NISHIGAKI SŌKŌ 西垣宗興 (1908-1985): “Nothing” (Mu 無)

In dark, saturated ink, the Zen monk Nishigaki Sōkō wrote an impressive, solitary character with a bold and a vigorous brush stroke on the paper. The strong contrast between ink and paper as well as the massive character that was set without any trace of pause give a clue of its importance. Though the calligraphy was written in jet black ink, some parts within the brush strokes give the look free on the paper. The so called “flying white” speaks of the moment when the brush’s hair is not touching the paper as if flying over the ground. The ink captures a dynamic process and irretrievable writing gesture in time. Its vibrant impression invites the viewer to follow the movement of the brush and its “ink trace” (bokuseki 墨跡) – as calligraphies of eminent Zen monks were called since 13th century. Nishigaki Sōkō started with a thin horizontal line that is then crossed from the left to the right with three vertical, bold brush strokes. The last one is a bit longer and continuous in a loop followed by a narrow, downward zigzag that keenly abbreviates the four tiny dots of the normed character “wu” 無. The single Chinese word – that is spelled “mu” in Japanese – means “no” or “nothing” and hints as an abbreviated quotation to several stories of the Zen Buddhist canon.

In his famous poem for succeeding the dharma transmission, the sixth patriarch Huineng (638–713) is said to use the word in the quintessential line: “Originally, [there is] not a single thing” (本来無一物, J.: honrai muichi butsu). The single poem line grasps the very essence of the Zen Buddhist teaching in five Chinese characters. It states that basically there do not exist any concepts of the world or of our self by nature. They are a construction of our own mind. According to the Buddhist conviction of emptiness (Skr. śunyatā, Jap. kū 空) the world does not consist of permanent, unalterable things or substances. The world is rather an everlasting becoming that cannot be expressed in its wholeness by discriminating and thus limiting words or concepts.

The same idea is expressed in a more humorous way a bit later in form of an kōan that was published 1229 in the Wumen guan 無門關 (Jap. Mumonkan, “Gateless Checkpoint”). According to that case, a monk came to master Zhaozhou Congshen 趙州從諗 (778–897, Jap. Jōshū Jūshin) and asked him: “Does a dog has the Buddha nature?” Zhaozhou just replied, possibly in a barking like tone: “Wu!” (“No [such thing]!”). Here, Zhaozhou does not directly answers the question by just saying that a dog has no Buddha nature. Rather, he replies on the concept that underlies the question of the monk, which is a dualistic distinction between the enlightened and the unenlightened mind. What he says is: Stop speculative thinking! If one realizes that there is “no single thing” in the world we can stick on, one frees himself from suffering and abides in the peaceful serenity of nonassertion. That is what the calligraphy reminds of.

Want to buy this scroll? Have a look here:


CHAIRE! – Japanese Tea Caddies


Chaire are Japanese small lidded ceramic containers for carrying tea (cha means „tea“ and ire is a word for „put sth. in“). Originally they came from 12th century China where this kind of container was used for holding medicine or valuable oils. But at least at the end of Muromachi period (1336–1573) they were used as exquisite tea caddies to contain the green tea powder during the tea ceremony. It is said that for some members of the ruling warrior class they were even more valuable than the own sword. Due to high demand and exclusive prices for the Chinese items and a change of taste, the first Japanese production was just a matter of time. Potters from the six old kilns, the oldest Japanese pottery production sites, developed soon an own language of forms according to their traditional technics. Since then a distinction was made between karamono – objects in a Chinese manner – and wamono – the Chaire in a Japanese style.

All pieces selected for the exhibition are from the last category of wamono made by masters from Bizen and Shigaraki in Japan. One is a rare work by the higly talented and far too early passed Bizen artist Masamune Moriyasu (Satoru) (1954-2006). Like Ueda Naokata IV. (1898-1975) from Shigaraki, Masamune was orientating on the old, rather simple pieces made in the Momoyama period (1573-1603) – the golden age of tea ceramics. The Ueda family is along with the Takahashi family, the oldest potter family in Shigaraki and largely responsible for preserving traditions, especially after the second world war. Ueda Naokata IV. was designated as Shigaraki’s first „Intangible Cultural Property“. Takahashi Rakusai IV. (*1925) – presented here with two exceptional pieces – is probably the most famous Shigaraki potter. He succeeded his father the third Takahashi who was designated as „Intangible Cultural Property“ by government. But also Bizen artist Kimura Tōhō (*1928) arose from a familiy traditon with a long history. The Kimuras were designated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) himself as o-sakunin (honorable craftsmen).

