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‘The deception was all too easily induced by a superficial external similarity — the extreme transparency, flexibility and lightness sought by modern Western architecture and already mastered in the traditional phase of Japanese architecture.

…One concludes rather from their best architecture that space as an entity does not exist at all. The Japanese sense of space is ma, best described as a consciousness of place, not in the sense of a ‘piazza’, an enclosed three-dimensional entity, but rather as Hans Scharoun used the word ‘Platz’ in his first Berlin competition scheme, where he spoke of ‘Zentrale Plätze’ or places of central activities. I feel, even though English is not my mother-tongue, that the English word place could be used to imply the simultaneous awareness of the intellectual concepts form + non-form, object + space, coupled with subjective experience. In this way we can get a bit nearer to the Japanese concept of space which, from now on, I will refer to as sense of place, or simply ma. So — this Japanese sense of ma is not something that is created by compositional elements; it is the thing that takes place in the imagination of the human who experiences these elements.’[1]

— Günter Nitschke, “ ‘MA’: The Japanese Sense of ‘Place’ ”

 

Several years ago, my research led me to a certain Japanese concept by the name of ma, a state primarily composed of pause and nothingness. While respecting that Japanese philosophy has placed ma in a position of supreme importance in many areas, I intend to spend as many blog essays as possible proving that ma is in fact a universal philosophy, a transcultural one, too ‘generous’ to be restricted by any form of cultural copyright. More than a philosophy, actually, for I think ma is a ‘fact’ in and of itself. To clarify and bewilder at the same time, Günter Nitschke states that ‘this Japanese sense of ma is not something that is created by compositional elements’, an idea that completely reduces the importance of physical situation, of appearances, and of physicality altogether. Instead, as Nitschke also seems to imply, ma maintains its roots in the imagination of the one who experiences compositional manifestations, and even then, those manifestations are not at all limited to physical properties. That is why any attempt to define ma cannot be primarily dependent upon the empirical aspects of organisation. If anything, a person who consistently experiences the ma interval is most likely someone who has a messy desk, a messy bedroom, among other messy areas, but who very rarely has trouble finding their keys.

   

Images of ma, that can be found in the less disturbed parts of the natural world, ‘happen upon’ the observer when they least expect. A little view in the middle of early morning mist may reveal a round-shaped bird perched upon a tall stalk of a reed, bending forward into the vapourous curtains. Even with the weight of the bird, the slender reed does not fall into the pond-water…a single stroke of a paintbrush upon a hanging sheet of coolness. A solitary individual branches away from, yet is still attached to, a mini-forest of marshland reeds, reeds that are gently waving their feathery umbels so that the settling fog does not get too thick.

Against the normal definitions of ‘preciousness’, this mural painting’s unstoppable decline has caused it to become ma itself — a potent seminal energy that exists especially to be moulded into further manifestations. Because there is so little of the painting left, its sense of mystery keeps expanding, just as it becomes less and less bound to physical constructs.
Against the normal definitions of ‘preciousness’, this mural painting’s unstoppable decline has caused it to become ma itself — a potent seminal energy that exists especially to be moulded into further manifestations. Because there is so little of the painting left, its sense of mystery keeps expanding, just as it becomes less and less bound to physical constructs.

 

This painting of a naripol, or fruit maiden, graces a door panel of a chapel of Wat Luang Suntraraam in Ang Thong Province, a temple believed to have been built in the 16th century, during that period when our Ayutthaya Kingdom first fell to Toungoo. The fruit maiden of Wat Luang is much more like a flower than a fruit. Her sweetness reminds me of the fragility of petals, rather than a taste on the tongue. However, if she really did personify a flower instead of a fruit, she would not be associated with ripe, succulent flesh. And that would somewhat defeat the purpose. Fruit maidens in this part of the world were traditionally depicted with their heads attached to tree branches, although for this ever so delicate naripol, it is no longer possible to discern the point where her stem transitions into her sepal crown.

 

The only proof that remains of her tree origin is the diagonal tree branch extending towards her body. Even the most significant part of this blue branch has peeled away…the symbolic, and literal, umbilical cord that defines her as a ‘fruit’. Those disappeared parts of the mural painting have now left the naripol looking like she is suspended in mid-air. She is surrounded, and even cut in half, by ‘empty’ spaces. Yet, it is not as though she has lost her sense of security altogether, for the more the painting peels and fades, the more the surrounding ma context emerges. The nothingness already fertile with comforting whispers. And as if by some supremely precise orchestration, the fruit maiden’s smile is still preserved… excellently preserved.

Her smile is both innocent and mysteriously erotic, considering also the direction her eyes are looking. What is the naripol looking at? Not at the people opening or closing the door panel that her physical being still covers. Indeed, her eyes are focused upon those things that float above the level of human heads. With every piece that peels off the painting, the fruit maiden is cleansing herself of the pressures and obligations normally attached to the irreversibility of time. Amidst the empty spaces, she is poised in a contemplative ‘gap’.
Her smile is both innocent and mysteriously erotic, considering also the direction her eyes are looking. What is the naripol looking at? Not at the people opening or closing the door panel that her physical being still covers. Indeed, her eyes are focused upon those things that float above the level of human heads. With every piece that peels off the painting, the fruit maiden is cleansing herself of the pressures and obligations normally attached to the irreversibility of time. Amidst the empty spaces, she is poised in a contemplative ‘gap’.

 

During certain moments, one may catch the painting taking a rest from this world, withdrawing into some non-locality.

 

[1] Günter Nitschke, “ ‘MA’: The Japanese Sense of ‘Place’ ”, in Architectural Design (AD), vol. 36 (March 1966), pp. 116 – 156 (p. 117).

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2 Comments

  1. very thoughtful

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