Global Horizons Writing Retreat in Valendas by Nancy Thebaut

Writing can so often be a lonely endeavor, but during a recent Global Horizons writing retreat up in the quiet mountain village of Valendas, it was anything but that. Housed in a seventeenth-century townhouse (with multiple wall paintings intact!), we spent a few days writing, talking about writing, and setting goals for the coming semester and year. We also found time to have delicious communal meals and take walks around the village, characterized by its dramatic views of the Rhine, snow-capped mountains, and dairy farms.

We arrived on Saturday and kicked off the retreat with a discussion about issues we individually faced with our current writing projects, whether dissertations, books, articles, or conference papers. There was admittedly something deeply comforting (and even cathartic) about sharing our challenges and learning that we all face similar difficulties. So often, we tend to think that we are alone in our struggle to write; this is, of course, far from true. Coping with writer’s block, finding time to write, resisting distraction, and managing writing-related anxiety were all common problems voiced by members of the GH team.

After taking turns naming the challenges we face when writing, we began to think in terms of strategy: what are our different tricks, so to speak, in overcoming these difficulties? I found myself taking lots of notes during this part of Saturday’s and then Sunday’s group meetings. For some, beginning the day with a timed session of free writing was a way to get into one’s work and overcome the initial anxiety that many of us face each time we open our current project; for others, creating a realistic ‘to-do’ list the night before is crucial for a productive writing session the following day. Other tips include writing in 25-minute spurts that are each focused on a particular question or problem; planning rewards in addition to writing goals each day; and keeping all writing for a single project within one word document (so that nothing gets lost!). 

An additional point of discussion was the place of conferences in relation to our writing projects. Some apply to conferences with the idea that, if accepted, the conference will be the opportunity to develop projects otherwise not yet begun; for others, conferences are for work that has already been carefully thought through. Although sometimes our strategies differed, we all agreed that formal analysis can be an excellent way to overcome writer’s block: simply pull up the image that interests you the most in your project, and begin writing about that. Writing, in this way, can be a form of thinking, and it is through the process of writing that many figure out what they want to say about their objects.

These meetings, however important, were of course not the primary way we spent our time in Valendas. On Sunday, the first full day of the retreat, we had breakfast at 8 am and then promptly found different rooms within the house, many of which were filled with long tables perfect for communal writing, and settled in with our laptops for the day, taking breaks only for meals and an occasional walk. I personally had one of the most productive writing days that I have had in a while—there was something deeply motivating about working alongside other pre-modernists in a space to which we had traveled for the sole purpose of writing. Learning that we all experienced similar personal and intellectual challenges viz. our own projects and sharing tips on how we could all be more satisfied with our work was at once edifying and empowering. I am trying to remember what I learned in those few days in Valendas as I continue to write—albeit now in a much more isolated state, given the Coronavirus outbreak—and recall that we are not alone in the challenges we face, personally and intellectually, as academic writers.  

Madrid and its surprises by Corinne Mühlemann

The forecast predicted rain. Madrid’s sun was the first surprise we encountered on this trip. We felt as if the winter is gone. While enjoying the sun we were thinking about the workshop Dialogues in the Late Medieval Mediterranean: Methodological Encounters and (Dis)Encounters which was organized by the Cost Action Islamic Legacy: Narratives East, West, South, North of the Mediterranean and should take place the following day.

The workshop was held at the Casa Árabe, the second surprise. Al-bait al-‛arabī is a meeting point between Spain and the Arab world in Madrid as well as Córdoba. It exists since 2006 and allows different institutions, private as well as public, to dialogue and interact. The location was perfectly chosen by the organizers since our discussions were diverse ranging from Mudejar inscriptions to Cyrillic script on Ottoman diplomatic documents to medieval textiles from Iberia. The researchers themselves showed a wide geographical range too, from as far as Croatia and Serbia in the East to the US in the West. This variety in topics as well as in different methodological approaches enriched our discussions in many ways. It was just the perfect surrounding to present our thoughts about the transfer of craft knowledge between Baghdad, al-Andalus and Norther Europe on the basis of the Niello technique for metalwork and the Lampas weave for textiles. Furthermore, this workshop enabled us to think about a future workshop Global Horizons will organize in 2021 together with Antonio Urquízar and Borja Franco (both UNED, Madrid) from the Cost Action.

