Forging the Philosopher's Metal: The Secret Spaces of Mamoru Abe

Since ancient times Japanese people have felt the presence of God in nothingness, an empty shrine. The shrine is a device used to focus one's thoughts on someone or something we cannot see with our eyes. The darkness commonly found in these sacred sites is said to increase such ability or sensitivity to the spiritual world.

For the exhibition, Mamoru Abe: Sanctum - The Journey to the Birthplace, contemporary artist Mamoru Abe created Hokora (Shrine) from iron. It is a site-specific piece permanently installed on the grounds of the Kayuso Gallery. Abe's artwork does not reflect a Japanese or Oriental view of the world per se but feels like a hybrid, linking ancient or medieval times with the Western philosophy of symbolism. This piece invites a variety of readings from viewers.

The night of the Supermoon. In a corner of the gallery's garden, deeply rooted in a bank of red soil, the Hokora (Shrine) can be seen. The sphere at its center gently glows, like a firefly in the darkness. Is the role of this iron ball to serve as a Buddhist statue like the Maedachi Honzon, a standing image of Amitabha? Through its tangible form, it also symbolizes the intangible world behind it. This shrine itself is also reminiscent of dotaku, ancient bell-shaped vessels. These vessels were called sanagi (chrysalis) a long time ago with their hollow shape resembling cocoons, and the sound of the bells was said to call forth the gods. It also leads to a vast world, such as one of myth or the [Buddhist] pure lands from Oriental philosophy, in the dark depths of its hollow, empty space.

This sphere, nevertheless, could also be seen as a symbol of the philosopher's stone with both being anointed with oil in an almost ritualistic manner. At one time, Abe encountered The Alchemist, an engraving by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a 16th century Flemish artist, and said that he was attracted to deep philosophies such as that of Paracelsus, not superficial mysticism. These ideas were also considered when making the Hokora.

Although the mystery of alchemy is considered a secret rite, it is believed to have greatly influenced both Western philosophy and natural science. The story of changing basic metals into gold or the elixir of life not only has material appeal but is also suggestive of an esoteric, spiritual way of viewing things. It is a method in which basic materials are purified and transformed into things of value like pure gold. The philosopher's stone was required as a catalyst to promote such transformation. For example, as people change with education, contact with good will result in ripples of change naturally arising inside ourselves. It is important to remember that the words and objects involved with this method are symbolic. As a symbol, the skill is to remember the intangible mystery behind it all. It is wisdom handed down from ancient times. The ultimate aim of the alchemist, however, was while experimenting and exploring, to transform himself. If one could first change what was inside oneself, then oneself could also gradually become a type of philosopher's stone.

In this way, although the journey seems to be different, the mysteries of the West and the ideas of Japan and the Orient are connected at a fundamental level. Mamoru Abe's art is part of a lineage of magical arts in which practitioners enjoy the act of transformation and it also functions as a symbol of the philosophies and ideas connecting the East and the West.

Continuing from where Hokora (Shrine) was set up in the lush outside garden of the Kayuso Gallery, strips of iron create a three-dimensional drawing in the space where the artwork was installed. The iron strips in the garden are a dark, reddish, copper colour when the setting sun hits and turn into black lines which are the only things that stand out, sharply slashing the space, when the sun goes down. The atmosphere of the place is one of silence, as quiet as a Zen temple. The rustling sound of fallen leaves strewn throughout the garden. The light of the lake's surface is reflected. Flat iron cables entwine the Zelkova trees. The iron cables are as supple and as tough as blood vessels. They dive to continue under the ground or stretch up to the sky. These curves, like a trajectory of words that are fired and then disappear, are as light as a stream of sound. A spider eagerly hugs the cables, fallen leaves wrap around them, and they shake in the wind. Iron usually conjures an image of something manufactured or artificial, but here the iron looks soft and warm, as if it were part of the natural world eventually returning to the soil.

The iron forest evokes contradictory images of strength and danger, hollowness and saturation, heaviness and lightness, as well as beautiful structures and decaying dignity.

These contradictions extend through the iron cables into the gallery's interior. Thin iron poles stand in the room. After a closer look, traces from metal forging remain in several places on the poles, looking as if someone pushed the metal like clay with their fingers.
Back and forth, up and down, several black lines of iron are freely swaying. Sitting apart from these, an iron globe is also visible. It looks like a rock in a rock garden, but it is hollow. Looking into the darkness of this iron teapot-like sculpture, it is easy to fantasize that it passes through the depths of Hokora (Shrine) outside. What if, maybe after a hundred years or even a thousand years, this spot in Wakamatsu, Kitakyushu becomes a forgotten land? Hokora will greet the living who discover it, the sandy beach nearby in Hibikinada will not change, and sand blackened with iron will flow.

