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Thoughtful Prints

by Fumiaki Noya

I first saw the prints of Michiko Hoshino in Buenos Aires in November 1998. I was visiting The Borges Foundation in the Anchorena district to do research on the poet and prose writer, Jorge Luis Borges, a product of this city, and there I saw a large lithograph mounted on the wall on the second floor. This print, which perfectly matched the surrounding atmosphere, evoking the shadow of the late writer, was Borges as a Sphinx, no.245, of 1987. Profiles of the great, world-famous writer are arranged symmetrically on either side of a pyramid-like triangle. Is one side a mirror image of the other? There are two Borgeses in this print, reminding us that Borges wrote a story entitled Borges and Myself. It is a short story written in the style of an essay that considers the relationship between the actual and virtual image of the same person.

The print appears to be based on the theme of identity, a favorite theme of Borges exemplified by this story. But why the sphinx? The sphinx was known for posing riddles to people who passed by it on the road. Borges as a Sphinx is a writer who poses riddles to the reader, much like the maker of the print, who poses riddles to the viewer. This print is an intricate mechanism that strongly stimulates intellectual imagination. More than anything else, the viewer is drawn by the vividly real but illusionistic world portrayed in the print. A connection is made between the present and antiquity, giving visual form to the strata of time. Something that could not exist in reality is visualized in the print, creating an illusion, an intellectual fantasy. At the same time, we are able to peer into the depths of the maker's consciousness and notice that we are looking at the theater of images emerging there. The print becomes the Aleph, the small sphere in Borges's story that encompasses whole universe.

Borges paraphrases the thinking of Edgar Allan Poe, according to Borges the originator of the detective novel. The detective novel must not be realistic. It must be a product of the mind, a fantasy genre. Its fantastic qualities must come from the intellect as well as the imagination. If the word fantasy is applied to printmaking, it could also describe Hoshino's style of depicting the world as an intellectual fiction. Hoshino's prints are intelligent, and after looking at the overall image, we become detectives as we move into the wonderland she has portrayed and begin to solve its riddles.

Later I learned that Hoshino was making use of a particular technique that had evolved during her earlier career. In Borges as a Sphinx she manipulates the portrait photograph. The motif of the face was foreshadowed by the faces of historians seen in Time Falling, no.145-156, of 1980. The face of a person resembling Borges appears In For the Blind Poet, no.214, of 1984, and a photograph of Borges in profile is used for the first time in The Library of Babel - Rose of Poet, no.224 the following year.

The first work by Hoshino that I ever saw, without having any knowledge of who the artist was, may have been the illustrations accompanying Borge's collection of stories, The Book of Sand. She made two illustrations for the stories collected in the Japanese edition of The Book of Sand in 1980. They were For: The Congress by J. L. Borges, no.161, and For: The Book of Sand by J. L. Borges, no.162. Both were reproductions of prints inspired by the stories and inserted in the translated book as a supplement. Whether intended by the editor or not, a quotation appeared on the back of the prints: "The Congress of the World began with the first moment of the world and it will go on when we are dust. There's no place on earth where it des not exist" (Borges, "The Congress," The Book of Sand, trans. by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1978, p. 47) The motif for this print, based on the theme of infinity found in this passage, is the image of a round table and chairs that could serve as the site of the Congress. Hoshino says that she portrayed the round table as "an impossible, fictional world that grows and recedes infinitely like the center of an expanding circle." The work of Borges was a catalyst in the production of this image through the free imagination of the artist, but the image quickly departed from the story and took off freely on its own. Viewers who know the story and those who do not will both find their eyes riveted by the enigmatic image. At the same time, they must use their powers of reasoning and imagination. Other ideas are also presented in the story: "The Congress is the books we've burned" and "Every few centuries, the Library of Alexandria must be burned down" (ibid.). Hoshino's later works show how she responded to these varied themes: books, libraries, fire, and infinity and limitation.

What does the title of the print, The Book of Sand, refer to? In the story of the same name it is an octavo volume, bound in cloth. "Like sand it has no beginning and no end," but that is not exactly how it is depicted in the print. In some respects, this print may refer the entire collection of stories, but that is not certain. In any case it seems to fit the book very well. El Aleph - River in the Sands, no.127, which appears at the beginning of the Japanese version of The Book of Sand, was produced the previous year. As suggested by the title, there is nothing inappropriate about it being placed in The Book of Sand even though it did not originally have a direct connection with it. Unlike illustrations that undermine the reader's expectations, these represent Borges's world very well. The dry landscape that recalls a desert on the Earth or some other planet is perfectly suited to the logical world of Borges with its lack of sentiment.