The third and last surprise certainly was the special exhibition Las artes del metal en al-Ándalus at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional. We were able to see one of the Niello objects discussed in our paper. Seeing this casket in front of us created further questions about its marvelous making. How discussions in front of objects enrich our thinking is something we will keep in mind for the preparation of our workshop in 2021.

Metal Work in Al-Andalus – exhibition architecture made of metalwork

Global Horizons in Sion by Stefanie Lenk

This week we got spoiled with inspirations from many directions. Jaś Elsner visited us in Bern and we discussed his current work on copybook drawings for Coptic textiles on papyri. We got into a lively discussion about how to detect and talk about the determinacy and indeterminacy of drawings – a subject that has kept us busy since Jess Bailey’s and Corinne Mühlemann’s Drawing and Weaving workshop earlier this year.

On the following day we travelled to the beautiful city of Sion in the Valais, an hour and a half away from Bern. We were so lucky to have two excellent guides at our side – Patrick Elsig, the director of the History Museum of Sion, and Mme Zinn who showed us around the Basilique de Valère – a veritable time-machine!

Patrick Elsig led us through the current exhibition Aux sources du Moyen Age which assembles a surprising wealth of art from the first millennium found in the Valais. Also the interior design of the exhibition space is worth to be seen, as its former use as the prison of Sion is not only still palpable, but even used in an imaginative way to frame the exhibits.

The basilique de Valère and the attached History Museum are extraordinary for the richness of curious and wonderful things – be it the oldest playable organ in the world, the mill inside the church, the church treasury in the former archive of the basilique, filled with graffiti of its distracted users, or the panel showing the adoration of the magi that showed us once more in how many ways the horizon plays a central role in the imagination of the sacred and the mundane worlds.

Post Scriptum: Golden Delights

We couldn’t leave Kyoto without exposing ourselves to the glittering elegance of the golden pavilion of Kinkaku-ji. Originally built in the 14th century and turned into a Zen temple in 1408, the natural dark wood pillars and opaque white plaster walls contrast yet complement the glimmering upper stories that take your breath away. 

Although it is not possible to enter the building, Shaka Buddha and Yoshimitsu are placed inside, looking out over the pond that lies as a staging mirror in the middle of wildly colored autumn trees. 

Surprisingly, there is nothing tacky about the pavilion, it refuses any annotation to discourses on kitsch and art. Furthermore, it isn’t hard to believe that the graceful application of uncountable square gold leaf foils inspired Japan-obsessed Viennese artists and art historians around 1900 to gain interest in the materiality of the so-called gold ground.

That the medieval notion of gold as a substance that prolongs human life still resonates on Japanese menus, persuaded us to be on the safe side. Strolling around in fields of gold we were pretty sure–”no one is luckier than we are!”


More treasures from the Shōsōin by Zumrad Ilyasova

Leaving Kyoto for Tokyo on Thursday morning, we looked up in the sky and noted its resemblance to an airy batik silk spreading above our heads. Not the clouds were attached to the blue ground—it was almost like the in-between had been dipped into blue dye, absorbing it to various depths. We did not know we would encounter more outstanding blue-grounded textile creations later in the day.

On the last day of our trip we returned to the place where we started—to the Tokyo National Museum. We came to see the second rotation of the Shōsōin exhibition and were highly rewarded for coming back. It was the renewed textile section that caught most of our attention. Fragments of a patterned Tang dynasty nuki-nishiki silk (weft-faced compound twill), once sewn together into a bag for a biwa lute, stroke us with their vivid colours and the high quality of the weave. The central decorative element karahana, or the Tang rosette, was rendered in nine colours on a clear blue ground. Each flower petal was composed out of five different shades, which not only added depth and volume to the lotus flowers but almost followed the aesthetic principles of buddhist painting.

As we encountered the karahana painted on multilayered gowns underneath the “foreign” armours of the dynamic wooden sculptures of the heavenly guardian deities and on the dry lacquer sculptures of Buddha’s disciples at Kōfukuji, we started to think about material translations in different media. One fascinating object we saw at the Shōsōin exhibition in Nara—the eight-lobed wooden Tang mirror case covered with a karahana-patterned silk—may provoke further thoughts about the relations between actual silk covering a wooden core and its painted replications. 

