Distant Lights

How can a Western designer approach Japanese concepts of aesthetics and fundamental philosophies about the material and immaterial world? The history of the exchange between Western and Japanese aesthetic cultures is one of layered interpretations based on ideas in translation, inevitably flattened and distorted through the process into new cultural products. One of the first significant displays of Japanese design approaches, for example, took place at the 1893 Chicago International Exposition, where the Hō-ō-dō, an 11th-century Buddhist temple in Kyoto, was used as a model for a new hall called the Hõ-õ-den, designed by a Japanese architect trained in England. This building exercised a strong influence on Western architects, most famously Frank Lloyd Wright, who not only experimented with planimetric and material arrangements inspired by Japanese domestic space, but also adopted artistic concepts of negative space and line quality from ukiyo-e (Edo-period Japanese woodcuts) for his architectural renderings. But the building is seen as wielding an extremely formative aesthetic influence on architects who saw it only briefly, like Charles and Henry Greene: their Gamble House in Pasadena (better known as Doc Brown’s bungalow in Back to the Future) is considered a masterpiece of wood joinery and transitional living spaces between inside and outside.
The fact that this otherwise conventional turn-of-the-century Californian house, which is arguably much more a product of the native Arts and Crafts movement, is so unquestioningly accepted as an artefact of Japanese influence points to one provocative condition of Western-Japanese aesthetic exchange. The isolationist policy of Japan, known as sakoku, forbid any Japanese to leave or any foreigner to enter for more than two centuries, meaning that the primary encounter with Japanese culture was through an extremely limited palette of objects. Even after the Convention of Kanagawa opened the country to foreign trade and politics, the image Japan presented to the world—for instance, in the delegation to the 1867 Paris International Exposition—was a highly constructed artistic statement, leading to the rise of Japonisme in late 19th-century European art. The dearth of deeper interpretations of Japanese culture gave a disproportionate weight to the writing of early pioneers, like Lafcadio Hearn’s Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, which only in the past few decades has been examined for its cultural exoticism. One could argue that Western artists and designers have had an unusually privileged role in building the outsider’s understanding of Japan retroactively through material interpretations.
This condition becomes even more complex when art and design are viewed not simply as creative fields but furthermore as forces of commodification. In that context, Japanese aesthetics are packaged for Western audiences as a cohesive unity of natural materials and formal simplicity under the guise of pseudo-Zen marketing jargon. A complex concept like wabi-sabi is chopped up and reconstituted into an easily digested framework for home redecoration, eliding any deeper spiritual associations. Does it bear any relation to the original idea? We might compare it to the phenomenon of ganguro, a Japanese fashion trend of the late 1990s that (among other influences) interpreted black American youth culture through a look involving deep tanned skin, offset by bleached hair and pale lipstick, as well as flashy jewellery and platform shoes. The exaggeration of this image of the West may be more obvious than the West’s distortion of wabi-sabi, but its loose approach to cultural heritage is comparable.
As a designer choosing to go to Japan and reflect on my experience through objects, I face the unavoidable problem of appropriating foreign concepts that are not inherent in my work. As someone raised and educated in Finland and later in the Netherlands, the question is even more complex, given some parallels between the indigenous cultures in Japan and Finland, both in the sense of spirituality embedded in natural objects and in the human manipulation of materials to a specific formal conception of the world. My understanding of the place during my travels was inescapably conditioned by my status not only as a stranger, but as a particular kind of stranger as well as an individual. Therefore, I did not want to create an interpretation based on my brief impressions of Japanese aesthetics, but to work from conceptual ideas to a new visual language.
My research centred on the philosophy of wabi-sabi, which I have understood as an acceptance of the impermanence of things, in contrast to the traditional Western design approach of mastering the physical realm and harnessing it into a stable expression of the creator’s vision. As in the previous idea of commodification, wabi-sabi tends to be essentialised in the West as a kind of studied imperfection related to natural materials like wood and clay. However, I chose to focus on the element of transience inherent to wabi-sabi, an element that has also played an important part in my previous work as a designer. For me, transience is not only a physical quality of the object itself, but also an inevitable quality of the relationship between the object and the viewer as a visual experience in space. In Japan, I saw this phenomenon in the kare-sansui or “dry landscapes”. The most famous example is the garden at the Zen temple of Ryōan-ji, a framed rectangular space in which five islands of dark rocks and moss are surrounded by a field of small white pebbles, raked into lines that mimic diffraction patterns of water. The viewer is intended to contemplate this arrangement from a wooden platform along one side, and each position generates a different visual comprehension of the space and the rocks within it; no single image of the space can accurately describe the design.
Rather than mimic the kare-sansui as physical constructions, I have interpreted them through contemporary media. Intriguingly, as technology evolved along the Western-oriented concept of precise quantification and standardisation, it reached a point at which its logic of static perfection was no longer desirable. In the assimilation of technological means to satisfy human desires, we now require new dimensions of complexity: we even need technology to approximate imperfection and change in order to complement human behaviour as well as to interact with natural forces. In my project, I have co-opted a device that was created in order to regulate light waves and have adapted it to produce unexpected phenomena. The Fresnel lens, developed in France in the late 18th century and first implemented at the Cordouan lighthouse in 1823, is used to alter the path of radiating light waves into a directional beam of light using a minimum of material. Made of plastic or glass, the form is reduced from a convex volume into a flat plane of concentric circles, grooved at slightly different angles to bend the light to a focused point. However, I have repositioned the Fresnel lens: it is no longer an instrument to manipulate natural forces for a single purpose, but rather the subject of contemplation as the creator of fluctuating visual phenomena.
In Distant Lights, the viewer sees an acrylic Fresnel lens square in front of a ring of LEDs, which casts a geometric pattern of light on the wall behind it. While the geometric pattern is a relatively stable consequence of the distances between the ring, lens, and wall surface, the image that the viewer sees in the lens itself is entirely based on his or her position. From the front, the lens portrays a series of concentric circles of coloured light, but shifting one’s perspective from side to side renders the light as a three-dimensional impression of two circular paraboloids. The viewer is thus confronted by the transience of their perception of the object—or of the object itself—in contrast to the static pattern of light cast on the wall. While the object has its own logic, the viewer can only experience their impermanent and immaterial perception of the light, an active construction of the eyes in negotiation with the object and the environment.

Tuomas Markunpoika - Distant Lights  / Image by Ronald Smith