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The Matrix   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano 

Ribbon & Butterfly

Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong

“Please remove your shoes before entering the exhibit. You may not eat or drink inside; and please refrain from talking loudly,” the docent recites the rules to the visitors waiting outside the entrance of Teshima Art Museum. The museum was built around a single exhibit called the Matrix (its Japanese title Bokei actually means Mother Form), a monumental masterpiece by Japanese artist Rei Naito in cooperation with architect Ryue Nishizawa. Kuro-e comes to the remote Teshima island in the Inland Sea of Japan to see the exhibit as part of the Setouchi Triennale Art Festival. She has spent much of the morning standing in line; only 15 of the hundreds of visitors are allowed into the exhibit every 30 minutes.

Upon entering through a small doorway, Kuro-e finds herself enveloped by a huge oblong orb large enough to house an Olympic-size swimming pool. The sight takes her breath away. The visual shock comes not only from its scale, but also from the lack of visual references. The giant enclosure is utterly empty and finished in pale white; its dome curves down in all directions to merge seamlessly with the monochromatic ground, confounding her sense of distance. The only color is a patch of blue on the ceiling; it takes a moment for her to realize that is the sky seen through an oval opening. A loop of white ribbon hanging from the opening dances in the breeze, offering the only movement. Shielded from distractions by the enclosure, her senses become acute. A cloud drifting past seems more beautiful when framed by the oval window; her own shadow on the ground invites close scrutiny like a rare vision. That is when she first notices the water. It materializes magically from tiny holes on the ground, forming transparent droplets like little quicksilver beads, which slowly grow into rivulets that glide along in different directions, eventually disappearing into some other invisible holes, leaving behind no trace where it has flowed. It amuses her that she is fascinated by the movements of water and the white ribbon. Perhaps the artist’s intension is to provide this space and isolation for seeing beauty of ordinary things in nature - the wind, the clouds, and water droplets - that are rarely noticed. While contemplating this thought, she remembers another place she has visited.

On a spring day several years ago, Kuro-e was trekking up a wash in an unnamed canyon in Utah searching for Anasazi ruins. The canyon got deeper and narrower, its sides squeezed together, seemingly coming to a dead-end. As she walked closer, the walls pinched into a narrow passageway that turned sideways in a sharp bend, its entrance obscured by bushes. She squeezed through the passageway and emerged into a hidden canyon big as a football stadium. She stood there awed by what she saw: a cavernous alcove occupying the entire canyon, its huge arc curving high up and landing at the far end like a perfect giant rainbow. Reflected sunlight flooded the enclosure with a warm salmon-pink glow. She quietly walked onto the sandy floor of the alcove, feeling like entering a solemn temple. In the absolute silence, crunches of her footsteps echoed from the backwall sounded as intrusive as a rumbling locomotive. 


It took several minutes to walk the entire length of the alcove. She found no man-made structures or pictographs, only scattered debris and boulders left behind from flash floods. At the far end of the alcove, she sat down on a flat rock in the cool shadow to rest. It was so quiet she could hear her own heartbeats. How many eons it took wind and water to sculpt a place like this, she wondered; and how many people had seen it. While pondering these questions, her eyes were drawn to some movement. A tiny white butterfly fluttered down the canyon, landing momentarily on little yellow dandelion flowers, then continued on and disappeared over the rock wall, leaving behind an empty crescent blue sky. It occurred to her that she was no different from that butterfly, coming here as part of the landscape for a moment, then leaving without a trace.

The voice of the museum docent announcing the time is up jolts Kuro-e back to the present. She looks up at the thin white ribbon twisting in the wind against the patch of blue sky. Her daydreaming has cast the two experiences in sharp relief. In the Matrix - as in a Japanese rock garden - she sees nature in a constructed environment, keenly aware that she is an observer. In that unnamed canyon in southern Utah, her ‘self’ no longer exists. She becomes an integral part of the natural beauty of the land.


Cavern in a Hidden Canyon

Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano 

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