Tuesday, August 7, 2012


While today’s architects struggle to create self-conscious wonders with manipulations and morphing, manufacturing deliberate contortions for an indulgent difference under the guise of self-expression, in other times harsh necessity created apparel that leaves our world exuberantly acknowledging its’ special beauty. 'Boro' means 'rags' in Japanese, and it's as simple as that; the word has no regional, aesthetic, age/era, color, content, method, or origin-related inferences. Any cloth can become a boro (noun) or boro boro (adjective) in hours if you, for example, used the wrong washing cycle. (see  megweaves.blogspot.com/.../boro-for-want-of-blot-post-title-part-1.h...) Sadly, in our era, fashion works extremely hard to recreate a ‘worn’ look that adds dollar-value and, apparently, desirability to garments hoping to appear similarly ‘used’ like those fabrics of older times worn in various, usually rural, pursuits. For example, new, quality ‘cowboy’ jeans are ‘harassed’ or ‘stressed’ - ground, cut, abraded, bleached, stained, scrubbed, and abused in any way conceivable - all for what is seen as a chic appearance.

It says much about our times that we can see the beauty in boro pieces from old, northern Japan, and the results of other types of wear-and-tear from hard work at other periods and places, but seek only to reproduce this the ‘easy’ - or is it the ‘lazy’? - way, while our worn clothes are discarded as undesirable trash. Thought is rarely given to mending these discards, or seeing them as something desirable. They are treated with the disdain that socks with holes in are given. Once holes in socks were carefully repaired with criss-cross darning threads as they were stretched over an open drinking glass or mug, but now holes, and their darning infills, are seen as social misfits. Yet it is the repeated repair-work on the boro pieces that we cannot praise enough. We have appropriated appearances for our own slothful, exhibitionist culture that we consider, at the very best, to be expressionist, telling all about ME and MY difference: the singular assertion of my unique being in the universe. The great sadness is that the real wonder - the inspiration - originally arose from the outcome of true struggle and graft: honest work if you like. There is nothing pretentious or self-seeking here, but this is never a part of the equation of our admiration, or of our pity.

The humble boro cloth offers a view of how beauty can grow from necessity. How the required patching and mending of frugal times has given the world some astonishing items as a rich layering of ‘innocent,’ collaged pieces fixed with a patterning of stitches, that have come together simply because it has had to happen this way. There was no opportunity to do otherwise; no opportunity to indulge in fashion or style, beauty or ‘self-expression.’ Replacing the clothing was out of the question - unaffordable. Function truly has generated the form, so that the form could continue to function. It really was a ‘patch-up’ job - with rags. Louis Sullivan’s form and function of the rose and of a leaf comes to mind: the form of the leaf/rose is the function of the leaf/rose and vice versa. Look closely at a leaf/rose and ponder this perception. The understanding is just the same as looking at a piece of boro fabric.

There is a lesson here that we might choose to borrow (apologies for the pun) - that beauty is not distracting style, fashion or entertainment: that true beauty can come from the struggle with the real world - from effort - rather than from any guessing and grabbing at self-important dreams that ignore facts or seek to overcome their assertiveness. Art is not an indolent self-expression that suppresses life’s everyday hassles by surprise.

There is a sense of things really organic in the boro texttiles - an integrity that does not seek to declare its own importance. It is humble, unassuming, self-effacing, modest: meek. The words ‘Blessed are the meek, . .’  come to mind, and are given an affirming context. The work seeks nothing for itself. We have chosen to frame it, to exhibit it; to put it up on a pedestal as art, as something special and hence expensive - collectable - to be removed from a living experience for pretentious presentation or promotional pomp. Yet it, just like the Japanese tea cup with its’ origins in Korea’s peasant pots, arose from a time that knew art as an ordinary, everyday event that grew from sincerity, love and care: from a genuine concern rooted in the commonplace. Here, as Ananda Coomaraswamy spoke of it, an artist was not a special kind of man (or woman), rather every man (and woman) was a special kind of artist. It is this quality that has shaped the boro pieces. This is an understanding that we know little of today. Our art is different, unique because it expresses what is seen as the artists’ exceptional individuality - a quirky personality.

 Architecture knows this very well. It has heroes that explain “I just wanted to . . . . ,” as if the world depended on this being so. The only function a form now appears to relate to is just how different it can become within the limits of possibility and endurance - that of the client and the public. "Try two folds in the paper model wall instead of three" is the essence of one architect’s concerns when searching for form: “No, it doesn’t look unusual enough yet” - (see DVD American Masters Sketches of Frank Gehry by his friend Sydney Pollack). In ‘architectural’ publications, cameras are used to heighten these distorted differences with ‘photo-shopped’ low angles and wide angles, and tricky artificial lighting effects. That there might be another understanding is poo-pooed: all that ‘form follows function’ rubbish is old hat; the past. “We are moving forward” seems to be the gist of the architects’ refrain that even politicians are bleating out as an excuse for their foibles. One has to ask: where from; where to; in which direction; and why? It is rarely, if ever, considered that one’s individual differences might be aberrations to be avoided rather than articulated as so-called art with some significance.