We have seen a number of different material surfaces evoking textile patterns throughout the trip. Painted wood, dry lacquer, but also paper, like the scroll displayed at the Thirty-Six Immortal Poets exhibition in Kyoto, emulating a metallic embroidery or a brocade with its floral decoration applied with mica powder. On the other hand, certain textiles seemed to refer to other materials, for example by resembling hanging metal temple banners through radiant embroidery, or by “becoming” anatomic organs and corporal fluids inside the “true icon” of the Shakyamuni Buddha sculpture at Seiryōji.

Replicas of the organs made of silk found inside the Shakyamuni Buddha at Seryōji

Next to the lute cover fragments we saw the karahana motif on a bigger scale, assembled out of multicoloured felt pieces on the kasen rug with a similar deep blue ground. An other blue-grounded textile object was the joku mat for a buddhist offering table with paired ducks on a lotus flower applied with the kyokechi resist dyeing technique. In the vitrine of preserved scraps we even saw tiny fragments of chain stitch embroidery on blue ground. The technical variety presented in the exhibition reminded us to treat the generalizing term for the medium of “textiles” with more caution. 

Kyoto Day 3: Seriality and Fragmentation by Kristopher Kersey

On our last day in Kyoto we spent the morning at Rokuharamitsuji and the Rengeōin (despite the scaffolding) before visiting a special exhibition on the Thirty-Six Immortal Poets at the Kyoto National Museum. In the afternoon, the group split to see sites of individual interest: Kinkakuji, the newly reopened Kobe City Museum, and Fushimi Inari.

Following on the heels of a dynamic seminar on ivory carving (led by Sarah Guérin) the evening before, we were well primed to discuss the sculptural assemblages at the morning temples. Beginning at Rokuharamitsuji, we spent nearly an hour enraptured by the famous statue of Kūya, discussing not only its famous figuration of iconic language, but also the fine details of the carving, the state of preservation, and its relationship to the other sculptures in the single-gallery Treasure Hall.

Image result for sea of buddha

In contrast to the intimacy of Rokuharamitsuji, the subsequent Sanjūsangendō presented an overwhelming array of sculptures: one thousand “identical” iterations of the Bodhisattva Kannon standing ten rows deep with 500 each flanking the monumental Kannon icon at the center of the long hall. Joining the 1001 Kannon, were twenty-eight attendant deities standing in the first row (along with the Wind and Thunder Gods). A special autumn viewing platform allowed us to gain a new, but ahistorical, perspective on the so-called “sea of Buddha” (as the contemporary artist Sugimoto Hiroshi terms the site in his reframing of the altar as installation).

The morning ended with a visit to see the Satake version of the Thirty-Six Immortal Poets, a two volume set of early thirteenth-century (imaginary) portrait scrolls that were cut apart and sold in 1919. Reunited for the first time in a century, the scrolls were beautifully installed, with each given his or her own pseudo-tokonoma. The group was especially well prepared to view this exhibition, since most had by then acquired monoscopic lenses (gyararī sukōpu), which allowed for close inspection of the detailed lines of the physiognomy. These two temples and one exhibition served as excellent final sites of analysis, since they engaged the primary themes of our week-long seminar discussions: the relationship of physiognomy to mimesis, sculpture to body, calligraphy to pictorial line, and figure to ground.

Kyoto’s Sounds by Stefanie Lenk

Today, Japanese Buddhists mostly aspire to be reborn in the Pure Land – a Buddhist heaven – rather than attaining Nirvana which is considered too difficult a task for a lifetime. At Uji, a small town next to Kyoto, the Pure Land touches earth. In the middle of the 11th century, at about the time when Pure Land Buddhism came to the fore in Japan, the nobleman Fujiwara no Yorimichi built here a temple called Byōdōin which is a precise imitation of the Pure Land, in the way it is described in the Visualization Sutra (Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra). The sutra tells us how the Buddha helps aspirants to the Pure Land to reach the heaven by means of a a meditation practice. This practice is based on the visualization of the Pure Land. Also, the recitation of the name of the Buddha Amitabha (Amida in Japanese), the Buddha who resides over the Pure Land, is crucial.

