GLIMPSES OF THE THEATRE OF LIFE
In her work, Anita Jensen has created for us a theatre of life, and in its leading and supporting roles we can share moments in the passing flow of time. Jensen’s art contains a powerful sense of transience, deformation and the forms of Japanese beauty in all their variety.
Anita Jensen succeeds in capturing the core of Japanese culture, arts and aesthetics. It appears in her work in fleeting moments and aesthetic climaxes, unfolding in lucid subliminality or perfectly controlled awareness, and in surprising forms of manifestation. Traditional Japanese aesthetic concepts – the beauty of the lean and withered, the union of the elegant and the grotesque – reoccur throughout her work. These aesthetic polar opposites, or their ‘juxtaposition’, generate a particular tension in Jensen’s work, which is also manifested as open-mindedness and curiosity, enabling us to observe Japanese culture and art from new but also surprising angles.
On the other hand, Jensen’s works also emphasise the polarity between alien and familiar, and their natural unity, that is characteristic of Japanese culture and society as well. They open up Japanese culture and beauty for us in a new way, clear and unpretentious, yet nuanced with Jensen’s robustly Finnish, powerful expressiveness. The works are like peepholes into another time and place, other lived moments, in the moods of which the viewer can participate as an outside observer.
In Japanese society, everyone is constantly playing some role, and that is considered completely natural. With an in-group, uchi, one speaks and behaves in social contexts differently than with the out-group, soto. A person assumes different roles in relation to neighbours, the grocer, the hobby group, or work. In Japanese culture, people grow into their roles; it is an unconscious but acquired form of social relations. Assuming a certain role in a certain place and situation is also a way of respecting others and showing consideration. Roles strengthen social relations and create safe boundaries for all interaction.
Contemporary popular culture in Japan also abounds with roles: cosplay is the practice of dressing up as known manga and anime characters, whereas role-play in gyaru street fashion comes close to fantasy whether in outfits, makeup or hairdo. In the morning, young women might have stepped out of the pages of an expensive French fashion magazine, at night areas frequented by young people are full of fashionable fantasy outfits. These are not garments that are worn to work; the roles are the key to a different world and a different identity, in which everything is possible and free from the strict norms of the real world.
Living as a foreigner in Japan is also a kind of theatre of life in which social roles must be assumed and assimilated in order for one to be accepted and become part of the in-group. Anita Jensen’s theatre of life is not a form of adaptation, however, but a stage where she brings familiar and alien things, different yet simultaneous worlds. This encounter results in interesting cultural dialogue and new insights.
Anita Jensen’s graphic works create surprising links to traditional Japanese theatre. They are glimpses into a specific age and moment. A curtain of old books and lean and withered leaves tells a story of its own, while an image on the stage, in the centre of attention, tells its own. The people in the pictures are always in a role: the images feature either actors or staged studio tableaus with beautiful women, or the life of ordinary people as told by snapshots from family albums. The palette is like the stage curtain in a Kabuki theatre: red, brown, green, yellow and black, which only serves to strengthen the sense of Japanese traditional theatre.
Jensen’s theatre of life combines the real world, depicted in photographs, with another world, which is beyond time and space. In Noh, an even older form of theatre than Kabuki, the stage represents a different, divine world, a world of gods, whereas the auditorium is the real world, and these two, the stage and the auditorium, are usually separated by an area resembling a strip of sand, with small sakaki (Cleyera japonica) or pine trees planted in it.
In her graphic art, Jensen places both this real and the other world on the same stage, in front of the viewer, who gets to witness their dialogue as if peering through a chink in a curtain.
Natural (shizen) and interesting (omoshiroi) are prominent qualities in Jensen’s art. Both concepts are integral parts of traditional Japanese theatre, and they have also been used to describe the manifestations of Japanese beauty in performative art: the natural (shizen) denotes intentionality and creativity in all action, but also acceptance of things as they are. Consequently, a gentle rain of withered flowers is equally beautiful as flower in full bloom. Nature helps us accept the inevitable. As a form of beauty, natural beauty does not refer to nature, however. It is used instead to denote beauty which is like nature, but also contains a marked aspect of human intentionality. The natural in Jensen’s art is natural precisely in this sense, ‘to be like nature’: natural elements in the pictures function both as metaphors and concrete examples of natural beauty, captivating our eyes by fractals and the passage of time, while also calming the mind and enabling an almost meditative state.
The interesting (omoshiroi) is beauty at its highest level in Japanese aesthetics: it denotes something extraordinary, new and creative. Interesting beauty arises from the combination of disparate elements, represented in Jensen’s art by a withered flower, an empty shell or an anatomical detail. Separately, all these are details of nature and natural in themselves, but together they are transformed into interesting and inventive art. In traditional Japanese Noh theatre, Zeami Motokiyo (1343–1463) used the quality of interestingness to depict beauty, which he called Flower at its highest level. Interesting meant something fresh, new, surprising, but not shocking, yet always unique and creative.
