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Travelogue G26

February 6, 2016

A display case to one side held an object of particular interest for me. Therein my eyes locked on a small box, slightly higher than it was wide. Turned about its hinges, the interior revealed an ornamental backing on which gold and shell inlay alternated in figurative patterns of which, for one reason or another, I made too little note. Still, it seemed that those patterns had not always been the interior’s main draw. Though the central piece was now missing, I could still make out the fittings where an image, perhaps of Mary and child, had once sat.

The legend suggested that the piece had originated in the Jesuit workshops at Nagasaki, perhaps even on the island of Dejima now swallowed by the city, and that its dimensions owed to the culture of discretion surrounding Christian worship in the Japanese isles of the 16th and 17th centuries. This private altarpiece remained small enough to store about one’s person, between two folds of cloth or beneath household furniture. It was not difficult, for me then, to imagine the size having serving both personal devotion and devotional person well, as evidenced by its standing before me, having escaped the governmental wastes and persecution of the 1620’s and 30’s.

A series of color prints lined one of the remaining walls and depicted the pleasures which citydwellers could know in the Edo period: theater, brothels, purveyors of food and drink. I had seen similar prints at a Hokusai exhibition some years before in Paris. And, as with that exhibition, a sign below recalled that the term “floating world” first arose in usage to designate popular forms of entertainment, for which seduction and pleasure took pride of place. Though routinely censored by the shogunate, the prints depicting such scenes achieved wide circulation among the populace. Though far from the world of devotion, through censorship, floating world prints came to share a parallel fate to the altarpiece: at one remove from the public, out of open currency.

If the term now stood in for an entire school of art and media, it had not always done so and perhaps not always would. Indeed, as the future took shape in my mind, I could see the term in another usage entirely: a term of art capturing the slightly desolate air hanging about works such as one finds in museum exhibits, pieces unmoored from their original cognitive context, floating free of that first relational network to drift on the new, that artifice by which curators articulate new relations, suspect relations, theretofore unseen if not undreamt.

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