Krystyna Ziach
Japan / Krystyna Ziach, by H. Dalitz, 1988 (English)
H. Dalitz is a former director of the Foundation of Visual Arts Amsterdam
photo : catalogue Japan / Krystyna Ziach, published by FOTO magazine 1988, NL

It is no surprise that the two months Krystyna Ziach spent in Japan in early 1987 have made a deep impression on her. For an artist of the West like her, with a study of art history as cultural background and born and raised in Poland, with its art tradition influenced by Russian constructivism as well as surrealism, Japan not only offers new experiences, but also additions to and a deeper understanding of earlier ones. In the complex whole of Japanese culture, Krystyna Ziach was above all fascinated by the importance in this culture of beauty and artificiality, in close relation with each other, and by the notion of spiritual strength, which is especially pivotal to Japanese religions, such as Shinto and Zen Buddhism. These notions are the starting point for her work presented here, which gives us her intuitional impressions of Japan and Japanese culture. In making this work she has of course drawn on the sources of her own cultural background, her own tradition and her own artistic visual language. The work presented here directly refers to temples, Buddha sculptures, Zen gardens and the Noh and Kabuki theatre, all of which specifically express the notions of beauty, artificiality and spirituality. Of all the religions represented in Japan, Shintoism, Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Confucianism and Christianity are the most important, the first being the oldest and together with Zen Buddhism probably the most characteristic of Japan.

Shinto designates a religious system or, more accurately, a religious practice of rituals, which probably dates back to the worship of nature by the earliest peoples living in Japan. Shinto is based on a feeling of awe towards every remarkable natural phenomenon, such as the fanciful growth of a tree, the peculiar form of a rock or a waterfall. All things inspiring awe are referred to as ‘kami’, which can be translated as ‘God’ or ‘sublime’. Shinto therefore more or less means ‘the way of the kami’, or ‘the way of the gods’. According to Shinto everything has a kami, a spiritual strength, attributed to qualities such as growth, fertility, and natural phenomena such as wind, sun and mountains, but also to notions such as ‘justice’ and political order. Especially through the latter possibilities of application, Shinto still is topical and also of political importance. The believe in kami is expressed in the worship of objects and places to which important kami are attributed and for which
temples have been built on the spot. The entrances to the shrines are mostly indicated by what are called ‘torii’, gates, often consisting of simple wooden columns and cross beams, but which can also be richly decorated and lacquered. These gates, sometimes in a row behind each other, literally mark the boundary between a profane and a sacred space. In the triptych The Way of the Sacred Spirits, Krystyna Ziach has represented the torii of the temple of Inari in the central part, flanked by two halves of a human figure surrounded by a kimono-like form. Like the stone gatekeepers often found alongside the Japanese torii, these figures seem to symbolize the journey from the profane to the sacred, by the contrast of dress and nudity.

Zen Buddhism
According to tradition Zen Buddhism developed when Buddha, asked to speak of the dharma (to be more or less translated as ‘cosmic order’), showed a lotus flower without speaking. This is a characteristic example of the often speechless way in which in Zen an attempt is made to create insight, spiritual illumination. In Zen arts, such as Haiku, Zen gardens and the Noh theatre, this is expressed by extreme abstraction which reduces the images to the essential, leaving out the
superfluous. A clear example of this are Zen gardens, such as the well-known garden of sand and stone Ryôan-ji. Zen gardens are not an aim in itself, but are above all meant as a means of meditation and contemplation. These gardens are based on ink drawings of Chinese landscapes imported in Japan around 600 A.D. These drawings in Sansui style (literally meaning ‘mountains and water’) represent high - rising mountains, with ravines veiled in fog and often somewhere below small human figures. On the one hand they express worship of nature, on the other they show the insignificance of man in the Great Scheme of Nature. Starting from the same basic principles, Zen gardens have been constructed in an attempt to realise – in the smallest possible space and with the basic elements of stones, trees and water - a composition that is on the one hand entirely artificial, often even abstract, but on the other hand still represents the notion of a complete and harmonious world. A similar idea is expressed by Krystyna Ziach in her work The Artificial Beauty of the Imperial Gardens, a work situated in these gardens in Tokyo, in which she portrayed herself as part of the tree structure.

Noh and Kabuki theatre
The Kabuki and the Noh theatre, to be considered respectively as popular theatre and theatre for the (Zen) elite, are both characterized by a high degree of stylization and the use of stringent forms. The Noh theatre, based on the fundaments of Zen Buddhism, is built around a dance in which the attempt is made to express one single emotion, such as hatred, love or sorrow. To do so it uses the human figure and movement in an almost sculptural series of postures which have to create an increasing intensity of the expressed emotion. The masked actors do not follow a clear narrative structure, similarly to the ideas of Zen which are not expressed through the daily logic of language. In the Kabuki theatre the psyche of the protagonists in the play is acted out in a more or less similar way. There is more of a narrative structure and the chosen form offers Europeans more associations with the Comedia dell’Arte. But like the Noh theatre, Kabuki is also highly stylized. The means of expression consist of traditional forms, called ‘kata’, prescribed for each role and each play. Here to
one could speak of an ‘almost frozen expression’, the traditional character of which makes the play more recognizable and accessible for the viewer. Realism is reduced as much as possible and the emphasis is above all on the beauty of form. It is indeed through these longstanding traditions, in which forms take shape to become established kata patterns, that the theatre gets the character of a ritual. The importance these traditions are deemed to have and the value attached to the Kabuki theatre in Japan, may appear from the fact that the actors are mostly descendants of a few actors families and are sometimes referred to as ‘living national monuments’. In The Splendid Decadence of Kabuki Krystyna Ziach has portrayed some of these ideas, in this way linking up with her previous work in which fascination with the theatre and stylization of the human figure are expressed.

Beauty and artificiality
In the Japanese arts, from Haiku to Ikebana flower arranging, the esthetic form plays an important role. The tendency towards tradition and abstraction has led to beauty being reduced to almost formal shapes. A striking point is that at first the natural is recreated and transformed. Thus the pure beauty of form is to a great extent artificial.

Krystyna Ziach
Each work of art refers more or less directly to its maker. After all the choice of subject, colour and composition, as well as the decision to exhibit are personal, even though they may be made within traditions reducing the individual contribution to a minimum. The autobiographical may be of minor importance, e.g. when the artist tries to register part of reality as objectively as possible – meaning the least personal possible - or tries in a formal way to find a solution for a compositional problem. But Krystyna Ziach's work is highly personal, if it were only because she often performs in person in the settings she has created. Her earlier work mainly shows theatrical situations, referring to monumental Michelangeloesque sculptures, such as Baroque (1985) (Camera International, 1986, nr6), or to Francis Bacon in her Studies on Bacon (1986). Although Krystyna Ziach has photographed herself in these works, they are not in the first place about her, but about a form, an idea taking shape by emphasising the theatrical and thus abstracting the individual. This transcending the individual is underlined by the fact that her body is often partially painted over and thus absorbed in the background or integrated in the setting with pieces of cloth or paper. Examples of this working method can also be found in a number of the works presented here, such as Ikebana and Black Rain. This way of styling does not result in impersonal work, on the contrary, it expresses a high intensity and above all corporality. After all it is no coincidence that she represents herself in such performance-like situations. In the context of her earlier work it is not surprising that, in her meeting with Japan and Japanese culture, she is above all fascinated by the way the paradox between pathos and stylization is solved in the different art forms and that she reports of these facts in her own way.
Translation: Hanny Keulers