An interview with Ariel Schlesinger that delves into his experience of learning artisanal crafts and the influence of that training in his work.
A conversation between Ariel Schlesinger and Rivet.
Rivet: In 2013, Israeli-born artist Ariel Schlesinger received the surviving parts of a Japanese temple from Masao Sato, a Japanese master carpenter living in Santa Cruz who was also his former mentor.
The temple, after being partially damaged by El Niño, had been taken down by its owner and had been returned to Masao, the original designer and builder of the structure in 1986. Prior to going to art school, Ariel had learned from Masao the craft of Japanese carpentry, characterized by the use of wooden joints instead of bolts or nails, in a setting that recalls the disciplinary strictness, strong interpersonal bond, and frustrating slowness of Karate Kid’s Okinawa and Daniel.
The gift led to a new project by Schlesinger: the reconstruction of this building as an artwork in Schloss Solitude’s patio (Stuttgart, Germany), to be completed in spring 2016. This coming full circle where the pupil re-engages the materials and shapes left by the master, brought Rivet to inquire about the actual processes and relations behind learning (learning a skill, learning an art, learning about life) and actual making.
Where Schlesinger’s sculptural work often tinkers with, or “jailbreaks,” readymade manufactured objects, this project of the temple is equally a reinvention of a traditional temple, but is uniquely charged with past relationships having to do with learning, rhythm and cycle, authority, self-development and interpersonal dynamics. As a project, this Temple is, for Rivet, a special case in point to observe artistic thinking, as a muddle made of material and personal relations, collaboration with the institution, and a thing called craftsmanship.
What follows is a hyper-detailed narration (because detail is important) by Schlesinger himself that highlights method, process, and destiny. He touches upon questions that don’t necessarily show in this ongoing work or in past projects, but that are nonetheless valuable to bring to the fore when we try to understand the choreography of head and hand, reason and labor, theory and practice.
(Impressions shared between Japan, New York, and Mexico City)
Ariel Schlesinger: Masao was born in Tokyo in an upper class family in the early 1950s, his father was a powerful man, an important banker. As the family’s second son, Masao was considered less important than his older brother, and he didn’t really fit into his father’s life vision. He ended up a school dropout and moved to Kyoto, then a hippie paradise and magnet for spiritual people from all over the world. There, Masao met similar-minded people, as well as his American wife, mother of his only daughter. He started to work for a local master carpenter, moving old temples and building traditional houses. A few years later, in the ‘80s, he moved to Santa Cruz, California and he brought his craft skills with him. I met Masao Sato at the age of 16. That was in 1996, the year I broke away from home in Jerusalem. Nothing was wrong at home; I just wanted to explore. When I arrived in Santa Cruz, I saw one of his works, a traditional Japanese farmhouse.
The perfection and care for details in the house made a strong impression on me. I then approached Masao and asked him to be my teacher. He first heard my request, thought about it, then the following week invited me to his studio. Although he didn’t know much about me and had no clue about my abilities, he took me as an apprentice. I then felt my destiny was to become a Japanese carpenter.
When I arrived in Santa Cruz I enrolled in a school so I could have a student visa. I didn’t care much about attending. When I met Masao I was immediately enthusiastic about working in his studio. I think he knew my story and felt connected–after all, he was also a school dropout. Even though Masao was an open-minded person, he was foremost a traditional-carpenter master, and not a friendly guy. He was very serious and distant. I guess he thought it was the role he had to play in that position. He had to lead and explained me I had to be “an empty cup.”
I was also quickly turning into a sort of hippie-activist-forest-dweller like the rest of my friends. However, with Masao my position was very clear and there was little room for interpretation: I was an apprentice, and I had to do what I was asked to do, and most of the time that meant watching him work. For instance, during my first week I was asked to sit on a chair and look at books. They were all in Japanese, but had fascinating drawings and diagrams of wood joints, structures, measurements, and layouts of old houses.
He then asked me to sweep the floor. The main routine was cleaning —well, observing and cleaning. It took some time before I was building things, because I was not allowed to use his tools. I gradually purchased some tools of my own: a chisel, a planer, and a saw. My first project was a pair of workbenches and a toolbox. I copied the legs that Masao made. Later I placed a board on top and that functioned as my working space. The making was not that easy because I had to build some strange angles, but somehow it was not that hard either. I was happy with the result. I remember that Masao praised my work. He asked me if I had done this before; I told him that my grandfather was a carpenter for part of his life and that I had watched him as child.
I eventually made some more complicated things like a precious box for sacred things and a bath stool, both without nails, just joints; I was then asked to give them as a gift to Masao’s teacher. I remember that as a really painful thing: I worked on that box for a few weeks, it came out so perfect, and then when I presented it to Masao, he told me to go and give the box to his spiritual teacher. It felt like I had lost all my hard work, and it felt unfair.
When I arrived at the workshop, I would go to my desk and continue from where I had left off the day before. Usually this meant I had to cut a wood piece, then work on the details such as the connection parts or finish a surface. For achieving this, you have to keep super sharp tools, and here is where Japanese carpentry differs from Western carpentry: the problem is to keep the tools consistently sharp. I actually spent a fair amount of time learning how to sharpen my chisels and my planer. It was a lot of work and I hated it. You have to use a stone and water and you have to slide the blade in a certain way. You often end up hurting yourself. Sometimes I would ask Masao for advice, and then continue with my project. Sometimes we would stop for ‘meshi’ (a lunch). Sometimes I would need to stop and give Masao a hand, to move something or to hold something. When the day ended I had to clean the workshop. He would never ask my advice on anything.
