Rachel Wang: Afterword

Springtime in Tokyo


As a sakura tree on the banks of the tranquil Sumida River unfurls its delicate pink blossoms to the first blush of spring, my heart also opens to the gentle nudge of nostalgia. Japan, my lifelong home and the cradle of my deepest passions has always been a symphony of transient beauty that whispers the language of ukiyo-e, the floating world of art. This intimate language, one that has interwoven itself into the fabric of my life as an art curator, is the key to unlocking the layered nuances of Andras Ikladi’s floating world.


It is, however, essential to note the unique challenge posed by writing about photography, particularly when one’s expertise lies in the ancient realm of traditional printmaking. But it’s a worthy effort, as Stephen Shore notes in his seminal work, The Nature of Photographs:


“Japanese woodblock prints use the frame in a way that is more reminiscent of photographs than of Western painting […] Perhaps by examining what gives these prints their sense of photographic framing we can clarify what photographic framing is.”


This parallel between the framing techniques in ukiyo-e and photography provides an exciting, albeit challenging point of departure when approaching the body of work in the present book.


Now, standing at the nexus of these two art forms, I find my heart fluttering with the anticipatory thrill of a “kabuki” actor before the curtain rises. For it is within this delicate interplay of light, shadow, and form that the true beauty of Ikladi’s work reveals itself.


The history of the Floating World


The city of Edo (Tokyo) stands as a testament to the transformative power of time. Once a bastion of the “chonin”—the burgeoning merchant class—it played host to the birth of ukiyo-e, literally “Pictures of the Floating World.”


The Floating World was a peculiar oasis within the landscape of Edo. While the Tokugawa Shogunate despised the “chonin”, viewing their newfound wealth and influence with suspicion, it granted the creation of an excluded pleasure district, a veritable sanctuary from the rigid conventions of feudal Japan. Here, “geishas” danced to the rhythm of the “shamisen”, “kabuki” theatre dazzled with its colourful tapestry of drama, and artists painted the scenes of revelry to be imprinted and distributed on paper. This was the stage upon which ukiyo-e was born, shaped by the unconventional forms of theatre, literature, and the milieu of the “chonin” class.


However, as history would have it, ukiyo-e came under the critical eye of censorship in the late 1700s. Despite these societal pressures, the legacy of ukiyo-e and the spirit of the Floating World remained undeterred, persisting even today in the works of contemporary artists like Ikladi. Looking at the photographs through the lens of this history, we witness an intriguing dialogue between the ukiyo-e of yore and the photography of the present. Both the ukiyo-e masters and Ikladi capture the fleeting, transient moments of human existence.


The effect on Western art


The impact of “Japonism” on photography is nothing new or unique. According to James W. Ellis:

“Immediately after the opening of Japan, a tidal wave of imports flooded European shores. Japanese bric-à-brac, craftwork, and art objects became ubiquitous. They were in every ethnographic museum, art gallery, curiosité shop, and private collection in London and Paris. […] Ukiyo-e prints arrived in Europe at the precise moment early French modernists were initiating a revolution in the arts. Modern artists challenged the assumption that images should be veristic and moved beyond the limitations of painting and sculpture to explore other media, such as experimental printmaking. Emulating Japanese aesthetics and methods seemed like one avenue to achieve modern art’s goals.”


The meaning of Ukiyo


The beauty of the Japanese language is its ability to balance gracefully on the knife-edge of nuance, where each ideograph can sway between myriad meanings, dependent on the tender whims of context. Ukiyo-e, the art form integral to this exploration of Ikladi’s Floating World, is a testament to this linguistic dance.


Each of the three ideographs in ukiyo-e holds its own story, adding depth to the rich tapestry of the Floating World. “Uki” represents floating, cheerful, and frivolous, while “yo” signifies the world, generation, or era, and finally “-e” denotes picture or drawing. At first glance, ukiyo-e translates to the “pictures of the floating, cheerful world.”


However, like the shadowy depths of a moonlit lake, ukiyo-e hides a profound duality beneath its surface. The ideograph “uki” can also signify “sorrow, grief, distress, and melancholy”, painting the Floating World in hues of poignant sadness. This alternate translation, the “sorrowful world”, aligns with the Buddhist notion of impermanence, adding an undertone of transience to the cheerful frivolity of ukiyo-e.


This intriguing juxtaposition of pleasure and sorrow within the same art form serves as the point of departure for understanding Ikladi’s work. His photographs, like the ukiyo-e prints of the Edo period, traverse the expanse of human experience—moving from the euphoria of a stolen moment to the melancholy of fleeting time, from the cheerful, buoyant world to the sorrowful world steeped in Buddhist philosophy, and the uncanny surreality of the everyday. In doing so, Ikladi’s book becomes a polyphonic symphony that echoes the multiple interpretations of “ukiyo.”


