Translating the Image:
The Master & I, Notes on National Treasure

Amitai Ben David, National Treasure, 2004. 90 x 180 cm, Oil on Canvas. (Photo by the author)

I have always been fascinated by the way that Art, in it's diverse disciplines, can change and receive a new identity when translated into a different language, when translated into a different medium or when taken from its natural ground and set in a new context.
The Israeli poet/translator Abraham Shlonski has described the art of translating as 'kissing a girl through a veil'. In the post-modern vision it is often the veil itself that turns into the subject.
In the painting National Treasure (2004), the act of Cultural Translation stands as a central theme. The painting examines the degree of relationship that I was able to establish with the Japanese cultural realm, and explores both the accomplishment and the failure of translation of a canonised Japanese artistic object: a hanging scroll (a letter) of Fujiwara no Sukemasa (Heian period 982), into the contemporary Western language of Oil Painting.
When I started working on National Treasure I did not have a clear idea of the direction in which I would steer the painting, and had no vision of the form that the completed painting would take. I set myself on a journey that in many ways would summarize my 7 year stay in Japan, and would allow me to investigate my connection with one of Japan's cultural pillars, namely the art of Calligraphy. As my reading of Kanji is poor, and my experience in Shodo (Japanese calligraphy) writing, was limited to inconsistent hobby-like Sunday afternoon lessons at the local community centre, my appreciation of Japanese calligraphy art was kept very much on an intuitive level.
During my stay in Japan I was naturally constantly exposed to Japanese calligraphy, on shops signs, subway station signs, writing on pamphlets shoved into my mail box, calligraphy on the museum wall, or on the Izakaya's menu, always beautiful and always obscure, like listening to a bird's song or a baby cry - hearing the sounds, guessing the message, I internalized the realm of Japanese ideography as a beautiful collection of signs and strokes, beautifully arranged but detached of its semantic meaning, a muted language.
Lafcadio Hearn, in his recollection writings, My first day in the Orient (1894) renders his encounter with the Japanese streets, Ridden away in a Kuruma (Rickshaw) from the European quarter of Yokohama into the Japanese town, Hearn describes the sensational encounter with Japanese Calligraphic art:

... And then you note also that the dresses of the labourers are lettered with the same wonderful lettering as the shop draperies. No arabesques could produce such an effect. As modified for decorative purposes, these ideographs have a speaking symmetry which no design without a meaning could possess. As they appear on the back of a workman's frock – pure white on dark blue…they give to the poor cheap garment a factitious appearance of splendour.
... And finally, while you are still puzzling over the mystery of things, there will come to you like a revelation the knowledge that most if the amazing picturesqueness of these streets is simply due to the profusion of Chinese or Japanese characters in white, black, blue, or gold, decorating everything- even surfaces of doorposts and paper screens. Perhaps, then, for one moment, you will imagine the effect of English lettering substituted for those magical characters; and the mere idea will give to whatever aesthetic sentiment you may posses a brutal shock, and you will become, as I have become, an enemy of the Romaji-Kwai – that society founded for the ugly utilitarian purpose of introducing the use of English letters in writing Japanese.

Hearn continues with an observation that might be accepted by many Japanese,

An ideograph does not make upon the Japanese brain any impression similar to that created in the Occidental brain by a letter or combination of letters – dull, inanimate symbols of vocal sounds. To the Japanese brain an ideograph is a vivid picture: it gesticulates. And the whole space of a Japanese street is full of such living characters – figures that cry out to the eyes, words that smile or grimace like faces.

