The elephant in the room

Simon Starling: At Twilight (After W. B. Yeats’ Noh Reincarnation), is a multimedia project in which the artist explores the influence of Noh on Western Modernism. It was displayed in the Japan Society’s galleries starting with a dimly lit room where a modern interpretation of At the Hawk’s Well, W.B. Yeats’ one-act dance play was showing alongside masks created by Noh Mask maker, Yasuo Miichi. The play was inspired by Yeats’ close collaborator and friend, the poet Ezra Pound who at the time, was translating Japanese Noh plays.

The installation continued in the ”mirror room”, a place Noh performers would traditionally use to change into their characters and, finally, concluded with an exhibit of photographs, prints, masks and other archival material – all related to Mr Starling’s project.

Bronze portrait of the dancer Michio Ito, who performed as the Hawk in the original 1916 staging of ”At the Hawk’s Well”, conceived as a Noh mask and created in the mid-1920s, around the time when Ito was collaborating with New York-based choreographer Martha Graham. Isamu Noguchi, 1904-1988.
W.B. Yeats, 1913 by Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966). Digital print.
The hawk costume seen in the film.
The elephant in the room.
The Bamboo Gallery was converted into a mirror room (kagami-no-ma), traditionally used by Noh performers to change into their characters. Costumes reproduced based on archival materials from Yeat’s original play were displayed here.
Rock Drill, 1913-14. Bronze by Jacob Epstein. One of the Modernist works that inspired the creation of the Noh masks…
… and the creator, Jacob Epbstein. Photogravure by Alvin Langdon Coburn, in 1914.
Kumasaka in the Misty Moonlight, undated. Polychrome woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892).
Noh Mask, Edo period (1603-1868) by an unknown artist.
H.H. Asquith, 1914. Photogravure by Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966). H.H. Asquith was Prime Minister of England between 1908 and 1916. Known for his indecisive leadership during the initial stages of WWI, he was a regular guest at the home of Lord and Lady Cunard and was among the intimate audience gathered at the premiere of ”At the Hawk’s Well”. Prior to this, Asquith met the Japanese dancer Michio Ito, who played the Hawk.

Ito later recalled: At supper, Lady Cunard, a refined, white-haired gentleman and I, all sat at a table together. The old man tried to carry on a conversation with me. However, it was in English, so I didn’t follow very well… I began to get frustrated, and interjected in halting English: ”If you allow me to speak in German I can answer a little more intelligently.” Hearing this, the old man let out a hearty laugh: ”I am an Englishman and can’t speak Japanese. You are Japanese and can’t speak English. If German mediates between us, then by all means let’s speak in German…” The person I had spoken to in German – the language of his enemy – had been the Prime Minister of England.”

Noh mask by an unknown artist. Edo period (1603-1868).
Nancy Cunard, 1916. Digital print by an unknown photographer.
Eeyore. Ten years after the first performance of ”At the Hawk’s Well”, the trees of Ashdown Forest that surrounded W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound’s wartime retreat, Stone Cottage, were immortalized in Ernest Shepard’s illustrations for A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books. Milne based Pooh’s One Hundred Acre Wood on Ashdown Forest, where he lived and where, at the time Yeats and Pound were there, he was writing wartime propaganda articles for the MI7b. Eeyore is the pessimistic, old grey donkey from the story.

Pessimistic, downward facing Eeyore concludes the three-part series about Simon Starling’s project shown at the Japan Society. For more inspirational views connecting the pieces, please click here and here.

January 6th, 2017

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