Artifice/naturalism, reality/fantasy


Plato emphasised the non-mimetic qualities of art, urging us to think of ideals rather than things in themselves. This philosophical lens, when applied to ukiyo-e and, in turn to Ikladi’s work, engenders a contemplation of the concept of “mono no aware”—an awareness of impermanence. This Japanese term, translated as “the pathos of things, “ signifies empathy towards things and sensitivity to ephemera. It’s a gentle reminder of the fleeting nature of existence, echoing the dual meanings within the name of the Floating World.


As Phip Murray explains:

“Within the ukiyo-e aesthetic there is interplay between, on the one hand, the careful observation and recording of reality and, on the other, a delight in playing with or abstracting this reality. The aesthetics of ukiyo-e incorporate a tension between reportage and fantasy – between careful, almost scientific recording of details and events as well as a desire to abstract reality. There are dual desires operating: to record daily, corporeal life but also to represent the unrepresentable (to depict, for instance, mortality). This tension is, of course, absolutely appropriate for a lineage of art that needs to resonate with the multiple interpretations associated with the term Ukiyo.”


This tension between representing reality and the deliberate distortion of it, parallels the interplay often seen in street photography. If I replace a few words, David Bell’s book “Explaining Ukiyo-e” describes my experience with the world generated by Ikladi’s imagery:

“In the majority of ukiyo-e works, however, it is not common life that is represented, but the more rarified and remote world of highly refined manners, witty literary repartee, and sexual and theatrical ukiyo, the “floating world.” [...] Perhaps even more importantly, ukiyo was not so much a place as a concept, and in particular, a concept which ukiyo-e played a key role in generating and maintaining.”


Aesthetic Concepts


In the realm of the Floating World, we are invited to navigate the currents of several aesthetic concepts. These aesthetics—representations of the Japanese philosophies of “mono no aware”, “suki”, and “iki”—imbue Ikladi’s photographs with a sense of depth and introspection.  In its broadest sense, “suki” is an aesthetic of subtle elegance, an “aesthetic adventure beyond conventional standards.” It relishes in the unusual and idiosyncratic, finding beauty in asymmetry and imbalance. “Iki”, on the other hand, embodies a certain “je ne sais quoi”—an elusive chic, refined taste blended with a dash of eccentricity.


In Ikladi’s “Ukiyo: The floating world”, we see these aesthetic concepts mirrored and reimagined within the medium of photography. His images capture the essence of “mono no aware”, invoking contemplations of the impermanent nature of the world around us. Through the clever interplay of artifice and naturalism, his photographs echo the tension between reality and fantasy inherent to ukiyo-e. And within his work’s subtly elegant compositions and chic eccentricities, we can see the reflections of “suki” and “iki”.


The floating image plane


The characteristic visual toolkit of ukiyo-e has other tricks that help to elevate the expression from description to implication, creating a somewhat floating image plane that suggests a feeling of anti-gravity that’s also characteristic of both Christian and Eastern religious art, like the Buddhist-themed “thangka” of Tibet.


By carefully using tensions and explicitly dominant vertical support, the image plane becomes less of a view and more of a surface to look at, revealing formal relationships.


The use of perspective is also in service of the ultimate goal. Especially early on, reducing the number of layers and then flattening these layers against each other using the Chinese perspective was the dominating starting point. Later on, due to Western influences of a kind-of reverse “Japonism”, the backgrounds gain more of a Renaissance, vanishing point perspective from 1740 on, adding more depth. Still, the foreground’s flattening never entirely disappears.


In photography, the distanced observer’s view the 50mm lens creates allows less of a “rendering effect”, a space closer to traditional painting and illustration, a neutral image and a conscious diversion away from referring to the more representational, narrative-driven style of the NY street photography school of the 1960s onwards.


A prominent element in ukiyo-e is the emphasis on negative space. This technique of depicting subjects as “floating” in the frame without a defined spatial orientation often lets viewers focus solely on the subject, fostering a deeper contemplation of its unique qualities. This isolation of subjects mirrors Ikladi’s minimalist approach, where he simplifies and isolates his subjects to emphasise their essence.


As the photographer writes in his notes:

“In fact, the need for selectivity with all unwanted clutter is strongly present: working in the new Millenium on streets full of electric cars and scooters, people wielding the latest phones, working like a surgeon, “like cutting out a negative from a film strip,” is a necessity to create the old-world feeling. I find the Leica rangefinder, with its window to the world that affords seeing outside the frame lines, offering an unadulterated view of the world, is perfect for this application. Coupled with a 50mm lens, turning it sideways, at the expense of a slightly unnatural shooting experience, affords directness and efficiency in slicing the world onto the negative.”


“Mie”, the decisive moment


The “mie” and “the decisive moment” are both central concepts in “kabuki” theatre and photography, respectively, each encapsulating the critical essence of their respective arts.


