I’ve already introduced Ataru Maeda to you and I’m certain you’ve all had a good look at his creations. This is one that I particularly appreciate. The subject, a mantis, is very common in Japanese art, especially on objects used by the warrior class. The samurai really admired the apparent fearlessness of these delicate insects. If you’ve ever reached out to try and pick one up or merely touch it you’ll have seen how they rear up and lunge out with their fore limbs, almost like a boxer sizing you up. Their Japanese name; kamakiri , refers to those deadly scythe-like weapons. A kama is a Japanese sickle and is usually a short, curved blade attached at right angles to a wooden shaft about the length of a man's forearm. Kiri means “to cut”.
A common pairing in traditional art is of the mantis and a wagon wheel ( sometimes broken ). As far as I know this wheel represents the emperor's carriage, his being the only wheeled vehicle in the land. Our brave little chap is, according to this image, not even cowed by this approach of the most revered and powerful ( in theory anyway ;-) ) personage in the world. There could almost be a suggestion of subversive resistance to authority in this motif.
Ataru has carved his interpretation of these heroic little creatures in stag antler. From what I understand, and from my own limited experience, this material poses quite a few challenges in terms of it’s consistency and how it will ultimately appear. Most work in stag that I’ve seen tends to be stained to enhance the texture inherent in the coarser areas and to a deep glow to the areas that can take a glossy polish. This effect is very appealing , perhaps also because it is familiar, but here we see a piece that defies this “safe” convention.
The overall composition works elegantly, to my eye. The stalk of bamboo is a perfect compliment to the insect and the degree of curve provides just a hint of springiness that seems to enliven the creature.
As I contemplate this work, and I’m well aware that I am able to see only a tiny part of what makes up the whole art work, I am struck, first, by it’s starkness. It feels wintry!…the almost frosty white with only the faint brown mottling to relive the whiteness. Until, that is, I am drawn into those limpid, mysterious eyes.
The use of this translucent, orange material ( what is that Ataru? ) was an inspired touch. The creature still remains somewhat austere but these ambivalent eyes add a hint of warmth that is almost mesmerising. I can almost guess what it’s prey might feel like…ugh!
The mantis has been very faithfully rendered, with a soft, almost plump belly ( abdomen ) the wings cloak the body ever so delicately and I just know the texture on them is so finely carved that they are a delight of patterning. And then there are those fore claws…neatly tucked up and away, almost as though this mantis would like us to overlook them, and the threat they present. The way they are depicted against the body makes me think of the way people sometimes cradle their hands, almost tentatively, in a pensive attitude of refined restraint.
Here on the southern most tip of Africa our indigenous Khoi-san people have long revered the praying mantis. The Afrikaans word for it is Hottentots god. There is a beautiful folk story told by these people about the mantis and the moon too; you can read a version here; http://www.mantisandmoon.net/story.html
Perhaps a lunar kamakiri would look a little like this one. I think this sculpture has captured something quite essential of the spirit of the mantis and as you may have guessed, I love it.