By Colleen Lanki
Published in 14.2
The space between objects.
The silence between sounds.
The stillness between actions.
Ma is a Japanese aesthetic principle meaning “emptiness” or “absence.” It is the space between objects, the silence between sounds, or the stillness between movements. The term describes both time and space, and is much more than a “lack” of something. The emptiness is, in fact, a palpable entity.
Simply put, ma is the aesthetic of space-time.
I think of ma as potential: potential presence, potential sound, potential action. I personally describe it as a drop of water hanging off the end of a faucet; you know it is going to drop, but you don’t know when. The drop of water is imminently watchable because you know something is going to happen. Even in the stillness and silence, the tension is there because the drop will eventually fall. When the drop falls, there is a moment of relief. Then another drop of water forms and you watch and wait, while perhaps not quite breathing normally.
This tension is ma.
I am reading a 1980’s catalogue on the Space-Time in Japan—Ma exhibition by Japanese architect Isozaki Arata. The written prose is purposely printed out in six extended columns, which should be laid out as a scroll, but instead are broken by pages: surely the needs of publication. In the catalogue are drawings, architectural renderings of doors and tatami floors, and lots of white space. But there are no page numbers. The slender volume is a study in the flow of space-time. There are no “fixed images of a homogenous and infinite continuum” as Isozaki calls the western concept of time, but rather, the ideas and their flow are completely linked. The actual ink on the page and the time it takes to scan the page are fused. Space and time are “correlative and omnipresent.”
I wish that I could write this article in circles and patterns rather than in straight lines from left to right.
Isozaki also talks about ma being an empty space left for the gods—the kami—to inhabit. In order for the kami to visit, you have to leave space for them. I agree. If every space was filled, where would they sit? If there was no silence, how could we hear them speaking?
By allowing room for ma in a dance or a sculpture, do we not leave room for breath, ideas, emotions? If every space is filled, when can an audience member’s mind enter the creative process? When can they have their own thoughts or feelings?
On a more personal level, I am reminded of my own crazy schedule, which leaves little room for ma.
Ma is a major factor in both nô and kabuki: two traditional Japanese performance forms in which I am trained. I learned nô dance and chant, and nihon buyô (kabuki dance) in private lessons with master performer-teachers in Tokyo, during a seven-year sojourn there. I continue to study whenever I can return to Japan. None of my teachers have ever explained ma to me, nor have they ever tried to discuss it academically. I learned the use of ma in each particular form the way they did: by copying. I learned the proper stillnesses and silences by mimicking my teachers’ stillnesses and silences.
In nô all aspects of the art are completely based on a manipulation of ma. The movements, the chant, the drums and drummer’s calls, the stage space, the masks and the very placement of the performers all play with the balance between presence and absence, sound and silence, movement and stillness.
The pace and quality of each step of an actor’s suriashi (literally “sliding step”—the particular way of walking in nô) is a study in ma. The foot slides along the floor, beginning with restraint, then building. At the end of each small step the foot lifts or pops up, hinging at the heel. Ma. Next step: slide-build-pop-ma. Repeat. The rhythmic structure of jo-ha-kyû (slow-breaking-fast) is the crescendo to the stillness, one that is barely perceptible. But there is still a place for the kami …or the mind…or the breath…….to land.
In nihon buyô and kabuki, ma is considered a tool that an actor can manipulate in order to evoke the greatest response from the audience. The actor/dancer learns the rhythms and pauses in dialogue, dance gestures, adopting his/her teacher’s style. The dancer eventually develops an internal sense of how to control the ma: how long to hold a certain position or what length of silence to allow before the next thought.
An actor’s ability to use ma is commented on by fans and colleagues: “Her use of ma is strong” or “His ma is not very good.” This is similar to commenting on a performer’s timing, but not exactly the same. Referring to a performers timing focuses on what is there: the movements and the sounds. Commenting on the ma focuses on the stillnesses and silences. What is most important is what is not there, and allowing the space or silence for the audience to respond.
An understanding of the Japanese time-space aesthetic requires a paradigm shift; rather than focusing on what is present, one needs to be just as conscious of what isn’t there. You need to build awareness of the absence-silence-stillness: the ma.
I am on a search: a quest to discover how ma is used here and now in 21st century Vancouver. Of course, space and time are used artistically and are building blocks of visual and aural meaning, but how do artists consider the ma of their work? Do they consider it at all? Those trained in traditional Japanese art forms do: Alcvin Ramos in both his traditional shakuhachi performances and contemporary compositions, and performance artist Takahashi Sachiyo in her delicate micro-entertainment works. Uzume Taiko cannot play without some focus on ma. Kokoro Dance’s butoh infused works all play consciously and unconsciously with ma. In fact, a core aesthetic of butoh is to give value to stillness and silence.
But what if awareness of ma—and I mean a deep awareness and understanding—became part of west coast art and performance in general? Would the aesthetic of space-time become a standard Vancouver aesthetic? Can west coast artists integrate an infusion of silence and stillness, becoming fully aware of the presence of absence? I would like to see more ma in all types of creative work, which would allow the kami to land, and the audience’s hearts and minds to enter.