Creative non-fiction / June 2017 (Issue 36: Writing Japan)

Leaves Without Routes: 根も葉も無い

by Naoko Mabon

To me, curating an exhibition is another form of narrative-making. With care—which, after all, is where the word "curate" originally comes from—you stitch little stories together to come up with an alternative narrative stream. The narrative is your conceptual dialogue, which then will lead you to realise, in my case, the format of a visual art exhibition.

In the case of Leaves Without Routes: 根も葉も無い, a site-specific exhibition that I recently produced with four Japanese artists at Nanmoncho 323 in Taipei Botanical Garden, a series of stories were also to be discovered and patched together.


Story I: Nanmoncho 323. Taipei. 1930s.

Nanmoncho 323 (南門町三二三) is a Japanese-style house within Taipei Botanical Garden, originally built in the 1930s during the Japanese colonial period. This compact Hiraya (平屋, one-story) house with two tatami-mat rooms with a Doma (土間, earth floor) has been used for various purposes over the decades since it was first built. For example, it was once a guesthouse and at another time a storehouse for gardening tools. According to Professor Kenji Horigome, a Taiwan-based Japanese architect and architectural historian, due to a few unique features seen in the house, this place could also have functioned as a teahouse or shop where people gathered for tea, snacks or a relaxing chat. For instance, it has a rather spacious Doma, which is unusual for a residential building. And the shape of a column in the corner of the house next to the main entrance is also unusual, because square columns were normally used. Such features suggest a welcoming and open nature to this place, and lead us to realise how unique this building was—not only culturally, but also architecturally. After the Second World War—and hence after the end of Japanese rule in Taiwan—it became an employee residence for the Taiwan Forestry Research Institute, the parent body of Taipei Botanical Garden. But after the people who had known of the building's earlier days had left, the house was left unused and forgotten for long time. There was even talk of demolishing this rather desolate place. However, major research and refurbishment work took place from 2010 to 2014 with the help from two Taiwan-based architects—Chung-Twn Kuo and Kenji Horigome. They have extensive knowledge and understanding of both Taiwanese and Japanese culture and history. The house was then re-opened in September 2014 with a newly designed Karesansui (枯山水) Japanese rock garden where a variety of pine trees can be seen. The name "Nanmoncho 323" (南門町三二三), by the way, derives from the original address of the building in the 1930's land registry—6-323, Nanmoncho, Taipei-City, Taipei State (台北州台北市南門町六丁目三二三番地).

I immediately found this place fascinating. It was mainly because—unlike the simplicity in its floor plan—Nanmoncho 323 holds a complexity in its background, and an inter-national—hence blurred—cultural identity. This heritage site is unmistakably Japanese and Japanese built, but we can probably also say that it is Taiwanese. It is an almost ghostly relic, left empty for long time, while directly reflecting the relationship between the two countries. I was attracted by its secluded existence. 


Story II: George Psalmanazar. London. 1704.

When he invited me to curate an exhibition at Nanmoncho 323 with him, Yasunori Kawamatsu, an artist and curator of Dabada, introduced me to a fascinating yet rather bizarre element that helped us develop the exhibition concept more deeply. It was An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa (1704), which provides one of the earliest accounts of seventeenth century Taiwan. Written by George Psalmanazar (c.1679–1763), the most significant aspect of this book is that its content is entirely fictitious. Although it is based on a few earlier publications and word-of-mouth information from explorers and missionaries at that time, nearly everything in the book—a diverse range of topics from culture, customs, governmental structure up even to a whole new language—is imaginary, created solely by Psalmanazar. Also, this man, "commonly known by the assumed name of George Psalmanazar,"[i] despite his blond hair and French origin, claimed himself to be the first native of Formosa to visit Europe. I, looking at this from a twenty-first century viewpoint, think this sounds completely ridiculous. Yet Psalmanazar nonetheless convinced Europeans for twenty-five years that his lunatic yet well fabricated, watertight lies were genuine.