The characters live however, in my own Hebrew brain as well, but unclassified; I don't recognize their faces, keep on forgetting their names. I admire their beauty, but cannot figure it out.
In National Treasure the periodical and conceptual gaps, which lay between the cultures that bore Fujiwara no Sukemasa's writing and the culture that has formed my own thinking and ideas of expression, are enormous. We are standing as two lone gunmen on opposite sides of a wide canyon. Beneath us streams 1000 years of history, religion, ethnicity, class and language. Fujiwaras no Sukemasa work is canonized, a national treasure, a national monument, who stands firm in his own territory. Any attempt to appropriate him is bound to be condemned.
Returning to Shlonski's definition of translation, as kissing a girl through a veil, I felt, when working on National Treasure as if I was forcing my kiss on the girl. At times I have felt that I was mutilating Fujiwara's masterpiece, at other times, I felt like a thief.
When taking an art form of another culture, the strokes and composition that reflect an emotional state or artistic and cultural beliefs, and operating in it, one can not escape a constant feeling of discomfort - as if wearing a suit that was tailor-made for another; too narrow at the hips, the sleeves too short, the material doesn't suit the season…
But it might be exactly that image, of that oddly fitting suit that I was persuaded by; as even while setting the first brush stroke on the white canvas, I was aware that National Treasure was doomed, destined to failure. I knew that there was no way that I will be able to recreate the grandness of the calligraphy, no chance to match the Master's brilliant brush strokes.
I did not posses his talents, I did not know the rules of fine calligraphy writing-what is considered to be a beautiful stroke, what distinguishes one stroke from an other, and even more, I did not even know what the text stands for! The whole thinking behind the Master's creation and mine are a world apart, I create within the Western tradition, where values of individuality and self expression are highly celebrated, my ideas of beauty are founded on the symmetry of the Greeks, on the light and shadow games of Rembrandt, on colour composition rules of Mondrian and the rhythm of De Kooning. And the Master? On what values did he base his creation upon? Who was he?
We met in his creation, on his space; I am a guest in it, not a very polite guest, more of a plunderer, a soldier bursting into a family house, feasting on a dinner table, climbing up the stairs drunk to the bedroom.
Added much to this sense of desecration was the translation of the elegant black sumi letters and the virgin washi (Japanese rice paper) into the heavy medium of the oil paint and the rough surfaces of the primed canvas. I could easily imagine the Master dipping his long elegant shodo brush into his fine inkwell; I try to move elegantly on the rough canvas with my shorthaired pig brushes…
And yet, despite these conflicts and sense of lowliness, I was confident in the value of my study. I did not have the fear of loosing to the grace of the Master characters; on the contrary, I was certain that there could be no defeat. Since, as the failure of the translation attempt became bigger, more colossal, the terms of our dialogue would become clearer and more articulate. As the discrepancy between the Master's approach and mine would be more apparent, my painting would be asserted as an individual manifestation of where I stand here and now. Not a sad mimetic attempt but a self-assured manifestation in a fashion that might recall Lacan's vision of mimicry:

Mimicry reveals something in so far as it is distinct from what might be called an itself that is behind. The effect of mimicry is camouflage.... It is not a question of harmonizing with the background, but against a mottled background, of becoming mottled - exactly like the technique of camouflage practised in human warfare.

During the work on National Treasure, from the primal stages of charcoal drawing on virgin canvas that marked the initial composition of characters, my atelier mate and good friend, the Chinese artist Guan Huai Bin, who witnessed the creation process was reserved. Guan, who usually was very supportive of my work, was suddenly very dismissive. Guan was highly trained in the classic calligraphy arts, in his homeland China, and had practiced it repeatedly and used it regularly in his contemporary installations; a well worthy critic thus. Yet, I was somewhat leery of Guan's sweeping criticism, especially, as it was very unusual for Guan to express such resentment for a painting hardly started, merely a sketch, an idea.
I experienced the same reaction from most of the Japanese viewers as well, an almost reflexive dismissal. I wonder if this reaction should be blamed on the horrendous quality of my calligraphy, the rough translation to oil paint, or the rule that as an illiterate Westerner, I am unwelcome, excluded from the calligraphy realm.
Whatever the reasons are, I feel that National Treasure has served effectively my wish for a dialogue with my Japanese surroundings, even if the dialogue has stayed on a theoretical level, 'handclapping with one hand', the mere fact that the work exists and was exhibited at Tokyo Geidai, is a move that could not be dismissed.

The context of Tokyo Geidai is very significant, and I believe that to a degree validates the painting; since if this painting was created in the West, by a Westerner, I myself would probably tend to dismiss it as a hollow aesthetic exercise, but creating it in Japan and presenting it at the most eminent art institute of Japan demands a different reading of it. The painting might be a 'shout in the dark', but that shout echoes in corridors of Tokyo Geidai Kaiga-tou (painting department building), a ghostly echo perhaps, but just as well an existing echo.

Fujiwara no Sukemasa, An hanging scroll (a letter)Heian period - 982 AD, Hatakeyama Memorial Museum

In yet another cultural twist, in March 2004, National Treasure was purchased by Mr Lou 'BlueLou' Marini, the renowned Jazz Saxophonist of the Blues Brothers Band. I agreeably picture long-haired Blue Lou playing his Sax in his elegant Manhattan Upper West side apartment; the Jazz notes are filling the 11th floor apartment's space, streaming, dancing, out of the open windows. Down the street, yellow cabs and stretched limousines are passing, and behind him, on the wall, hangs National Treasure, an image most worthy of its own painting.

By Amitai Ben David. Extract from the doctoral dissertation: "Fruitful Incoherence; The next village, a personal expedition"
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