From Elise Thoron (writer/director):
Recycling, making new of the old, and, in Japanese aesthetics, making the "new" richer because of the "old," is a crucial for sustaining physical resources, and, as I am learning, the spirit. Paper (kami) moves fluidly between these two worlds in Japanese culture, and as such is a very interesting and privileged material. It is visible in Kyoko Ibe's beautiful art work and invisible as the surface on which people write their daily lives: the screens, the scrolls, the paper tucked in the kimono, folded and tied onto trees and shrines. Kami – paper is also the name for the Gods.
Trying to understand the visceral power washi (hand made paper) has in Japanese life, it feels like one of grounding and purifying, of making light and shadow present, of being a texture for touching the invisible - ideas, spirits, dreams. It's a way of regulating attention and light – of diffusing day and warming night - familiar in various forms of sliding doors and folding screens, but even placed over a florescent bulb washi adds grace to any room. It is ancient, much older than paper in the West. There are paper scrolls in Japan from 600 AD with government records, histories, poems, indigo paper with golden inked sutras; while in the West people were writing on sheepskin.
The process of making paper is an everyday alchemy, magical to behold, as a new sheet emerges wet and is peeled of the screen. It is grounded in an ancient craft that one can learn; to be expert takes knowledge, practice, and skill, but even I could produce a piece of paper under the instruction of my teachers. It is a beautiful craft, the tools: wooden mallet, basins, boards, brushes, and the dark green leaves that polish the final surface, in harmony with the material itself. To sleep in a room with paper walls, next to a screen, amid Kyoko's work recycling 100 year old documents is to feel a deep peace and comfort.
Tied to nature, to seasons, to trees and shrines where it waves in the wind, washi is part gawa (river) and yama (mountain), where the kozo and gampi shrubs grow and the water that makes paper flows. ("Yama" or "gawa" are so frequent in the Japanese language, every place name seems to have a river or mountain in it). Paper is of the land and human labor, a symbiotic relationship that is typical of what I saw in rural Japan. When I walked on an ancient pilgrimage route, we felt the sway of these forces everyday, the steep climb up a yama, the descent to the rushing water of gawa, the thick cloud, forest, and bird calls in between. Paper holds these land forms in its fiber, and becomes a surface on which words and images abstracted from this landscape hang in temples and castles.
In Japan, craft and practice go back for so many generations there is a profoundly different attitude to handcrafted work and the place of tradition in daily life. In America there is a perpetual striving for the young and new, which while present in Japan, adapting latest trends to their own customs, the culture is also folded into the old. At some level, I feel that the intuition I had that paper was not only the material of our theater piece, but the subject as well, is a good one. The medium and message it carries are one, moving from past into the future
Kyoko Ibe's art work drew me to washi paper and inspired this work in theater -- an increasingly rare and unique art form of presence -- people gathered in a room to have an experience, unmediated or processed by others. Washi asks you to be present for a few moments to touch the ephemera of daily life. It also invokes rhythms and rituals folding history quite naturally into a blank page. I am fortunate to find others compelled by Kyoko Ibe's work and the medium itself to join us in this exploration.
From Kyoko Ibe:
The development of papermaking in Japan owes a lot to the country's geological conditions, climate, and the religious belief. Among daily necessities, paper has played an important role, providing even clothing and material for dwelling. Furthermore, paper has been used in rituals, ceremonies and festivals throughout Japanese history. The ancient Japanese believed that divine spirits were present in paper. They named paper "kami," which is the same pronunciation as the word for gods and deities in Japan.
The oldest recycled paper is the backing of a painting in our national treasure house that was built in the 9 Century. It is natural to think that people recycled paper soon after they started making it and recycling was a part of paper production and consumption. A very special case was recorded in the 12 century, after the emperor died, his wife Fujiwara Tamiko recycled all the poems and letters she received from him and wrote a sutra on the recycled paper to wish peace in his soul. She then sent this sutra to his family and friends. While this is a special case, Japanese culture generally treats recycled paper as being more precious than new. The Japanese believe there is authentic beauty from something old. Ideas of transforming existing material to create new life as a means to continue the cultural tradition are highly valued.
Recycled gray tone paper was often used in the tearoom as the wall covering and for the sliding doors. I would like to mention the difference of the meaning of recycling at that time and now. We speak about recycling from eco or functional point of view. They found more positive deeper meaning and appreciated the beauty, which we could only get by aging. I think we have to learn from their philosophy to find the way to survive and to make our life in this limited, precious, fragile world.
About ten years ago, I purchased a book from the early 19 Century by chance and added it to my collection. The book was from a small northern village, no longer on modern maps. Inside there were records about the people in the village, with their name and occupation, rank of their farm, tax records, receipts, their contribution to the local temple and much more. All the text was hand written by sumi ink and calligraphy no longer in use; so there is no way to identify exact meaning of each piece of writing.
The paper itself and the writing evoke the spirit of the people from two hundred years ago and I can sense them slowly breathing in front of my eyes. I see a reflection of human life and spirit from nature in the kozo paper, which is very thin, translucent and delicate, yet it is durable and keeps its life for more than a thousand years. The antique book from two hundred years ago is proof of the invisible spirit from a past life that quietly breathes inside of the handmade paper and it opened my eyes to an almost forgotten beauty.
I disassembled and tore up the pages from the book into small pieces, made two groups, selected out the unwritten parts and put in them into the beater to get white kozo pulp. I did the same to the other written group and got gray recycled kozo. The mixture of fiber and water of this two hundred year old kozo pulp was completely different from a new liquid kozo fiber. The old one was so smooth and delicate compared to the rough new young kozo fiber. I poured the pulp on the screen mixed it with mica and with the planned calligraphic images and then poured on top the new kozo pulp. When I turned around and took off the screen, I was astonished that the difference of the age was so visible. But the harmony of old and new makes perfect new beauty. The process reminded me of the human life cycle- reincarnation as a part of the teaching of Buddha.