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Ma And The Four Dimensional Concept Of Reality In Today's Tokyo
During the last few years, I have in my art been working with the understanding of time in different ways. When I spent a few months in NYC in 2002 it became apparent to me that I often understood time as a part of space. I saw time as a variable of space, and I found it difficult to separate that which has already happened from what is happening in the present. This made me question my linear perception of time. During this period I also started to think about how I perceived my everyday life. I saw it as extremely rational, with days structured in order to fit everything in. I did feel an increasing emptiness in this "ticking things off" throughout the days. In my efforts to try to understand where this linear perception of time and this rational way of thinking came from, as well as what it means to me and to the society that I live in, I came in touch with the Japanese concept of Ma. I understood that Ma meant a way of perceiving time that was different from the linear perception. I looked for all kinds of literature on the subject, which turned out to be a not so easy thing. I therefore decided to go to Tokyo. With me on this trip was Daniel Segerberg, who is also an artist. In Tokyo, we had a wide range of contacts that kept increasing when we asked for people to help us understand the concept of Ma.
The text that follows is written in collaboration with Daniel Segerberg as a means for us to try to understand Ma and the Japanese space/time. Lacking literature and Internet sources, it is our own interpretation based on the conversations, the art and film we experienced and gathered before and during our stay in Tokyo in October of 2005.
A brief explanation of the concept of Ma
Ma; the empty space, the in between, the silence, the pause, the emptiness, the interval, the distance, the timing etc, is something that is present throughout the entire Japanese society, but it's predominantly in the traditional arts that you usually refer to the concept of Ma. In old ink painting for example, you would say that the focus should lie within in the absence of the brush and the ink. The blank paper is a state of limitlessness where anything is possible. It symbolizes the source of all shapes, beyond time and space.
In the literature we were able to get a hold of, written in English or Swedish, Ma was often explained as a four dimensional concept of time and space. This is something that we later found out to be incorrect, and therefore realized that we really did not know what this "Ma" actually stood for. We had to start from the beginning and randomly ask Japanese people that we came in touch with, "What is Ma?"
"In New York people are scared of the silent parts of a conversation. Ma means a unity within the silence", said a musician who had lived in NYC for ten years. Or, "Good Ma is the timing in a joke," a dancer explained. A Karate champion described Ma as "the distance between yourself and your opponent". He explained that the right Ma is everything in Karate. The distance should put you of reach of your opponent. If you step into your opponents Ma you give him an opportunity to attack. One move should get him down. Kendo has the same principles; one strike with the sword should be enough, the rest is Ma. Ma is also the timing in sumo wrestling. The wrestlers stand in front of each other, look in to each other's eyes and let their feeling decide when to open up the fight. There is no judge to let them know when to start. Should the timing fail, you start over. "Ma can be the distance to your lover, the right timing for a kiss etc. When you get to know each other you can decrease the distance to your lover", the karate champion explains. Every bow in the Japanese everyday life should be magaii (good Ma); it should come at the right time, simultaneously. A Buddhist priest defines Ma as "silence between movements" and an artist explains Ma as "an interval without movements; silence" Or "why not the laundry room in Swedish apartment buildings" as Jun, a physicist from Tokyo who had lived in Sweden four years suggests, when he attempts to give an example of a Swedish Ma.
- A four dimensional concept of reality.
In the west, we have ever since the antiquity perceived space as three-dimensional (length, height, depth). It is a static perception of space; a homogenous space. It derives from a linear perspective where you place yourself, the subject, outside the space to observe the space as an object. The conception of a room becomes a visual abstraction. The time dimension is removed and accordingly the static room is isolated to facilitate for scientific calculation. In this sense "time" has always been detached from space. The west considers time as absolute and linear.
Reality tends to be perceived as that which can be proved scientifically, as seen from without. Time follows the absolute and linear timeline. It is often a struggle against time. The traditional Japanese perception is however built on an inside perspective that derives from the way we as humans experience our surroundings and ourselves. Japanese people see themselves as parts of a certain situation. To the Japanese, reality tends to be more of a movement in and out of space/time related situations. They perceive space as a physical experience rather than a visual abstraction.
To understand this perception you have to go back to the 7 th century when Shintoism ( Japanese nature religion) affected the Japanese way of thinking.
- How space/time is created
- Ma, a space for potential occurrences.
