- Towards Renascence -


Polarity in Art, Lifestyle and Ontology -

Japan, a visual and theoretical model

By Nold Egenter

This paper was read on the 25th November 1999 at the Visual Research Centre, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, University of Dundee, Dundee, Scotland. The author would like to express his thanks to the School of Fine Art, to Prof. Alan Robb, and, in particular to Architect Gavin Renwick for the kind invitation to present the following paper on Japanese aesthetics. Thanks go also to Alan Johnston, Edinburgh, and the students for the interesting discussions held at the wonderful castle in Hospitalfield.



Preliminary remarks

First, regarding the title of the lecture series 'Towards Renascence' please let me express that I am myself deeply convinced that we have to get through a kind of 'rebirth'. We urgently need a renewal of our worldviews. And, second, I am also very much convinced that form and art in the widest sense should play a basic role in this 'rebirth'. More precisely, we must discover art as a primary system of cognition in the anthropological sense. Art is the most ancient way of human perception and conception. I am convinced that art greatly contributed to the formation of man and culture. Very likely earliest art contributed to the increased capacity of the human brain. Into our modern times art remained alive as a perceptional and conceptional type of cognition, parallel with science. Today it is endangered by science. Unfortunately, art can not be described adequately by science because both are structured antithetically. Art remained ambivalent, is often judged on highly subjective views. The fundamental value of art as a tremendously rich cognitive system is not understood.

Many today feel that we have come to some limits at the end of this millenium. The human capacities to control the world were overestimated. Some theories might be defective. Where are the real motives of our tremendous expansive behaviour? Maybe: the way we see things? Ontology means world view. In the following we try to build up a world view by focussing on art.

We will make a short excursion into the Japanese history of art. Comparing functionally very different forms, we will discover a continuous element, a clear bipartition of form which is not formalistic, on the contrary, we will become more and more aware that this bipartition expresses a whole worldview , which we may call 'coincidence of opposites', 'polarity', 'complementarity', 'harmonious worldview', ' YinYang thought', ' Daoism' and the like.

In contrast to our analytical worldview , we will call these cognitive systems relational. They are not focussed on the analytical isolation of objects in order to manipulate them. Their emphasis is on complementary categorical relations within objects with the goal to harmonise them.

Short notes on the authors work

We should hint here shortly to the framework of architectural anthropology and to the author's work. More detailed explanations can be found in his books 'The present Relevance of the Primitive in Architecture' (1992) and 'Semantic and Symbolic Architecture' (1994)

Fig. 1
New definition of architecture

Architecture is newly defined in anthropological dimensions (Fig. 1). It shows four classes:

Fig. 2
Sacred markers found in 100 villages of central Japan

Semantic architecture and its traditional function as territorial demarcation was documented by the author all over the Japanese archipelago and particularly in 100 villages of central Japan (Fig. 2 ). This study is considered as basic in the theory of religion (T. M. Ludwig, Hist. of Relig. 1983/3; R. J. Zwi Werblowsky, Numen 1985) and it can be taken as a basis for the anthropology of aesthetics as well (See 'Semantic and Symbolic Architecture' Egenter 1980 [in German] 1994 [in English]). Note that religion and art are still closely interwoven in this domain!

Fig. 3
Japan shows a surprising density of sacred markers (yorishiro, or kami no za, God's seats) surviving traditionally - that is by stereotype cyclic renewal of basically the same local form - in the framework of living Shinto traditions in its agrarian village cultures. Note the enormous formal variety of this fibrous object culture.

Due to the enormous diffusion of this type of 'fibroconstructive' markers (Fig. 3) it can be assumed that it was the general equipment in premodern and prehistoric agrarian village cultures of Japan. Refined wooden construction was imported from China with the introduction of Buddhism (in Central Japan about in the 8th century). Very likely these fibrous markers were the prototypes of wooden Shinto shrines.

Fig. 4
Pro-portion, the primary aesthetic principle.

