Veiled Fleeting Transitory

by Karen LaMonte from Floating World Monograph

I have always been fascinated by how conceptions of beauty define desire and generate the building blocks of allure – the language of attraction. Like spoken or written language, beauty is shaped by common idioms and shared experiences that are the foundations of culture. In this way, it is more than just a description; it is a reflection of a greater whole, a visual representation of what is valued in a society.

The human body is both profoundly specific and fundamentally universal. That makes it not only personal and imperfect, but also timeless and ideal. For me, beauty is always a dialogue between these dimensions, and I decided, 20 years ago, to work figuratively because I sensed that one’s own body would enable an immediate connection to the sculpture. I chose the female nude precisely for its universality as a representation of beauty.

I use dresses and drapery to sculpt the body in absentia. The disembodied figure is important, because it evokes mortality, tempering the undeniable pleasures of beauty with the melancholy reality of its transience.

In my sculptures of dresses, I superimpose the artifice of clothing over the phantom landscape of the body’s natural form, creating sensual, situated objects that speak of loss and ephemerality. Our clothing – like the culture that creates it – both enshrouds us and survives our passing. Cast glass allows me to portray the two dimensions simultaneously, illuminating the relationship between public and private, civilization and subject, and time and timelessness.

The fragility and transparency of glass provide a metaphor for the continuous relationship between our natural and “social” skin. The boundaries between body and drapery dissolve, and fabric is transubstantiated into flesh.

Eventually, I became intrigued with the possibility of re-contextualizing my work by examining the same themes through a different cultural lens. I chose Japan, because the complex culture surrounding the kimono struck me as different in crucial ways from the European culture surrounding the rich drapery that had become my sculptural vocabulary. In 2007, I began a seven-month research fellowship through the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission.

I lived in Kyoto, in the traditional kimono-making district of Nishijin. Even at night, my neighborhood hummed with the sounds of kimono production. I studied all aspects of the craft, from weaving fabric to drawing imagery. Fortunately, many people devoted to the preservation of traditional methods took me under their wing. I immersed myself in the culture of the kimono, including learning how to dress my own body (which is not suited for it).

In all cultures, clothing is an unspoken language; but the Kimono is perhaps the most codified. Every aspect of its design – including imagery, sleeve length, and obi type and tie – is highly significant, communicating volumes about the wearer.

Because beauty is a reflection of a society’s values, my initial focus on the kimono quickly gave way to a broader investigation of traditional Japanese culture and aesthetics. I experienced the emotional power of a conception of beauty that is stripped down to a spare, almost poignant minimum – a radical departure from the classical and baroque visions of beauty that I had explored in Europe. In place of the West’s preoccupation with the self, the Japanese idea of beauty and its relationship to individuality, the body, and nudity highlights group-centered conformity. The contrast between the two conceptions allowed me to see each more clearly; they defined and modified each other.

Although the connection between beauty and sexual attraction is ubiquitous, Japanese women do not present their sexuality overtly. From public bathing to the kimono itself, the body and its specificities are not the object of focus – neither covered nor ignored, but studiously rendered practically invisible. The wearer of a kimono must deemphasize her particular body by eliminating all curves through padding and binding, thereby creating a cylinder, the ideal shape for displaying the garment’s imagery and symbolism.

In eliminating the defining curves of the female body, making it uniform and neutral, the kimono literally erases the self and individuality, transcending the corporeal beauty of its wearer. By putting on the kimono, one is assuming one’s appropriate place in society; its language announces and reproduces that social role.

I found it difficult to grapple with the concept of a non-individualist existence, eventually finding an explanation in Mu, the Japanese notion of emptiness. Mu is not a variant of the Western conception of nothingness or non-being. Rather, it is an emptiness that contains all, the realm of enlightenment. Mu is the emptiness of the sky, which contains the universe. Non-individualism is not non-existence; it is embedded existence.

The kimono, as a vessel for an erased body, reflects a cultural affinity for ephemerality and emptiness, expressed as mono no aware (物の哀れ), or “the pathos of things.” This attentiveness to impermanence precipitates a melancholic sense of beauty, which I had sought to capture in my previous work. Indeed, despite the radical differences in cultures, I was struck by the kindred sensibility between the kimono and my disembodied Europeans. Because beauty is ephemeral, it is exquisitely somber – not a celebration of self or individuality, but an acknowledgment of the self’s limits. For me, to represent it is to take comfort in the essential and eternal.

Back in the studio, I had to decide what to do about the figure. Instead of an absent body, now I was dealing with a non-entity, an embedded existence – one that is not seen, but that is literally more significant than any single individual.

My choices of materials also changed and expanded. Every material has its own intrinsic properties and historical references, implying different meanings. I wanted the choice of materials and sculpting technique to represent visually the ideas that inspire my work. I did not want to decorate or illustrate my observations, but rather to use the essential qualities of each material that I chose to express this powerfully expansive but minimal and fleeting vision of beauty.

When I chose the materials for the kimonos, I wanted them to reflect the fundamental difference between Western and Eastern values. In particular, the Japanese attitude toward the body, and the culture’s appreciation of beauty’s ephemerality, is rooted in the Buddhist philosophy of Wabi-Sabi (侘寂).

Wabi-Sabi represents a comprehensive Japanese worldview or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of impermanence. This aesthetic is often described as one of imperfect beauty – evanescent and incomplete. It is derived from the assertion that understanding impermanence is central to enlightenment, and is based on asymmetry, asperity, simplicity, modesty, marks from the passage of time, and a suggestion of natural processes. It is, in short, a profound appreciation of the fragile and fleeting nature of beauty.

In the end, I decided to use four materials, each for its own meaning. I chose clay for humility, glass for spirituality, bronze for human intention, and rust for transience.

It took me six years of studio work and further research to bring this project to fruition. I call the whole body of work The Floating World, a translation of Ukiyo (浮世), the name of the pleasure quarters in Edo Japan, filled with Geisha, Maiko, Kabuki actors, and concubines who floated above the responsibilities of mundane existence in the brothels and teahouses. It is a world that was made famous by the Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, literally “pictures of the floating world,” whose representations of a sphere of impermanent, fleeting beauty sparked the birth of Japonisme and influenced the nineteenth-century avant-garde.

But, what intrigued me most was the Japanese homophone for Ukiyo ( 憂 き 世 ), meaning Sorrowful World, the earthly plane of death and rebirth from which Buddhists seek release. Even the name of the pleasure quarters – the place people go to forget everyday worries and indulge in bodily gratification – alludes to a language of attraction that tempers beauty with awareness of the body’s transience.

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