Cutting a piece of nature

Herbert Köhler on Kazuo Katase
translated by Michael Robertson

In 1992, when Detlef Bluemler wrote the first appreciation of the Japanese artist Kazuo Katase to appear in a reference work, it was clear that the artist's trajectory still had a long way to go(1). In this new edition 10 years later, we can outline the latest position reached by Katase - an all-round artist in the no-man's land between yellow and white. Events so far have been played out in a broad field of creativity ranging from sketches and plans, pastels and photographs, to sculptures, environments, installations, and lighting. Now these are being followed by a more intense involvement with dramatic elements - stage sets and spatial dramatization.
Against the artistic background provided by the unique action group Gutai, founded by Jiro Yoshihara in 1954, and of the Monoha movement of the 1970s, Katase learned that, in design terms, everything was now permitted(2). But Katase discovered elementary geometries, light and shadow, complementarities in general, which tend towards traditional minimalism. For him, space is not an empty vacuum with objects placed in it, which is still observable in perspective terms as dead spatiality. Instead, space is an elementary moment of integration of all subjects that is narrated by the ground of Being in the totality of nature on the globe; it is a system of relationships of tension that take effect within the paradox of complete stillness. Square and cube, circle, ring and sphere, line, rod, and cylinder are the basic forms for this; blue, red and yellow are the principal colors, white and black are the noncolors; monochrome is an ensemble style. An overview is always simultaneously an inner view.
Born in Shizuoka in Japan in 1947, Katase has been living and working in Kassel, Germany, since 1976. He brought with him to the West a Zen tradition enlightened by modern Japanese philosophy, mainly represented by Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945). Nishida's philosophy of pure experience(3) emerged from the cultural opening of Japan toward the West that took place after 1868. By its very nature, Zen is incapable of becoming a world philosophy - and it has never attempted to be this, rejecting as it does explanatory discourse from the start; inner experience, image, and gesture are more important in it.
Initially in the pragmatic and behavioristic thought of British philosophers, and later in the metaphysics of German Idealism and the romantic psychologisms that developed from it, Japanese philosophers recognized elements capable of bridging the gap between East and West(4). The purpose of this cultural opening was to overcome Japan's isolation in world politics.
Kazuo Katase carries with him this cognitive and cultural background aura of modern Japan. Technology and technological progress, philosophy and reflexive consensus, Zen and the Buddhist tradition are not opposites, not polarities, but can be grasped dialectically and transformed into text. The boundary of what can be spoken of is quickly reached here. The concept of paradox proves much more fruitful than Western tools of thinking in dealing with East-West fusion. It provides the basis for Eastern thought at the descriptive level, and although it is only an approximation to authenticity, the concept makes one thing clear: the meaning of being cannot be grasped rationally - i.e., textually - and has to be made clear in the image. All philosophy, as well as all religion based on scripture, is thus bound to fail. The meaning of being (the ultimate question connected with the presence of consciousness, and thus the ultimate human question) can only be grasped in satori - the goal of Zen, which is perhaps still best translated as enlightenment. One enters the path to satori by solving a puzzle, which is initially revealed in a question, the koan(5). The famous question of the most important Zen master, Hakuin, What is the sound of one hand clapping? makes clear the conceptual chaos that the Zen student can be plunged into. The observation of things that brings illumination thus takes place within an image(6).
The way in Zen means: koan - chaos - satori. In his work, Kazuo Katase is constantly approaching this way afresh. The material distillate of his concepts appears minimalistic, restricted to basic geometric elements on a high aesthetic level, a provisional expression of satori - familiar from Japanese rock garden ensembles, interior decoration, and teahouses. These are the locations for ritual events that can be extended to any other situation through gesture and drama.
In 1998, for example, Katase supplied the artistic design for the hospital in the city of Ludwigshafen on the Rhine - a plain, functional building within which decisions affecting life and death - i.e., questions of existence - have to be taken afresh every day. Katase countered the aural pathological ontology of the hospital with a work entitled Ring des Seyns (Ring of Being). The use of the old-fashioned y in the spelling of Sein (being) already suggests that what is involved is the humanist-based concept of Being that was debated from the time of Hegel until modern German orthography became standardized by Duden's dictionary. The temporal limit suggested is not unintentional, since in the subsequent period, ontological issues only continued to spring up until the early Heidegger, before trickling away among the French existentialists and collapsing after the catastrophes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the East. Metaphysics, ontology, and humanism are no longer able to offer plausible explanations of being, and have become merely a part of history.
Katase's Ring des Seyns is thus far more than an application of artistic and aesthetic concepts. The artist has designed a thought-installation, known as a concept in the West, that can be understood throughout the world: paradoxes can be resolved on a nontextual level. Insights are not rational and causal philosophical constructions, but moments of enlightenment. Beyond all mysticism, far from synthetic religion, they mark out a focused point of extreme clarity.

