Sunday, March 05, 2006



4 Videos by Ralph Lichtensteiger (2005):
“Homing Crows” Ishikawa Jozan.
“Sudden Shower” Ishikawa Jozan.
“Dancing Ears” Ned Rorem.
“Trace of the Formless” Plotinus.

(Available on DVD from the artist at Ludwigshafenerstrasse 36,65929 Frankfurt, Germany. For more information:

4 Videos by the experimentalist Ralph Lichtensteiger is a compelling visual and aural realization of two poems by the 17th century Kyoto polymath Ishikawa Jozan (in translations by Burton Watson), a statement by Ned Rorem, and an excerpt from Plotinus.

I would like to talk specifically in this brief review about the second video “Sudden Shower,” which I consider to be the most perfectly realized piece in this collection. I also consider this video to be the most fascinating of the four from the point of view of a long-term inhabitant of Japan, who has considered the differences between Eastern and Western sensibilities in his own modest manner.

Sudden Shower*

Darkness and light divide the tall sky,
the rumble of thunder passes over distant mountains.
The evening is cool, and beyond the slackening rain,
through broken clouds, a moon immaculate.

Ostensibly a visual realization of the above poem, Ralph Lichtensteiger’s “Sudden Shower” immediately moves us into territory more familiar to the Western, Hermetic tradition. Instead of the expected yin-yang binarities that Watson’s translation holds intact from the original, we are treated to the vision of a fossil nautilus shell (Nautilis pompilius) moving on its apparent base as if it were a clockwork automaton switched on within a small box, or an insect pushing for egress–a lurching, abrupt movement. This interesting icon appears throughout the six minutes and six second duration of the video in a kind of tape-loop collaged against a back-drop of brush paintings.

This image is incredibly suggestive. The most obvious feature of course is the gnomonic spiral of the fossil: a form that one finds both in nature and in man-made objects often associated with the transcendent and the divine. Indeed some commentators see the accumulative growth of the spiral as the natural embodiment of the extension of time into space and matter. Moreover, the fact that the spiral is part of a fossil life form is suggestive both of the eternal nature of this form, and of entropy, which aids and abets the transformative processes of sublunary things. Furthermore, as we examine the image (or icon) closely, we notice that the fossil appears to be undergoing some electrolysis-like process in which the viewer plainly sees a red solution moving and swirling about the borders of the shell. What is this liquid? It appears, through its texture, to be blood separating into serum and hemoglobin as it circulates. Of course, this in itself carries a range of potent associations.

The aggregative power of the icon therefore, is of a “dead” object–the fossil nautilis--immersed (or appearing to be so) in a blood-like, actively circulating solution, in which it moves in a recurring pattern as if it were being endowed with some very basic kind of sentience and life. Both enigmatic and strangely familiar, how are we to “read” this image?

The golden color of the shell perhaps gives us a clue. We have encapsulated in this icon the visual expression of a Hermetic process–perhaps even a tipping of the hand towards the age old dream of the alchemists: the creation of the homunculus, a form of artificial life untainted by the flesh.

This golden, moving icon appears juxtaposed against a series of “Zen” brush paintings, whose fractal forms are more suggestive of the “Agony of Matter” intuited by the mystic Jacob Boehme, than of the radical void of Zen. In fact the low “m” in one of the shots, which appears more like the hips of a mother giving birth, is not a form that occurs in classical Zen brush painting at all.

In conclusion, this fascinating series of images, unrolling before our eyes against an aural background of slow bamboo flutes, bird noises, chimes, and muted drums (created also by the amazing Lichtensteiger), delivers a message far more Western than both Jozan’s poem and the imagery of the video would (at first blush) lead us to believe.

Interestingly enough, “Sudden Shower” is dedicated to the philosopher Derrida, a man who fashioned a book about the Japanese from an experience that lasted less than a month.

*”Sudden Shower c. 2006 by Burton Watson, all rights reserved.


Jesse Glass lives near Tokyo Disneyland with his wife and kids. New work scheduled to appear in Angel Exhaust (UK) and Golden Handcuffs (USA). Described recently on the book page of the Yomiuri Shimbun as "...loquacious, avuncular and with a ready chuckle..." Glass stares into the mirror and is amazed at what the passage of time can do to to erode one's public image.


At 4:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for bring my attention to the Lichtensteiger videos.

At 6:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

where can I get more info about lichtensteiger's work? is the dvd available?

At 12:34 PM, Blogger EILEEN said...

Dear Anonymous,
Jesse Glass notes that there is much info on Mr. LIchtensteiger in the internet, including

Glad you enjoyed!
p.s. Broke my policy of not allowing Anonymous comments because, here, "Anonymous" is not used to snark.


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