Do not try to draw the bow with your arms. Draw it with your heart.
Home and Away
Bronwasser, S, Home and Away , pp. 28-36
Reproduced with kind permission from the author
© the author
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“Do not try to draw the bow with your arms. Draw it with your heart.”
“Camera,” wrote video artist Bill Viola in 1980, “breaks from the eye / camera as nose / camera as ear / camera as hand / camera as insect / camera as consciousness / camera as telescope / camera as microscope.” The camera, in short, had already surpassed the senses a good twenty years ago.
In the work Saint Sebastian (2001) by Fiona Tan, the camera has become a finger: one that trails along throats and collars, across glossy black hair done up with delicate feathers, to a bent wrist, to a young neck, where a few hairs have sprung from their knot.
This finger is not alone. A surrounding buzz can be heard; a crowd is present, but the finger takes no notice. It continues along edges of pink, red, blue silk, along ears that turn pink in the crisp, clear winter sun. It is a bright day, one of celebration, and the finger skips from girl to girl, from flower to flower: there is no end to its happiness. Yet that is not all.
On the other side of the screen onto which Saint Sebastian is projected, the camera is clearly what we always consider it to be: an eye. Now it sees the faces of rows and rows of Japanese girls, moving forward by the dozen, each placing an arrow in her bow and drawing that bow with a grand gesture, setting the arrow slowly but deliberately across the face, against the cheek. And shooting. And shooting again.
The eye registers immense concentration, young faces rigid from the cold and the tension. It is a tension that tolerates no touch. They are there, the playful feathers and the finely painted eyelids, but no longer for admiration. All that matters is the moment of the shot. Slight differences in facial expression, before and after the act, are revealed in slow motion: a tightening in the corner of a mouth, the tremor of an eyelid. No joy, no sorrow, but tension without release: when the arrows are shot, the girls return to the same trance as the next group follows. The murmuring is no longer audible, and ambient noise has given way to a refined acoustic composition that translates the concentration into sound—interrupted now and then by the arid woosh of the shot from a bow of bamboo.
Fiona Tan travelled to Japan in order to film the annual ceremony that takes place at the Sanju-Sangendo temple in Kyoto. On January fifteenth, the entire country celebrates Seijin-no-hi or ‘Coming-of-age-day’. The boys clad in their best suits and girls in furisode (the most traditional kimono) all twenty-year-olds officially become adults on that day. In Kyoto, hundreds of girls give a public demonstration of traditional Japanese archery, kyudo, as a rite of passage.
Kyudo is a martial art, a sport that has its origins in the military tradition. The objective, to hit the mark, is less important than the way in which this is achieved. And so that mark is situated at a considerable distance, for experienced archers 120 meters away.
Kyudo literally means ‘the way of the bow’, and during competitions of this sport, ratings are ascribed to the flight of the arrow. This can be ‘light’ or ‘dark’, ‘sincere’ or ‘insincere’, ‘too cautious’ or even ‘hasty’. The archer can spend years practicing to attain a proper flight. This involves breathing, the stance of the body, the tension of the bow in various phases, concentration. According to master Awa, who in the previous century trained the philosopher Eugen Herrigel to become the first Western master of kyudo, the archer must learn to forget himself. “But master,” his pupil asks, “if I forget myself, who shoots the arrow?” “On the day that you discover who shoots the arrow,” answers master Awa, “you will no longer need a master.”
Whether the girls in the Sanju-Sangendo temple have achieved that degree of detachment, one will never know. But what can be seen is the immense control of expression; only the viewer who can come very close (and in slow motion) is able to find any evidence of emotion.
It is tempting to attribute this to the moment, to the attainment of the state of adulthood which becomes a reality after the arrows are shot. Not delirious joy, but rather fearful awareness is fitting to this occasion. Rites of initiation have always been aimed at testing the young, badgering them, driving them to extremes and then allowing them to cross a boundary. During the Edo period (1603-1868) young Japanese girls were robbed of their beauty: their teeth were painted black. These present-day girls are given only two arrows, and they will have to embark on adult life with or without a successful shot.
Anyone who becomes immersed in the subject of kyudo must adjust this outlook of a European who has no such ritual. The kyudo archer is also trained to restrain his face, to focus on the next arrow after shooting the first, for when the arrow is fired, it is never the end (master Anzawa).
In almost all of her previous work, Fiona Tan has used documentary material. She is familiar with the pitfalls that await when the camera is aimed at an ‘exotic’ subject; more than once she has combed through colonial archives and employed material in such works as Facing Forward (1998) and Tuareg (1999).
Rarely is this material genuine. The sequences have been manipulated, text has been added and has occasionally given false meaning to the image, the subjects were told to behave in a certain way: the camera functions as ‘pointer’ and serves to illustrate a particular point of view. There is the notorious case of a Dutch film crew, who created total confusion with their staged ‘documentary’ on a Papuan tribe and prompted a return of headhunting.
Saint Sebastian is therefore not a documentary on a contemporary ritual. For this Tan knows too much, is too wary of a ‘touristy’ point of view. It has sooner become an unravelling of beauty—beauty that surprised the artist herself as well, because despite all of the preparation, she did not see the actual event until the moment at which, for the first time in history, it was possible to film this. The beauty lies firmly anchored in the age-old background, an immovable system of rules, advice, instruction and wisdom. And Tan manages to capture it by doing away with all of the rules and history, by setting up her camera at the right place and looking, exploring, taking it in like a sponge—the objective being too remote to see.
translation: Beth O’Brien
by Sacha Bronwasser
published in the exhibition catalogue Home and Away