Mar 192014

Pierre Bonnard

In addition to my fear of the dark, my fascination with darkness was also triggered by paintings of Pierre Bonnard, the painter of Mediterranean light and a Japonist is his early years. What I liked about the paintings was the sensation of things, objects slowly appearing and taking form. It has the same effect one can experience waking up in the morning and trying to focus. Something similar, but slower, happens when your eyes get used to the dark, and things begin to appear and take their approximate, doubting shape.
In Japan, the light/dark aesthetics are different from those in the West. You see it in household objects, architecture, colours and lighting. Junichiro Tanizaki (a Dostoyevsky fan) wrote an essay on this subject in 1933, In praise of shadows. (note to add [?]: shadow as a part of personal space, a person’s shadow in Japanese myths). Tanizaki writes about the cruel flattening effect of electric light and the typically Japanese preference for (half-)darkness. Indirect light and gradations of shadow give the object (or a person) a chance to postpone its presence; the process of looking is slowed down, attention is increased. The lack of light works suggestively; it changes the feeling of depth and gives an object a different kind of gravity, an inner glow (if I may call it that).

Japanese folding screen

It is interesting to note that Tanizaki believes that the preference for (half-)darkness is built in historically and is a part of national character: not to try to improve everything unsatisfactory like western people do, but to accept the deficiency of light and find it beautiful by acceptance. To give more attention to subtle changes in the shadows that appear from clouds passing the moon, tree leaves moving, the flickering of a candle – it is never completely dark; the darkness is visible, flickering, shimmering. Decoration is functional – every gold speck on a folding screen or a rice bowl catches and reflects light. At the Noh play I went to the musicians were sitting on a rotating plateau on the side of the stage; the wall behind them was silver on one side and gold on the other – the moon and the sun; the subtle light change influenced the atmosphere of the scene.

Afbeelding1 Afbeelding2Afbeelding3
Noh masks

Japanese women used to blacken their teeth traditionally (ohaguro) – black gleaming teeth were considered beautiful because it made the skin look whiter, and it was good for the teeth as well (iron oxide). Apparently a similar custom shortly existed in Russia in the 16th century – Muscovite ladies used a mercurial black substance to paint their teeth.

Takeshi Kitano, film still

Tanizaki imagines how it might have been for a man in the old times to see a woman – always in semi-darkness behind a folding screen, the suggestiveness of her shadow through washi paper, blackened teeth, the dark hollows of her sleeves and the neck of a kimono – the darkness swallowing the woman or oozing out of her.
He is just as lyrical about pearl-like rice glimmering in a black varnished bowl, and about the deep colour of soy sauce. Tanizaki wanted to eat his meal only by candlelight.
There is another poetic passage about the contemplative atmosphere of a Japanese toilet, but I will skip that part (although in my summer house there is a similar ‘room with a view’ surrounded by the sound of crickets).

‘Inception’ film still, Christopher Nolan

I saw the wall paintings of Nijo Castle in Kyoto on a rainy day. It was a revelation to see those panels (used as an inspiration for the film Inception) in natural light and in their original habitat, not in a museum. It was as if I had only seen animals in a zoo before, and thought that this was where they lived. I understand, of course, why natural light can be a museum’s enemy and that most of contemporary art is meant for white neutral spaces and not for candle-lit churches or taverns. Talking about an animal-friendly zoo:  in 2006 the record number of visitors attending an art exhibition in Tokyo was broken during the show of Japanese masterpieces from the Price collection. Joe Price attributed this explosion of visitors to his experiment with the lighting. The lights kept changing every 3 minutes to imitate day- or moonlight – to show ‘how art changes if the light changes’. This exhibition also served as a rediscovery of Itō Jakuchū, the star of the Price collection – a masterly versatile, eccentric and strangely enough forgotten painter of the Edo period. Definitely a man to google if you don’t know him yet. See VIDEO.

Jul 122013

a special edition of 7 analogue prints 9,5 x 14 cm made on the occasion of my exhibition at Ellen de Bruijne Projects and After Eight thematic dinner/lecture
edition of 20, 2013
cover drawing by Charlotte Koopman

KG 2013


P1090348 copy

In fact, a bush looks like anything’. In a poem ‘Isaac and Abraham’ Joseph Brodsky compares a bush to an explosion, a river delta, blood veins, a hand and a hundred arms. Even the letters of the word КУСТ (‘bush’ in Russian) become branches. ‘Who? A bush. What? A bush.

Imagine how many possibilities of transformation a bush has in the dark.

I am afraid of darkness but deal with my fear reasonably – by trying to understand why.

When the sun sets colours begin to change and the overall mood changes with them. The lack of light takes away our certainty that we see things clearly. The lack of visual input gives a kick-start to imagination. Doubt in perception slows down the process of looking. The gaps are filled with suggestions and associations coming from memory and previous experiences. Wishful thinking and expectation colour our view.

A friend of mine, Charlotte Koopman, has a fake After Eight chocolate mint that she likes to offer to unsuspecting and trusting friends. It is a rubber thing that doesn’t feel or smell or even look like the real chocolate. Still, the trick works.

Look well and don’t take things for granted.

Charlotte made the After Eight drawing for the cover.


Google facts on night blindness

 Posted by on 03/29/2013  Dark & Dusk  Tags:,
Mar 292013

- Historically, nyctalopia, also known as moonblink, was a temporary night blindness believed to be caused by sleeping in moonlight.

- Sufferers should anoint their eyeballs with the stuff dripping from a liver whilst roasting, preferably of a he-goat, or failing that of a she-goat; and as well they should eat some of the liver itself.

- In the Second World War disinformation was used by the British to cover up the reason for their pilots’ successful nighttime missions. Their success was, in the disinformation, attributed to improved night vision and pilots flying night missions were encouraged to eat plenty of carrots. (The real reason for their success was their use of advanced radar technologies).

- Night blindness is prevented by eating Japanese eel.