The “mie” is a defining feature of “kabuki” theatre, a traditional form of Japanese drama known for its highly stylised performances. This term refers to the dramatic pose struck by an actor at a climactic point in the story to underscore a powerful emotion or action. During this frozen moment, the actor focuses their energy, drawing it inward before projecting it outward to the audience. This expressive stillness is punctuated by the ringing of wooden clappers and serves to heighten the emotional impact of the scene. It’s an integral part of “kabuki” performance, designed to capture the audience’s attention and create a lasting impression.


In parallel, “the decisive moment” is a concept in photography popularised by the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. This term refers to the precise moment when the visual and emotional elements within the photographic frame align in such a way that they express the essence of the situation and capture an event at its peak, freezing it in time, much like the “mie” in “kabuki.” Just as the “kabuki” actor must anticipate the right moment to strike the “mie” pose for maximum emotional effect, the photographer too must possess an intuitive understanding of the unfolding event to capture the “decisive moment”. The photographer waits for the convergence of elements—action, context, composition—to create a meaningful and storytelling image.


Both “mie” and “the decisive moment” share a core essence: a fleeting, pivotal moment frozen in time, providing heightened emotional resonance and profoundly impacting their respective audiences.


Simplification, breadth and texture


During woodblock printing, a replication process, the original painting, with its careful balance of “just enough” detail, gets carved into a series of cherry-wood blocks and finally transferred onto rice paper, creating colour layers where the flat areas of the wood touch the paper and a unifying texture of paint marks and paper texture bring all together.


Even though woodblock printing studios operated independently of the original painter, the artists we remember today were aware of the limitations of the process and used them to their strength, achieving the foremost goal of composition: clearly expressing the idea by creating a hierarchy underlying the vital reduction of clutter by simplification.


The black&white 35mm format works similarly for this visual approach. The smaller film size affords less descriptive power both in terms of graphical detail and tones, contributing to a more mysterious outcome. The lack of gradation also helps to maintain the breadth, the broad effect of the image by combining neighbouring large patches of light and dark into larger structures on the image plane - especially compared to the more factual, detail-oriented, fragmented rendering of the modern digital camera. Black&white film offers another step of abstraction: apart from cropping, scaling and flattening reality on the paper, by removing colour, what remains is only the colour of our dreams: black, white and the greys in-between.


Finally, grain, the smallest visual element of the print, serves a dual purpose: first, like the texture of the Japanese rice paper, it helps to unify the features of the composition. Secondly, it is the smallest compositional element, adding yet another step of abstraction from reality, almost like looking at the image through a veil.


Storytelling through sequencing


The artistic focus of ukiyo-e prints and Ikladi’s photography share further similarities: both forms, realising the shortcoming of the single picture in storytelling, seek to tell stories through images in sequences, each image capable of standing alone as a discrete artwork yet contributing to a larger narrative when seen as part of a whole. This sequence of images lends a unique narrative continuity to the respective art forms, revealing the artist’s interpretation of life’s ephemerality.


After a hint of the floating world by the “mie” moment of the Japanese “koi” fishes moving in tandem and the slightly dreamy image of the Buddhist monk, in the initial photos, the subjects are ordinary people immersed in their daily activities: fishermen at work, people involved in religious rituals, and individuals interacting with their surroundings. This early sequence sets the collection’s tone, rooted in the portrayal of common people and their everyday lives.


Then, the series enters a surreal phase with images that are both unexpected and intriguing. The photograph of a pig in front of a monastery, a shadowy figure traversing the frame, and the peculiar presence of a mahut create a sense of disconnection from reality. These surreal elements introduce an air of mystery and introspection, further diversifying the collection’s emotional palette. These moments resonant with ukiyo-e’s penchant for subtly integrating supernatural elements into everyday scenes.


Following the surreal phase, the series evolves into a more playful and light-hearted segment with a focus on children. Photographs capturing the innocent joy of children playing in the pool, and interacting with each other show a clear shift in tone. These photos, filled with laughter and youthful exuberance, add a distinctively optimistic layer to the narrative, similar to how ukiyo-e would often incorporate scenes of communal enjoyment and festivity, a celebration of life.


The arrangement of the photographs also hints at a narrative connection between pairs or groups of images, mirroring the multi-panel narrative storytelling typical of ukiyo-e. Ikladi playfully connects eyelines, reappearing themes or just visual similarity, suggesting a loose continuation of the story from one frame to the next, adding another layer of humour and wit that mirrors ukiyo-e’s often included humorous commentary on contemporary life.


Final words


As I draw my exploration of Andras Ikladi’s photography and the world of ukiyo-e to a close, I find myself fascinated by the unity of human expression across time and space. Despite differences in medium, culture, and era, both artists of Japan and Andras Ikladi strive to encapsulate the fleeting essence of life, capturing the “floating world” that surrounds us all.


The intertwining themes of ukiyo-e and Ikladi’s work serve as a testament to the enduring allure of the everyday, the emotive, and the ethereal. As I reflect on the parallels between these two art forms, I am reminded of the power of art as a mirror to society, as a chronicle of human experience, and, ultimately, as a beacon that illuminates our collective consciousness.