How unbelievable is the book? Psalmanazar, for instance, wrote of Taiwan's plants that:

There are two roots of which they make bread, whereof one is called Chitok and the other Magnok: both these roots are sown like rapeseed, and when they are grown ripe they are as big as a man's thigh. These roots grow twice, and sometimes thrice in a year, when it is a good season ...[ii]

What amazes me most about Psalmanazar's book is its deeply serious nature and the remarkable precision and quality within his lie, despite the nonsense of it. It is instantly apparent that this creation was not made in one’s spare time or for a quick laugh. It is clearly an art form. An artwork made by fabricating the real and unreal from the position of in-between both the real and the unreal.

This also reminds us of Monzaemon Chikamatsu’s (1653-1725) famous art theory in his first essay on the art of the Joruri, Japanese traditional puppet drama: "Art is something that lies between the skin and the flesh [hiniku (皮膜)], between the make-believe [uso (虚)] and the real [jitsu (実)]" (translation by Michael Brownstein, cited in Okutsu’s Picturesque in the Darkness[iii]). And according to Brownstein, "because art ‘lies between’ the two, it is both and neither: ‘Art is make-believe and not make-believe; it is real and not real.’ ” This lets us approach Psalmanazar's world of Uso-jitsu (虚実) by positioning it ‘in-between’ - an intermediate and ambiguous yet artistic standing point.


Story III: Ne mo ha mo nai. Aberdeen. 2016.

We need a bonding agent when we stitch stories together. One night, I was in a pub in Aberdeen with my husband. After introducing him to the stories above, I asked his advice on a possible "bonding agent," ideally related to botany because of where the venue was located. When he was on his second pint, my husband—who speaks, reads and writes Japanese—said "Oh hey, how about the idiom Ne mo ha mo nai' (根も葉も無い) as it contains Ne (根, root) and Ha (葉, leaf) while reflecting the not-entirely-genuine nature of both Nanmoncho 323 and the book by Psalmanazar?" It clicked right away.

Indeed, the Japanese idiom for something that is neither a truth nor a fact is Ne mo ha mo nai, or without roots nor leaves by direct translation. This seemed appropriate in the context of how Japan, among other countries, has been a significant part of shaping the Taiwan that we know today—not least through the establishment of the Taipei Botanical Garden, which is home to over two thousand species and also a Japanese-style house.

So the decision was made. The exhibition, now with the title of Leaves Without Routes: 根も葉も無い, would focus on the long-term relationship between Taiwan and Japan, as exemplified through the Taipei Botanical Garden and the Japanese house within it. Through this, the exhibition would also consider how other places have shaped Taiwan, and also how Taiwan is imagined—fictitiously or otherwise—by other places and people. Playing with the idea of without roots or leaves, we sought to explore not only what roots have given rise to the leaves of modern Taiwan, but also whether at a time of change and reflection on national identity, there are routes through which the "real" Taiwan—not veiled by the imagination of Psalmanazar or someone like him—might leave the island.

The time had now come to think about the physical realisation of this narrative with artists and their work. We selected four Japanese artists—Yuki Okumura, Yasunori Kawamatsu, Kaori Yamashita and Nobuyuki Yamamoto—and asked them to create site-specific installations as their direct responses to Nanmoncho 323, to the botanical cues in Taipei Botanical Garden and/or to An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa. Each of their works was concerned with the historical relationship between Taiwan and Japan, but were also imbued with fascinations towards relationships with others, adaptations, translations and the gaps that emerge as a result.


Story IV: A lecture by Jun Yang. Yuki Okumura. 2011.

Yuki Okumura's name came up in conversation when Kawamatsu and I were discussing possible artists for the exhibition. That same evening, I watched Jun Yang: A Short Lecture on Forgetting and Remembering (2011) by Yuki Okumura (b. 1978, lives and works in Brussels and Maastricht). I felt certain that this was the piece we were looking for.

Okumura is an artist/translator whose work questions selfhood and/or the identity of 'artist'. To explore these questions, he employs various media and formats such as video, text, curation and workshops. But the central approach to his inquiry is, after careful research, to re-enact and re-interpret artworks by other artists. Okumura does this by consciously switching the role of the player called "I"—who in most cases is the person with the authorship of the original work. Due to Okumura's intervention, however, the genuineness and identity of the artist-ship starts to blur. The author's body becomes a hollow shell which can be possessed by a ghost of, in theory, anyone—as soon as the ghost is identified as "I = the artist."

