From Science to Zenga, the Way of a Lover

Kaeru-An is the Japanese name of my Zen art collection. Falling in love with Japanese Zen art; how could this happen to me? Here is my personal story: first scientist, then artist, now Zenga lover.

When I was very young I wanted to understand everything, the whole cosmos! Later in university, I chose physics as my major field of study. A great example for me was Albert Einstein, and my aim was to study and explore the most fundamental physics. However, it did not turn out that way.

During my student years I became interested in boomerang flight and I wanted to know how such a strange phenomenon is possible. I decided to investigate this on my own and began my research in my free hours. A creative professor offered me the opportunity to continue my boomerang research as a PhD project. This involved a lot of math, a lot of experiments, and reading everything I could find about boomerangs, most of it written by ethnologists. Since the Aboriginal people of Australia are well known for their use of boomerangs, I decided to find a job in Australia. After completing my doctoral thesis on the aerodynamics and motion of boomerangs in 1975 I moved from Holland to Australia and for some years I worked in Adelaide as a mathematician.

There, in the hills where I lived was a small creek along the garden’s edge. At night, hundreds of small frogs were calling, generating amazing natural concerts, with rhythms and waves of sound that enthralled me. Such concerts were never predictable, they were spontaneous and very spatial. Here I first met the frogs of Australia; here my listening began. At night, I was spellbound; I could not stop listening. Later, as I travelled in the outback and camped in very quiet spots, the beauty of the nights was overwhelming, the richness of the sounds unending, and frogs became my teachers before I even was aware of it. Frogs are listeners too. I had quickly noticed this, since frogs would stop calling when I approached them; they sensed my footsteps. I bought sound recording equipment and began making stereo recordings of frog choruses. I had to find active frogs in very quiet places, moving through landscapes with ears wide open and exploring the space all around me. I had to locate good spots for my microphones. I had to judge the spatial distribution of frog calls, the balance and depth of the chorus, and the presence of unwanted sounds such as rumblings of faraway trucks or the wind’s turbulence in the mikes. I had to sit still and be attentive to all sounds around me: the frogs, the insects, the wind, the rain, the distant trucks and airplanes, really everything active, night after night after night. I learned to just sit still in silence and listen. The concerts were never the same, they were influenced by ambient sounds, by how warm and how humid it was, by the time of the year and the time of the night, by the wind, by the clouds and the moonlight, and by things unknown to me; they were always utterly fresh. I was enchanted by the frogs of Australia; those were wonderful nights!

After my return to Holland, I played back those recordings, which sounded beautiful indeed, but something was missing; the recorded concerts were not alive. I had wondered how the waves and rhythms of frog choruses could emerge from groups of singers with no conductor and no score, and I asked myself this question: Frogs listen; on hearing conspecific calls their eagerness to call goes up; on hearing other sounds their eagerness goes down; is this what causes wavelike rhythms to emerge? I wanted to find out by making small machines based on those principles. In 1982 my first electronic sound creatures were built. They actually worked: the acoustic interactions between the small machines created wavelike rhythms that were influenced by the acoustics of the space, the machines’ positions and, of course, the ambient sounds. I had a live chorus of electronic sound creatures! Considering this a scientific model of the group behaviour of animals such as frogs, I demonstrated the sound creatures to biologists. They were interested, but more reactions came from people working with experimental music and art, who told me “this is art” and “you are an artist”. So I found I had become an artist! But, whatever name was given to my work, I saw it as research, and I still do (Ten years later similar research was being done at universities.)(1)

In the 1990’s I was often in Japan, invited to present my work as an artist. I visited many of the Zen gardens in Kyoto; temple gardens, exquisitely designed to calm the mind. In 1992 for the first time I attended a Nō performance. This traditional form of theatre was beyond anything I could have imagined. With friends I enjoyed informal tea ceremonies. These three aspects of Japanese culture are all imbued with a Zen Buddhist feeling. At that time in Japan, after talking with art students about my work, I thought again about the frogs of Australia: more than ten years had passed when I suddenly realised that those frogs actually were my teachers! During all those nights when I was trying to make the best possible sound recordings of their concerts, without my knowing, straightaway they taught me to just sit still in silence and listen. So I am grateful to the frogs.

