Selected Writings

The Volcano Lover – Minimal Art Today Through the Viewpoint of Plate Tectonics

Japan is an island country formed by volcanoes. Because it was formed by layers of Pacific, Philippine, and Eurasian tectonic plates, Japan, in its geographic features, ranges from having high mountains to deep abysses, and is one of the world’s major earthquake-prone countries.

Examining Japanese mythology from the viewpoint of the fact that Japan is a group of volcanic islands, it is not surprising that Japan’s oldest surviving book on its history, Kojiki, which is said to be presented by Ohnoyasumaro to Empress Gemmei in 712(*1), includes a section which relates to volcanoes and diastrophism. It describes how the god Izanagi and goddess Izanami were ordered to consolidate the drifting lands by the deities of Takamagahara floating in heaven. The two deities were granted the Amenonuboko, the heavenly jeweled spear, and as they churned the drifting lands with the spear, the brine that dripped from its end accumulated and formed the island of Onogoro. Izanagi and Izanami landed on the island and were married. Their mating gave birth to the islands which became the islands of Japan.

Soon after, Izanami gave birth to the sun goddess Amaterasuohmikami, who was given the task of governing the Higher Celestial Plain. But when her brother, the god of sea and storms Susano-o, went on a rampage across the Higher Celestial Plain, Amaterasuohmikami hid herself inside Amanoiwato, or the Heavenly Rock Cave. The sun disappeared, and catastrophes ensued across the dark world. The eight million deities consulted among themselves what to do about this calamity.

Various rituals were performed in front of the Amanoiwato to persuade the hiding sun goddess to come out of the cave, but when Amenouzume, the goddess of dawn and revelry, exposed her breast and started to dance, the eight million deities all started to laugh. Hearing the laughter, Amaterasuohmikami peered out of the cave to see what the commotion was about. Then, a god who was hiding from her took out a mirror and, as Amaterasuohmikami was looking into the mirror, the god took her hand and pulled her out of the cave. The entrance to the cave was immediately sealed off with a shimenawa, a braided rice-straw rope, so that she wouldn’t be able to retreat back into the cave. Light was restored across the Higher Celestial Plain.

From these descriptions—of how the islands of Japan were formed by the churning of the drifting lands, and how the sun emerged from the cave—it is not difficult to imagine that Japanese nature worship was influenced by natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and magma flows.

Shintoism originated from nature worship, and might be said to be the systematizing of animism. One of the symbols of Shintoism, the torii gate, is said to be a formalized version of iwakura, a sacred rock in the mountains where the deities are said to descend. It can be argued that, as with the legend of the Heavenly Rock Cave, the iwakura is a subject of volcano worship and its belief that the deities come in and out of the rift zones of the earth. It can also be said that the worshipping of Mount Fuji, which was worshipped since ancient times (its worship peaking during the Edo era) is a direct representation of animism in a land with volcanoes.

The sacred rock iwakura is thought to be not only the origin of the torii gate but also the origin of rock arrangements in Japanese landscape gardening. But I feel that one can even see its influence in contemporary art as well. For example, the concepts behind earthworks by Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson and Richard Long’s minimal conceptual art are similar in terms of form to those of Japan’s shrines, sacred rocks, and gardens.

It is said that the sculptures of nature worship depicting deity figures were made after the 8th century, when Buddhism spread across Japan. The idea of Honjisuijaku, which concerns the replacement of ancient Japanese deities with Buddhist deities, spread and, as syncretism of Shinto and Buddhist deities took hold, production of deity figures thrived. It has been said that in this era, when a tree was destroyed by lightning, the Japanese deified it as a spiritual tree wherein a god dwelled, and created a deity figure out of it—keeping it, nonetheless, in its original state as much as possible. This resonates with the works of contemporary artist Walter de Maria. His work ‘Lightning Field,’ in which a moment when lightning strikes a steel rod is observed from a mountain hut, is like a new form of nature worship veiled by the label of contemporary art. Furthermore, the forms of works using boulders by Michael Heizer very much resemble the sacred rock iwakura. It can be argued that minimal art, which is a terminus ad quem of western modernism, tried to achieve some type of a return to nature worship.