In Jun Yang, what we see is a lecture. A lady with long black hair opens a presentation by addressing the audience with the words "My name is Jun Yang." Occasionally, the camera pans to the audience, but mostly throughout the video, we only see her speaking in front of a microphone. At the very end, however, we discover that she is actually a translator translating an English presentation—by the male, Austrian-raised Chinese artist Jun Yang, who has been sitting right next to her—into Japanese.

Okumura organised this particular—and well orchestrated—lecture at Tokyo University of the Arts on 17 November 2011. He then made the video by incorporating the responses of Jun Yang (lecture), Noriko Kobayashi (interpretation), Hikaru Fujii (cinematography) and Yu Araki (English subtitles) to his instructions. This structure seeks to inquire into "I" through the layers of interaction of his co-operators. Keywords such as "translation" or "uncertainness of identity" seen in the piece, not only resonated with the exhibition concept, but were also updated through newly added Chinese subtitles by Taiwanese artist I-Che(r)n Lai. Alongside the video, also on display was a montage made out of the memoranda taken by the interpreter Kobayashi during the lecture. This physical element, consisting of fragments of a previous action, helped us to understand more fully Okumura's standpoint as a mediator and the resulting complexity of his multi-layered examination.


Story V: Plasticity of language. Yasunori Kawamatsu. 2016.

I first met Yasunori Kawamatsu (b.1984, lives and works in Takasaki, Gunma) in Scotland when he was conducting an artist-in-residency at Sea Loft in Kinghorn, Fife. At that time, I was working on a year-long cultural exchange project in which two artists—one Scotland-based, one Japanese who shared no cultural background or personal information—built a relationship beyond language and location. Considering what we were both working on, it was no surprise that Kawamatsu and I exchanged some interesting views on language as a medium beyond time and location. 

In his artistic activities, Kawamatsu creates video installations to consider what can emerge by using language in the same way we use colour and shape when painting, the possibilities and impossibilities that language can create, and the role of language as a plastic medium with a tactile sensation.

For Leaves Without Routes, Kawamatsu made a new video installation relating to "language" and "writing," the main inspiration of which came from An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa. By referring to the section from Psalmanazar's memoirs where his lie becomes apparent through his failure to precisely translate the same line from Cicero's On the Orator twice over, Kawamatsu explores the metaphorical nature of language and the plastic nature of writing as the "expressivity of language."

The resulting installation was elegant yet powerful. It consisted of three sections:

  • a new video he filmed and edited in Taipei in which a hand slowly mixes Urushi (漆, traditional Japanese lacquer) above a Taiwanese woman's face as she relates her memory of a particular yet annoynomous place;
  • two acrylic glass sheets replacing a Fusuma (襖, sliding door), on which a few elements were placed including bare Urushi used for film, a section from Cicero's On the Orator in the form of gold vinyl letters and Braille dots, and a little drawing of a boat;
  • a broken vintage ceramic doll stamped "Made in Occupied Japan," produced and traded while Japan was under the occupation of the U.S. after World War II from 1947 to 1952.

This collection of incomplete traces and historical memories were Kawamatsu's response to the relationship between Taiwan and Japan. It was rooted in his main curiosity towards Psalmanazar, articulated not grammatically but tactically.


Story VI: Epiphanic vision—phantom pain. Kaori Yamashita. 2016.

I first met Kaori Yamashita (b.1978, lives and works in Santa Clara, California) at TAMA VIVANT 2004, an annual exhibition curated and delivered by Art Science students of Tama Art University in Tokyo. I was a student then who was assigned to work with Yamashita for the exhibition.

Yamashita makes site-specific installations, which consist of elements such as sculptural objects, drawings, photographs and so on. They are usually placed in a particular environment in a rather sudden yet precise way that makes different elements build relationships with each other and hold a quality that can blur our confidence in the existence of physical matter. I asked her to join the exhibition because I knew that her installation would enhance the characteristics of Nanmoncho 323 in a direct and physical way.

