The iro's journey
Autumn blaze and island breeze
“The trees are revealing their structures. There’s the catch of fire in the air. All the souls are out marauding. But there are roses, there are still roses. In the damp and the cold, on a bush that looks done, there’s a wide-open rose, still.
Look at the colour of it.” — Ali Smith, Autumn
Jumping buzzing thrumming budding bursting then hot spreading molting shedding smearing hot—spring and summer hit you over the head with all their sex. But is there anything more erotic than a fall tree on fire?
色, iro, is the kanji for color. It’s also used to mean, among many other things, erotic desire. “Some say this commonality arises from the Buddhist teaching that desire, like color, distracts us from enlightenment by calling us to the things of this world,” writes Kenji Yoshino in Covering.
There is apparently no consensus on the adaptive reason for autumn’s colors. Of the theories that do exist, one is that the colors act as sunscreen. Another is that the color red acts as a deterrent (not an erotic lure, sadly), a warning to parasitic insects that lay eggs in autumn, to stay away. “The color of blood and stop signs and poison dart frogs, red could be just as alarming in autumn leaves as it is most everywhere else,” writes Brian Gallagher in Nautilus.
But apparently there’s no elegant answer that has satisfied scientists. The brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows have long been considered by ecologists as an incidental byproduct of the yearly breakdown of chlorophyll before it gets too cold and dark for plants to make food every day.
Could this blaze really be a coincidence? I find it hard to believe that any beauty is truly random. Perhaps I’m conditioned to turn over stones looking for the artist, to read purpose in the lines of the leaves, to squeeze meaning from every subtle difference in the shades.
At the same time that I demand an explanation for the eros of autumn, I would be equally disappointed if the answer turned out to be the existence of a divine being. Would it be possible to look at the trees and not feel all-consuming rage at the profound cruelty and injustice of human calamity and abuse? If I ever find god, I’ll be sure to report back.
One answer I have read—which seems rather hard to design a study around—is that before everything goes to sleep, before the solitude and coldness sink into the walls and bones, nature puts on one last show. Spectacular fireworks before the great stillness, a memory to help us keep faith until the days get longer again.
I first came to Japan on vacation with my parents eight years ago. I went on my own to Naoshima and Teshima, islands with museums and site-specific art works in the Seto Inland Sea. I’m not embarrassed to say it changed my life. I understood that the bounds of human creativity were far beyond what I had previously considered.
Last week I went back for work. A longer meditation is forthcoming, but as soon as I got to the Teshima Art Museum and sat down on the cold concrete floor, a creeping dread that’s been growing in me for the last month or so, began to dissipate. In the face of that single monumental work, despair and disquiet stood down.
I see, I see, I see.
The museum, designed by SANAA’s Ryue Nishizawa, has inside a single piece of work, by the artist Rei Naito. The kanji for her first name, 礼, means, among other things, gratitude. Yes, please. Take all of mine.
“Life being all inclusion and confusion,” Henry James wrote in the preface to The Spoils of Poynton, “And art being all discrimination and selection.” Nature, human relationships, dreams, pain, that’s all excess and confusion; art is in the sifting through, the whittling down of chaos. “Life has no direct sense whatever for the subject and is capable, luckily for us, of nothing but splendid waste,” he goes on. “Hence the opportunity for the sublime economy of art, which rescues, which saves, and hoards and ‘banks.’”
This distinction is how I think of the difference between appreciating art and natural beauty. It’s important that the maker should be bound by the same rules as me, with the same mortal irritants. It’s important to see what a human dares to make, under the duress of having to continuously feed herself and shit herself, to find a way to be loved, to be OK with human suffering; despite oppression, rejection as a human, as an artist, despite bad knees and bad parenting and the economic imprudence of making art, she creates something new anyway. And it’s really, really good. Maybe it’s all bullshit, this system of aesthetics handed down by rich white male European gatekeepers over the centuries. But against all those odds, you tried to move us anyway. I’m grateful to you. I see you. I live to see you.