K001 Zentatsu scroll 204 cm × 39 cm

K001 Zentatsu scroll 204 cm × 39 cm

My interest in Zen Buddhism was aroused. Some of the books about Zen showed pictures of Zen art, but I had never seen such art in the real. I could not have guessed what was in store for me. On a summer night in 2001, during a visit to the Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst in Berlin-Dahlem, suddenly I found myself standing face to face with Zen art, half a dozen hanging scrolls with vertical one-line calligraphies. I was immediately overwhelmed by the extraordinary power radiating from these artworks; never had I experienced anything like this! The characters, brushed with such an unbelievable power, surely represented something profound but the labels gave no explanation. A year later I noticed on the internet that there were Zen scrolls for sale. I decided to buy one piece, which seemed to equal the best calligraphy I’d seen in Dahlem. It was by Zen master Zentatsu (1669-1749); its five characters say ‘Happy Face Moves Heaven Earth’ (K001).

I received it in my home as a honoured guest. For three weeks it kept on surpassing my expectations. I found it hard to switch off the light at night when I had to go to bed. Sometimes I went downstairs again to have one more look, and in the mornings this piece looked better still. From my early notes: “How can I be so fortunate! First of all it is the artwork, the commanding brushstrokes, utterly convincing, powerful and amazingly full of life. Secondly it is the patina, the mounting, the dignified condition of the scroll as a whole. The vigor, the beauty, the power, the masculine energy, is indescribable. If I can point to just one man-made object in my life that surpasses all, it is this Zentatsu. I still find it almost unbelievable that I am its ‘owner’.” I became hooked on Zen art. I could not refrain from buying more and more pieces, and I always asked for, and was given by my adviser Prof. John Stevens, the original texts—mostly Chinese characters—in printed form, English translations, and information about the artists. It is amazing how their individual personalities come out in these extraordinary art forms. Again from my early notes:

K021 Tokuō ensō

K021 Tokuō ensō

K021 (detail) Tokuō ensō

K021 (detail) Tokuō ensō

K021 Tokuō. This is truly a wonderful Ensō. Very beautiful indeed! It radiates calm, even when it’s in the room without my looking at it. So sensitive, powerful, such intimate dignity. There could be nothing better. I’m speechless.

But I should mention here something very peculiar about my startling first encounter with Zen art in 2001. I was the guest of a couple of friends in Berlin, who told me that a lecture about Japanese mediaeval art was given that night in the museum and the three of us went there. After the lecture we all went up to the Japanese part of the museum, where we were shown several Japanese artifacts. Soon I left our small group and walked through an almost dark corridor in a museum with no guards, feeling like an adventurous naughty child. Suddenly I saw on my left a brightly lit space. I went in and immediately encountered those surprising one-line calligraphies. I was stunned! There were many other Zenga too. My friends came looking for me. I quickly showed them what I had seen. It did not impress them. A few years later I was back in Berlin and none of those Zen scrolls were there. Could it have been a temporary exhibition from a private collection? My friends did not remember what I had shown them. In 2005 I met with the museum’s Japanologist, Dr. Alexander Hofmann. He went through all their records and concluded that I must have been dreaming.

Later in 2008, the museum decided to exhibit 40 pieces from my collection. The director, Prof. Willibalt Veit, a sinologist with a sense of humor, also said that there never had been such an exhibition and he was certain that my experience must have been a dream, calling out: “satori!” I strongly denied this and I suggested that it might be embarrassing for the museum to have forgotten an exhibition from a private collector. Not at all! It was a beautiful story! And he said I could tell my story in public. Both John Stevens and I gave talks at the opening. It was a success. (But, unfortunately, there was no budget for a catalog.) I was pleased to see that the Zen scrolls looked far better in that excellent museum than in my familiar home. They felt not like my property. It was a wonderful exhibition.

My collection grew very fast. More than once I was surprised by the Zenga that arrived simultaneously and were just hung on my wall next to each other. Sometimes I saw very nice combinations. Here I show one such combination: K496 by Motsugai and K497 by Sengai; see the pictures below.

aK496+aK497 Motsugai +Sengai

K496 Motsugai Daruma and K497 Sengai MU Puppy (part of each scroll)

Motsugai (1794-1867) was a very strong man and his depiction of Daruma is an expression of his strength (some of my visitors find this piece even a bit scary). Sengai (1750-1783) was different; his art always has a sense of humor. Just look: his MU puppy (“Jōshū’s dog”) could be a Daruma too, poking fun at Motsugai’s. Such are the delights of a lucky collector, enjoying the unique quality of Zenga in his own home.