For more informations about the objects visit:

Golden Autumn – A Meiji Period Lacquer Table

Lacktisch Neu

Currently visiting Japan for conducting research and spotting new interesting works of art, I don’t want to hold back one of the gallery’s new arrivals. In Japan autumn is still in its full bloom and so it is on this beautiful Meiji period (1868–1912) lacquer table. Finely carried out in gold and silver on black lacquer, a magnificent flower bouquet is depicted that is typical for Japan’s autumn season–as the nature is still presenting us right now due to the relatively mild climate. The about 30 centimeter high and 30 cm width one-foot table (or takatsugi 高坏) for serving food is allover covered by a masterful composition of flowers reminding us of the passing summer: peony, morning glory (asagao 朝顔) and lily (yuri 百合) or representing the autumn: chrysanthemum (kiku 菊), clover (hagi 萩), pink (nadeshiko 撫子) and bell flower (kikyô 桔梗). When the temperature drops outside and we are getting close to Christmas the glow of Japanese golden lacquer gives the home a cozy touch.


Wind in the Pine Trees – Writings by Zen Buddhist Masters


Since the 13th century writings by Zen Buddhist masters are called bokuseki 墨跡, “ink traces”. The two main aspects of the Zen Buddhist art of writing are expressed in the two Chinese characters: On the one hand, writing is a visible trace of language, that is able to remove meanings from any time-spatial distances. On the other hand, the ink, soaked in the writing ground, refers to the creative act of writing, whose process of movements can be “re-traced” in viewing the art work. According to Chinese art theory the second aspect is, moreover, also considered as a possibility to get an instant impression of the writer’s character and attitude. “Words are the sound of the mind and script is the picture of the mind”, says a quote by Han-time philosopher and poet Yang Xiong (53 b.c. – 18 a.c.), that reminded Chinese Author Guo Ruoxu in his 1080 published work on history and theory of art. Against this background, it was more or less self declared aim of Japanese Zen monks to visually express their serene mind that was liberated over years of meditation and to give this way proof of their “true self”. Due to one reason writing is sought to be one of the preferred instruments to do so: the ink-saturated brush detects seismographically the smallest change of the position of the hand, the pressure or movement and uncorrectably records even the slightest indecision on the writing ground. Thus, writing this way is less to be regarded as an artist’s free expression – and therefor also not to be mistaken as a type of “calligraphy” (the beautiful writing) – but more as a quasi-religious act.

The way of writing as a visual expression of the own inner self was particularly cultivated in the monasteries of the Rinzai school, what centered all modes of Chinese learning in Japan from the 13th to 16th century. Already the Chinese Zen master and founder of this Zen school Linji Yixuan (?–867) stressed the importance and efficiency of actively dynamic exercises as tools on the way to enlightenment. The Rinzai monasteries where thereby creating a context, which enabled the monks to make usage of poetries, painting and writing to legitimately express Buddhist insights. With the usage of writing also the transmission of textual knowledge was ensured as fragments and quotations from the rich canon of Zen Buddhist literature were reproduced as short aphorisms. These mostly own a deeper and often not obvious meaning on which the viewer is stimulated to reflect on. Beyond that, further meanings are often added through the pictorial qualities of the Chinese script and the painting qualities of writing with a brush. This way, most complex and multilayered artworks arise, which successfully detract from a clear categorization like a distinction between script and picture or between pictorial art and literature. As works of high formal and aesthetic standard as well as a medium of religious and epistemic contents, ink traces by Zen Buddhist masters enjoy high recognition since the 13th century not only within sacral circles.

On exhibit are eight works (including two circular ensô paintings) from the 20th century written by six different Zen masters of the Daitoku-ji temple, which can be viewed against this background of the 700-year old tradition described above.

Enjoy to discover further informations about each scroll and the meaning of their content on:!