For most of our group, today’s highlight probably were the wooden sculptures of boddhisattvas, carved by the workshop of the famous Heian sculptor Jōchō, which formed the retinue of the Buddha Amitabha in the central hall of Byōdōin. One thing to note is that the Pure Land was definitely imagined as a place full of music! The boddhisattvas play flutes, drums, cymbals, lutes and a host of other instruments which make us aware that hardly any of us has a clear idea of what classical Japanese music actually sounds like.

The idea that heaven must culminate in heavenly music strikes us as pretty familiar. Less obvious we find the central role chanting plays on the worshippers’ path towards the Pure Land, and more generally in many Japanese Buddhist schools. Everyone can attain rebirth in the Pure Land, the Visualization Sutra says, as long as one is mindful of Amitabha and chants his name. We have done it ourselves a few days ago when we stayed overnight on Mount Koya at a temple partaining to the Shingon school and started the morning with chanting: “Na-Mu-A-Mi-Da-Butsu” (“Adoration for Amitabha Buddha”).

A forefather of this practice is the monk Kūya, a famous sculpture of whom we visit in the museum of the small temple of Rokuharamitsuji. The sculpture, created by Kōshō (died 1237), shows how Kūya travelled in the 10th century around Japan and spread the practice of nenbutsu (recollection of the Buddha) by reciting his name. From his mouth exit six images of the Buddha, mounted on a thin wire. Each figure of the Buddha stands for one of the six mōra Na-Mu-A-Mi-Da-Butsu. In Japanese, words are not broken up in syllables, but in signs. All of these mōra are chanted at the same length which makes for a very rhythmic chanting practice. In the sculpture of Kūya, a sound becomes an icon. Incantation and visualization are one.

When a member of the staff of the museum of the Rokuharamitsuji temple tells us the history of the temple, the importance of nenbutsu for many different schools of Japanese Buddhism becomes clear: Kūya founded the temple in 951 and left it unaffiliated. Only later the temple became associated with the “esoteric” Buddhist school Tendai. Today, however, the temple pertains to another esoteric sect, Shingon, the same that we came across on Mount Koya. Throughout the temple’s history, the memory of Kūya as well as his sculpture were preserved. Kūya, best known as an identification figure of Pure Land Buddhism, left in fact a mark on many Buddhist practices.

Kyoto’s Shades of Green by Saskia C. Quené

On the morning of our seventh day in Japan, we entered the visual space of Prince Shotoku once again. While our memory drifts off into the perspectival construction of the painted silk panels we encountered at the beginning of our trip in Tokyo, suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of the famous „moss garden“ at Saihōji. As far as the eye can see, the micro cosmos of the garden unfolds as a stunning landscape, renewing itself with every step we take. With its shifting scales and textures, we walk through real and imagined representations of space and time.

That landscape and poetry are not to be separated, became stunningly visible by looking at the dry landscape or „stone garden“ at the same site. After our shared experience of copying Sutra verses with a black ink calligraphy brush in the Zen temple that also belongs to the Saihōji complex, we were able to draw our own lines between the practice of mark making in scripture as well as in the practice of landscaping. While moss, stone, bark and water create their worlds of representation, textures produced by lines and washes in numerous configurations generate their very own pictorial spaces on plane surfaces. 

Very different landscaping strategies are revealed at the gardens of Tenryūji. Although the term shakkei (借景) doesn’t appear before the 17th century, it helps us to understand the principle of embedding surrounding features into the view of the garden as a landscape. The performed austerity of the created landscape finds an apogee in the view of the pond, framed by its autumn leaves and inhabited by cranes. 

After a refreshing walk through a nearby bamboo forest and a lunch assorted of local delicacies, we were prepared to encounter the temple of Seiryōji with its remarkably puzzling Buddha sculpture. Believed to have been produced in 10th-century China, the wooden artifact became a true icon and set stylistic standards for centuries to come. Guided by the displayed replicas of small objects that were found inside the body of the figure in 1953, our discussion intensified around questions of representation and replica, hidden presence and outside perception. 

While the small tea houses in today’s Zen gardens functioned as spaces for aesthetic discourses during the medieval period, we ended our day at its contemporary equivalent in central Kyoto. Moss green cups of matcha formed the backdrop to discuss, synthesize and conclude yet another perfect day.

