Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Skytree predicted in 19th century Japanese art

Recently I heard about a Japanese art print dating from the 1850s which appears to predict the construction of the Skytree: Tokyo’s newest and tallest building.

The English title of the painting is “Caulking Boats” and it was drawn by Utagawa Kuniyoshi and in the background, a cityscape can be seen. Next to a watchtower, there’s a strange spindly tower rising far above the rest of the buildings. This building looks so odd, that it’s easy to believe that it was never actually there and may have been part of some kind of vision.

The first time I saw it, I found it quite a convincing piece of evidence for a premonition. It was definitely from the 1850s, and I couldn’t even begin to imagine what the purpose of such a building would be.

However, it’s easy to misinterpret images from other cultures and ages, so I tried to find out more to put it in context. I couldn’t find any contemporary reaction to the art work, since what may be mysterious to us, may not be mysterious to someone of that time.

While researching this, I’d often read blog posts with a quote from a professor, stating that this tall tower can’t have existed, since no building was allowed to be taller than the Imperial Palace, giving their articles a touch of academic research.

Before long, I found that this type of structure had been depicted by other artists in other pictures. It appears to be a tower that’s used in the making of a well. It’s an exaggerated version of one, certainly, but that’s what it seems to be.

I’m interested about the stages this picture went through before it became this big mystery. First, the people looking at this at the time, it would’ve been obvious what it was. Then there must have been a time, where no one really paid it much thought. People either knew what it was, or they didn’t find it mysterious. Then finally, the print was reassessed in light of the new structure by which time, most people were unable to identify the structure’s initial purpose.

It’s a fascinating example of how, when faced with gaps in our knowledge, we fill them in with our own ideas of how things ought to be according of our understanding of the current world. Rather than trying to see things through the eyes of a contemporary witness.


1 comment:

GNN Reports said...

Nice post. It reminds me of the contemporary myth Ben Goldacre talks about in medicine, where "Because I took X I got better": people assign their cure to whatever it was whereas it's just as plausible (if not more so) that thier body simply recovered through it's own power.