"At the far end of the long section of the building, where two roads intersect, stands the Ring des Seyns, a four-part installation composed of simple basic elements ... On the roof, there is a 30-meter long rod that passes over a green-patinated tube-like element as a support, so that a slope is produced. At the far end of the rod, at the front wall of the building, there is a red ring 10 meters in diameter, which appears to be floating in front of the building. These three elements have a direct connection to the architecture, while in front of the glass façade there is a 26-meter high, slightly slanting, brown-oxidized rod of Cortene steel forming the fourth component of the installation … In addition, there is another ring in the interior of the building, a blue neon ring in the hospital's glass stairway dome, that corresponds to the ring in the exterior area."(7)

The Ring des Seyns stands sentry over the cycle of day and night, using daylight and artificial light, nature and technology to produce an installation of coming and going with a reminder of the 24 hours. The actors in this stage set of fundamental ontology are the patients and those helping them. Both appear equally delivered up to Being. Both outwardly and inwardly, Katase's Ring suggests the eternal return to an exposed social location.
This real drama of a hospital is contrasted with the cultural theater in which dramatic elements, both comical and tragic, arise from literary sources. Katase's silent contribution to the Western theater of words was first realized in his stage set for Tankred Dorst's The Legend of Poor Henry in 1997, in which the stage events were given a hint of No and Kabuki - without actually becoming Japanese theater. The various sets used the familiar geometric forms, spheres and cylinders, the combination of a distorted cube and prism to form a slanting house, with special lighting being used to shape the space.
Even more minimalized was the stage set produced in 2000 for Federico García Lorca's Blood Wedding. The stage is conceived in three parts, almost like a triptych. The central main leaf and backdrop-like room dividers are given a monochrome appearance by the lighting. Variations on marine and sky blue, window shadows and moon projections are played on the main leaf, along with a choreography involving two chairs.
From 2001-2003, the Cité Internationale in Lyons will also become a public stage. This is the setting for Katase's Light-Shadow Space Body,

"… a body consisting of two different empty spatial bodies layered one above the other. The inner, black diagonal grid space body: shadow and wind. The outer, white upright grid space body: sunlight … A grid space body that can be experienced day and night (at night with the daylight lamps) … is a ground-window onto the underground car park. At the same time, this window links the underground with the overground."(8)

zurück zum Text 1(1)Detlef Bluemler, Im Niemandsland zwischen Gelb und Weiss in: Künstler, Kritisches Lexikon der Gegenwartskunst, issue 20 (Munich, 1992).

zurück zum Text 2(2)Two years before Allan Kaprow, Gutai had already developed the form of the happening. After the Second World War, Japan was still culturally isolated, and the invention of the happening was therefore attributed to Kaprow. In addition to Yoshihara, the group included Kazuo Shiraga, Saburo Murakami, and Sadamasa Motonaga.

zurück zum Text 3(3)Kitaro Nishida, Über das Gute. Eine Philosophie der reinen Erfahrung [Zen no kenkyu, 1911], tr. Peter Pörtner (Frankfurt am Main, 2001); An Inquiry into the Good, tr. Masao Abe and Christopher Ives (New Haven, 1990).

zurück zum Text 4(4)In particular, the epoch-making systematic program (written ca. 1800) by the Tübingen idealists Hegel, Fichte, Schelling, and Hölderlin was regarded as an impulse from the West that was capable of being absorbed in order to provide budding Japanese philosophy with a globally identifiable position.

zurück zum Text 5(5)A cautious and approximate translation of the term koan might be a paradoxical, apparently completely meaningless sentence - a task set in the form of a question.

zurück zum Text 6(6)The traditional Japanese theater forms of the No and Kabuki are based on silence, not on words. Art and life are reflected in the most economical gestures. For tradition-conscious Japanese, these are inseparable.

zurück zum Text 7(7)Richard W. Gassen, Vom Geist des Ortes. Der Ring des Seyns in Ludwigshafen und weitere Installationen im öffentlichen Raum in: Kazuo Katase, Umsicht [exhibition catalog], Wilhelm Hack Museum, Ludwigshafen am Rhein, Germany, 1999, p. 10.

zurück zum Text 8(8)Kazuo Katase, 2001, in an outline written about his planned work for the Cité Internationale in Lyons.