Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

A portal to Japan

Mystetskyi Arsenal offers its visitors an imaginary guide to the Land of the Rising Sun
20 November, 2017 - 17:23

This exhibit closes the Year of Japan in Ukraine. The curators of the project Yulia VAHANOVA, Andrii LINIK, and Yulia ZINOVIIVA offer an interactive trip across the key notions of Japanese culture. Samples of traditional art from the collections of Ukrainian museums and works by innovative artists will be the landmarks on this trip.

Olesia OSTROVSKA-LIUTA, CEO, Mystetskyi Arsenal, says that the exhibit “The Imaginary Guide to Japan” is not associated with a certain style or period, but encompasses the culture of that country in general and highlights its key ideas. She promises that “It is an absolute must see for everyone interested in Oriental civilizations, as well as for those who love grasping stories and seek food for thought.”

The exhibit space is divided into eight “stations” or rooms, each dedicated to a particular theme. We step into darkness and find ourselves in Room One.


In Emptiness we see a replica of creation titled The (Ir)Reversible by Norimichi Hirakawa. A computer program sends cosmological images on the screen, with whirling particles. From time to time a blinding flash makes you wince, a metaphor for the Big Bang. By the way, when practicing meditation one learns to cleanse body and mind to be able to know something really beautiful and worthy. A rhythmical metronome reminds that time flies, but the road awaits.

 The Island is a real introduction to Japan. The diversity of landscapes and climates of this island nation is striking. The walls of the room are hung with old maps, reflecting people’s ideas of Japan. “The Herbarium of the National University in Lviv provided us with seeds brought from Japan by a Ukrainian lady researcher,” Vahanova points to the neighboring exposition. “The seeds that a blown to the mainland with the wind… I see it as a beautiful metaphor of transferring information about Japan to other countries.”

“The other side of the room looks more minimalistic: white floors, black spheres on thin spikes, and two music players. This is the installation Sound Sphere by Lyota Yagi, a sort of experiment with the electromagnetic field and information on tape in time and space. The data from the magnetic tape which covers the spheres are read randomly. So the noise played by the music players will never be the same.

The next station is Japanese Garden, another fundamental concept in Japan. Even in the stifling, overcrowded modern cities the Japanese look for tiny free areas and create tiny replicas of gardens there, thus restoring harmony and quiet to the concrete jungle.

The garden for the exhibit in Kyiv was designed by Kosugi Zohen Co. Ltd. The firm’s president Saki Kosugi remarks that the Japanese garden has to be asymmetric, simple, and abstract. It comprises few elements: rocks of various sizes, plants, and water, but each component symbolizes something in the story told by the creator of the garden. The garden at the Mystetskyi Arsenal tells of Buddha’s trip from the imaginary world to the real world on the earth, his communication with the souls of the dead, and the return to his paradise. It follows the standards of the 13th-15th centuries.


Another passage brings us to Form, the major metaphor in Japanese culture. The room is an assembly of objects whose forms construct our perception of this oriental country. A display cabinet is filled with fragile ceramics and solid metal objects, the walls are decorated with clip art, delicate paper, clear ink strokes making up Japanese characters and senses. Across we see brightly colored kimonos from private collections, dating back to various epochs. They are a vivid example of the Japanese art of combining the traditional and the innovative in a constant creative process.

Form-shifting and instant transformation are the nasty properties of bakemono, eerie monsters craving for human flesh, who have the entire next room to themselves. But this concept could also denote something alien in a broader sense, helping accept the existence of the Alien next to you.

In this “demonic” room we find contemporary Japanese artists’ reflections on matters and their states. Sachiko Kodama’s Morpho Tower is a ferrofluid sculpture transformed by the magnetic field: a kind of metaphor for structures that change in space and time. The controllability of the motion of this sculpture is in stark contrast with the film Breathing Chaos on the next wall.

Nelo Akamatsu has constructed a sound installation Chozumaki using glass vases filled with water. At the bottom of each vase the magnetic field rotates a tiny magnet, which creates bubble whirls with barely audible sounds. This reminds us that water, one of the most powerful symbols, could be a guide between different worlds, states, objects, and thoughts.

The theme of change is continued in the next location, Seasons of the Year. The well-being of Japanese farmers was largely dependent on the powers of nature. So they chose not to fight it, but to sync with it. A thoughtful perception of seasonal changes is manifested in traditions (for instance, admiring the blooming sakuras), works of art, richly decorated household objects, and other sophisticated pastimes.

The first object in this room is ALMA Music Box. These are the “swan songs,” recorded radio waves from a big star which is dying. This sort of barrel organ plays 70 disks with the recorded observations of the star made by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, PARTY Digital Design Studio, and experts in algorithm design Quosmo.

The highlight of Seasons of the Year is a herbarium of plants from the Japanese archipelago, collected by researcher Oleksandr Kliotny in 1914. The herbaria are double-sided, the bottom part could be seen in a mirror under the display cabinet. “You will not often come across such exhibits, but we found it most appropriate in this room. It is a vivid memory amid the winter which helps remember some special time,” comments Vahanova. Next to the plant specimens are brief descriptions, on the opposite walls are original files for storage and the descriptions in Japanese made by Kliotny.


The notion of path is key to Japanese culture. Paths can differ a lot, but one of the best known and most fascinating is the path of the samurai. The seventh room displays samurai-themed etchings, weaponry, and armor of a Japanese rider. The displays in the middle show another path, that of filial piety. Even if the protagonists in the series of paintings have to undergo humiliation for the sake of their kin, in the end they find their reward.

Another path is a call for love and balance of desires, as demonstrated by artist named Sputniko. Her work is a mind-boggling symbiosis of experiments on the DNA of silkworms (jointly with gene engineers) and video art, an unusually expressed contemplation over fateful human relationships.

The destination of our trip is Meishio: special and famous places, mentioned in classical texts and revered by all Japanese people. “Of course, Mount Fuji is one of the best-known Meishio,” shares Zinoviiva. “We have collected all the interpretations of this image through various arts in one place, from calligraphy to paintings to etchings. The most outstanding people considered this place beautiful. When you are there, you experience something unusual and melt the others’ experience into your own.”

“He who climbs Mount Fuji is a wise man. He who climbs twice is a fool,” claims an inscription above the picture of the mountain. But he who will see the exhibit again, before it closes on December 17, will be no fool. “The Imaginary Guide” closes with an educational station, where you can learn how to make origami, draw manga comic strips, write Japanese characters, and so on. This is also a location for master classes and workshops which immerse the visitors in Japanese culture.

By Daria TRAPEZNIKOVA, photos by Ruslan KANIUKA, The Day