Another print of the same title, The Book of Sand, was produced in 2005, and the book depicted in it is more book-like in appearance with folds and layers of pages that look like baumkuchen, German roll cake. Even so, there is no certainty that it is a book "without a beginning or an end" because the printmaker has handled and adapted it in her own way. This non-existent book is not depicted as a concrete thing by tracing its outlines. Rather it is portrayed by finding the essence of Borges's message about the world on its own reverse side and recombining its elements. Therefore, Hoshino's prints have the depth and strength produced by multiple overlapping images. Also, the reality of black and white lithography gives vivid visual form to a metaphysical world that cannot be concretely represented, so the images do not seem out of place. That was my impression when I accidentally encountered this print in a traveling exhibition commemorating the centennial of Borges's birth in Mexico. This traveling exhibition was organized by the Borges Foundation and it toured the world after opening in Barcelona. It was scheduled to end up in Japan, but unfortunately did not make it here. The collection I saw at the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporaneo was chiefly made up of personal articles left behind by Borges, and it included paintings inspired by the author. The most remarkable artworks were Hoshino's prints. They were not limited to being a kind of illustration but achieved an expression of the entirety of the universe of Borges because of the strength of their layered imagery. Even outside of Japan, her work has a tremendous sense of presence, demonstrating its universality.

What is most surprising to me is that Michiko Hoshino had been pursuing the same sorts of metaphysical themes before her encounter with Borges's writing, and this led her to shift from oil painting to symbolic monochrome lithographs. By opting for monochrome, she provided viewers with visual stimulation and allowed them to use their imaginations freely without being bound by particular colors. Using black and white, the simplest but richest of colors, in lithography is in itself an experimental approach, and it succeeds brilliantly in Hoshino's art. Looking at her first collection of prints in chronological terms, I noticed that their characteristics made it possible to move smoothly to what she called the Borges Series. In the prints made in 1971, objects float in the air, suggesting a world of exposed nerves inside the brain. The brain depicted here is caught in a daydream, and it led to Dormancy Awakening, no.53, of 1974. It should be noted that Hoshino made a number of new series very quickly thereafter: Form of Memory, Form of Time, and Form of Place, between 1972 and 1974. In these prints, a unique metaphysical world, a world found inside the brain, was already taking form. Her printmaking reached a new stage through an encounter with the literary works of Borges, a unique author who described the world inside the brain in words.

Early traces of the Borges Series began to appear in 1975. Hoshino had already been working with the theme of memory in her prints when she read a Japanese translation of Borges's short story, Funes, the Memorious and was "shocked by the definition of memory" found there. She reacted with the prints that she referred to as the Memory of Funes Series and started The Aleph Series the following year. Incidentally, the translation of Borges that she read was by Shinoda Kazushi. The Mirror as Metaphor Series emerged about the same time. These prints used the mirror as a site where "accumulations of unlimited human knowledge" became visible, and Hoshino portrayed "paintings that are silent roses reflected in a mirror - roses invisible to the eye." Hoshino explains that the mirror is an expression of imaginary shadows and images. She likes the motif of roses, and representative works using the rose, such as Flower in the Dream, no.69, made in 1975, deliberately refer to the Borges essay, "Coleridge's Flowers." Borges quotes a passage from Coleridge that refers to flowers as a bridge between dreams and reality, describing a person who wakes up to find that flowers he has been given in a dream are in his hand. Hoshino supposed that these flowers were roses and made an image of them that arose from her own consciousness after being stimulated by the essay. Borges saw the act of handing flowers to someone as reflecting a long tradition, embodying a concept of continuation and infinity, and Hoshino was able to grasp this aspect of his thinking. In any case, it seems that her thought processes were triggered by Borges's ideas. The print acts as a mirror in reflecting images which are a reflection of her thoughts. That is why her prints can be described as thoughtful.

After the Mirror as Metaphor series, Hoshino continued to make prints inspired by Borges's writings, producing important works like The Library of Babel Series that overwhelm the viewer. On the occasion of Borges's death in 1986, she began making prints that included the author himself as subject matter. One of these was Borges as a Sphinx. This print was included in a major solo exhibition, the "Borges Memorial Exhibition," which might be described as a summing up of the Borges Series. From this point on Hoshino became even more interested in Borges as an author, and she visited Buenos Aires for the first time in 1990. At that time, she met Maria Kodama and, with her help, held a solo exhibition. This was how this Japanese printmaker became known in Borges's native city.

Visiting Borges's Country ? Borges's Library(1992), a print in a series created after Hoshino's visit to Buenos Aires, shows the bookcases in the old national library where Borges served as director as well as such Argentine objects as a mate and bombilla. However, in Mirror of Time(1997 - ), Borges's Garden(1998 - ), and The Circular Ruins(2002 - ), Hoshino resurrected some of her original, basic metaphors, creating a world of unique, layered images. This does not mean that she is a conservative artist. She has experimented with sculpture, although her output in this medium is not large, and she has also worked in computer graphics and created waterless lithographs. She is bold about trying new things. In retrospect, changing from oil to lithography was itself quite ambitious.

While writing this essay, I once again visited Hoshino's studio in Nishi-Ogikubo. It is more aptly described by the word "workshop," kobo in Japanese, than "studio." It contains a large, old-fashioned lithography press and I was fascinated by its gear wheels. Hoshino told me that her mechanically inclined husband had fixed the old press so that it would run electrically. The combination of old and new machinery suggested different strata of time, the time that is contained in Hoshino's prints. Her time, however, does not exist anywhere in reality. It is a conceptual time that exists only in her prints, just as the time of Borges exists only in his writings. It is the time inside the brain, unaffected by history and reality. Along with other concepts it continues to be embodied in her images.

(Professor of Latin American literature, Tokyo University, President of Borgiana Japan)