Rikyu Grey

A Spring night’s
Floating bridge of dreams
Is broken -
Split by the peaks,
The long clouds trail across the sky.

Fujiwara No Teika (1162-1241)

Early mornings, and the color is not yet in the land: it is a monochrome illuminated by the first hints of dawn. When the light comes in more fully there is a yellow or pink cast to the landscape, depending on the particular atmospheric circumstances of the new day. Early in the week there was a wondrously blushed sky - rose tints splashed across long clouds - that, in moments, replaced the grey tones of pre-dawn which had limned the shapes of bush and ridge but did not reveal their hue. By about 6:15 a.m. the land was flooded with warm light and the sky flamed orange and red. It lasted less than ten minutes, soon bleached out by the lemony light of the risen sun.

There is another factor in the color of these hills. The Big Dry (Chiquihuite) has cast its pall over the chaparral. There is an almost indefinable grey-green cast, a winter drab that shrouds the landscape. I see it off on the flanks of the Topa Topa foothills, in the creases between slopes where usually are running, at this time of year, seasonal streams. It is the color of vegetation hunkering down for the duration, reaching deep into its schlerophytic character to ride out these arid times. It is green, it is dun brown, it is almost monochromatic - it is Rikyu grey.

The Japanese historian and critic, Masayoshi Nishida (b. 1931) explains Rikyu grey as a "colorless, non-sensual hue produced by combining various colors until they cancel each other out." In terms of chroma, Rikyu grey (Rikyu-nezumi) is grey with a hint of green, and it is a hue which gained enormous popularity in Japan.

Its inventor, or perhaps more accurately, its popularizer was Sen no Rikyu (1521 - 1591), the hugely influential tea-master who, after being summoned to the court of the samurai lord, Hideyoshi, to be his teacher of tea, established his wabi (rustic) style as de rigeur for tout le japon. All ceremonial tea came to follow his style which was a reaction against the ornate or gorgeous and signified an embrace of rustic simplicity. "Change your collar cloth," he demanded, "wear a fresh sash of grey cotton (sumizome) cloth and a new pair of socks, carry a new fan. To entertain your guests at dinner, lentil soup and shrimp in vinegar sauce is quite enough to serve." To cater for the demand for this simple grey twill over the next two centuries or more it was imported from China. Both the cloth and the color retained their popularity throughout the entire Edo period (1603-1867).

To this day, Rikyu - the style maven, remains a seminal cultural figure.The great Japanese metabolist architect from the 1970's Kisho Kurosawa suggested by that by using his signature enigmatic grey, Sen no Rikyu was deliberately attempting to create a two-dimensional, plane world temporarily frozen in time and space. A world that Kurosawa recognizes in the grey of twilight, when, he suggests, the spatial qualities of Kyoto, for instance, dissolve into a monochrome and seem to lose all perspective and three-dimensionality. He claims that this dramatic effect, in which a three-dimensional world shifts into a two dimensional, plane world, is impossible to experience in any city in Western Europe. As readers of this blog know, however, it is a condition emblematic of both chaparral, the Australian bush and, under certain conditions, the surf line-up at Topanga Beach (White-Out).

From a Renaissance viewpoint, chaparral is visually chaotic. As Kurosawa points out, the newly understood principle of perspective in the Renaissance period brought a heightened awareness of three-dimensionality to cities, architecture and landscape. Towers, monuments and public squares form fixed points of perspective and became important elements of city spaces in Western Europe. In a system of visual understanding where space is experienced from a single point of view, these landmarks are indispensable for understanding that space. Western cities, he suggests look best under the strong, bright sun which highlights their three-dimensional qualities.

In landscape, this is a visual arrangement that we Westerners continue to privilege (with sculptural elements, tree groupings and notions of 'view' where foreground. middle ground and distant backdrop are all in place) but back in the day, in old Japan, the two dimensional jumble was cool. In China too, the energy of the 2-D chaos of the natural world was admired and this was enshrined in the idea of Sharawaggi, a word that has its roots in Japan, where it means irregular or asymmetrical. The word was adopted by European languages in the 17th century and here it took on a particular meaning in landscape, where it described a natural, wild or overgrown garden (Sharawaggi).

There is a direct link between Teika, Rikyu and Basho (Phantom Dwelling): inevitably you could best experience the Wabi-cha aesthetic, in a rustic setting. Rikyu scolded,

"You must practice and master tea ceremony in a small hut, first and foremost, according to the teachings of Buddhism. The comfort of a home and the taste of meals are merely worldly concerns, and a house which shelters you from the elements and food sufficient to prevent you from starvation are all you need. This is the teaching of the Buddha and the intent of the tea ceremony. Bring water, gather firewood, boil water, and make tea. Offer the first cup to Buddha, then to others, lastly partake yourself. Arrange some flowers and burn incense. In all, follow the way of the Buddha. Further details may be found in my humble writings."

Fujiwara Teika establishes a pre-echo of wabi-cha in his poem,

As I look about,
What need is there for cherry flowers
Or crimson leaves?
The inlet with its grass-thatched huts
Clustered in the growing autumn dusk.

It is a timeless aesthetic, and inordinately valuable in the appreciation of chaparral. Here, the drought stressed scrub oaks, greyed ceonothus and chamise and inflamed laurel sumac are enfolded in a two-dimensional, blurred synthesis, a green-grey carpet draped over the land where dimensionality is banished. This landscape is best understood, perhaps, as an elegantly spare, simple act of endurance.