Modern-Day Kusouzu 九相図
by Jeremy Woolsey
I was halfway through my shift at the Boys and Girls Club after having impulsively cold turkeyed off of Effexor the day before. The withdrawal symptoms consisted mostly of brain zaps, trembling hands and cold sweat. They got worse throughout the day and then, around lunch, my vision blurred and tears welled in my eyes. I glanced, as if for some sort of assurance, at a third grade girl sitting across from me, an avid chess player and perhaps future computer engineer (she was the only one who took the programming modules we did with even a modicum of seriousness). The skin around her mouth and eye sockets began to slacken and peel off, like a flower blooming in time lapse. I saw the arteries and red-raw flesh emerge from beneath; soon this layer too melted away. All that was left was a talking skull rendering into a stream of dust: the process was close to complete.
I looked away, and quietly walked into the bathroom and locked the door.
It was humid inside the bathroom. I hunched among shreds of toilet paper and candy wrappers and thought about the origins of this vision: I had stumbled upon my first Kusouzu in the back of a small temple in rural Tokushima approximately three years before. My initial reaction upon viewing a replica of the 13th century piece was certainly laced with schadenfreude: to view such an intricate portrait of another’s decay from the comfort of one’s (provisionally) living, breathing, blood-pumping being is not uncomfortable. After I looked at it a good while, I walked out of the temple and into a convenience store to buy several ham sandwiches, neatly deposited in plastic packs.
Exudation of Blood血塗相
Fast forward to Tokyo a year later: I am sitting at a cheap folding card table being shown a museum exhibition book featuring artist Fuyuko Matsui’s Kusouzu by a friend. The book remained in my room and I made a habit of flipping through it after getting home from teaching English. The same feeling of power from the temple, or something even more arrogant— in James Wood’s words, the curious advantage of being able to survey the span of someone else’s life, though in this case someone else’s decay—welled up in me. But this time there was another feeling— an attendant guilt to this arrogance. I did some research to understand the origins of this form:
The Kusouzu is a Buddhist painting style imported from China that documents the decomposition of the female body in (roughly) nine stages; it became popular in around the 13th century. The style is modeled on Fujyoukan 不浄観, a form of meditation that centers on the decaying corpse. Its subject is invariably a beautiful, aristocratic woman whose body serves as a warning to monks of the danger of pursuing flesh in a transient world. Later, in the Tokugawa Era (1603-1868), the Kusouzu took on a new and punitive role in policing women’s bodies: With the advent of printing, the style was merged with Confucian principles and disseminated to enforce the patriarchy.
The history was helpful, but what captivated me more than traditional forms was the Kusouzu of Fuyuko Matsui (born in Shizuoka, 1974). She’s gained international recognition as an innovator in the Nihonga 日本画 form while being lauded by feminist icons such as scholar Chizuko Ueno for her portrayal of the discrimination women face in contemporary Japan. About Kusouzu, and their effective objectification of the female form, she says this: “The Kamakura era Kusouzu comes from Buddhism, and, I think, showed the masses how even a beautiful woman changes into something this ugly.”  In response, her modern-day Kusouzu series can be read as a substitution, or rather an overlaying, of contemporary issues pertaining to sexism and suicide, onto a medium that had originally localized the religious reality of impermanence in the female body. In her own words: “I intend to paint contemporary sicknesses, not the condition of the body rotting.” Of course, the body rotting is the focal point of her Kusouzu as well as their medieval counterparts, but the context for the portrayal has dramatically shifted. The centrality of a feminist critique of not only a Buddhist tradition, one that was appropriated by the Tokugawa authority to subjugate women, but also continuing sexism in contemporary Japan must be understood as the primary subject matter for this contemporary Kusouzu.
The Continuance of Purity浄相の持続, Fuyuko Matsui, 2004—
Discoloration and Desiccation 青瘀相
Emerging from the bathroom, I saw the little girl. Her face had returned. Everything was now OK. When she had looked at me before, her face leaving her, she activated a kind of self-reflexivity that highlighted the tension between my role as the voyeur, standing apart, and status as a being sharing a dust-bound destiny with her. This wasn’t my first experience of this tension: It issues from Matsui’s work. The woman in The Continuance of Purity 浄相の持続represents a symbolic vessel for a religious reality but also as an individual with her own story, a story to be told.
Unlike her medieval and early-modern counterparts, the woman in this modern-day Kusouzu is an agent of her own destruction, not a symbol of natural decay. This fact ties into to an important motive for Matsui’s contemporary interpretations: “to give nine underlying reasons for suicide in contemporary times, and paint them in a sequence.”  In terms of these types of suicide, The Continuance of Purity “fits into category of revenge.”  This revenge is the revenge of one woman against a society that spurns her, and relates to Matsui’s view of the “absurdity that women in Japan are often times forced to have abortions.”  In the painting, the woman has cut herself open, “an act of self-recognition by self-harm”, and, “through showing her exquisite womb, directly asserts her authority and strength.”  She has not passed away of illness, or an accident but deliberately ended her own life and her child’s; there is an uncannily autonomous element present in this contemporary Kusouzu lacking in previous incarnations.