K536 Jōzan scroll 223 cm × 59 cm (top and bottom parts missing here due to large size)

K536 Jōzan scroll 223 cm × 59 cm (top and bottom parts missing here due to large size)

K217 (detail) Baisa-ō Daruma

K217 (detail) Baisa-ō Daruma

One more example: K536, a Zenga by Jōzan (1583-1672).

He became the boss in my home! (One-liners are my favorite Zenga.) I quote some of my correspondence with J.S. in 2011: From John: “I feel that the Ishikawa Jōzan is the emperor of one-liners. I believe it can be the crown jewel of your collection—if you never acquire another Zenga I think you should get this one.” From me: “The Jōzan one-liner just came in; it’s hanging on my wall, I’ve hardly looked at it yet, but it is very strong and larger than I had expected. Wow!” and “This Jōzan scroll is truly impressive! The mounting too is very good. Immediately I noticed again that the ceiling in my room is too low, and that the only way to have a good view of this piece would be by sitting on tatami. So, on the spur of the moment, I ordered two tatami mats from Berlin. During the past days I read about Jōzan’s life, his Chinese poetry and Shisendō.” From John: “The Jōzan one-liner, one of the best Zenga ever.” Indeed!

And to learn something about the lives of several remarkable Zenga artists, Jōzan is an example, enriches my connection with their artworks. Take Baisa-ō (1675-1763), “Old Tea Seller”: He left his monastery, became a top-quality tea connoisseur selling tea in Kyoto and he slept under a bridge, together with other homeless people. K217 is his Daruma painting.

K482 (detail) Ikkyū signature and seal

K482 (detail) Ikkyū signature and seal

K266 (detail) Tesshū cranes and seals

K266 (detail) Tesshū cranes and seals

K206 (detail) Hakuin Daruma

K206 (detail) Hakuin Daruma

Or, very famous, Ikkyū (1394-1481), who left the monastery, despised hypocracy and enjoyed wine, meat and women! Famous is his association with Lady Mori and their deep mutual love. Ikkyū did not shy away from celebrating the physical love between them and his poems are very explicit. I’m fortunate to have on my wall one of his calligraphies, K482, which is the oldest piece in Kaeru-An.

A really impressive figure is the swordmaster Tesshū (1836-1888). What he achieved in his short, but very intense life is almost superhuman.

K263 Rengetsu eggplants (edges of paper cropped here)

K263 Rengetsu eggplants (edges of paper cropped here)

And the Masters who were writers themselves, such as the most famous of all, Hakuin (1685-1769).Yes, there are biographies about those outstanding artists (see the biography section). And especially Rengetsu (1791-1875), her name meaning “Lotus Moon”. Ah, how wonderful is her art! Who would not love her poetry, calligraphy, her pottery, her painting, and the artist herself? Deservedly famous, female Zen artists are rare, but this collection contains works by several women, who often had a very hard life.

In 2011 a few special Zenga were on display at Kunstmuseum Bochum in a very beautiful space with tatami on the floor.(2)(3) John Stevens was personally involved in everything.

Today there are over 550 pieces in my collection, which I named 蛙菴 Kaeru-An, meaning Frog Hut, in honor of my original teachers, the frogs. These artworks have become my dear friends and teachers. What exactly they are teaching me I cannot say; it’s a feeling… They seem to be timeless, so fresh they are; brushed centuries ago, many look like they were made today. I am extraordinarily fortunate to be surrounded by such wonderful artworks within touching distance. The mind-sets of the Zen artists manifest with a startling immediacy; this is no ordinary art!

Here we present a selection of some 240 pieces in the form of photographs with descriptions for you to study and enjoy.

FELIX HESS

(1) Bernd Schulz (ed.) Felix Hess: Light as Air Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg 2001.

(2) Hans Günter Golinski Buddhas Spur, Zeitgenössische Kunst aus Asien Kunstmuseum Bochum 2011.

(3) John Stevens & Felix Hess Zenga, The Present Art; Kaeru-An Zenga ISBN 9780678104232 (2011).

(4) website: http://www.kaeruan.org/

I express my heartfelt thanks to my guide, sensei John Stevens. I could not have done much without his continued friendly advice and expert information. And I mention Mr. Yamaguchi Junsei of Jikyū-an in Kyoto, who was a source of many Zenga in my collection.

F.H.