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2009 September 26

At one of my schools, when the teacher introduced me at the morning staff meeting, she told the other teachers to be sure to help me learn more about Japanese culture. Within fifteen minutes, I had a flyer for a calligraphy demonstration being held in the central Sekiou Culture Hall. The exhibition ran all weekend, I was told, but the performance was Saturday at 2 PM, if I was interested.

Saturday, September 26th, I went to the Culture Hall and was quickly spotted by teachers from that school. We went into the auditorium together and sat in the sixth row from the front – a little scary, since the first five rows were blocked by plastic wrap for some reason…


The first part of the performance was a group of large human caricatures, obviously drawn with a calligraphic brush, being wheeled around stage for twenty minutes. A medley of classical and jazz music played while two female voices discussed art as the distinguishing factor between Homo sapiens and other animal species. This was really confusing and disorienting, at least for me; the women used distinctly masculine words in some places and very feminine words in others. Afterwards my fellow teachers told me they were just as confused, although maybe for different reasons. It was very modern art for something advertised as calligraphy.


Next, the entire stage was covered with the same plastic as the first rows of the theater. A giant sheet of paper was laid down; then a woman emerged with a bucket of paint and a giant brush. She stooped for a few minutes while carefully sweeping the heavy brush around her. The paper was hoisted via wire to reveal her drawing to the audience (and to allow the paint to move and complete the work of art).


The circle may seem basic, but it’s a traditional calligraphic subject for practitioners of any of the Zen schools of Buddhism. It’s a symbol of the cycle of pain, death, and rebirth, as well as of simplicity and tranquility. This was about the most traditional part of the “Demonstration”, and everyone applauded it.


The circle hung in the air as a variety of other shapes came down around it. This made less sense than the caricatures’ voiceover did.


Finally, a large piece of black paper was hung from the ceiling and gradually raised as two of the calligraphers quite literally attacked it with paint. They used all sorts of tools – large brushes, rags, flails, their hands – and sometimes they just picked up the paint can and splashed it at the paper. Action movie music played, and the artist on the left, in a ninja-like outfit to protect herself from the paint, yelled karate-style kiai at the paper.


When the painting was done, a large plastic curtain was raised and then torn down to re-reveal the final work to the audience. It was actually quite beautiful – had a very fireworks-like feeling to it.

After the performance, I explored the galleries of calligraphy set up around the Culture Hall were exhibits of elementary schoolers’ beginning calligraphy exercises, traditional pieces of Chinese poetry and short Japanese poems, and very modern pieces in which a kanji or phrase was abstractly represented through brushstrokes. My teachers said they were confused by the abstract stuff, but I found it really fascinating in the context of modern art. Maybe I would have understood the bizarre jazz/classical voiceover after all.

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