I learned that Japanese carpentry is a way of life, since all we did there was so total. Everything was very serious, starting from choosing the tree that will be cut down, dried, and then later be used for a post in the house, to the way the tools were taken care of. Each part felt very important. That is why the result is so stunning: it feels like you are doing the most important thing in the world.
There is a significant connection to personal life when you learn from a master. The project we are doing now is a good example: that temple was a turning point in Masao’s life. When he received the pieces of the temple back after it had collapsed, his life pretty much fell apart, too. His daughter grew up and left home, he separated from his wife, he had a car accident, his spiritual master died. For Masao, as master carpenter, the collapse of the temple and his life were a single event.
When my student visa expired after two years, I needed to take a decision: I could either continue with him or go back to Jerusalem. In order to continue I had to apply for an apprentice visa and that scared Masao. He felt that was a next level step. It was something that gave him a greater responsibility, and, if you know Masao a bit, this weighed on him. If Masao does something, he does it until the end and takes it very seriously. In his culture and as traditional carpenter, responsibility relates to how the work is done. Without shortcuts, without bending corners, just as with his houses: it has to be perfect. At that time, I was also more engaged in adventures with friends: my focus drifted away towards other things. He felt it too. Masao and I actually had a meeting with a lawyer and afterwards he told me that he didn’t think it would work out. Things started to feel tense between us; he was stressed at that time and I preferred to explore other things. When my visa expired, I went on a crazy trip in France and I didn’t return to Santa Cruz until 3 years later, when I was 21 and was studying art as an exchange student at SVA in New York.
Rivet: Even if you also became a full-fledged craftsman at the end of this mentorship, you took a route out. One could argue that a craftsman (and a skill) only continue to exist as such by actively continuing the work. What do you still carry with you from this intense learning experience and the perfecting of carpentry? How does the fact of (nearly) perfecting the craft of Japanese carpentry, continue to play a role in what you do, or in how you do things now?
AS: After learning from Masao, I realized that I do everything as an amateur. The approach to carpentry is so integral: if you really want to do something in a perfect way, it is a lifetime of work, and it concerns everything. It is about how you eat, move, about the way you interact with the world. Now, when I do something with my hands, deep down I know it’s not serious, because I know I will not achieve perfection. Although, to me, that’s not a problem as it would be to a master carpenter.
During all those years apart, he had ups and downs and I had them too. But most importantly, thanks to him, I discovered ways of working that still inform my own work. Some years ago he told me he had lost interest in building and I was shocked. For me, Masao was a carpenter; he wanted and needed to build. How could he lose interest? I then understood that a master is human as well.
Years later, when I showed up again in 2013 for a longer stay in Santa Cruz, Masao gave me the parts of the temple. He felt they brought him bad energy. I think he felt it was destiny: the fact that the parts were still in his shop and that I had showed up. In fact, he concluded that he had to give them away in order to prompt a change in his life.
I became the recipient of this charged gift. Masao said I could do whatever I wanted with it, and he didn’t want to have anything to do with it. When I received the pieces I shipped them to Berlin, where I had my studio. I knew that if I wanted to do something with this, I should have it around at the studio. When I received the shipment, many parts were missing. Basically, I have a huge puzzle where each part fits into another only if one follows a specific order. I realized that if I wanted to put the temple back together I’d have to have Masao on board. I got in touch with him, and he agreed to help under the condition that he would not do any carpentry work on the temple. For him, that chapter had been concluded. He was comfortable with the idea of being an advisor on this project, since he knew the order and connection of the pieces. We have involved other experts, too. Stephanie Choi, an architect, is working with 3D rendering tools before we actually make the wood structure.
We recently met to work at Masao’s place. Since all the parts are now in Berlin, we focused on reconstructing the structure from drawings and photos. I found some old pieces that weren’t shipped overseas and we also decided to get some new redwood beams, in case we need to use them for emergency while constructing. Due to scarcity, the price of old growth redwood, the wood Masao used, has actually skyrocketed. That particular wood is very dense with a tight grain. The temple is probably made from wood 400 years old.
Masao and I are now equal contributors: my opinion is as valuable as his. Even if there is a lot of negotiating and dealing with the psychological charge of this actual temple, when he gave me the wood pieces, he let go. And he also opened other possibilities. The way I see it now, this project is giving him new energy, and might make him go back to carpentry, but maybe in a new way.
Rivet: The second life of this temple, and the imperfect remake highlight the temple’s own idiosyncrasies —it is a true sliver of Californian life from the late 1970s/1980s, an environment that was also an incubator for transplanted traditional skill. The legwork needed to enable the remake —from the shipping logistics to collaborating with and convincing Schloss Solitude to make an outside semi-permanent art installation —are also integral parts of the reconstruction. The apprentice’s learned and persistent respect for the material, the craft, and the individual go well beyond the traditional narrative cycle of transferring authority: the construction at Schloss Solitude may very well reanimate the master and set him back on track, but it is equally the result of a significant letting go, of the hand and single mind of the master, of the original design, but most importantly of the sense of perfection. This dynamic of straying from the model narrative, also applies to Ariel’s approach to traditional craft. Contemporary art’s turn to artisanal work and craft came as reaction to complete computerization of production processes. Ariel’s rebuilt temple, however, doesn’t obey this pattern of one-or-the-other: the digitized rendering that now underpins the carpentry work is based on the concrete and detailed wood shaped through traditional means by Masao. It doesn’t operate in an empty 3D space; but craftsmanship, still a crucial element, is now turned into the proverbial empty cup instead of the all-defining factor.