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Contemplating the Kalpa in the Art of Hirokazu Kosaka

Hirokazu Kosaka. From metro.net

In Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, a kalpa is a very long period of time, a concept akin to the aeon. The term was first used in the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata, and in the Hindu texts the Puranas it was defined as measuring 4.32 billion years. In the context of Buddhism, the Buddha was not so specific, and sutras tell of him using several metaphors to explain a kalpa’s duration. For example, if you imagine a huge cube measuring 16 miles on each side and filled with mustard seeds, and once every 100 years you remove a single seed from inside the cube, even after you have emptied the cube, a kalpa will not have come to an end. Or, at the start of a kalpa, if you imagine a giant rocky mountain that measures 16 miles in every direction and you take a small piece of silk and wipe the mountain with it once every 100 years, the mountain will be completely worn away before the kalpa ends.

“Ruin Map” by Hirokazu Kosaka (b. 1948), 2014, installation in washi paper, sumi ink, and poppy seeds; Courtesy of the artist 

Los Angeles-based Japanese artist Hirokazu Kosaka (b. 1948) first became truly aware of the concept of a kappa (J. go) just after he graduated from art school. Born in Wakayama, near Kyoto, to a father who was a Buddhist priest of the esoteric Shingon sect, Kosaka was surrounded by Buddhist ideas and practices. When he was young, he trained in the Buddhist disciplines of calligraphy and archery. In 1966, he left Japan and moved to Los Angeles to study art at the Chouinard Art Institute (which had just merged into the California Institute of the Arts, or CalArts). While there, Kosaka joined many of his peers in exploring performance art, moving away from the canvas and using his own body as his medium of expression. Drawing from avant-garde artistic practices in both southern California and Japan, he created performative works that were steeped in ancient Japanese Buddhist beliefs and traditional Japanese artistic and spiritual practices.

Lacquered wood box (Japan, c. 19th century) containing poppy seeds; Courtesy of Hirokazu Kosaka

After graduating in 1970 and returning to Japan, Kosaka’s father presented him with a graduation gift—a small lacquered wood box filled with poppy seeds. His father used it to explain the kalpa, a concept that was profoundly important in the more mystical practices of esoteric Buddhism. Shortly afterwards, following in the Buddhist traditions of his family, Kosaka walked the 1,000-mile Buddhist pilgrimage route called “The 88 Temples” on the island of Shikoku, a journey that has been traveled by Japanese Buddhists for over 1,000 years. The pilgrimage took him three months to complete and after doing so, he remained at a temple and was ordained as a Buddhist priest of the Shingon sect.

Through his father’s gift of the box of poppy seeds he had learned about kalpa, and through his arduous walk across Shikoku he not only experienced a slow, solitary journey across his country, but also gained a powerful sense of being connected to an ancient tradition. Both ingrained deep within him a profound interest in time and space and in how we exist in both. After he returned to Los Angeles, his work became even more philosophical. For many years, his installations have explored space, and particularly the spaces between inside and outside, East and West, stillness and motion, physical and spiritual. Recently, roughly 40 years after his father’s gift of the box, the concept of kalpa has figured prominently in both his performance pieces and his conceptual installations. 

“Kalpa,” performance piece by Hirokazu Kosaka (b. 1948), Oguri (b. 1964), and Tetsuya Nakamura at the J. Paul Getty Center, 2012; Courtesy of the artist

In 2012, Kosaka worked with musician Tetsuya Nakamura and celebrated Butoh dancer Oguri (b. 1964) to transform the arrival plaza of the Getty Center into a spectacular sculptural and performative installation, Kalpa, which explored the inevitable passage of time that slowly transforms us. At the top of the plaza steps, a large iron sculpture supported more than a hundred colorful spools of thread. Oguri and his fellow dancers made their way to the spools, and then each took several strands of thread in their mouths. As they slowly walked across the courtyard through parting crowds towards a giant spotlight on the opposite side, the threads spread over the plaza like a giant rainbow. In a related performance, Mare Nubium, at the Japanese American Historical Plaza in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, Kosaka raked 5 million pebbles into a patterned ground for Oguri’s reprise of the Kalpa dance, the pebbles at once evoking the enigmatic, dry landscape of Zen gardens and the millions of tiny seeds in the giant cube mentioned in Buddhist texts.

Detail of “Ruin Map” by Hirokazu Kosaka (b. 1948), 2014, installation in washi paper, sumi ink, and poppy seeds; Courtesy of the artist

Most recently, for the installation Ruin Map at the Japanese American Community and Cultural Center’s Doizaki Gallery in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo, Kosaka asked elders of the Little Tokyo community to draw a map of their childhood home from memory, an exercise based on a school assignment Kosaka worked on in his third-grade class more than 60 years ago. Their drawings were then transformed into woodblock prints, printed onto handmade paper from Shikoku, and covered with poppy seeds. The sheets were then hung from the ceiling to create a giant map of the terrain of memories both shared and intensely personal. Over time, the poppy seeds detached themselves from the prints and rained down delicately onto the gallery floor—a poignant and valuable reminder of the gradual and inevitable passage of time and the vastness of space and the tiny seed-like moment we occupy. 

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