Kumano Pilgrimage Day 2 by Aaron M. Hyman


Pilgrim Stamps, collected by Zumrad Ilyasova

Open the small door, take out the seal, press it into red ink, and stamp your page. At the Hosshimon Ōji—the entrance to the “pure land” on a Kumano Kodō pilgrimage—the pilgrim’s seal impressed upon us the importance of inscription, vision, and reading. The terms and their related practices wove through our wanderings and our pauses. In a group in which only two people can actually decipher kanji, “lost in translation” pushed us all to remember that the most is gained when terms and concepts break down between interlocutors.

Detail of Gate at the Shinto Shrine at Shingū

Claps (of prayer), clangs (of rattle-bells), clicks (of Heian-style wooden shoes) bring the shrine of Shingū to life. Shinto is a noisy affair. Add to this the fluttering pages of text or the quick turn of a scroll—paper pouring, or rubbing against paper. Tendoku speeds you through sutras: waterfalling an accordion-folded text from the right hand to the left, rolling a scroll at lightening speed makes a text visible. The text moves across the horizon of the visible, and thus it is “read.” But visible to whom and how does “mere” seeing reframe normative definitions of reading?

Sutra Shrine, Kongōbu Temple, Mount Kōya

Such textual activation called up our day on Mount Kōya when at the main temple precinct we spun the sutras. Circumambulating a small repository of texts, we each pushed a handle that sent the scrolls inside spinning. That canon of Buddhist texts was only visible in the mind’s eye, but we felt its literal heft—substrates, ink, and the wooden structure that needed to be moved to send the text into motion.

Sutra Case from Koumyouji Temple Shrine in Shiano, 1156

Some text, however, should be hidden for another day. A small bronze vessel in the humble site museum at the Nachi waterfall shrine was meant to hold sutras safe, out of view, buried in the ground to await an era of the buddha, one that would come in 5.6 billion years. Having crossed back over the horizon of the visible—that is, having been excavated and frozen in a vitrine—it has lost its textual potential precisely because we can now read both the sutra it housed and the text inscribed upon its own surface. Art historical gain comes with a price. “It’s not the first time the discipline has gone trouncing about demanding that things be seen,” our leader noted.

Yet these questions of literal in/visibility crossed into the realm of the theoretical, philosophical, and linguistic. Do kanji have a visible referentiality? To an object on earth, or an idea? Not a phonetic sound—this much was clear as Micki McCoy and Kris Kersey brought characters to voice in dueling Chinese and Japanese intonations. To gesture, certainly: the index of the hand, the body, the brush and its ink. But what of bird writing, the primordial inscription by which characters were offered up in the bodies and wings of birds. We bought talismans of such writing in Nachi; a transparency with kanji was laid atop by the shop attendant. Birds became words, Micki and Kris produced them as sounds. But the transparency was pulled away and birds were left to flutter on the page, the only lines left being those that the eye and imagination could conjure–they could reimpose a horizon of legibility atop the picture. But writing, after all, is always already visible to begin with.

Kumano Pilgrimage Day 1 by Meekyung MacMurdie

Hosshinmon Gate marks the outermost entrance of the Kumano Kodō, a pilgrimage route stringing together ninety-nine Shinto shrines. But Kumano becomes also the site of Amida’s Buddhist Pure Land, a projection of uneasy political cartography given that Kumano lay to the east of the medieval capitals, Nara and Kyoto. Pilgrims offered sutras at the Shinto shrines, mapping the heavenly onto the earthly and altering both in the process. 

Our own way from Hosshinmon Gate took us seven kilometers—through gold and green on well-worn steps—to Kumano Hongū Taisha. Medieval pilgrims heard voices and wrote poetry; no surprise, then, that along the way we traded coffee for conversation. Icon, Naturalism, Calligraphy. What does script make visible? 

The following day ended at Nachi where Shinto and Buddhist temples still stand together. On display at the Treasure House are rows of seated wooden figures. They used to be Goshintai or bodies that housed Shinto deities. These hosts were only revealed, however, after their deities had left them. No one knows what the current Goshintai look like. Close by, the Buddhist temple houses two icons of the same Buddha. One of them was hidden away. The other, a maedachi stand-in, is placed in front of this secret image. The docent at the Treasure House told us that while the hidden Buddha was stiff and stern, the Maedachi was emotive by contrast. 

Questions about form, material, and style are enshrined in the practice of art history, but how do we describe that which we cannot see? How do we wrestle with the ephemeral and catch the divine in the waterfall?