For Leaves Without Routes, Yamashita created a new installation dedicated to the traditional features of the Japanese room in Nanmoncho 323. The installation consisted of many different elements including a) a large mirror sheet in the Tokonoma (床の間) area placed at an angle; b) two mortar structures in the shape of a vase, representing the bonding agent that connected the parts of the vase and hence suggested the absence of materiality; c) a trunk-like standing structure, made of soft floor mats covered in wood pattern and d) a line of blocks made of sponge and fabric but with the appearance of concrete. The installation also included two photographs taken in the San Francisco Botanical Garden. One of Orudogaki (オルドガキ, Diospyros oldhamii) and the other of Taiwan Sugi (台湾杉, Taiwania cryptomerioides). Orudogaki is only seen in the wild in Japan and Taiwan, yet Yamashita found it in San Francisco. For Yamashita, a Japanese person who has recently started living in the U.S., encountering a young Taiwan Sugi in San Francisco was an odd experience. The common ground for all these elements is that they are either not genuine or have no actual body to support—hence they can be thought of as "phantoms."

The cue for the new work came from her vision informed by the Japanese idiom Ne mo ha mo nai: of a trunk as a theoretical concept floating in mid-air, without roots as a cause, nor leaves as a result. The floating trunk image then reminded her of "phantom pain," a sensation of pain in an absent limb, a portion of a limb or an organ no longer physically part of the body, and its treatment using a mirror. In this treatment, patients place a mirror in the middle of their body and then move an existing limb. The reflection in the mirror, however, creates a mirage that makes the patient feel as if they are actually moving the missing limb. Reportedly through this treatment patients can calm the phantom pain down. This peculiar physical and metaphysical idea of an entity was visualised by Yamashita and stood alone as something reverberant to the exhibition concept. 


Story VII: History as painting. Nobuyuki Yamamoto. 2016.

When I first came across work by Nobuyuki Yamamoto (b.1982, lives and works in Yokohama) in an exhibition at Sleeper Gallery in Edinburgh, I only read its minimalist form and bespoke installation methodology. My reading at that time somehow didn't cover the serious, scientific and rather anatomic eyes and concerns of the artist.

To explore his central question of "what makes painting as painting?" physically and conceptually, Yamamoto starts by carefully analysing and dismantling the elements of painting, followed by re-constructing them into a new form. The resulting work appears without any supporting medium—sometimes not even in a two-dimensional format—and only consists of pigment and/or bounding agent.

In Leaves Without Routes, Yamamoto unfolded a series of new works in the Doma area of the house. Having been ground, re-drawn or overwritten, they reflected the structure and quality of the general idea of painting. They also reflected the concept of history as "layers on layers" or "something that is only seen as the surface." This was done by taking as a starting point images from Atlas Japannensis written by Arnoldus Montanus, from the "Dreadnought Hoax" and of earlier Taiwanese inhabitants. Atlas Japannensis is another example of an imaginary account written by a Western (Dutch) person about an Eastern country (Japan) in 1669. The Dreadnought Hoax was an incident—and a joke—pulled by Horace de Vere Cole in 1910, when a group of Cambridge students tricked the Royal Navy into believing they were a delegation of Abyssinian royals. Each of the features in the work has some level of ambiguity or fictitiousness within them. Yamamoto selected these images from books and erased them with a rubber until the ink partially disappeared and you could no longer easily recognise the originals. He then layered his thin paintings on top. 

As a result of this thin "surface" placed on top the image, you could barely see the image behind, reflecting how the original form of a country becomes almost impossible to see through layers of history. This approach also corresponded to the exhibition's concept of trying to think about how Taiwan has been historically shaped and imagined—fictitiously or otherwise—by other places or people.


The exhibition was successfully realised and also well received. The Taiwan entirely imagined and fabricated by Psalmanazar, and a Japanese house made by the Japanese and appropriated by the Taiwanese, were the main conceptual elements that formed the exhibition.

Psalmanazar's Taiwan also made me wonder. What was the truth of Taiwan? What did the original Taiwan look like? As far as I understand, in the original Formosa—the beautiful island—there were many different groups of inhabitants living separately, but not necessarily harmoniously. One of the main reasons for this was that each group had its own language, without a lingua franca in common. The only way to communicate with each other, therefore, was apparently to kill each other—with or without respect. It sounds rather chaotic, but it was the situation. And if this chaotic intermixing of different groups was the "original Taiwan" I would like to see, then it cannot be seen now. More precisely, it has been interfered with, most probably by people coming from outside, including the Japanese. This indeed made me critically re-think both the positive and negative aspects of "civilisation." I imagine what we have lost forever. Psalmanazar's imagination was a fiction. But was it really?

