Wrath, Destruction, and the Supramundane
Q&A with NIKI TSUKAMOTO of Lookout & Wonderland on WRATH, DESTRUCTION, AND THE SUPRAMUNDANE
Contributed by Claudia Zhao
I first met Niki Tsukamoto, of Lookout and Wonderland, at an evening weaving class at Barnsdall Art Center near the neighborhood of Los Feliz. Niki is a Los Angeles based textile artist, working with natural dyes and textiles to create works of art, limited edition clothing, and textiles. Along with her mastery of weaving, she has worked for many years in indigo dyeing and shibori methods and is inspired by the healing properties of natural dyes and fabrics to create beautifully handcrafted pieces. Since 2005, she has had her studio, Lookout & Wonderland Workshop, where she collaborates with her husband Yusuke Tsukamoto, a graphic artist with a pop sensibility.
Her current exhibit, “Wrath, Destruction, and the Supramundane”, is a collaboration with her husband Yusuke Tsukamoto, Tania Enriquez, and Persephenie. The exhibit is on view at These Days LA in downtown Los Angeles until November 11.
What is the meaning behind the title of the installation, Wrath, Destruction, and the Supramundane?
The title is a nod to the various goddesses/gods, protectors and even wrathful practices in the imagery and mythology chosen for the meditation scrolls. The Supramundane is essentially transcending or going beyond the mundane, and entering the level of the spiritual or celestial. The Supramundane in Buddhist practice relates to the nine supramundane states, and the four noble paths leading to the bliss of Nibbana. Better known as Nirvana, this is the “blowing out” or “quenching”, the release from rebirth in samsara, which in the most simplistic terms is the ultimate purpose of practice in Buddhism.
According to the artists’ statement, the theme of the exhibition is the materials and tools of contemplative practices. Can you further elaborate on what these materials and tools are? What do you mean by contemplative practices?
A contemplative practice is any method of quieting the mind and body, it is the process of opening to consciousness and source, or the true Self. Everything created in the exhibition is a traditional tool for meditation practice. The fabric scrolls on the wall are an amalgamation of various traditional ways of creating meditation scrolls used for gazing and storytelling. The cushions are zafu (the round cushion) and zabuton (the square), a set that is traditionally used in sitting by Zen Buddhists. Incense and the burners have been used for centuries as timekeepers when practicing meditation. There are time specific sticks of incense created for various lengths of sitting in practice.
Can you explain the use of natural fibers/textiles in your work and in particular, in this exhibit?
I work with botanical dyes to create color as the foundation of my art practice and they require natural fibers to attach on a molecular level. My fabric choice is also the beginning of the discussion of our awareness around how fabric is created and the reality of the destruction produced by large scale commercially produced fabrics and dyes. It’s important to consider the carbon footprint of the fabric you’re wearing as well as the human cost of this fiber economy, the number of people in slavery and indentured servitude for our fast fashion. If the fabric in your clothing isn't locally grown, milled, woven, dyed, etc, then where is it coming from and what's the real cost of the garment? Add to that the toxicity of so many synthetic fibers, the byproduct and also toxic chemicals needed to keep fabric from molding during long overseas transport and it’s a real rabbit hole.
For this exhibition I chose the hemp satin for its radiance and luster- the colors created are so dynamic they feel like a living embodiment of the stories we are telling. I also chose to work in hemp because of it's incredible soil feeding properties and the small amount of water needed to farm it. This hemp in particular comes from a small farm in China that has been farming hemp and silk the old fashioned way for ages and that's something I support in a country that has been taken over by the world’s need for disposable clothing and goods. The fabric the zafu is made out of is from organic cotton grown and processed in West Texas. It's the last of a bolt that I've been working with for about 7 years.
Can you explain the use of natural dyes in your work and in particular, in this exhibit? I understand you create clothing with natural dyes that have healing properties - is there a component of that in Wrath, Destruction, and the Supramundane?
I've been working with plant dyes since I was a kid and I've always had a fascination around the living feeling of the color they create. And really, just a fascination around creating something from the stuff in your yard or what you can find on a walk home. I've had bouts with debilitating diseases for most of my life, so health has always been front and center in my reality. I started studying medicine in university and dropped out to study natural medicine and body work. During that time I was introduced to the concept of Ayurvastra when I was studying Ayurveda. Ayurvastra is the method of preparing fabric and soaking it in a medicinal brew of various herbs called a kashayam. About 14 years ago, I started a research project studying indigo and shibori in Japan and eventually quit my job to immerse myself in that project. I'd put my art practice to the side for a few years and the time felt right to step into it fully again in 2011.
In the show, we included the Medicine Buddha in the scrolls we created and along with the beautiful healing mantra that comes with the practice of the Medicine Buddha is the actual medicine. In the Buddha's lap is a plant known as myrobalan, a purple-leaf plum, and this plant is the basis of most Ayurvestra kashayam. It has many powerful healing properties and uses and it's the foundation of most of my mordanting in the dyeing process. So, yes there are subtle healing properties in everything that I create, everything in this show included. The yellows come from various dyes including turmeric, which most people are familiar with these days. Madder root, indigo, chestnut bark, black walnut all have medicinal properties as well.
What was the thought process behind the collaborative nature of this exhibit? Can you speak to the collaboration between you, Yusuke, Tania, and Persephenie? What was the most enjoyable part of the collaboration?
There's been an ongoing discussion for a couple of years about creating this work. It all just seemed to make sense. Stephen, the director of the gallery, These Days LA, has been holding Monday meditation in the gallery for years, Tania has been making these beautiful incense burners and I've been making various meditation tools for ages. He mentioned the idea of us all coming together and doing this over dinner one night and it took us a couple of years, but when the timing opened up it also made perfect sense to bring Persephenie in to create the incense for the space.
The most enjoyable part is getting to have frequent "meetings" with my friends. Life gets so full, time flies by and before you know it six months can go by without seeing each other. This was a wonderful way to stay present in each others’ lives.
I’d like for you to speak more on your interest in Buddhism and meditation - how long have you been interested in Buddhism? What kind of meditation do you practice? What does your meditation practice look like?
I've been a student of meditation since I was a small child. I was introduced to yoga when I was three years old and I've been practicing ever since. Through a winding path of intense love of Ram Dass, Alan Watts and all those beatnik poets, I became a student of Vajrayana Buddhism in high school and have studied Zen as well. In my mid twenties I lived and studied at the Sivananda Ashram in the Bahamas for a period as well, so my meditation practice derives from Sivananda yoga.
I'm also a student of Reggie Ray's somatic or embodied meditation and this is my daily practice while working. I've found healing is cyclical and one of the best ways to maintain a level of honesty with myself is through embodied meditation, to avoid any temptation of spiritual bypassing. So with that, I have a sitting meditation practice, a walking meditation practice, a driving meditation practice...it's really all about existing within consciousness and the capital “S” self, the awareness of all connected.