The most important find regarding these fibroconstructive markers is the general factor of all formal variations (Fig. 4). They are all structured according to the principle of 'coincidence of opposites'. An empty, mobile, ill defined natural part is protruding over a compact, fixed, technically emphasised lower part. We call this relation 'pro-portion' (in the Latin sense of structure, including material conditions) and consider it as a primary aesthetic principle.

Fig. 5
If pro-portion is read cognitively it becomes 'Categorical Polarity'. Objects described in this way become irrational (1 = 2), but show a high affinity to other likewise structured objects.

The upper line in Fig. 5 shows the categories characterising 'pro' and 'portion' : natural/ technical, diffuse/ clearly defined, bright/ dark, multitude/ unity, mobility/ stability. The lower drawing shows the 'irrational' structure of these forms: they are formal units, but at the same time they are composed of two distinct parts. They can be considered as one and two, conditioned by a third part, the rope.

O. F. Bollnow's 'anthropology of space'

A further prerequisite of the following approach is the 'anthropology of space' of Otto Friderich Bollnow a German philosopher and phenomonenologist. He suggested 3 points which are important for our present topic.

Bollnow maintains that space per-con-ception developed originally in environmental dimensions . Etymologically the word 'Raum' in German came from 'räumen' which means to clear a part of the wilderness to provide space for human dwelling.

As a consequence of this: Universal space con-/per-ception is a very late cultural capacity (Europe: 14th century). Bollnow's anthropology of space also suggests that man perceives and organises his environmental space in polar relations, like rest and mobility, near and far, bright and dark, etc. His whole book is structured according to polar spatial relations.

In regard to the first point: anthropological settlement research becomes very important for cultural research. And regarding the second point: most of our modern interpretations of early historical, prehistorical or traditional non writing cultures might be considerably wrong because we project evolved space concepts onto their ontologies.

On the other hand: since most human artefacts arts and ideas are related to space we might explain culture in new ways reconstructing objectively the development of structural conditions of settlement, based on demarcation and organisation of space as a kind of 'checkerboard' on which culture develops its strategy towards civilisation. Using Japan as a model, we will see that terms like pro-portion, polarity and polar axial systems play an important role in this structural view.

In our normal every-day functional view a candle and a flower vase are two entirely different objects. The candle is basically an ancient instrument for illumination. We use it in this sense if electricity breaks down, e.g. during a storm. The flower vase is a container used to provide water for flowers. It is part of the kitchen, part of the dishes, part of the household.

However, we can also meet both of them close together on a festive table . Neon light is switched off. Candles are lighted, their flickering flames spread an entirely different type of light. Flowers - normally growing outside - are brought into the house, put into the vase, set up on the festive table. Both, the candle and the flowervase, acquire then something of a 'romantic' setting . A setting which appeals to the unexplainable, to joy, to the soul.

What has happened? The same objects? Two entirely different expressions?

Usually we say: decoration. The candle and the flower vase are used to decorate the table. But there must be more in it.

Let us more closely look how we see these objects . Usually we separate the two objects vertically into a functional difference. This is a candle, eventually with a flame, that is a flowervase, eventually with flowers. But, we can see these two objects in an entirely different way, by arranging differenciation horizontally . We distinguish flame and flowers above, from wax cylinder and glass container below.

Fig. 6
A simple model: the candle and the flowervase, the functional view. Candle (A) and flowervase (B) are considered independent objects. They are different, non-identical. Their description follows the definition below in the chart (See 'candle', 'flower vase'). This is the usual everyday way we see things. However, there is a different way to describe the objects according to what we called pro-portion, using the opposed categories at the left. This leads us to Fig. 7, which emphasises the 'festive' or the 'aesthetic' view'.

Fig. 7
In contrast to Fig. 6 this illustration shows another way to see the same objects, the system of 'Harmonious Analogy' or 'Harmonious Identity'. This system organises A and B in the framework of a categorically polar perception. In spite of their functional differences A and B can be analogous, homologous or even identical in regard to their harmonious balance. Rites and cults work dominantly with the second system with symbols, because it creates identity among many different things, symbols or persons. In the mental domain religions are structured in similar ways considering heaven and earth as intrinsic unity. In the domain of the visual, the phenomenon of carneval in the West is very impressive (Fig. 10).