The feelings that we experienced during our walks around Tokyo and that could be defined by the Wabi-Sabi principles were not only referring to our personal questions, but for the general aspect of the city. Most of the streets in Tokyo are too narrow and winding for a vehicle to pass through. If you turn round the corner of one of the main streets, it's easy to get lost in a confusing labyrinth of miniature streets, until you are back on a main street again. Trying to make sense of a map is bound to fail. If at all there are any correct maps of these labyrinth streets.
It is said that there is not one single building in Tokyo that is older than 20 years. Tokyo is constantly changing, gradually. The city develops along the guidelines of Japanese philosophy, based on principles of the perishable, humane, non-symmetrical and non-perfect without planning, hierarchy or form. Some say that the static and almost museum-like European capitals will have difficulty adapting to the needs and wants of the future society. During the 1850-60s vast areas of Paris, Rome and Vienna had to be torn down to make room for new ideals such as wide straight avenues. The western concept of control and need for surveillance does not allow this almost amoeba like change and adaptation of the city according to the needs of its inhabitants.
One of the most obvious indications of the difference between the western cities and Tokyo is that the streets in Tokyo don't have any names. French philosopher Roland Barthes writes about this in his book "Empire of Signs": "This domiciliary obliteration seems inconvenient to those (like us) who have been used to asserting that the most practical is always the most rational [...] Tokyo meanwhile reminds us that the rational is merely one system among others."
There is however a mail delivery system in Tokyo. The first classification of Tokyo is 23 different "ku's", or districts e.g. Minato-ku, Shibuya-ku, Thereafter each district is divided into areas of approx. 20 blocks that are given a certain number. Within this area each block gets a number. Consequently, the address could be: Shinjuku-ku 4-6-2. It may sound rational in its own way, but what makes it complicated is the fact that on every block the oldest building gets number 1, the second oldest gets number 2 etc. The blocks are, in our opinion, not organized in any logical sense.
Finding your way through Tokyo requires an inside perspective. The focal point is "how do I stand in relation to my surroundings?" You familiarize yourself bit by bit; "I know that when I reach the corner where I once saw that old woman trip I have to turn right to get to the station". The principle of an inside perspective become even more clear when talking about Japanese gardens. To experience a Japanese garden the correct way, you have to move through it. You enter a world, an experience, a feeling, a situation; you pass through and move on to the next. The experience evolves through time. Moving around the city is a similar thing. The Japanese garden can be compared to the traditional French gardens that are based on the principle of symmetry and are to be experienced from a certain point, outside of the garden; the throne. You are to be able to have a general view of the garden, to have control. The French gardens are based on a linear perspective.
Barthes on Tokyo : "This city can be known only by an activity of an ethnographic kind: you must orient yourself in it not by book, by address, but by walking, by sight, by habit, by experience..." You will not understand Tokyo through rational, printed information (maps, guidebooks, telephone books) instead you get to know this city through using gestures. The two different ways of orientating oneself, from the outside or the inside, can also be viewed as two different ways of looking at your everyday life. Either place yourself outside of the situation, take control, make plans for the future and "tick off" things on the to-do list, or picture yourself as a small part of a much bigger situation, unknowing and without control of what is to happen, and look at what this specific situation has to offer.
- Three opinions on Ma, from the contemporary art scene in Tokyo
Masato Nakamura (who represented Japan at the Venice biennale 2005) told us that he was influenced by Saki Satoms project when putting together his piece "the Sukima project", 2001. Sukima is related to Ma but more specifically means "opening" or "crack". Nakamura invited artists to work with the very narrow spaces that run in between the buildings of Tokyo. Nakamura draws parallels between the city planning of Tokyo and the game Tetris , a game where the purpose is to fit blocks as tightly together as possible, in the shortest amount of time. He wonders where there is room for artists in today's Tokyo, and reasons that -the artists could take place and act in the spaces in between buildings, just like a hacker who floats around the margins of the computer systems.These voices illustrate ways of thinking in Japan. Even though they feel that there is not much room for Ma in the light of western market economy, the space/gaps are still in their consciousness. You see them, not just as spaces, but also as the potential for something. The major difference might be that today there might not be enough time to leave the negative space/time (what would a negative time be?) empty: you fill it with stress, a lump of clay, or with art.