PITTSFIELD – Japanese artist Yusuke Asai spent nearly three weeks collecting dirt, stone, clay and bricks from paths and riverbeds in Hancock Shaker Village, Williamstown and Cheshire to create pigments of different shades of red, orange, yellow, brown and black.
With the pigments – 18 in all – Asai went to work in the Poultry House in Hancock Shaker Village, painting murals on the floors and walls with his own version of a Shaker gift drawing.
“The dream is the source of [the Shakers] divine inspiration and experience,” said guest curator Miwako Tezuka, during the opening of “A Spirit of Gift, A Place of Sharing: Yusuke Asai, Pinaree Sanpitak, Kimsooja,” on view at Hancock Shaker Village until to November 14.
Believing that they could receive messages from those who had died, the Shakers or Believers, as they called themselves, were part of the spiritualist movement that swept the nation from the 1830s. , members of the Shakers, primarily in Hancock and the communities of Mount Lebanon and Watervliet, NY, received messages from the spirit world in their dreams. Called “Mother’s Work” or “The Era of Spirit Manifestations”, the messages, believed to come from Mother Ann Lee (founder of the Shaker movement believed to be the second coming of Jesus Christ) were in turn performed in songs and as “gift designs.”
It was these “gift drawings” that inspired Asai’s site-specific installation, “Hands and Dreams”. In a room in the Poultry House, a bed is in the middle of the room. On three walls are Asai’s murals, painted in soft tones of the pigments he made from the collected soils and stones. There, a boat filled with mystical creatures, a tree of life, and various Shaker symbols float on the swirling waves of the ocean. In an accompanying piece, the “gift drawing” swirls on the floor.
“This room is a recreated memory of the Shakers, the murals are the ‘gift drawings’ that this Shaker dreams of,” Tezuka tells a gathered crowd. “This Shaker, he or she, dreams of migrating from the north of England, where the Shakers originate. They settled here. They created their own way of life.
“You can kind of imagine how that dream comes to life in the other room. It takes root.”
On the remaining walls are recreations of real Shaker “gift drawings”, which Asai reproduced, channeling Shaker’s emotions as he painted.
“In his mind, this is a collaboration between him and the Shakers of the past,” Tezuka said.
Asai, through a translator, said that the pigments are natural and at the end of the show they will be washed away.
“That’s how he does his murals. It is momentarily here. It’s very fleeting. It is part of the natural cycle – life, death and rebirth. It comes and goes and constantly informs the cycle of life,” Tezuka said.
Asai added, “Please consider these works as a complete installation, thinking about this momentary existence and appreciating this particular moment in time.
The campus-wide exhibition brings together the works of three major Asian artists, Asai, from Japan; Sanpitak, from Thailand, and Kimsooja, from South Korea. Although the three artists are from different backgrounds and work in different mediums, all three have found a connection, spiritually, with the Shakers.
Sanpitak, a feminist artist whose art focuses on the female form, worked with the village blacksmith and gardener to create three topiary stupas, beautiful breast-like shapes where Berkshire and Thai herbs and vegetables will grow on the lattice-like structures. These vegetables and herbs will be used to create dishes at Bimi’s Café using produce from the farm as part of a collaborative global art and food project using Sanpitak’s stupa-shaped cooking molds and tableware .
The old utopian society is an ideal place for Sanpitak to work, a place where women and men were equal. Inspired by the simple, joyful and nurturing lifestyle of the Shakers, Sanpitak also chose to work in the Brick Dwelling – the central living space of the Hancock Shakers. There, stupas made from torn mulberry paper sit in various places in the kitchen and pantries, lining shelves and filling a bread oven.
In the laundry and machine shop, Kimsooja, who works with textiles and the human labors associated with them – sewing, weaving and threading – chose Shaker sheets from the living history museum’s collection, hanging them on clotheslines in the toilet. Appearing simply hung to dry, they move in the breeze from open doorways, as natural light streams in through the doorway next door. The light, filtered by a colored film applied to the windows of the adjoining rooms, shines with an ethereal light.
For the Shakers, work was a form of worship,” said manager Jennifer Trainer Thompson during a stop at the Laundry & Machine Shop. “They used to say ‘hands to work, hearts to God.’ The artist, she wanted to elevate laundry to the rank of divine. She created this cathedral, sacred atmosphere.