In 1998 in the Himalayan foothills, during the Haridwar Kumbh Mela, a Hindu pilgrimage and festival held every 12 years relative to the astrological positions of Jupiter, the sun and the moon, I didn't plan to participate and watched from a wall as over one million festival-goers took a dip in the Ganges river while the sadhu blew their conch shells and performed acrobatic yoga-like prayer rituals. The euphoria of the occasion and the energy of the sadhu swept me up into the crowds that led to the river. I stripped off to my underwear, handed my belongings to a policeman and found myself bathing with the masses, floating on my back, looking up to the full moon.
For Chinese New Year in 1987, I was in Southern China close to the Burmese border and trekked into a range of remote mountains until arriving at a village of Akha people. The locals were surprised to see an outsider and were not very welcoming until they found my little medical kit – which I let them keep. This gift prompted them to include me in their celebrations and sacred rituals, inviting me to join the village as they played music from bamboo wind instruments and drums, feasted, drank distilled white liquor and sang and danced around animist icons from sunset to sunrise. Waking around midday, I was an outsider again and left the village quietly.
In 2010 I worked with the NGV to acquire a major work by the 18th-century eccentric painter Ito Jakuchu depicting a Buddhist paradisiacal land (nirvana) that one would arrive at upon achieving enlightenment. On a subsequent research journey to Japan, I was lucky enough to visit the temple garden depicted in this painting where the artist had been in residence. Nestled in the south eastern foothills of Kyoto, the Sekiho-ji temple has a sculpture garden created to be a three-dimensional version of the painting's paradise. The timeless experience of wandering through the dense bamboo forest surrounded by Jakuchu's sculptures, with the only sound being the wind through bamboo leaves, transported me back to the 18th century and the essence of his vision.
Building the NGV's collection of Japanese modernist art led me to rediscover the remarkable achievements of Taniguchi Fumie and her 1935 masterpiece, Preparing to go out. My research led me to relive her career and imagine her experiences as a heralded modern female artist of the 1930s who achieved unprecedented success and held solo exhibitions in a male-dominated art world through to her post-war difficulties of being separated from her children, immigrating to America at a time when Japanese people were not favoured and her career ultimately falling into obscurity. My journey back in time through her work and life story reminds me that we can never truly know another person's story until we walk in their shoes. (Fumie's work can be seen in the Japanese Modernism exhibition.)
The National Gallery of Victoria's exclusive Japanese Modernism exhibition, on February 28 – October 4, showcases more than 190 multi-disciplinary works created during the first half of the 20th century. Wayne Crothers was integral to the development of the exhibition. See ngv.vic.gov.au