Spring 2001 Fellow
Megumi Esaki expanded her explorations based on traditional Japanese water basins during her Spring, 2001 residency at the Creative Glass Center of America. She initially became interested in the form while working at Pilchuck Glass School far from her native Japan. “I think many Japanese artists are influenced by traditional Japanese culture,” she says, adding, “And now young people live in a mixed culture, so they might feel special nostalgia for old Japanese culture.”
The chozubachi, a water container for Japanese gardens at shrines, temples or tea houses, is traditionally made of stone, but Esaki casts her compact interpretations in glass. Some chozubachi are about waist high but the water basins for tea house gardens (tsukubai or “crouching basins”) are particularly interesting to Esaki although she does not have the leisure to study the tea ceremony. “I like the tradition, but is a little difficult for me to enjoy cha-no-yu (tea ceremony) itself. Maybe in 30 years, I’ll be able to enjoy it.” she jokes.
Traditional tsukubai are placed near the ground among stones and plants, the emblem of a natural pool in a secluded brook. The lowtsukabai forces all users to bend down in humility making them equal in the ritual of purification. A bamboo ladle typically rests along the edge of the basin to scoop up water to cleanse the hands and the mouth of the dust of the world.
To the Japanese, the chozubachi is the center of the garden. It should be supported by a strong base conveying a sense of stability and endurance. It is the symbol of purity in the spiritual as well as the physical dimension. As she explores glass to both contain and to suggest water, Esaki becomes increasingly intrigued by the spiritual and ritual role water plays in many cultures, but glass and water have long been related in her mind. As a student at Aichi University of Education, Esaki studied painting and pottery before she became interested in working with American glass artist, Michael Rogers. She was drawn to the “softness of glass. When it’s hot, it’s melting, flowing. I think it’s like a kind of water when it’s melting in a furnace,” she explained.
At CGCA, thick-walled kiln-cast containers–some black and some clear– made in the early weeks of her residency contain real water, its shimmering transparency a foil to that of glass. The compact form of Esaki’s table-top containers is usually a perfect half sphere, sometimes presented on a slightly flaring and substantial pedestal. Esaki cast her own hands in wax which she invested in molds in order to cast clear glass hands which can be placed nearby, as if cupping the containers. The disembodied glass hands project an archetypal cleanliness and purity echoing the symbolism of water itself.
By the time Esaki had completed her residency, she was casting “containers” filled with glass– completely solid. She polishes the “water” surface, making the illusion of water so effective that a visitor finds it necessary to touch it to test its solidity. One such basin is silvered on the outside, clear on the inside. Another “crescent” basin is cupped by casts of Esaki’s hands. The glass has been allowed to devitrify, giving these marble-like hands a pale, incorporeal appearance.
To the complex interface of meaning and appearance linking glass and water Esaki adds an interest in lenses. The effects of lenses, such as reversing images, reducing and enlarging images by altering focal distance can be observed in water and glass. Esaki used both substances in a series of installations, many of which involved spheres organized in metal frames. Mind Box (1998), a free-standing vertical metal panel, presents nine spheres filed with water while in Focal Distance(1999) the water-filled spheres are arranged in smaller boxes.Trembling Dots(1999), made for Esaki’s first solo exhibition, is a herd of dimpled spheres placed on top of a lighted fine-mesh grid so that the black mesh appears to squirm like psychedelic moire patterns over the surface of the glass.
Aside from black and occasionally blue, she has little interest in colored glass, although she uses metallic and matte surfaces to contrast with transparency. “Water adapts to any space. It has no color,” Esaki says admiringly. “Anywhere you put the piece, the piece adapts.”
In a functional sideline, Esaki makes black bowls and small sake cups is each embellished inside with a fragile silver star/asterisk shape. The effect is slightly reminiscent of the white star-bursts found in snowflake obsidian. She says these simple elegant pieces are “for joy,” recreation away from more demanding conceptual work. Shimmering at the bottom of a transparent cup of sake, the little foil stars suggest the same delight in simple forms and visual phenomena as the more ambitious chozubachi. But as Esaki’s work with lenses suggests, clarity is not as simple as it appears. Glass and water can be equally illusory.