grunt gallery, Vancouver, B.C., 1997
© Haruko Okano
Transvisceral Borders is a by-product of a mixed media experiment combining natural material and the cultivation of the Kombucha fungus with found and constructed objects. The project began as the exploration of human primal conditioning, but through the repeated cultivation and curing the the fungus, it became a process of realizing how thin the distance is between assumed polar differences. Life and death, animal and plant seemed to dissolve into one another.
My process, broken down into seven day units, was dictated by the cultivation and curing of the fungus. Its process became my ritual, a meditation that at times dissolved the separation between creator and created.
Over the months of working in this repetitive manner, much of what I intellectualize about Buddhism I began to understand from experience. Animate and inanimate, animal and vegetable becomes one.
The more basic my activities became, the more I understood the true nature of my own mind, and Transvisceral Borders was only the beginning.
© Haruko Oakano, 1997
Prior to the beginning of Transvisceral Borders, I had developed an interest in the Irezumi, seeing similarities between their position as a sub-culture in Japan and the Japanese Canadian war-time experience in Canada. Although racially and historically I am part of the Japanese Canadian community, my upbringing in foster homes left me feeling quite disconnected from my roots. My relationship to them felt like a sub-culture within a culture. As a visible minority in the arts, current identity politics and the movement towards self representation has led to increased opportunities; however, I have found its influence getting in the way of my own creative development. Instead of feeling culturally liberated, I felt I had stepped out of one restrictive description into another. Having been defined from the outside for so much of my life, what I needed was an intuitive and personally relevant connection to Japanese culture. Beyond racialized identity and a certain dietary propensity, what did it mean to be Japanese Canadian? Once again I found myself struggling with the skin's ambiguous role as both a 'barrier' and a 'link'. Perceptual shifts occurring through Transvisceral Borders acted as a catalyst through which I began to think differently about cultural heritage and ethnicity.
Transvisceral Borders began as a twelve month incubation period. The resulting work was produced in the last six weeks, adding the other 'live' elements just before installing them in the gallery. What is not evident in the photo documentation of the exhibition is the layers of subtle activity and the evolution of the 'living' fungus as it responded to aging and the gallery environment. Gravity feed, osmosis, and evaporation reinforced the presence of natural rhythms adding to the subtle symphony of change. Empty casings, discarded skins both animal and human, refer to the natural exhaustion of life. Scented oils weep through the walls of condoms, bulging seductively, inviting the viewer's touch. Branches, once dormant, sprout new leaves and seeds swell into greenery in the hydroponic setting of the latex diaphragms. Sensory access is expanded with a broad range of odors and textures. The viewer is encouraged to experience the tactile nature of the work, transferring a variety of odors and other viscid traces onto their hands. Only if you took the time to watch and explore over several visits would you have been able to witness the subtler transformation of nature in movement as the fungus and natural latex casings deepened in colour to match that of the dehydrated pig's ears, or condoms that shriveled up as the contents were spent through evaporation. The weight and fullness drained slowly away, briefly drawing aside the curtain of illusion that separates life from death, plant from animal.
Transvisceral Borders was a turning point in my creative thinking; instead of shaping materials around preconceived ideas, priority was given to exploring the nature of materials just on their own, allowing ideas to be generated by their process. Artistic production became much more integrated with the mundane activities of daily living as organic cultivation took over my bathroom and kitchen. The routine necessities of growing, harvesting, and restarting the fungi took on ritualistic overtones, becoming a meditation practice unto itself. The continuous cycle of life, death, and reproduction played itself out constantly before me. I caught glimpses of how reincarnation and karma might be woven into that continuum. Buddhism ceased to be solely an intellectual and philosophical construct; instead, I became a witness to its meaning. Handling the fungus, whose physical features resembled raw pig's hide, offered moments when the intellectual distance between it and myself seemed to collapse. Flesh of plant and flesh of beast fused and I realized I was working with living plant matter to simulate the hide of an animal. It reminded me of how closely connected I am to the environment and how detached I had gotten through compartmentalized thinking.
As described by Leonard Koren, "Wabi-sabi is the quintessential Japanese aesthetic. It could even be called the "Zen of things, " as it exemplifies many of Zen's core spiritual-philosophical tenets. It romanticizes nature, emphasizes the use of natural materials and welcomes the corrosive effects of time and the elements as enriching influences. Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete " (Koren, L. "Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers," 1994).
The wabi-sabi in Transvisceral Borders did not reach maturity in the gallery, as that was only an early segment in its evolution. Wabi-sabi comes into its own power in the last faded traces of life as it succumbs to time and space. The fungus skins hang like ghosts in the studio now, curling up and shrinking, becoming like the parchment skin of the elderly. The colour deepens to the rich antique finish of old varnish and the smell turns musky, mixed with the dust of other works coming into fruition.
One of the most profound realizations to have come out of this project is that despite over assimilation and the heavy influence of western culture, there survives in me an aesthetic sensibility that is my root connection to Japanese culture; it is wabi-sabi. But like the title Transvisceral Borders, it is a hybrid, a fusion of cultures nurtured and filtered through the uniqueness of my personality. Stylistically, my work is still representational and based in symbolic language, but like the continuum within Transvisceral Borders, it is moving towards a more intuitive expression that will allow the character of the material to influence the direction of my ideas more. Perhaps then I will experience an integration of the body, spirit, and mind.
Bags are filled with weighted cast objects made of latex. These objects sit in gelatin. The bags are tied off with simulated hair and hung in pairs on large stainless steel fish hooks. The gelatin sweats through the latex and creates an animal-like odor. This piece is meant to be touched.
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All text and images © Haruko Okano.