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Infinite Maybes: The Liminal Spaces of Hirokazu Kosaka

Asian Accents: This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the diverse range of artistic influences from Asia in the arts and culture of Southern California.

For decades, Los Angeles-based Japanese artist Hirokazu Kosaka has explored the concept of in-between spaces. An artist, ordained Buddhist priest, gallery director and archery master, Kosaka himself inhabits many of these in-between spaces - the space between East and West, between stillness and motion, between physical and spiritual. He has often compared these spaces with the engawa, the verandah in traditional Japanese architecture, a wooden corridor that surrounds traditional buildings and is separated from the inside and outside by sliding screen doors. The verandah is literally a space in-between the interior and exterior; maybe it's inside, maybe it's outside, depending on which doors are opened. On the verandah and in other in-between spaces, Kosaka sees "infinite maybes," the potential for anything to happen.

Kosaka has inhabited these potent spaces since his early days as an artist, moving between Japan and the U.S., between tradition and innovation. He was born in Wakayama, Japan in 1948 to a Buddhist priest of the esoteric Shingon sect. In 1966, Kosaka left his home country, where he had trained in the Buddhist disciplines of calligraphy and archery, and came to Los Angeles to study art. He graduated in 1970 from the Chouinard Art Institute (which had just merged into CalArts). Along with many of his peers, he began to explore performance art, moving away from the canvas and using his own body as his medium of expression. Drawing from both the avant-garde artistic practices here in Southern California and Japan's experimental Gutai art movement that had emerged in the mid-1960s, he created ground-breaking performative works that were steeped in ancient Japanese Buddhist beliefs and traditional artistic and spiritual practices.

This early phase of his career is the focus of an exhibition, Hirokazu Kosaka: On The Verandah Selected Works 1969-1974 at the Pomona College Museum of Art from September 3 through October 20, 2013. This is the first solo exhibition to examine Kosaka's early performance art and assemble documentation of the artworks and films he created between 1969 and 1974. With photographs, films and several objects, the exhibition demonstrates the broad range of his artistic innovations during this period. "At that time, I was exploring many different ideas," explains Kosaka. "It was a time of war, and I was shocked by the images I was seeing from Vietnam, especially those of the Buddhist monks torching themselves to protest the war. I wondered if I could do something like that." Inspired in part by such reflection, Kosaka pushed his own body and spirit to their limits in his art. In one performance piece, Five-Hour Run, which took place at Mori's Form Gallery in Los Angeles in 1972, Kosaka ran for five hours non-stop in the gallery in order to prepare the space for an exhibition by Shozo Shimamoto (an early member of the Japanese Gutai group). Kosaka's performance evoked the Japanese native Shinto tradition of creating sacred spaces. By running for five hours, Kosaka energized and purified the space, conceptually transforming the visitors' perception of the gallery space.

Also featured in the Pomona exhibition are twenty photographs taken of Soleares, originally a performance piece that documented an "in-between" moment in Kosaka's spiritual evolution. Kosaka returned to Japan in 1973 and walked the 1,000-mile ancient Buddhist pilgrimage route called "The 88 Temples" on the island of Shikoku. The pilgrimage took him three months to complete and after doing so, he remained at a temple and was ordained as a Buddhist priest of the Shingon sect. Kosaka's performance was the pilgrimage itself, a journey along which he transformed from layman into priest. The title Soleares refers to a classical piece of Spanish Flamenco music; to Kosaka, the physical and spiritual trials of a Buddhist pilgrimage evoked Spain's nomadic gypsies and their long, arduous migrations. The night before he began his pilgrimage, he performed at a Kyoto gallery, playing flamenco guitar with a razor blade inserted into his finger, bleeding to symbolize the blood of the bulls in the Corrida and to protest the Vietnam War.

At the center of the Pomona College Museum exhibition is a small lacquer box containing poppy seeds that was given to Kosaka by his father upon his graduation from Chouinard. The box of seeds illustrates the concept of kalpa, the Hindu and Buddhist version of an eon. Buddhist texts provide poetic analogies to explain the term: Imagine at the start of one kalpa a huge box measuring 16 miles on each side filled with seeds. If once every 100 years, someone removes a single seed, the cube will be emptied before the kalpa ends. In 2012, to kick off Pacific Standard Time's Performance and Public Art Festival, Kosaka worked with celebrated Butoh dancer Oguri to transform the Getty Center's Arrival Plaza into a spectacular sculptural and performative installation, Kalpa, which explores the inevitable passage of time that slowly transforms us. At the top of the plaza steps, a large iron sculpture supported more than a hundred colorful spools of thread. Oguri and his fellow dancers made their way to the spools, and then each took several strands of thread in their mouths. As they slowly walked through parting crowds across the courtyard towards a giant spotlight at the opposite side, the threads spread like a giant rainbow over the plaza.

In this transformative performance piece and the related performance Mare Nubium, in which Kosaka raked 5 million pebbles into a patterned ground for Oguri's reprise of the Kalpa dance, Kosaka uses conceptual art performances to pass on the ancient lessons his Buddhist priest father taught him about space and time. Forty years after his pilgrimage, Kosaka is still fascinated by in-between spaces, but now he expands them, sharing them with other artists to create large, spiritually uplifting collaborative performances. Bringing together sculptural installations, music, archery and dance, Kosaka also invites audiences into these spaces, onto the verandah, where we are given an opportunity to take a good look both outside and inside.

See more information about Kosaka's exhibition.

See KCET's Departures article about Kosaka.

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