One should not only look at the art of another era, but must also see it, feel it, and understand it, in order to truly come to sense its original role, and that of the artist, even though this person is usually unknown. Art that leaves us more than ‘gobsmacked’ today has been made by man/woman with a determined intent, with a certain defined ambition. It is not random, personal desire that has made these things, although things personal and obtuse are involved. The circumstance held a necessity equal to that seen in boro pieces, but different. The individual was not important. This was no mere self-expression. Indeed, things to do with self were seen as abnormalities. It is something we need to come to understand. Work had to do with aspirations that reverberated throughout culture, country and the cosmos. There was a rigorous intellectual base for this work that has given us things that still stand with a certain silent authority, stunning us with their depth, clarity and sincerity.

 Yet we choose to see these boro items as artworks in the way that we choose to understand and categorise our art - as fabulously different, unique distortions, expressions of self: something to be put into a museum or art gallery to be gawked at as distinctive, decorative, unique items labelled DO NOT TOUCH, not because they are especially beautiful, but because they have 'dollar' value. The great irony of boro and other wear-and-tear delights is that it is touch that has given them the appearance that we know and admire today, an aspect that has arisen from a disinterested and nonchalant response to needs. We need to discover how an attention to living, to work, can create great art as a matter of necessity, rather than choosing to see art as an expensive and self-conscious divergent indulgence of the specialist for the delight of the art market and other consumers, while seeking names in neon and numbers in new dollars: ME & MINE.

We must discover that the individual is not the core, but rather the odd one out; and that art is never the searching for the unique thing; that creativity has to do with something we call spirit and all that this entails, even though it is a very unfashionable concept today. The persuasive proposition, ‘the opium of the masses,’ comes to mind to defend this negative position, when maybe our current perceptions are better described in this manner. Still, in spite of all of this debate, the astonishing substance of the most humble of artefacts leaves us amazed. We need a better response than working hard to copy this ‘character clothing’ the ‘easy-peasy’ way. It is like mass producing an assemblage of hundreds of small, pink plastic copies of the Kamakura buddha, and believing that its’ essence as art is embalmed in this 'striking' stance that is only a 'my personal interpretation.' Coild it be misguided?

Art is . . . art is something beyond explanation and definition. It is something that we know by feel, but turning this around into making art the expression of one’s own feeling is illogical, demeaning in every sense, as in the belittling of quality and the ‘deconstruction’ of its’ substance. The rational logic of our quantitative times may see some sense in this clever interpretative verbal reversal, but logic fails to touch poetic quality: it destroys it with its’ cold, bold certainty.

Everyone wants to own at least a little piece of boro, as if to get close to its’ being - perhaps as a talisman. Let us all seek to carry just a little portion of the humility, the humbleness, that made these rag pieces so beautiful and hope that this might grow into an understanding and something more substantial with time, and turn us away from our rude arrogance that allows us to see ourselves as better than all pasts, all other cultures and eras. “Looking backwards” does not mean that others were backwards, just as “moving forward” does not identify any positive change, potentially better difference or simple improvement. Matters are much more complex than clichés.

I wonder if a broken iPod will be collected as a desirable trinket by others in future times? Will these folk make copies of broken hardware to decorate their environment? It may be that these might be the only old things left by us, as we have become a culture that has no need of repair with the ever-changing new gadget, fashionable object, or invention that makes the previous ones obsolete, trash within months. Already quilt makers are reproducing boro pieces in their new works. One is tempted to cry out, "Oh, forgive them, for they know not what they do," because it looks like a blind, almost desperate fumbling for meaning that we are all seeking and always hoping to discover.

We forget that an answer is truly no answer. The poet Constantine Cavafy said it best in his poem, Ithaca: arrive ‘not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches./ Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.’
Whole poem reads:


When you start on your journey to Ithaca,
then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Do not fear the Lestrygonians
and the Cyclopes and the angry Poseidon.
You will never meet such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine emotion
touches your body and your spirit.
You will never meet the Lestrygonians,
the Cyclopes and the fierce Poseidon,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not raise them up before you.

Then pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many,
that you will enter ports seen for the first time
with such pleasure, with such joy!
Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and corals, amber and ebony,
and pleasurable perfumes of all kinds,
buy as many pleasurable perfumes as you can;
visit hosts of Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from those who have knowledge.

Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.
to arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would never have taken the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you.
With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience,
you must surely have understood by then what Ithaca means.
 (translated by Rae Dalven)

 This was said differently in other contexts: ‘Seek and ye shall find;’ and again: ‘If you find the Buddha on the way, kill him.’ Perhaps the boro pieces can be seen as the discovery of a richness on the way, a port ‘seen for the first time with such pleasure, such joy!

The article from Quiltmania, The Quilt Magazine, No. 89, May/June 2012:

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