The Continuance of Purity浄相の持続 brings to the forefront the power dynamic implicit in the form, one which I failed to notice as a “detached” male observer viewing a Kusouzu for the first time in a temple: the woman in Continuance breaks the “fourth wall” and, to paraphrase the words of art critic and curator Yuko Hasegawa, deflects the viewer’s stare. This deflection activates the above-mentioned self-reflexivity in the viewer, reminding them of their complicity in this once universal and distant, now individualized and immediate objectification of women.
Consumption by Animals and Birds 噉相
Despite this tension, or perhaps because of it, I gradually came to find comfort in Matsui’s work; this is part and parcel of her project. To describe her art’s desired effect, she invokes a metaphor from Shinto: “I want my work to function as a kind of exorcism 厄払いof contemporary maladies. It’s possible to see the character as receiving the viewer’s pain and thus exempting them of the need to hurt themselves.” More explicitly pertaining to suicide, she believes that the work can “make someone reconsider the act of suicide.” In this sense, the subject of her Kusouzu can be seen as a kind of sacrifice or “stand-in”, channeling the pain of the viewer and freeing them from it. In addition, while the language she employs is far from Buddhist, her work, by employing a Buddhist art form, additionally affirms the message of impermanence 無常. Perhaps this is why it haunted me so: I saw my own predicament in it (namely, the terror of impermanence), but was made to see myself in a two-fold way: as the subject of a religious reality and a figure complicit in an aesthetic form of male gaze. While it is possible for a viewer to walk away from Matsui’s exhibition not fully understanding the historical context of this series (perhaps this individual just didn’t have the energy to read the placards on a given day), or even knowing that the art form is Buddhist and contains explicitly religious commentary on the nature of human existence, they could still see presented in the paintings the reality of impermanence. In this way, this piece replicates a religious view regardless of the viewer’s awareness of this replication. The presentation of the series as a whole faithfully reproduces the decomposition of a female body, and the resonances that this presentation rest upon potentially overpower Matsui’s own intention for creating the art. In short, it is easy, without proper understanding of her own motives, to view her interpretation in line with a traditional emphasis on the universality of impermanence though this would be to miss the subversive aspect of her project.
Ultimately, what Matsui posits through her Kusouzu is the gendering of impermanence. Put another way, the emphasis is placed not on the woman as a symbol of impermanence, but on her own, individual experience of impermanence. The fact that impermanence acts on her too is undeniable, but there is the additional nuance that her experience of impermanence, as symbolized by the discrimination she has faced, is integrally linked to her status as a woman. While her identity will not last, it is presented as an equally powerful counterpart to this religious reality in the painting, and the two mutually enforce one another. This in turn ties into my own consumption of Kusouzu, and related experience of impermanence. I am a white American man. I inhabit an intellectual and artistic milieu (rightly so) dominated by discussions based around identity politics. Universals are replaced by particulars and this granular move is echoed in the Matsui’s Kusouzu. Buddhism arguably contains misogynistic undertones in many of its scriptures, but I’m not interested in entering into the debate over whether the religion is, at its core, misogynistic; instead, I see how its teachings are both reaffirmed and rebuffed in Matsui’s interpretations. There is an unresolved tension in her Kusouzu between her own beliefs and values and the fact that she uses a fundamentally religious art form not easily decoupled from its past to convey these. This tension is itself a form of catharsis.
I see myself in Matsui’s work, as both an individual subject to one religious tradition’s reality, and a person of the contemporary world, bound in a social order riddled with sexism and racism and ruled by the notion of “authenticity”. I suppose I am modern, in Charles Taylor’s sense of the word, to the extent that I experience these separately. It doesn’t matter that Matsui doesn’t consider herself a Buddhist—as a byproduct of pursuing her own aesthetics and ideas through creating modern-day Kusouzu, she contributes to this historic artistic-religious tradition and renews it with contemporary rhetoric.
As for me, I drove home that day in silence; months later I began to take anti-depressants once again, perhaps to push the reality of impermanence away from myself (though I settle for the secular label of “OCD” and call these thoughts and visions obsessions). Through Matsui’s work, however, I realize that the sense of impermanence that continues to plague me is incommunicably different from that which works on someone else. Impermanence is filtered through the lens of an individual’s experience, just as all else is. In this sense, it is no surprise that Matsui’s work channels discourses of feminism and suicide in contemporary Japan and merges these with religious thought. They, too, must be grappled with in religious terms, and art provides a perfect vehicle for this endeavor.
Return to Dust 焼相
All Quotes culled from the following sources:
Atelier Magazine Interview: アトリエ訪問インタビュー n.d.: 39. Print.
Tokyo Source Interview: http://www.tokyo-source.com/interview.php?ts=67&p=2
Yokohama Artnavi Interview: http://www.yaf.or.jp/magazine/2011/11/post-43.php
Cinra Magazine Interview: http://www.cinra.net/interview/2011/12/02/000000