Fig. 8
Vitruvius' theory of the Greek order is outdated. The Ionian and the Corinthian columns reveal as monumentally metabolised bundles. The 'capital' reveals as a protruding part of naturally left plant materials. Their characteristics (natural, mobile, ill-defined etc.) produce 'coincidence of opposites' (polarity).

Fig. 9
Polarity in art and architecture. What the art historian distinguishes as 'style' is only a minor variation of essential principles expressed in 'pro-portion', 'polarity' and 'cosmological polarity'.

The carnival is a relic of agrarian cults originally related to the cyclic renewal of the territorial demarcation system. Between destruction of the old and reinstitution of the new, settlements fell into chaos, which temporarily dissolved the cultural order. Most carnival 'decorations' reveal as a derivate and eternal return of the fibrous demarcation system. Dissolving individual traits, they provide strong social identification.

In short, we discover a categorically analogous structure. Both show a well defined lower part, made by human hand and technology, whereas the upper part is natural, is not fixed, is mobile, is ill defined, non geometrical . In view of this complementary or polar structure, both objects can now be considered very similar.

We can call this evidently ancient type of view 'categorically polar' or harmonious view. Different things show an analogous or homologous immanent structure which allows them to be identified through this immanent condition of coincidence of opposites which can be in harmony or disharmony. Note also that both, candle and flower vase can assume not only the aesthetic principle of 'pro-portione' and the cognitive concept of 'categorical polarity', in its festive element it is also close to the image of axis mundi.

Definitely the harmonious is not banal or simple. We can now look differently at the Greek columns and consider what was conventionally called capital as pro-portion, that is the upper part of a bundle (Fig. 8). We can also criticise the art historian for his differentiation of styles in a formal domain evidently governed by polarity (Fig. 9). We can also understand the philosohpy of carnival: Its wild decorations identify different persons A and B (Fig. 10 ) .

Some definitions

Thus, in the following the term 'proportion' is defined not mathematically, but structurally, like in Latin ' pro portione', as a composition of an ill-defined protruding part above a geometrically or technically well defined portion, both parts forming a superior unity.

Similarly polarity in the philosophical sense is - in opposition to dualism - the perception of cognitive units composed by categorically opposed domains (e.g. valley as mountains and fields).

Finally the place bound cosmological axis is marked by an object or a built form which in whatever dimension, small or large, implies a relation between above and below, or heaven and earth. The equivalent term 'axis mundi' is a reference to Eliade, but it is interpreted anthropologically, not theologically (see 'cosmos and cosmetics').

The tridisciplinary view

We will show that using these three terms representing three overlapping disciplines (art/architecture, philosophy, religion) we can not only see art in new contexts. Cognitive and thus philosophical aspects will become important and our approach overlaps with religion.

In Japan, the aesthetical can never be separated from the philosophical, whether in Buddhism nor in Shinto, and consequently neither also from religion. All three form a unity which could be called ontology, or world view.

In other words, first in regard to Japan, later in anthropologically globalised ways, we gain a method with these three terms to describe a large part of what we usually call culture.

We gain insights into an elementary type of aesthetics which may be widespread in many cultures. We obtain also insights into a type of cognition which might have been basic for the evolution of human perception and conception of things and of the environment. And last but not least we discover a basic condition of what later was called religion: the polar perception and organisation of above and below, of heaven and earth.

Japan had neither scholasticism, nor enlightenment in its history. Analytical thought was introduced relatively late. The relational structure could develop harmoniously. This is the most fascinating aspect of this culture: traditional Japan thinks differently, it has an entirely different worldview. If we manage to understand it, we can take it as a starting point to question our own outlooks. Thus, what we reconstruct in Japan can also be relevant for our own Euro-Mediterranean cultural domain. We can understand the principles of identity and how - in our Western civilisation - we lost them.

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