When I first visited Iceland, I drove in a rental car across a rocky land carpeted with beautiful mosses to the Blue Lagoon, a natural geothermal hot spring (I later discovered that the Icelanders share the same appreciation for the beauty of mosses as the Japanese do.) It could have been because of the low outside temperature, but as I was watching the white steam rise straight up towards the sky in the hot spring, I felt a strange sensation within my body, as if I had been jolted by something. I wondered what this strange sensation was, and as I did some research, I found out that there was a rift zone unique to this area. According to the plate tectonics theory, which explains the diastrophism caused by the movements of the plates, the Earth is born from between the tectonic plates below Iceland and sees its demise in Japan, where the tectonic plates sink.

The name of Iceland’s capital Reykjavik means “smoky bay” and, true to its name (because there are active volcanoes nearby), there are many hot springs and geysers with steam rising. In recent years, many industries thrived through the use of a seemingly limitless amount of electrical power which is generated by harnessing the geothermal power produced by volcanic activity. Up until the 2008 financial crisis, Iceland was a wealthy country, with the world’s third highest per capita GDP(*2).

This exhibition came about from my interest in pursuing the possibility that the two countries developed their cultures with influences from the power of nature in their midst—both Japan and Iceland are volcanic countries and, incidentally, are geographically located at the opposite ends of where the plates are developed and where they disappear. As I did further research, my interest focused on the idea that perhaps there is a propensity towards nature worship in Iceland just as there is in Japan.

Among the Icelanders and the Japanese, there is a view that nature exists to form a symbiotic relationship with mankind and not there to conquer it. The fact that both share the belief that whaling is “natural work” and that both praise the beauty of mosses shows a direct similarity between the two people. Furthermore, there is a similarity between the fact that the history of Icelanders encompasses the creation of its unique culture in an environment where the Nordic language and culture are preferred, although the Icelanders are mixed with the Celts genealogically, and the fact that the Japanese created their own unique culture even as they enthusiastically adopted culture influences from the large continent of Asia.

Monotheism never really took hold in Japan. And before Iceland adopted Christianity in 1000, it used to practice polytheism. There is a perfect anecdote to back up this fact.

Iceland was the first parliamentary republic country to found a parliamentary institution as we know it today. It began when in 930, representatives from each district gathered on the plains on the outskirts of Reykjavik and held a parliamentary assembly, called an Althing, to decide on legislation and dispense justice.

During this time in Iceland, there was friction between those who advocated continuing the worshipping of the Norse gods and those who favored adopting Christianity, as was being strongly demanded by King Olav of Norway. The friction continued with fervent debates at the Althing in 1000 and, as a potential battle became imminent, two volcanoes erupted simultaneously at nearby volcanic craters. Destruction of farmhouses and shrines by lava flows were reported.

In reaction to those who claimed that “the eruption was the wrath of the old gods,” Snorri Thorfinnsson(*3), a Christian, asked: “If the volcanic actions which occurred before the settlement of Iceland by settlers were also the wrath of gods, then what were they angry against back then?” Then, those in opposition became quiet and the dispute was quickly brought to a conclusion, with everybody agreeing to adopt Christianity as a state religion(*4). The eruption which occurred at this moment, called the Svinahraunsbruni eruption, is also known as the Christianity Lava.(*5)

It is no exaggeration to say that the history of Iceland was formed by volcanoes. Turning to the volcanic activities in Japan, what influences have they given Japanese culture? I came up with the following hypothesis.

