Matthew Rosier trained as an architect and creates installation pieces on the theme of the nature of each individual “place”. He feels that in Shinto philosophy and the architectural approaches with which he came into contact in Ise, there are concepts that are relevant to the various issues currently being debated around the world. 

“Renewal” was my biggest discovery in Ise

I work in public spaces, creating works rooted in that particular place or city. I have studied architecture, and I am interested in uncovering the stories of the traditions, heritage, and history rooted in a particular area, and exploring how these are influencing contemporary culture, architecture, and the structure of cities, how the identity of the place was constructed. 

Visiting Ise Jingu and coming into contact with Shinto and with the architectural approaches in Ise, I noticed many things which are connected to the various problems being talked about around the world. There are various debates going on at the moment around the world, about climate change and the impact on ecosystems and so on, how the natural world and humans are connected and how they function, and about the nature of architecture in the future. I found some big clues in the philosophy which has taken root in Ise about how to tackle these issues from a holistic viewpoint, not just from one angle.

I discovered the idea of “maintenance” in the ritual rebuilding of Ise Jingu after coming here. Everything in the main sanctuaries including the treasures housed in them, is renewed through the process which takes place every 20 years. Everything is rebuilt and remade exactly as it was before. The idea that you pass on all the skills and keep the materials to hand forever through repeated renewal made complete sense to me. In order to do this, you need things which are sustainable – in other words, which don’t put a burden on the environment, which are in balance with nature. And not just a system which doesn’t put a burden on the environment, you also need the skills to work with these materials. I felt that the rebuilding ceremony is a part of the culture, the philosophy. I was told that we don’t know the reason for the rebuilding, but I think that there was probably already an awareness that “renewal” is necessary for sustainability over a thousand years ago. They knew it was about building a community and culture around the idea of making things last forever and that doesn't mean stone, that means using the materials at hand and looking after them.

I also found it interesting that every shrine will have a certain response to its context, they have this feel and this kind of sense of the place around. I was really interested to discover that that there are over a hundred thousand Shinto shrines in Japan – essentially anyone can set up a shrine (as long as it is their land), and each one has a strong connection to the local area. 

Ise is a completely unique place. I felt that it has its own original approaches to nature and conservation, care of buildings, preservation of local culture – things you don’t find in other areas. While these are deeply connected to the idea of renewal which comes from the practice of the ritual rebuilding of Ise Jingu, I felt that they are not dormant in the shrine’s ceremonies. You can see them in the lives of Ise’s residents: the idea of not upsetting the balance is pervasive throughout the culture. I heard the stories of many people in Ise, and these stories always come back to “renewal”. It’s not about building things which will last forever, it’s about trying to pass on the inheritance of what is valuable forever by creating a sustainable system and culture that are rooted in the local area.    

During this time in Ise, I was able to immerse myself in another culture in a very privileged environment. The full programme allowed me to fulfill my desire to see every little detail, and so it’s been wonderfully inspiring. I’m trying my best to make connections between the things I’ve seen and heard during my stay here, to make sense of them somehow, but in a way, it’s overwhelming, and I feel as though the pieces of the puzzle are still separate. I hope to put them together going forward.

Man learning how to make tea

 Ise City, British Council Photo by Hakubun Sakamoto

Profile: Matthew Rosier

Installation artist whose work seeks to augment our environment with memories of our past, distortions of our present, and visions of our future. Having trained as an architect, place is central in Matthew’s work; how it is used, by who, it’s history, it’s future, and what this communicates about society today.

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