As aesthetic concepts, natural and interesting are also closely associated with deformation, a key theme in traditional Japanese theatre and prominent also in Anita Jensen’s art. In Noh plays, a spirit that has assumed the shape of a human being reveals at the end its real, often demonic identity, yet attains eternal bliss through prayer. In Japanese mythology, a demonic figure that undergoes a transformation is quite often a woman.
Prime examples of this are traditional plays such as Matsukaze, Wind in the Pines, in which two young women live in isolation from the rest of the world, alone on the shore of Suma Bay near the present-day city of Kobe. One day, a travelling monk visits Suma Bay and asks the women for accommodation for one night. Regretting the humbleness of their abode, the women offer to put up the monk and give him supper. During the evening, the women tell the monk about their tragic love, which drove them to their death. Their souls are doomed to wander restlessly on the shores of the bay. The monk prays for eternal peace for the women, who are released from their ‘earthly prison’. My other example is a play called Musume no dōjōji, in which a young maiden is deceived in love. She pursues her betrayer, who finally hides inside a huge temple bell. The woman turns into a snake, makes her way inside the bell and has her revenge.
Vernacular stories contain similar accounts of transformation, such as yukionna (Snow Woman), who freezes men to death, or a beautiful woman, devoted to her husband, who turns out to be a fox. Unlike the Snow Woman, however, the fox is not a fearful figure, because in addition to its cleverness it is also associated with magical abilities, intelligence and love in old stories. In Shintoism, the fox (Inari) is a messenger. The more tails a fox has, the more powerful it is believed to be. In modern Japanese manga, a girl is often depicted as a superhero or a demonic figure possessing magic powers.
Anita Jensen’s works also feature beautiful ladies next to images of change and transience. Time and space are metaphors or moments of this and the other world, which the viewer is able to partake in as an outside observer. Transformation is alluded to by joining natural elements to the image, such as a wilted flower or an empty shell. Deformation is present in Anita Jensen’s work also in concrete ways: flowers wither and drop their petals, fruit become aged and lean.
Japanese culture has not been averse to depicting the grotesque. This is evident in the ink drawings of Toba, who lived as far back as the 11th century, and old depictions of hell in which ravaged people living in a Buddhist hell mutilate and consume other people, their blood gushing out and limbs torn apart. Japanese manga has in fact been sharply criticised precisely for its violent and grotesque imageries, but these should not be interpreted as symbols of the Japanese mindscape. The wild pictures in manga are pure fantasy, escape from the discipline and norms of the real world. Such exaggeration develops in fact into entertainment, a feature that is evident in many Japanese television shows, whose humour may be difficult for a Westerner to understand, initially at least. This aspect of culture has in fact become more prevalent, also in Finnish entertainment.
The grotesque appears in Anita Jensen’s art primarily in her series Dream Diary of Madame Pavlova and Evolution of Emotions, in which medical deformities depicted in old anatomy textbooks are re-presented to the viewer in an art context. This is a brilliant example of the beauty of ugliness and grotesqueness, which can also contain tragic beauty within its horrendousness. Japanese culture, and Anita Jensen’s works, contain something beautiful and fragile alongside the grotesque, the opposites smoothing the edges of beauty and making the result interesting.
The Kabuki play Natsumatsuri (Summer Festival) is a good example of this traditional art form: the leading character commits a brutal murder and the movements of the deed are then aestheticised. The sequence is famous for its 13 arrested so-called ‘murder expressions’ (koroshi no mie). As a counterbalance to the horror of the deed, it is attended by a silent rain of cherry blossoms. Cruelty, brutality or grotesqueness are not inherently valuable in Japanese art or visual narrative; the focus is on the larger context, the setting where they are presented. The deed (such as the brutal murder in Natsumatsuri) or the thing (Mount Fuji in Hokusai’s The Great Wave) almost drowns in the details of the whole, even though they are the core. This method of approaching the core by depicting things in the periphery is characteristic of Japanese science and art. On the other hand, the core event of Natsumatsuri, the murder, is distanced by dividing it into a sequence of slow-motion gestures in which each single motion is separated into a distinct aesthetic ‘image’.
In Anita Jensen’s graphic art, the whole is made up of nature and transience. The core is moments of life. Unlike the Japanese, Jensen does not conceal the core within the whole, but emphasises it almost obscenely, side by side, like art objects in the window recess of a traditional tea room or temple. On the other hand, Jensen also distances the ugly and the grotesque in the Japanese manner, by showcasing them as details: by aesthetising the grotesque.