In Japan, Jōmon(*6) era earthenwares tend to be excavated from the Fossa Magna(*7) area northward. In other words, for some reason, the Jōmon culture flourished only in the northern part of Japan. It is thought that between 3200 and 4500 years ago, lavas erupted from Mount Fuji, and it can be speculated that this eruption divided the Japanese islands geographically from the Fossa Magna area northward and slowed the advancement of Yayoi(*8) culture into the northern part of Japan which spread from the Eurasian continent to the western part of Japan. As a result, the Jōmon culture could have been left behind in the northern part of Japan.

Fossa Magna, which is a huge rift zone separating the southern and northern parts of Japan, was discovered and named by Dr. Naumann. He was a German geologist, for whom the Naumann elephant was named after, and was hired to work in Japan in the Meiji era. It took a while for the Japanese people to accept the concept of plate tectonics. Furthermore, the word “Jōmon” originated from the translation of the book “Shell Mounds of Omori,” written by the zoologist Edward S. Morse and published in 1879. In his book, he called the potteries he discovered cord-marked pottery, which was translated “Jōmon Doki (potteries)” by the botanist Mitsutaro Shirai. It can be said that the archaeological proof of volcanoes shaping the history of Japan originated here. Despite Japan being a group of volcanic islands, it is quite possible that the Japanese people themselves do not realize this fact.

The Japanese believed that an earthquake was triggered by a huge catfish which dwelled underground, and the Icelanders would say if a coffee cup made an unexpected clinking sound, it was made by elves’ mischief. It can be said that we live in Spinoza’s pantheistic world instead of a monotheistic world.

Western, modern thoughts which spread across the continent are based on the idea that concepts and subjects are created by placing oneself in contemplation at a zero point, whereas in the land of volcanoes where lands change form, it is possible that the idea of placing oneself in contemplation at zero point did not take root. Assuming this is the case, would it not be possible to systematize or verbalize thoughts to some extent which are developed from the viewpoints of pantheism and animism, thoughts which would complement the undiscovered part of modernism?

As to the title of this exhibition—based on “The Volcano Lover,” Susan Sontag’s novel—the volcano eruption was a metaphor for revolution, upheaval, and sexual anarchy. Through this exhibition, “Volcano Lovers,” I would like to compare the minimal contemporary art expressions coming from the two volcanic island nations, and from there, I hope to discover common influences which would rock the foundation of our emotions.

(Translated by Harutaka Oribe)

  1. John Bowker. “Kojiki.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. 1997. (October 22, 2009).
  2. Gross domestic product per capita, in current prices($) from the year 2007, according to data by IMF.
  3. In the Japanese translation of the book, ”Asgard: Entdeckungsfahrt in die Germanische Götterwelt,” written in German by Walter Hansen, the name is described as Snorri Thorgrímsson, but by referring to some other text the author deemed that the correct name must be Snorri Thorfinnsson, so I made the correction.
  4. Hansen, Walter. Translated by Hideaki Kobayashi, Eichi Kanai. Asgard. Tokyo: Tokai University Publishing, 2004. P290-292,315
  5. Geochemistry Geophysics Geosystems. Article Volume 6, Number 12. Published by AGU and the Geochemical Society 31 December 2005 P16.
  6. The Jōmon period is the time in Japanese prehistory from about 14,000 BC to 400 BC. The term “Jōmon” means “cord-patterned” in Japanese. This refers to the markings made on clay vessels and figures using sticks with cords wrapped around them, which are characteristic of the Jōmon people.
  7. Fossa Magna is the most notable great rift of Japan that traverses the widest portion of Honshu from the Sea of Japan to the Pacific. It is partially occupied by mountains and volcanoes of the southern part of the East Japan Volcanic Belt.
  8. The Yayoi period is an era in the history of Japan from about 500 BC to 300 AD, following the Jōmon period. Distinguishing characteristics of the Yayoi period include the appearance of new pottery styles and the start of an intensive rice agriculture in paddy fields. Yayoi culture flourished in a geographic area from southern Kyūshū to northern Honshū.