Updated: Japanese Poetry


I have become fascinated by short Japanese poems. They’re about as visual as language gets and as intellectually and emotionally intense as a stock cube. I started painting them because I had always intended to move beyond simply painting what was in front of me and they gave me a good opportunity to find a methodology while also providing a bridge between verbal and visual thinking which has been critical to my current work. All the paintings are the same height but of varying widths so when hung together they resemble words. I will go back and make more as I loved doing them and there are some achingly beautiful translations out there to work with.

NEW!

I don’t know about the people,
but all the scarecrows
were crooked.
Kobayashi Issa, d. 1828

I appreciate that the link between this poem and image requires a leap from the viewer but I encourage you to make that link. If you do, the poem provides a rich and multi-layered metaphor for how London has been redeveloped in recent years with a massive over-supply of million pound luxury apartments and an emphasis on speculation rather than homes set to a backdrop of missed targets on social housing, ongoing gentrification, public spaces entering private ownership, allegations of international money laundering and extravagant hospitality for planning decision makers. Just a few days before I posted this, the new Malaysian government announced it is investigating how and why its sovereign wealth fund poured $2 billion into Battersea earlier this year, strongly implying there was corruption and massive theft involved.

The painting is largely the result of following tangents from a simple observation that distant cranes look like scarecrows. The facile desire to make everything literally crooked let me have fun breaking complex perspective.

Whilst developing the painting, it became obvious that at Battersea the CCTV was more scarecrow-like and the cranes were bird like. This realisation enriched the metaphor further for me: what is the crop? what are the pests? who are the beneficiaries? and who is the farmer? 😉

 

Because fog engulfs
the house where I am
I feel as though
I have floated into the sky
Myoe d.1232

 

Ahh…
…solitude.

It is not the sort of thing that has one colour.
A hillside cloaked in dark pines
on an autumn evening
Monk Jakuren, d.1202

There seems to have been an argument which has raged for centuries between Japanese poets about which colour best represents the feeling of loneliness. Jakuren was, perhaps, the poet to set this line of thought in motion and to my mind has the most compelling answer – there are many subtly different colours, even if he thought them all to be dark. In this painting, I made sure every tree was a unique colour and that one tree, despite being surrounded by others, stood alone.

 

All through the night
  we kept the firewood burning
    in my humble hut
And the words that we exchanged
  I never shall forget
Yamamoto Ryokan d.1831

This is an example of words and images changing each other immeasurably. The humble hut on the brow of the hill happens to be a small church; this was initially a matter of convenience as it was the best location I knew but if the viewer spots the tower hidden behind trees and the shape of the door then such an important conversation takes on new significance. Of personal interest, this is perhaps the first painting in which I started to consider the notion of infinity – the stormy sky shows both dawn and dusk and is wrapped into a mobius strip and the sense of scale is epic and belies the modest proportions (4′ x 2′) of the painting.

 

Clouds,
now and then,
give a soul respite
  from gazing at the moon
Matsuo Basho d.1694