Japan Society’s newest installation is a study in cross-cultural pollination. English artist Simon Starling has mounted an exhibition of his latest work, “At Twilight,” which was created around the classical Japanese theater form Noh, and inspired by W.B. Yeats’ 1916 play “At the Hawk’s Well.” Starling’s work stitches together the manners of Noh theater and Japanese art — including masks created by Osaka artist Yasuo Miichi and costumes by Tokyo designer Kumi Sakurai — and applies them to a Western story. Starling is the second non-Japanese artist to exhibit in Japan Society’s 110-year history.
Inspiration for “At Twilight” began during a work visit to Hiroshima six years ago, where Starling set out to create a piece centered around Noh. “While I was working on that piece, I discovered that W.B. Yeats had basically done the same thing 100 years ago,” Starling explained. During the first world war, Yeats and Ezra Pound were living in a cottage in the Ashdown Forest outside of London, where Pound was finishing the first translations of Noh plays into English. Yates saw the form as an interesting storytelling device, and his limited exposure to classically staged Noh performance allowed him a degree of creative freedom while adapting it for his own work. “As soon as you start to investigate more deeply the making of Yeats’ play, you realize it only could have happened because Yeats had such limited knowledge of Noh theater,” Starling remarked.
One-hundred years after Yeats’ staging, Starling says, “It seemed like an interesting moment to think about it again.” Based on only the original script and a few photographs, Starling staged a play inspired by Yeats’ work in Glasgow this summer. Starling’s version includes layering of characters — both of the poets, himself, Eeyore from “Winnie the Pooh” — in the context of Noh theater, and a collage of Yeats and Pound’s writing woven into the script.
The Japan Society exhibit is a display of that performance in parts. “This first part of the exhibition is a reconstruction of the stage,” Starling said, gesturing to the exhibit’s darkened first room, which includes video footage of Starling’s performance and an installation of masks from the production, propped atop Blast tree sculptures — which provide figurative support for the masks and also relate to imagery of the Ashdown forest and the battlefields of the First World War. The second half of the Japan Society exhibit provides a historical context for Starling’s work, including drawings and masks borrowed from various museum collections. A Noh group also plans to stage several performances of Pound’s original 1916 play in Japan Society’s basement theater.
The exhibit will be on view through Jan. 15.