The Colours of Bizen – Sake Flasks and Cups

After presenting a selection of Japanese tea ceremony utensils in the Opening Exhibition, the Spring Exhibition 2013 is focusing on another kind of serving a guest: the art of drinking sake.
Japanese rice wine is associated with rather companionable and informal gatherings. The chronicle Nihon shoki 日本書紀 from 720 records a banquet arranged at court in the year 485, where noblemen and women were drinking rice wine from cups floating on a river and composing verses. Until today the custom of pouring drinks for each other has further been preserved to pay attention and show respect. As „beverage of gods”, sake also has  its fixed place within festive ceremonies, for example as kagami-biraki 鏡開き – a ceremony that is performed at celebratory events in which the lid of a sake barrel made of sugi-wood is opened with a wooden mallet and the sake is served to everyone present.

In a more intimate circle sake is usually served in smaller containers such as the flasks shown in the display above. The current exhibition aims to present the colourful variety of Bizen ware – an unglazed stoneware directly affected by the kiln’s fire. Bizen ware is named after the former name of the province where the material for this type of pottery was won. The heart of today’s Bizen tradition is located at Inbe City of Okayama Prefecture. Around this region the clay is dug out from a layer located several meters deep beneath rice paddies. It is characterized by relatively high percentage of iron (>3%) and much organic material. Base on this and due to its characteristics as unglazed pottery, Bizen ware objects must be fired very carefully in a long lasting process that consumes an enormous amount of pine wood. Only the experienced potter’s knowledge of firing type, the kind of wood used, the kiln’s atmosphere, temperature and air’s circulation within the kiln chamber can bear the highly admired spectacular results of the combined natural beauty of fire and earth. It is the great secret of each potter, whose styles are most often very distinguishable despite their collective tradition. The attraction of each single piece evolves mainly from the firing process; a beauty that also particularly arises by reason of somewhat accidental and unexpected influences and forces. Due to these circumstances Japanese pottery artists frequently try to take the backseat using the Japanese term of yōhen 窯変 (lit. „kiln mutation“). Here, the attention is shifted from a more or less conscious individual freedom of the artist’s creativity process to a rather unconscious and to the dependency to nature subordinated way of crafting magnificent works of art.

Various Sake FlasksThe more intentionally exercisable forms of decoration developed altogether during the heyday of Bizen tradition in Japan’s Momoyama period (1573–1615) and come in different shapes: „rice cake“ (botamochi  牡丹餅) descibes open areas on the surface created by covering the pottery’s body with a chunk of rice cake-like clay. Ash glazes range from sesame-like, yellowish sprinkled areas (goma 胡麻) to variegated yellow, green and brownish ash drifts, generated by the regulation of air circulation in the kiln by using logs (sangiri 棧切り). By throwing ash directly on the objects (a technic misleadingly also called  sangiri), shiny grey molten areas on the surface are created. Stunning colour changes of the unglazed parts are caused by strong changes of the firing temperature and the so-called “fire cords” (hidasuki 緋襷) – burning straw cords fixed to the item causing red line marks.

The whole colour spectrum of Bizen type ceramics (as seen above) is ranging between bright orange, yellow, green, the entire variety of earthy brown tones, a shiny greenish or blueish grey and even black on some modern pieces. Furthermore, the textures show a wide range from unglazed, sandy clay, metallic glitter, all over covering ash glaze, rust-like crust, or splashes. Despite being small in size, sake flasks and cups shown in the current exhibition, bear a whole landscape (keshiki 景色) on their surface that invites the viewer’s eyes to have a walk through.
With this incomparable palette of colours and textures, Bizen ware has achieved its outstanding reputation within the Japanese pottery world and its distinctive characteristics of an unglazed stoneware which has been rediscovered, developed and preserved until today.

Kōgō 香合 (var. 香盒) – Incense Case

Kōgō are small lidded containers for storing incense. Another japanese name is kōbako 香箱 („incense box“). During the japanese tea ceremony the kōgō is brought into the tea room on a tablet when preparing the charcoal (sumitemae 炭手前). The incense is then placed near the charcoal and the container decoratively positioned on a shelf. In a shorter variant of the sumitemae the kōgō is just placed decoratively in the decoration niche of the waiting room (machiai 待合) on a small cloth, the so-called kobukusa 古帛紗, or a special mat made of several layers of paper (kamikamashiki 紙釜敷) for charming the guests eyes.

