Media = Art + Message #4 ー Art as Power to Foster Universality

Exhibition: Road of Light and Hope

National Treasures of Todai-ji Temple, Nara  Photographs by Miro Ito

Consulate-General of Japan in Chicago, 1st – 28th Nov.2018


Our globally touring exhibition series, “Road of Light and Hope: National Treasures of Todai-ji Temple, Nara / Photographs by Miro Ito” will start its next VISIT in Chicago 1st November 2017.  Commemorating the 120-year history of the Consulate General of Japan in Chicago, this exhibition will run until 28th November presenting 41 photo art works in scroll format, featuring prominent 8th century Tenpyo era sculptural masterpieces owned by the Todai-ji Temple, that are truly rare National Treasures of Japan.


Paragon of resilience

Previously an exhibition, “The Great Eastern Temple: Treasures of Japanese Buddhist Art from Todai-ji” was held at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1986. Although 30 years have passed since then, the enduring existence of these 1300-year-old treasures shines a ray of hope to art aficionados even today.

In an era where hardships such as natural disasters, famine and blight; kept recurring, similar to the present time, singular events such as the historical one of erecting the Vairocana Buddha 1300 years ago which nearly half of Japan’s able population of 5 million at the time endorsed.

Moreover, although the Great Buddha statue was destroyed twice during war, it was miraculously restored in the 12th and 18th centuries, which many Japanese see as a paragon of resilience.  Today it constitutes part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site: Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara**.

The custom of crafting larger-than-life statues representing the enlightened Gautama Buddha himself originated along the Silk Road in Central Asia. I firmly believe that these imposing giant statues — from the 15 metre-high Great Buddha of Nara to the 30 metre-tall Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio— with their profound religious symbolism exude a sort of power that can unite people’s hearts. Both Buddha and Christ were opposed to their followers creating or worshipping statues of them. Nonetheless, they make us aware that only humanity has the urge to pray.


Power of universality

This power of universality found in many works of art is the theme that I would like to address in my prospective lectures at two universities in Chicago, in the context of the coming photo exhibition of National Treasures of Todai-ji Temple.

For example at the University of Chicago, I will hold a workshop-style lecture; Visual and Material Perspectives on East Asia, where artists / historians/ aesthetics / creators present their perspectives on respective visual material. I would like to talk about the universality that art can embody and convey —transcending 1300 years of history— to our 21st century world.

Namely, I would like to advocate the power of universality in art to foster unity and tolerance that is reflected in the 1300-year cultural heritage from the Silk Road.


The universality of art

Essentially, the universality in nature permeates everything as well as the fundamental truth that all humans are created equal despite any differences in appearance or customs.

This is the very basis of our consciousness for accepting diversity. For example, such marvelous examples of the acceptance and co-existence of diversity can be found in Gigaku masks with 14 types of characters including

a king of the Sogdian traders along the Oasis Road, Konron, a hermit of the Kunlun Mountains, Karura/ Garuda, man-bird deity, etc. Through this ancient cultural heritage brought from along the Silk Road, we can encounter with a newfound sense of appreciation that comes from universality, transcending time and space, feeling that “every one of us is an indispensable flower”.

Embodying one of the most important core philosophies of Hua-yen (Kegon) Buddhism, this is  why the Great Vairocana Buddha was erected by Emperor Shomu in 752 AD.


The mecca of the US modernism movement 

As for Chicago, this city is the center of modernism in the fields of architecture, design and photography in the USA. For example, Lazlo Moholy=Nagy, a photographer, typographer, painter, and educator came to Chicago, after leaving the legendary Bauhaus, the German national school of art closed down by the Nazis in 1933. There he founded the New Bauhaus (later integrated into the Illinois Institute of Technology [IIT]). Its leading modern architect, Mies van der Rohe became Director of the School of Architecture at Chicago’s Armour Institute (later IIT) in 1937.

The Bauhaus in its own right embraced the spirit that art changes society, born of the Central-European revolutionary socialist movements forming in Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1920’s.

In the field of photography, Construction, Movement and Light were the dominant themes in its bold formative and visual experiments. In architecture, the Bauhaus aimed to establish a rational functionalist style, having pronounced similarities with the Sukiya-zukuri or Shoin-zukuri of Japanese architectural styles of Samurai residences during the medieval to early modern eras. Bauhaus-dominated modernist architecture thus has many elements in common with Japanese traditional architecture.

As for the assertion that art changes the world central to the 1920’s movement of modernism, if art can change the world, I believe that very key for such change should be the message of “universality”.


Universal Heart & Mind

Incidentally, the concept of “universal space” was first proposed by one of the three great modern architects, Mies van der Rohe, whereby a wide variety of functions can be allocated in a large long-span single space. Similarly, in today’s architecture and design sectors, the concept of “universal design” applies to accessibility for everyone, regardless of age or ability.

In a similar sense, the universality of mind & heart must apply to everyone. For this to be achieved, we must respect and accept everyone’s inherent differences, and consciously strive for solidarity rather than segregation, tolerance rather than discrimination, compassion rather than hate.

Coming back to the National Treasures of the Todai-ji Temple, although the Great Buddha statue was destroyed twice, it could be reconstructed both times only because the statue and the task of its reconstruction made people adhere to the above principles, dedicating their hearts & minds to perform a miracle that only universality can foster.

Of course, this is but one example from my own culture. There are numerous statues, monuments and buildings around the world that could only be saved or restored due to people’s power of prayer for peace.

My core message is that everyone, every individual, is an indispensable and invaluable flower –none worth more than the other…


Gigaku + Ballet

Besides sending this message, this appeal for solidarity, compassion and understanding, we at Media Art League are going to hold a special opening event on the night of 1st Nov. (18:00 -19:00) at JIC Hall, Consulate-General Chicago.

We are going to show two short movies that we produced, accompanied by an exceptionally rare Gigaku + Ballet performance by fellow artist, ballet dancer/performer, Shunso.

Gigaku is the enigmatic mask theater with a 1400 year-old tradition that can be traced back to ancient Greek mask theatre, which had once been lost but survived with 14 character masks only in Japan; at major temples in Nara such as the Todai-ji and Horyuji.

We are revisiting it as a Ballet mini performance, seeking to connect our common cultural origins in East and West. The core message being: we all are one.

Should you have any chance to come to Chicago from 1st to 28th of November, please visit my touring exhibition in Chicago.

We would like to welcome you from the bottom of our hearts.


Miro Ito

artist & author, initiator of Media Art League

Please click here to download the exhibition flyer.



Referral links:

Consulate-General of Chicago / Japan Information Center Hall


University of Chicago – Visual and Material Perspectives on East Asia



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