childhood. She remembers particularly well the pleasure of carefully wrapped confectionary: ‘Whatever it is, once you wrap it, it gives it specialness.’

More recently, she has been exploring a culture of packaging that is at the heart of Australian culture. Her Arnott’s biscuit tins (1994) delve into the sentimental heart of local material culture. The distressed surface attempts to reflect the trials that a treasured object undergoes in retaining its contents. Her Post-Packs exhibited at the 1997 Cicely & Colin Rigg Award proceed even further in this direction.

Despite large cultural differences, Nakahara feels free to pursue her craft beyond the strictures of Japanese society. She expresses relief to be away from the ‘complete cold denial’ exercised by Japanese when faced with something unexpected.

Nakahara seems to go further than most in extending her practice into Australia culture. In so doing, she works entirely against the grain of this Anglo-Saxon society. Here, she can exercise this aesthetic in radical way, whereas in Japan it would disappear into the woodwork.

The Island of Forgetfulness

Tadanobu arrives in the Island of Forgetfulness and finds everyone in confusion. The land is congested with paper constructions: paper buildings, paper vehicles, paper air balloons, paper phones, and so on. He recognises Tsumi’s paper among their materials and asks after her. An old man thinks she might be in the Celestial Palace, but no one can remember exactly how to get there. He asks for a map, but they say there is no ink to draw maps.

Tadanobu sets to work with cartographic expeditions around the island, gradually detailing the various mountains, rivers and buildings. Combined with reports of her presence, he is finally able to find the Celestial Palace on the highest peak of the island.

Japan & Vietnam

Japan is not the only Cinicised culture in Asia. To the South, Vietnam has engaged in continual struggles with its powerful neighbour. In the broad scheme of things, Chinese Confucianism gave Vietnam a centralised bureaucracy, which was tempered by an indigenous practicality. Vietnam had its own animistic roots that survived in village loyalties rather than state hierarchies.

The Vietnamese equivalent of the Pillow Book is the Tale of Kieu. Though written by a man, Nguyên Du, in the early nineteenth century, it shares with the Japanese book a role in distinguishing a national literature from Chinese hegemony. Kieu was one of the first books to be written in the vernacular Vietnamese known as chu nom (a southern dialect). While the central character is also a woman of literary talents, Kieu’s heroine finds herself through humiliation, not pleasures.

Tale of Kieu concerns a dutiful daughter who sells herself into prostitution in order to save her father from his creditors. As might be predicted, this story possesses great passion and tragic revelation. The central character must suffer a myriad of humiliations. She is rescued by an inner dignity expressed in her mastery of crafts, including lute playing, calligraphy, singing and sexual service. When the demands of self-sacrifice are too great, she turns to writing:

She pulled a pin out of her hair and graved
four lines of stop-short verse on a tree’s bark.
Deeper and deeper sank her soul in trance

Such lines powerfully express the kind of emotional sublimation that can underlie calligraphic arts.

Ironically, both Kieu and the Pillow Book today are consigned to the educational cannon—used for dictation and calligraphy exercises that prevent students apprehending the emotional force of their contents. It is perhaps outside of that context, in Australia, that the power of such texts can be revealed.

Hanh Nguyêt Ngô

In Australia, the Tale of Kieu finds a fresh vehicle in Vietnamese-born artist Hanh Nguyet Ngô. Ngô’s family left South Vietnam on the fourth anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Her family’s escape to Australia deserves an epic film rather than the cursory treatment I am able to provide here. Ngô combines an intense curiosity about what it is to be Vietnamese-Australian with an obsession for weaving.

A recent graduate from the Canberra School of Art, Ngô’s work explores the subtle interrelations between the classical text and her place in the world. Very much involved in the rhythm of the shuttle, Ngô reflects on the parallel repetition of the language drills that she performed in learning to speak English (and that she now repeats in learning to speak Vietnamese again).

Her work Speaking Sentences (made for Turn the Soil, touring Sydney in August) is a Chinese puzzle of cultural layers. The piece is based on eight lines of the Tale of Kieu and explores the linguistic changes that have occurred in modern Vietnamese history. The horizontal axis has lines withstrips display only the diacritical marks of the Vietnamese text, retaining the distinctive supplement of that language over the Latin script. The vertical axis has thestrips present the same lines in their Chinese characters. Strips alternate in six and eight squares, according to the change in metre of the poem. Finally they are interwoven to create a web of linguistic history.

Despite a reverence for this Vietnamese classic, Ngô finds no support for her work in her land of origin. As well as suffering the wrath of those who stayed behind, she finds that weaving is not considered to be a serious art form. We might consider that in weaving the Tale of Kieu, Ngô is actually repeating the fate of the hero, to sell herself into a demeaning labour in order to uphold the patriarchal order. In Vietnam, she might be considered over-dutiful. In Australia, she’s a rebel.

Silence is broken

Tadanobu finds the Celestial Palace and can enter easily as no one remembers who is in charge. He finds Tsumi in the main courtyard, but she doesn’t recall who he is. Distraught he takes out his inkstone to write his name, but it has run dry. In desperation he draws blood and writes his name on a blank scroll. She looks puzzled, as though some dim memory has been evoked. Encouraged, he continues writing and writing until every detail of his love is written in blood. Tsumi’s face lights up as she recognises the heart of a true man. But it is too late, Tadanobu has expired and Tsumi spends the rest of her life re-reading this book of his love. Gripped by the sadness of this story, the gods decide to put the spirits of Tadanobu and Tsumi into the handles of his scroll and roll it up tightly for ever.

China, Japan, Vietnam & Australia

Thus, one story is told of how two cultures formed under Chinese influence find their true identities washed up on the shores of the southern continent.

The risk of this story is to make it seem that Australia is a multicultural wonderland—here, all the peoples of the world can explore their cultures of origin free from the restrictive hierarchies of their tradition-laden homes. While this is my chosen story here, I acknowledge two obvious problems. One is the racism—both malign and well intentioned—that people of Asian background sometimes suffer in Australia. And the other is hostility back home to their new life. In Vietnam and Japan respectively, the terms ‘Viet Kieu’ and ‘Nikkeijin’ are particularly hostile terms of abuse towards those of their race who come from elsewhere.

There’s a strong tendency to cast these migrants in the role of victims—cut off from their origins in a land that doesn’t accept them. As should be obvious, that story is much too passive for the artists we’re considering here. What we find is a group of individuals who strike their own path between the fetish-values of Shinto and the inner philosophy of Zen.

In the stories accompanying their work, the predominant conflict is between indigenous craft practice and the professional world of modern sculpture. Within this conflict, migration to Australia figures generally as a recovery of these folk traditions from the professional boundaries of art in Japan and Vietnam. From Australia, it’s a very slow boat to China.


These short biographies attempt a concise picture of the story told by each of the artists about how their work has developed since moving to Australia. Each of these stories is worth an entire article and they have been simplified greatly to fit the parameters of this piece. This is not the only dialogue between Japanese and Australian craft. The response of local ceramicists, weavers and wood carvers is particularly remarkable. Here, we come from the opposite direction: how has working in Australia influenced Japanese craftspersons? With one exception, the artists we consider work in metal.


Ivan Morris The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan New York: Knopf, 1964, p. 187

Ruth Benedict The Chrysathemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989 (orig. 1946), p. 89

Nguyên Du The Tale of Kiêu New Haven: Yale University Press (trans. Huynh Sanh Thong), 1983 (orig. 1814), p. 7 (100-103)

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Research and writing of this article was made possible by an Australia Council grant.