Although kōgō are quite small objects they enjoy a great attention through connoisseurs. Like most others tea utensils kōgō too are distinguished according to their origin. But this mostly gives more a mere orientation about the origin of the technic instead about the origin of the art piece itself. On the one hand there are the chinese pieces (karamono 唐物). They include those objects made of black and red carved lacquer, lacquer ware with mother-of-pearl inlay, blue painted porcelain (sometsuke 染付け) or the three-colored Jiao-zhi ware (kōchi-yaki 交趾焼き, from a today’s region of Vietnam). On the other hand there are the Japanese pieces (wamono 和物), like Japanese pottery, lacquer ware associated with Japanese technics like gold painting (maki-e 蒔絵) or lacquers with a foundation of Japanese paper (ikkanbari 一閑張り) as well as kōgō made of different woods, also gourd et al.

Furthermore the material dictates the usage of the kōgō depending on the season. Since different incense is used in summer and winter and – according to that – a different container. Kōgō are then also distinguishable from those used only in summer, when a portable brazier is used (furoyō kōgō 風炉用香合), and those used only in winter, when a sunken fire-place is used (royō kōgō 炉用香合). In summer kōgō made of lacquer or wood go along light aromatic woods. But in winter you will find predominantly pottery kōgō. This is due to the usage of nerikō 練香 in the colder season – an incense made of essential oils like musk or agar wood mixed to a paste with honey or sugar. In order to avoid the material absorbing the scent when using nerikō it is common to use a camellia leave to cover the inside of the kōgō. Shell, metal or even ivory made items can generally be used for both seasons, but they are mainly found in the preparing room (mizuya 水屋) for storing the incense.

For delivering insight into the tremendous number of types and variants of the modelled kōgō, the Katamono kōgō ichiran 形物香合一覧 („Chart of kōgō models“) was published as woodblock print in 1855. This paper lists some 230 various designs ranging from a lot chinese examples (215 in total), some lacquer works (3), the most representative japanese pottery works (7) and a few more. The funny thing is, that the listing is arranged in the manner of a traditional sumō-banzuke 相撲番付 – a ranking for popular japanese sumo wrestling.

Opening Exhibition – Autumn 2012


The Japanese tea ceremony is possibly one of the world’s most elaborate ways of welcoming a guest. The four principles formulated by Sen no Rikyū 千利休 (1522-1591) for the ‘way of the tea’ in the words wakei seijaku 和敬清寂 could also be regarded as appropriate criteria for an art gallery:

harmony (wa 和), between guest and host and in the selection of art works;
respect (kei 敬), for humans and expressed within the attentive handling of the objects;
purity (sei 清), meant as cleanliness and order, but within the heart too, in the sense of sincerity;
calmness (jaku 寂), which should be understood here as contemplative viewing of the art works and the resulting insight and serenity.

Against this background, the gallery’s opening exhibition is bringing together a small number of carefully selected tea utensils. Among the exhibition’s highlights is a tea bowl by Shigaraki potter Ueda Juhō 上田寿方, who is much-admired and prized for his enthusiasm in following and preserving the traditions of Shigaraki pottery, an excellent incense case (kōgo 香合) by the twice Nitten awardee and later juror, Taniguchi Ryōzō 谷口良三 as well as a rare Bizen pottery tea caddy (chaire 茶入) by Masamune Moriyasu 正宗杜康.

But central to the idea of this exhibition is a single lacquer work by Yamazaki Geishū 山崎迎舟, the father of the well-respected lacquer master Yamazaki Mushū 山崎夢舟. The black flat tea caddy (hira-natsume 平棗) is coated with silver powder on the inside. The top is decorated with a festive maki-e ornamental knot, joining together three differently-patterned ribbons. These patterns are the very positive symbols of paulownia (empress tree), chrysanthemum, cherry blossoms, maple leaves and stylized branches of pine tree, as well as turtle shell and waves.

The depiction of a festive ornamental knot shall reflect on the occasion of our gallery’s opening exhibition the wish for a good long-lasting relationship for the future.

For further informations visit our exhibition on