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Traditions Transfigured

Noh Masks of Bidou Yamaguchi

February 11, 2016 - May 21, 2016

The human face and its expressive potential have inspired artists around the world for millennia. Arguably, Japan’s Noh theater provides an unparalleled domain for exploring emotion and representing the human countenance. Today, Noh continues to inspire a dynamic dialogue between artists from Asia and the west. Expanding on this rich vein, Traditions Transfigured features contemporary works by Bidou Yamaguchi (b. 1970, Fukuoka, Japan). These masks apply the forms, techniques, transformative spirit, and mysterious elegance of Noh masks to iconic female portraits from the European art historical canon, and to Kabuki actor prints by Sharaku, Japan’s enigmatic 18th century portrait master.

Like a human face, the work of Bidou Yamaguchi opens itself to many angles of interpretation. The product of a Noh mask carver who also creates modern sculpture in the form of masks, Bidou’s art speaks to issues such as cultural identity, gender, portraiture, performance, representation, and appropriation, as well as the roles of beauty and craft in contemporary art.


Our fundamental premise is that Bidou’s art is informed by the world of Noh, and, in turn, offers insight into this diversely creative realm of theater and image making. We stress the productive links between Bidou’s roles as a “traditional” artisan who works to reproduce old masks and a contemporary artist who makes new objects. We treat these fresh creations as “masks,” although they were not commissioned for use in Noh plays. In fact, the oblique orientation of the eyes in most of these portraits differentiates them from Noh masks. Despite these differences, our approach imagines these works as potential characters in future dramas.

In the world of Noh, Bidou’s work challenges the conventions of Noh masks and, by extension, might stimulate new types of Noh plays. More expansively, Bidou’s art suggests ways of deploying the aesthetic strategies and ontological assumptions of Noh. This is not simply another strategy for “modernizing within tradition” in Japan, or a new manifestation of Japanese cultural uniqueness with universal application. Bidou’s work is not aimed at any totalizing theory about contemporary art practice, and certainly the artist has produced no manifesto to such an end.


Instead, his art seems focused on a particular task. Bidou’s masks are a kind of intercession on behalf of half-human, half-artistic spirits. His works are transfigurations that bring about reincarnations into a transformed body (keshin) that is the true body (hontai) for figures like Lisa Gherardini who have become so well known as images (the Mona Lisa) that they all but cease to exist as humans. This act is analogous to the procedure of intercession or recuperation in the texts of Noh plays. However, unlike Noh plays, where this literary rebirth recuperates the socially unacceptable acts and desires of women and other marginalized figures, Bidou gives a new body—literally, a face with the potential of speaking—to persons who have been turned into “ghosts” by mechanical reproduction, popular appropriation, and, perhaps, a deeper unwillingness to comprehend the humanity of people removed from us in time and place.

Bidou’s art constructs a three-dimensional face for these rhetorical ghosts, and thus brings about an altered understanding of these persons who have become so familiar as images they are almost invisible as the vestiges of souls. Although his art is rooted in a Buddhist worldview, it resonates with the Christian idea of transfiguration as a change in form or appearance that parallels a spiritual change, and it signals the exultant moment when the human meets the divine so that the temporal becomes the eternal.

By transfiguring both European and Japanese artistic traditions, Bidou Yamaguchi’s work merges past and present. More importantly, it allows contemporary audiences to uncover deeper dimensions of their own humanity. By imagining ourselves wearing different faces, we can forge deeper spiritual connections with each other.

Kendall H. Brown, PhD
Guest Curator

 



Traditions Transfigured

Noh Masks of Bidou Yamaguchi

February 11, 2016 - May 21, 2016

 



Acknowledgements

Traditions Transfigured: The Noh Masks of Bidou Yamaguchi
was organized by the University Art Museum at California
State University, Long Beach in conjunction with Dr. Kendall H.
Brown. The exhibition at Sacramento State’s University Library
Gallery has been funded by the College of Arts and Letters.

Kendall H. Brown, PhD
Guest Curator

Phil Hitchcock, Director
University Library Gallery

Leslie Rivers, Assistant to the Director
University Library Gallery