2017: Rayer Ma: Video and Legends in Tohoku, Japan

My name is Rayer Ma and I am a recipient of the Chase Coggins Fund in 2017. I proposed to travel to Tono, a small rural town in Tohoku Prefecture in northeast Japan, with the  objective of creating a video piece inspired by  Tono Monogatari, one of Japan’s most  well – known collections of folklore. I am writing today to report to you some results and rewards from  my trip.

Tohoku forest

I would like to start off by s aying the two weeks I spent in Tohoku have been  one of the  most  fulfilling  experiences I’ve had as an  aspiring artist. Upon graduating from Yale and at a time I was still actively seeking to define my mode of creating, my adventure into some of the most remote corners of Japan led me to surprises I could not anticipate and was only able to  interpret after a slow, extensive process of absorption. My time in Japan became an investigation of my purpose and method as an artist and an exercise on critiquing and revising my work.

I departed for Japan with the intention of studying the relationship between virtuality and nature and creating new visual expressions of myth and legends in the contemporary world. Soon after I arrived in Tono, I was struck by the realization that the immediate task at hand is to understand why legends were told and written in the first place. The folklores of Tono Monogatari are full of wild imaginations of strange creatures the villagers both fear and tolerate. But what I took for imaginations are not in fact the products of mere whim. Digging into the history of Tohoku by visiting the municipal museum and library and discussing with my host in Tono, I learned that what the folklores document is a history of poverty and famine. For example, kappa, the supernatural water creature whose cartoon sculptures are installed around town for the tourists, came to being as a way of accounting for missing children sold by starving parents. For those who could not endure both the brutality and shame reality brings upon them , the presence of fantastical and often evil spirits offers a kind of comfort that dwells in the realm of imagination. The supernatural, in Tono Monogatari, can only supersede the natural by reconciling with what nature offers and has taken away . Born out of misfortune, these folklores are means of survival.

I decided to redirect and simplify the goal of my project: instead of performing reenactments of the legends, which I believed was neither adequate or appropriate, I wanted to best immerse myself in the landscape of Tohoku and better understand the relationship it has with its people. It was upon biking out of the humble downtown area and into the rural farm lands, then dismounting from the bike and hiking into the forest as a solo pilgrim in search of the streams, water wheels, and mysterious rock formations described in the legends, that the supernatural forces began to make sense to me. Never have I been in forests so completely dominated by the forest itself: though there were painted arrows a few on the tree trunks, I could tell that I was nowhere near human territory. The silence was heavy and rich against the sound of my footsteps and (bear) bell, and for extended periods of time I felt afraid. At the end of these long hikes, when a giant tear-drop shaped rock appeared before me – or hundreds of moss – covered stones into which ancient portraits of Buddhist monks were carved – the sense of tremendous relief that washed over me did in fact, at that moment, make me believe that I had come under divine protection , that the rocks needed to be worshipped because they daunted me without meaning me harm. It was in part the complete stillness of the rocks that felt calming, as if its persistence in being somehow allowed me to be at peace.

Tohoku forest

There are ways in which my experience of fear and comfort on a continuum parallels the tension between imagination and reality in the origin of these folklores. Upon consulting with my host in Tono, I left Tono earlier than planned and headed farther north to visit places where the meditation on the human – nature relationship is alive and relevant. I travelled through Miyako, a coastal city largely destroyed in the 2011 tsunami, and spent three nights at a fishermen’s home in Kuji, a small village whose elevation just barely protected it from the giant waves. My final nights in Japan were spent at a Zen Buddhist temple on Chokai Mountain in Akita Prefecture, west of Tohoku, where I befriended Abbot Joko and under his guidance, reoriented myself in my journey towards artmaking. He advised me to cultivate a simple and humble mind, to slow down and learn by observing with patience. To move forward, I must first endure stillness.

Though my direction has changed, the video project was not set aside entirely. Over the course of two weeks, I shot over a hundred videos and three hundred still photographs. Believing that I have gained new understanding of my original subject, I decided to start from scratch and reorganize the grounding principle of the video. Instead of extracting from the narrative of the legends, I want to convey the sensorial field I experienced in the woods of Tono. Since returning to the U.S. I have expanded the project a bit by bringing a few more people on board and working together for the video-in-progress. Taking the episodic form of Tono Monogatari, the video will be a string of short bursts of man-nature encounters in strange, playful, troubling, and comforting ways . Most efforts have been trials and errors, but I am confident that the piece will come together much more mature than I had calculated at the very beginning. In the meantime, I have been working on a series of paintings answering to the question of man – nature relationship using picnic as a conceptual framework (and any finished pieces will be updated to my website: rayerma.com ) . The shapes and colors of Tohoku frequent my imagination.

Again, I want to thank the committee for this incredible learning opportunity. I am extremely grateful for this experience and excited to share my video upon its completion. Without your support, I could not have found myself as grounded and as rich with memory as I am now. Thank you!

Tohoku