NO GOD NO MASTER FEMINITY
But, good my brother, Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.
Act 1, Scene 3, when Ophelia speaks to Laertes
The Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan, A.D. 720), Japan’s oldest official history, contains the statement that “all plants can speak”. This exchange between man and nature and wonder at the blooming and scattering of flowers are clearly evident in the names that ancient Japanese gave to their deities.
The ancient Japanese recovered every element of nature as the Divine in an animistic polytheism that perceived divinities dwelling in every stone, tree and flower, as well as in the wind and earth.
Looking happily on a gorgeous scene of cherry blossom in full bloom, the viewer at the same time is filled with a sense of impending loss, knowing the blossoms were destined soon to fall. Sadness and delight are registered side by side within the viewer’s heart. This duality, or tendency to be aware of a constant tension and balance between opposites – ornate beauty and quiet simplicity, motion and stillness, life and death – is a distinguishing feature in human culture.
The Japanese empathy with the life and death of flowers is reflected in the very word “ikebana”, which is derived from ikeru (to make life) and hana (flowers). The words wabi and hana could be replaced with “natural” and “artifial”, which may also seem unalterably opposed, but in fact are not. In Japan, the height of artificiality is naturalness, and the height of naturalness - artificiality.
Japanese art may appear natural, because its origins are in nature; but is has never simply imitated nature. Generally assuming, nature is something obvious and apparent, but actually, when seeking a true expression of nature, we find it is always changing and impossible to capture. The only way to catch hold of it is to seize some point, for example, the pivot of a folding fan, and transform that hardly noticeable detail a personal expression of nature.
The main inspiration for the performance is Millais’s painting of Ophelia. Most of the flowers in Ophelia are included either because they are mentioned in the play, or for their symbolic value (see slideshow above). Millais observed these flowers growing wild by the river in Ewell. As he painted the river scene over a period of five months, flowers appear next to those that bloom at different times of the year.
In the painting Millais originally included daffodils. He had not observed them in Ewell but bought later from Covent Garden in London, feeling that the painting needs more yellow. Seeing this, his friend and poet, Tennyson, suggested that they are not appropriate as they symbolize false hope. Perhaps, they are primroses?
There are similar phrases in Macbeth Act 2, Scene 3, ‘the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire’ and All’s Well That Ends Well Act IV, Scene 5, ‘the flowery way that leads to the broad gate and the great fire’.
The painting contains several symbolic references, which can be treated in different ways. Is there a hidden skull, a reminder of death and hint at what is about to happen, on the left of the forget-me-knots on the right of the painting? Is the robin in the branches of the willow tree a reference to the line, ‘For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy’, which Ophelia sings as she loses her mind (Act 1V, Scene V)? Could it be an allusion to the fictional character Robin Hood, or as birds are also symbolic of the spirit, a suggestion that, as she floats down the river, her spirit is flying away?
For the robin, I am tempted to suggest that Millais chose it specifically for its red breast. Red is traditionally the colour of martyrdom (deriving from the Catholic church), bearing connotations of spilled blood and thus death. These associations are made more dramatic because it is difficult to spot the bird in the undergrowth, save for its red breast, which provides a startling colour note of scarlet amidst all the brown. In the summer, robins, male and female, are fighting for territory and finding mates. Perhaps, Millais’s use of the lone robin is a reference to Ophelia’s abandonment by Hamlet, which leads to her death?
Based on the Christian doctrine, in the Victorian period ivy was a symbol of the notion of gendered spheres for men and women, where the ivy (woman) needs the sturdy oak (man) for support. Or is it a symbol of resurrection (Ophelia is holding her arms out in the shape of a cross), melancholy and decay?
Within the performance I am using a female body wearing a dress in the colour of morning glory as a representation of our urban life like and a created ikebana for a living space. Over here, she (a performer) had been encouraged by various people to use her body as a sort of investment towards a new life. They said that this was the investment with the lowest starting cost, yet one, which could guarantee returns. They added, this was also the fastest way to go.
The prerequisites for a body are so closely related to the development of a city, to the extent that these requirements originate from the city itself rather than from the people who live in it – the city requires these bodies as tributes to desire and lust. Of course, from a historical viewpoint, this is also the longest established necessity of a man, and is one that has not languished with time.
During the live performance a female figure is traveling across the gallery space slowly placing vases with arranged flowers (ikebanas) and interacting with viewers gently approaching them with particular directions. Along with the action haiku will be read.
Two readers: English and Russian languages
Ceramic sculptures, flower arrangement and haikus - all by Ekaterina Bazhenova-Yamasaki
Performed at Calvert 22 Foundation, London. August 2017