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Rebecca Chamberlain and the Shoin Rooms of Japan (17th century)


I had two deep fascinations that were acted out in different forms for much of my childhood: “playing house,” and what I would refer to now as Japanese aesthetic. Most of the time playing house was spent setting up rooms and changing outfits (either my own or my dolls’) for the next imagined meal, party, or outing. I shopped antiques markets (ungrudgingly) with my parents for furniture and clothing, and most of the top floor of our 18th-century farmhouse was devoted to this era-relevant miniature “stage set.”

Shoin Room, 17th century Japan. Image copyright © the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy Art Resource, NY.

The Shoin Room (17th century, Kyoto, Japan), meaning “drawing room” or “study,” was a place where lectures on the Sutra were given and pondered. Everything in this room is oriented to clarity of mind and simplicity. That effect is heightened when it is exhibited like this. Rooms such as this are not more than one needs and they seem to intuit what we want.

Tadao Ando’s 1989 Church of the Light, lit simply by a cross-shaped separation of the walls at the altar end of the church, reminds me of a contemporary version of this room. Yohji Yamamoto’s deceptively simple, austere, and androgynous style of the late 1980s and early ’90s has the same cool-in-the-calm that this room has.

And again, this is simply a room, where a gold-leafed folding screen seems to take you “outside.” There are no actual windows to the outside—at the Met, the fourth wall has been removed so we can look in. And yet, my sense is that you would not feel enclosed here. It isn’t just that screens slide aside to let you out. There may be walls, but they are membranes leading to other places. The reflective, infinite nature of the gold leaf in the painted screen adds a dreamy, timeless quality to the sky portion of the imagery, making it difficult to tell time or place.

These Shoin rooms birthed many notable characteristics of Japanese (and in turn Modernist) architecture: the fusama, or sliding door; the square (rather than round) pillars that accommodated the sliding doors; tatami mats; and the suspended ceiling.

I am interested in spaces that have become empty archives and so I paint spaces once vital but no longer inhabited, just as this space now is. We look into it through an absent fourth wall that we never pass through, and the room we are looking at is a modern remake. Based on a Momoyama period (1573 – 1615) room in the guest residence of a Temple outside the city of Kyoto, this room was constructed in 1985, under the guidance of an architectural historian and official of the Japanese Cultural Agency.

I am interested in the fact that this room is both old and new, that we look at it through a reconstruction, that is, through another’s gaze. My own reconstructions are less one-to-one, more paper-like. Using lithography inks and vintage architectural tracing cloth, I render photographs of modernist architecture, usually interwar buildings, and then mount my renderings on screens. I bring out the latent theatricality of this architecture by turning its spaces into something like portable stage sets. Hovering between the two-dimensional and three-dimensional, my reconstructions distill the desire that is latent in these spaces, a desire to control and improve human behavior, to make us saner, healthier, or just more beautiful.

When I stand in front of this reconstruction at the Met, I feel the distillation happening here as well. In the museum, devoid of any human inhabitant, the Shoin Room is a stage set for human interaction, even if one stands outside of it, even if one interacts only with oneself, and only as
an observer.


Rebecca Chamberlain

REBECCA CHAMBERLAIN is an artist. She lives in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2015

All Issues