Over time the shrine's color has been aged by nature's hand. It has been exposed to rain and wind, blending with the surrounding natural environment as if it was tied to the earth's spirit. This aging process will continually evolve, awaiting further awe. Hokora will also age through the passage of time and exposure to the natural elements. It too will blend with the surrounding landscape as if it was bound to the spirit of the land, and the aging process will intensify, evoking greater reverence.

  Speaking of time cultivating art, the restoration of the golden sword of Kasuga Taisha (the Kasuga Grand Shrine) and it having been an offering to the shrine became popular topics of conversation. The shine of the new, however, can only be seen for the limited amount of time in the present, and the sword will eventually become somewhat of a divine sword as time passes. The same is true for Abe's Hokora.

The artwork created by Abe in his workshop was made completely with tools made by Abe himself. The open-air fire pit or furnace, resembling the ancient tatara system (the traditional Japanese way of smelting) of processing, was created over the course of approximately thirty years of continuous improvement. Sometimes Abe sprinkles water around and burns coal or charcoal as if trying to evoke either the four classical Western elements of fire, earth, air, and water or the Eastern philosophy of yin and yang with the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. When air is blown at the bottom of the furnace, the sacred fire burns like cinnabar. When iron is put in the flame and heated, sparks fly as if dancing. The iron seems to boil and then melt. As the temperature increases, the metal appears to turn white for a moment. When the fire takes over, the iron seems to burn from the inside out. It is pulled out quickly, and forged with a hammer. Clang

  clang! A good sound resonating through the air. In the hands of Abe, the chunks of iron seem to become the shapes that they were always intended to be from the beginning. It feels that natural. Rather than banging out the shape he wants, it instead feels as if Abe is serving his master, iron, throughout the series of tasks. And then the metal calms. When seeing the signal from the metal that it has had enough, Abe stops the movement of his hands. It looks like it is time to stop. The iron grows black with the secret heat inside, transforming it in some way into an almost philosophical form. Forging iron that will never become pure gold, creating a piece of work which serves as a philosopher's stone, the iron eventually returns to the earth and thereby performs a circular ritual. The act of forging iron is analogous to the art of alchemy and the making of a Shinto sword;, by these acts one is directed to contemplating the soul of things.

Abe's workshop has a unique scent. What first comes to mind is the scent of a public bathhouse in Tokyo. The hot water is dark and muddy with tinges of red, permeated with a metallic, iron smell. It is hot water that springs up like the power of the land made by the chaos evident in the Kanto area's layer of loam emanating from volcanic ash. Abe is from the Machida area of Tokyo, and even now people say he still has connections with Machida. The region's Jizo Bodhisattva are woodblock prints and distributed to the local people every year. For this neighborhood, Abe's feelings of gratitude to the people who protect the Jizo are close to the feelings of prayer. An artist's existence is basically close to that of people who pray. An artist makes work filled with his thoughts and emotions, like wordless prayers, and it becomes O-mamori (amulets) for people. Isn't this kind of relationship the essence of art?

Previously while making a piece, Abe whitened the metal. This was one of the major processes in alchemy. The resulting oxidated zinc as white as snow was part of a spectacular, compelling piece. But Abe laughed, "I won't do it anymore because it is too dramatic." He wants to quietly give the iron his full attention in each step along the way.
His mind seems to already be moving on to the next process. Looking at the work, the audiences for his art will bring about change from now on. In viewers, the lighting of the flame of change will occur. That power resides in real art. Salomon Trismosin, the teacher of Paracelsus, wrote:

Study what thou art,
Whereof thou art a part,
What thou knowest of this art,
This is really what thou art.
All that is without thee also is within.

At the end of his quest, a sense of oneness with the whole of creation is found. This, alchemy's treasure is priceless, like a thousand pieces of gold. Abe's creations quietly speak about this.

Written by: Tomoko Nakamura, freelancer specializing in the arts

Translated by: Michelle Zacharias


In my steel works, "fire" occupies a special existence greatly. I think that it is not exaggerating to say I have been taught the essence of steel, by fire.

The shape of my works are created and obtained from the use of fire and the instantaneous association with steel and the body. This extremely momentous process with fire is, rather than by thoughts of the head, entirely governed by the circuit of thoughts from the flesh, which the all power from the entire body focuses on.