Master’s student Toma-Jin Morikawa-Fouquet explains how his research into late nineteenth-and-twentieth-century Japanese thinkers curious about the universe inspired a work of art currently on display in the Wren Library, after attending the Trinity Art Class.
Please tell us a little about your research
I research the intellectual and cultural history of non-state actors in Japan from a transnational perspective. During my Master’s, I investigated Kōtoku Shūsui’s anti-imperialist thought in Imperialism: Monster of the Twentieth Century (1901), farmer activist Horī Ryōho’s thought in Taishō Japan (1912–1926), and the relationship between aesthetics, morality, and cosmology among a group of thinkers in the late Meiji period (1880s–1912). They are all attempts to challenge dominant paradigms of history writing that obstruct such histories from being written in the first place.
What inspired you to attend the the Trinity Art Class?
I wanted to make my thoughts and research tangible for non-specialists, and Ulyana Gumeniuk’s art classes were a great opportunity to do so. They were also a good excuse to spend time in the beautiful Wren Library and take my mind off reading and writing for my Master’s degree.
Can you elaborate on the idea of a ‘beginningless and endless cosmos’?
Many ‘cosmological thinkers’ in late Meiji Japan, who contemplated the cosmos/universe from a transdisciplinary perspective, described it as ‘beginningless and endless’ (mushi mushū 無始無終), which reflects the influence of Buddhism and Taoism.
Their cosmos highlighted the idea of oneness (monism) and non-hierarchy, which had moral implications: since all beings derive from the same entity, hierarchies among beings were artificial fabrications, thus impelling an extension of love, empathy, and compassion to other humans and non-humans.
How did you come up with the idea of the endless book?
While this piece is heavily influenced by late Meiji cosmology, it is not intended to be an accurate representation of it, for the ideas behind the work were inspired by thinkers around the world, both past and present. I was also inspired by popular culture; for example, a grimoire in an anime called ‘Black Clover’ influenced the physical form of the book.
How can thinkers in Meiji Japan help us in the 21st century?
The past can inspire and aid imaginations of the future; it can also tell us what could have been and what other ways of thinking and being existed. In our age of planetary and environmental crises, Promethean attitudes that believe humans can control nature, especially the belief that technology can solve our problems (‘technofixes’), have become problematic and are being challenged.
Such concerns have elevated more ecological views of the world and strengthened efforts to find more symbiotic ways of living with nature, leading some to investigate past and/or indigenous cosmologies. In this context, the monist and non-hierarchical thought of late Meiji thinkers can provide inspiration to strengthen our empathy towards non-humans and encourage a mode of thinking and being that is needed today.
What information does the book/work of art contain?
Sewing the pages together with two thread loops keeps the book coverless and spineless, which expresses a conception of time without beginning and end. Leaves are traced on the thin and translucent pages to highlight the ecological concerns and cosmological inspirations embedded in this piece.
This also creates an effect where the chalk on the pages appears dark against light and white against darkness. In this way, the leaves keep with the theme of avoiding simple binaries (eg beginning/end, light/dark). The overall frailty of the book is also intentional, for when perceived as such, the work can evoke care and empathy that help collapse dichotomies between humans and non-humans.
What message do you hope people who see your book will take away?
For many cosmological thinkers in late Meiji Japan, empathy reflected a moral good congruent with the reality of existence, which is that all beings share the same cosmological foundations of oneness and non-hierarchy. The intention behind this piece is not to proselytise this idea but to encourage people to try out and explore such cosmic worldviews perhaps unfamiliar to one’s own. In doing so, the piece aims to nudge one’s aesthetic, moral, and affective, or bodily, sensibilities towards a more symbiotic future with other humans and non-humans.
You can watch Beginningless and Endless, a short film about Toma-Jin’s work.
Trinity’s Art Class, led by former Fellow in Creative arts, Ulyana Gumeniuk, is open to all Trinity students and offers an opportunity to learn figurative drawing skills and experiment with new art materials. As well as developing transferable skills, such as creative thinking, perception awareness, and book layout and design, the classes can inspire connections between students’ academic work and creative side. From October 2023 , classes will be held on Friday and Saturday afternoons. Trinity students wanting more information can email Ulyana firstname.lastname@example.org