The reason why I was instantly attracted by Nanmoncho 323 was its dual nationality. I must have seen it as a common ground with my own status—a Japanese person living in Scotland. My migrant status—plus the rich history of Scottish emigration to other lands—has made me think more and more about the volatility and fluidity of our identity. I am curious about possibility—and impossibility—in relation-making between people or things that are foreign to each other when they share no common culture, background or language. From this standpoint, I feel that we have managed to reflect it, not only though the resulting exhibition itself but also during the communications between Taiwanese colleagues, supporters and audience members. I really enjoy the culturally overlapping areas and sensibilities that Taiwan and Japan share. We are similar. Not only in how we look, but also in how we sense and appreciate things (although Taiwanese people are less tense than Japanese people, as many of you might know!) I experienced this physically from time to time over the course of the exhibition-making process, and found it both interesting and comfortable. Nanmoncho 323 was therefore the perfect venue for our attempt which was concerned with inter-national identity. In Taiwan, I saw a Japan that I never knew. But it didn't make me feel any closer to Japan. It is because, I suppose, just like we cannot know the real, original Taiwan, the real, original Japan cannot be known.



Installation view of the exhibition


Jun Yang: A Short Lecture on Forgetting and Remembering
2011, HD video, 27 minutes 39 seconds
made in collaboration with Jun Yang, Noriko Kobayashi, Hikaru Fujii, and Yu Araki
(Chinese subtitles by I-Che(r)n Lai, 2016)
courtesy the artist and Misako & Rosen, Tokyo

Noriko Kobayashi: Interpreter‘s Memoranda (Montage)
2011, cutout paper fragments (on which interpreter Noriko Kobayashi made notes during Jun Yang’s lecture titled A Short Lecture on Forgetting and Remembering, held at Tokyo University of the Arts, Tokyo, on November 17, 2011), acid-free tape
approx. 38 x 67 cm (42.3 x 75.1 cm framed)
courtesy the artist and Misako & Rosen, Tokyo


Noriko Kobayashi: Interpreter‘s Memoranda (Montage) [rear side]


2016, HD video (2 minutes 37 seconds), acrylic panel, crystal glass, Japanese lacquer, ceramic, text (from On the Orator by Cicero), modelling clay size variable




Pain perception of a neighbor
2016, mirror, wood, mortar, stone, cloth, photo, paper, clay etc.
size variable


Pain perception of a neighbor


Indication of Intervention
2016, pigment, crystal, milk casein, image cutouts (from Atlas Japannensis by Montanus, ‘Dreadnought Hoax’ in 1910, and earlier Taiwanese inhabitants), acrylic panel, wooden sample cabinet
29.7 x 21 cm (acrylic panels)
6.5 x 40 x 30.5 cm (wooden sample cabinet)


Indication of Intervention


Project details

Leaves Without Routes: 根も葉も無い
Yuki Okumura | Yasunori Kawamatsu | Kaori Yamashita | Nobuyuki Yamamoto
3 December 2016 – 15 January 2017
Nanmoncho 323 (南門町三二三) in Taipei Botanical Garden
Co-curated by Naoko Mabon and Yasunori Kawamatsu


Supported by

Japan–Taiwan Exchange Association


Special thanks to

Taipei Botanical Garden; Taiwan Forestry Research Institute; Laboratory of Handmade Papers and Paper Heritage Preservation; I-Che(r)n Lai, Yu Hua Chen, Wei-Hsiu Wu, Keting Kurt Chen, MISAKO & ROSEN, Dr Leslie Mabon, among others.


[i] George Psalmanazar, Memoirs of ****. "Commonly known by the name of George Psalmanazar; a reputed native of Formosa. Written by himself in order to be published after his death," Dublin, 1765, p.1.

[ii] George Psalmanazar, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, London, 1704, p.259.

[iii] Kiyoshi Okutsu, Picturesque in the Darkness in Andrew Sneddon, Gavin Morrison and Kiyoshi Okutsu Transmission: The Rules of Engagement 10, The slender margin between the real and the unreal, Artwords Press, London, 2007, pp.27-28.

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