On Jensen’s Beauty
Anita Jensen’s works express the forms and aesthetic ideals of Japanese beauty in many ways. They incorporate the interesting (omoshiroi) by reflecting the new, creative and unprecedented, even the comical and amusing. In traditional Japanese aesthetics, beauty emerges from opposites (taikyokutei) and their harmony. Her works contain a similar juxtaposition or aesthetic of opposites, but her aesthetic too arises from the harmonious coexistence of different elements. The works contain a strong component of change, of deformation, as an element of natural beauty (shizen) in which human contribution and intention (sakui) is nevertheless present. The transience and continuous change of time is also symbolised by withered flowers (kareta) and vegetables (yase), which in the right context can also express beauty at its highest in Japanese aesthetics.
Time and change, powerful presences in Jensen’s work, are central concepts in Zen Buddhism, but also in Zen arts, as Hisamatsu Shinichi discusses in detail in Zen and Fine Arts (Zen to bijutsu). In his first and perhaps best-known text, Kadensho (Teachings on Style and Flower) from 1418, Zeami, the founder of Noh theatre, describes beauty (hana) as the progress of an actor towards true mastery. According to the text, each age has its own aesthetic climax, Flower (hana), which is always different yet always equally grand.
Jensen’s theatre of life also features the grotesque and the disfigured, which, combined with the beautiful, acquire aesthetic meanings of tragic beauty. Tragic beauty as understood in Japanese aesthetics must not be confused with its Western meaning: in the Japanese context, it refers to arrested moments and the ease or effortlessness of life/action – the great moments of life and their attendant grand emotions (aware). According to Nakagawa Shigeaki, a scholar of Japanese aesthetics, there is a perceived attractiveness in Japanese culture even in ugliness and tragedy. As a counterpoint to ugliness and disfigurement, Jensen’s work contains a certain refinement and elegance (miyabi), particularly in backgrounds and overall composition, but even more frequently in the style: in highly crafted details and meticulous finish.
Jensen’s works also contain a certain comical aspect and humour, a playfulness that in Japanese aesthetics is discussed through erotic and unrequited love and flirting (iki). The erotic tension and playfulness of iki is also present in Jensen’s work.
The palette in Jensen’s art is sensuous, stylish, yet highly elegant (shibui). There is a lot of black in her works. Black is always elegant, and the Japanese also favour black in dim tea rooms, because they think that dimness brings out the sensuousness of black. This is a reference to the Japanese aesthetic concept of yūgen, used to describe a dark, mysterious, yet extremely sophisticated beauty, and explaining in part the fondness of the Japanese for shadows and the beauty of twilight. This aspect of beauty is described brilliantly by Junichiro Tanizaki in his book In Praise of Shadows (In’ei raisan). Gold is traditionally used in Japanese art to lend a touch of luxury and sensuality, but also to allude symbolically to the world beyond, the Buddhist paradise. Red and green are also colours that appear frequently in Jensen’s work. Red is the colour of happiness and joy, while green as its pleasant complement emphasises eternity and augurs great fortune and good luck.
A mirror, magnifying glass or camera lens also appear often in Jensen’s works or the titles of her series, such as Kakyō, the Mirror of the Flower. The title is a direct reference to a work of the same title from 1424 by the founder of Noh theatre, Zeami, in which he discusses the true expressive power of form or skill in performances, but also the forms of mysterious (yūgen) and Peerless Realm (myō) beauty.
Mirrors have a long history and a significant role in Japanese culture. Already in the Japanese creation myth, mirrors and jewels were hung on the branches of tall trees in an attempt to use their glitter to lure the Sun goddess out of a cave where she had fled. In Kakyō, Zeami explains that the word for interesting (omoshiroi) derives from this particular legend, for when the Sun goddess finally came out of the cave, the intensity of her brilliance made the faces (omo) of the other gods waiting outside seem to turn white (shiroi), as by a powerful flash of lightning. Based on this legend, the mirror has been part of the imperial regalia of Japan, along with a sword and a jewel. In Japanese pictures and paintings, women are often depicted with a mirror or in a mirror reflection.
Although the setting in Anita Jensen’s work is like a stage, laid out for us to see, or like an intimate book opened for us to read shamelessly, Jensen nevertheless offers us only a limited view. We look at the events either as if peeking from behind a curtain, or peering through a lens in a small peephole, opening a limited view on a specific moment and place.
In a very Japanese way, Jensen guides us to look at pictures and beauty in the manner that she wants us to look at them. Ultimately, I nevertheless feel that in Anita Jensen’s works, we should look beyond the depicted and the obvious, and try to participate in the mood in which the artist has made the work, in order to gain, if only for a few moments, small insights into what is depicted.
Non-fiction writer and researcher
PhD, Japanese Studies, University of Helsinki
Docent in Japanese Aesthetics, University of Helsinki