Wood Culture – Another Distinct Element in Yukawa’s Sculptures

Over the last several years I’ve seen Yukawa juggling numerous tasks in his incredibly tight schedule. One moment he was sculpting and exhibiting his works in various places like Columbia, Korea, Florida in the US, and Cuba. And next moment he was back in Japan putting on another exhibit in Tokyo or Iwaki. I often wonder how he can manage such a busy life. On several occasions I was asked to draw up an essay on his works and each time I sought to share his developments underway. I referred to his choice of terra cotta technique, which technique is well-known as the oldest and simplest to inspire some spiritual life from soil. Some other time I noted his then-developing feature; a revelation of his desire to conflate two conflicting aspects of the corporeal and the spiritual. Further more, I wrote about his theme running through his works; not only his but also the very universal theme through the history of humans. I thought I had watched him more closely than any one else, and said to myself, “I’m fully aware of his developments as I’ve followed all the steps he has gone through. Maybe I won’t have to write about him for a while, at least for some time until he has moved a few hundred steps forward.” However, having a chance to see his recent works, specifically his massive statues of men, I just realized that I had something left out, something that has been within his works all the time, but is getting more and more evident; wood culture.

The word ‘culture’, is originally from an ancient Latin, cultura. It initially meant ‘well-cultivated’, and then after the peak period of the Roman Empire, another meaning of ‘sophisticated’ was added to it. This new addition led to the current meaning ‘civilization’. Culture in the Ancient Roman period was solely based on its superiority, but now we’ve come to hold a different notion of the culture after going through many explores, discoveries, conflicts or even plunder in our history. Many learned experts in modern times have contributed to form this notion; Claude Levi-Strauss suggested that it was not possible to say that any given culture was superior to the other. Ruth Benedict stressed that we should not judge other cultures with our won standards. Nowadays it is commonly recognized that cultures, as well as other living creatures, adjust themselves to the environment and evolve into a next level

maintaining their distinctiveness from each other. It is so easy to find evidence for this. For instance, in the Ancient Mesopotamia where stone or wood materials were scarce, they commonly used brick, a material made from sedimentary soil and baked taking advantage of abundant heat from the sun. Brick was used for buildings, and it made a decided improvement on their architecture style with arches. On the other hand, in the Ancient Greek period, they skillfully utilized common materials such as limestone, marble and plaster. The Parthenon, built in the fifth century B.C., was typical of the culture in those days, along with many other statues still existing. The latter can be called stone culture and the former brick culture. In this regard, Japanese culture should be called wood culture. Take a look around and we will find countless proofs; magnificent and yet precise wooden framework seen in many old temples and shrines, simple and functional wooden houses, daily necessities like wooden bowls and chopsticks, gardens and bonsai representing miniature copies of nature, statues of the Buddha made of joined blocks, trees planted as a fence to protect houses, wooden plates used to keep records on and so forth. While Michelangelo pointed out that stone held a form in itself, Enku, a monk in the Edo period, said that wood held a Buddha in itself. It is obvious that Japanese culture has been coexisting with wood.

I remember Yukawa telling me that he grew up surrounded by various wood materials in his daily life due to his family business. I assume that his living environment nurtured and directed him to combine terra cotta and wood in an attempt to create his own style as a sculptor. Both terra cotta and wood are natural materials and blend easily with each other. Obviously that is the reason why he chose these two elements. And besides, they were all the better for their qualities as the materials that will support his theme and orientation. Now I’d like to add one other point, or rather a more important point, to my previous observations. There was a time when he admired the Western forms of sculpturing and was greatly influenced by them in his early years. Since then he has been pursuing his own style. In the process, some intriguing quality has emerged; what has been in him all the time, what is quite Japanese, that is a quality of Japanese wood culture.

Wood is a difficult material to deal with. When dried, it is easy to split. Shirata, a wooden part closer to the bark, is too soft and too fragile. This shirata part is usually craved off when it is used after many years of drying. However, Yukawa chooses not to crave it off, leaving it as it is and putting it together with resin. It is in our common nature to try to get rid of any type of impediments. On the contrary, Yukawa seems to accept cracks, splits, and shirata, all of these in whole as part of the natural wood materials. The way he approaches his raw materials is so gentle even though he sometimes struggles. This reminds me of two things: one is his cultural involvement with wood throughout his life, and the other is what is associated with most important theme underlying his artistic expression.

Once John Constable noted to the effect that he had never seen anything ugly. Pierre Augeste Renoir claimed that he truly enjoyed his life and painting even when rheumatoid arthritis severely limited his movement. Yukawa’s sculptures reflect the same kind of positive attitude while giving off his unique spirituality and gentle sentiment. It is his highly positive attitude toward art and life that keep him moving. Now I can see him flying energetically all over the world as if he were wearing Hermes’ winged sandals.

Yoshiharu Sasaki
Curator in Iwaki City Art Museum
April, 2009