PRINT May 1983

“I am on a train moving eastward.”

To travel in space you must leave the old verbal garbage behind: God talk, country talk, mother talk, love talk, party talk. . . You must learn to live alone in silence. Anyone who prays in space is not there.
––William Burroughs1

I AM ON A TRAIN moving eastward. Outside the window is central Siberia. The shrub and birch across the great plain become sparser, and the settlements by the track less frequent. Wooden houses are huddled behind high log fences, the last outposts engulfed by an expanse of white. I am farther from a coastline than ever before, but I am increasingly aware of both the desert and the sea. At the center of this land mass is a lake with a scale that is maritime. The waves have been paralyzed, frozen in full motion. Snow drifts in the gullies, and from the crests hang icicles. As the landmarks diminish and the horizons disappear into unknown permafrost zones, the space becomes temporal as well as physical. Reference points recede to glacial periods of prehistory.

Carried on the rhythm of the train wheels is an auditory hallucination, the faint rumble of hooves; here even space has a sound. The line of this track is the route of the Tartar hordes, horsemen from Central Asia drifting across the Urals. The sound of trains and hooves carries the distance, echoed in the roll of the language itself. The vacuum distorts the senses; it’s like watching an empty radar screen for hours, even weeks, on end. Signals start to appear.

The plain meets a dark, coniferous forest. The track winds with a river valley. Somewhere, days from the nearest settlement, a man is fishing through the ice. His affiliation is neither to Party nor State, but maybe to an archaic, shamanistic spirit. He occupies a territory as remote from Moscow as another planet.

Space is Russia’s abundant possession. Hitler’s doomed invasion was driven by the lebensraum it could provide. The pioneer spirit that advanced east of the Urals also scanned the sky with radio telescopes. Moscow boasts extravagant temples to the space sciences in the city’s permanent exhibition of economic achievement. Graves of the cosmonauts lie next to those of literary giants behind the medieval walls of the Novodevichy convent. In Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris, 1971, based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, the planet Solaris proves to be not only an organism, but a mirror to the individual’s subconscious. The Soviet cinema’s encounter between scientists and an unknown planet in this film is an exploration more of mental zones than physical dimensions. The voyage into space is fueled by imagination, memory, and the ghosts of personal, emotional crises. The journey is an internal, allegorical route. Each man sees his own torment through the strange sea below the spacecraft’s windows.

Tarkovsky’s metaphor of travel—a journey to the center of a forbidden zone—is the foundation of his recent film, Stalker, 1980. The postindustrial future depicted includes the scoria of an iron-machine age, not an abandoned Silicon Valley. The Stalker has inherited the residual powers of the mind. The peeling walls of his monochromatic home are surrounded by ancient books. Knowledge, the ammunition for survival, still exists in the Stalker’s secret cell. His imaginative power unleashes facilities that make him immune to the mathematical mechanisms of the State. This heritage is passed on to his mutant child. A glass shifts across a table, seemingly guided by an invisible hand, in the opening frames of the film. This image is accompanied by a persistent rattle of the table shaking as in a séance. In the final frames the child, heir to the Stalker’s clandestine power, places a glass on the table, focuses intense eyes, and the rattle begins. The glass shakes in telekinetic motion over the surface. The rattle rises to a roar. The child is exercising the voltage of his lineage. The roar is pitched in a chorus, phrases of the “Internationale”—the revolutionary anthem—escalate to the defined rhythms of a train, echoing the great distances.

Near the frozen lake that I passed is an unusual city. The uniformity of its inhabitants is marked by the occupation they have in common; it is a city of Earth Scientists. The diversity of precious metals and stones to be found in the Ural mines complements the oil that will fuel more than the automobiles of future Soviet citizens; it is also essential for the rockets that will probe a still greater space. The city, Akademgorodok, is a department of the Academy of Sciences. Its streets and parks are an extended campus. Its atmosphere is like the backdrop for a novel. It is the seat of futurist ambition. There is a curve of correspondence between the audacity of science and the accuracy of fiction.

In 1924 Eugenii Zamiatin’s Utopian novel We was published in New York. The book, which was never printed in the author’s native Russia, was an acknowledged influence on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949. The construction of We is mathematically precise, as is the United State the novel prophetically describes. The he- and she-numbers, the citizens of the United State, are subservient to the language of formulae. Their mission is to launch the rocket Integral to convert those planets in a primitive state of freedom to “mathematically faultless happiness.” The United State’s numerate totalitarianism is preserved by separation from the rampant wilderness outside. A glass dome, the Green Wall, capsulates the State; inside, rational order is dependent on the definition of space. The world beyond—with its luxurious, promiscuous anarchy—threatens the uniform responses of the inhabitants and the purity of the rocket Integral’s construction. Architectural order and political control are synonymous.

The legacy of the confrontation with space falls back on the Romantic clichés of technology, threatening the “natural,” “free,” “intuitive” spirit. Images of expansion into Siberia—given Russia’s position as both a European and an Asiatic country—conform to the pattern. The Soviet/Japanese coproduction of Akira Kurosawa’s film Dersu Uzala, 1975, pointedly depicts the wisdom of the Asiatic guide as stronger than the European science of a Siberian survey team. However, the subordination of Nature to machine typically fulfills a formal futurist dream. The Volga-Don Canal, which Alexander Rodchenko photographed with enthusiasm, was the Stalinist expression of machine power. The Bratsk hydroelectric scheme or the new railway north into Yakutsk territory are more recent examples of technological muscle in the Siberian wilderness. The economic rationale behind such projects is obvious, but there is a more persistent motivation for them. The magnitude and ferocity of the space to the east of the Urals is deeply disconcerting to a society conditioned by the symmetry of political theory. This space has to be challenged because it is a constant reminder of the insignificance of those mechanisms.

As the train moves farther east, the hills rise into sharp volcanic pinnacles. Their shape becomes increasingly pronounced to conform to a landscape that is Oriental. The trees change to Pacific deciduous forest. Over the fortified jaws of the mountains to the south is China. This is the no-man’s-land of border disputes; political control of this territory is on a long rein. Fishermen are scattered over the ice of the Amur river. Tigers still prowl the hills around Khabarovsk. Even the Pacific Ocean is frozen.

Seen from a boat, the coast of Japan coincides with preconceptions: an archipelago of islands which form stepping stones onto the mainland of Asia. The twisted strata of the shoreline have a violent rhythm. The land thrusts into view above the waves, then disappears. The view is framed by the curve of a wave in the kinds of angles seen in a Hokusai print. The transition is sudden and extreme. The sky changes from blue to brown. Tokyo rises beyond the port of Yokohama like a “progressive” architect’s drawing of a Futurist metropolis. At the entrance to Tokyo Bay are lighthouses on girder towers, which look like empty launching pads. Tankers continually slide out into the Pacific.

The first shock is the disorder. Early photographs of Edo (Tokyo) show a rectilinear city similar to the earlier capitals of Nara and Kyōto, which had been modeled on the T’ang Chinese grid system of the city of Ch’ang-an. The palace of Daimyo, a feudal lord, is revealed in a photograph by Felice Beato from the mid-1860s as a two-story rectangular compound. Uniform rooftops spread along the panoramic horizon of the picture and might be imagined to extend beyond the frame and along the busy coastal plain as far as Yokohama. At the time the picture was taken, Tokyo was already one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Its growth from 17th-century fishing village to 19th-century capital followed a system of ordered space, precisely because space was scarce. The two-storied wooden city was destroyed by incendiary bombs in 1945. It was rebuilt in a post-nuclear trance under the Occupation. New harmonious space did not agree with either popular requirements or national mood.

Now, high above the streets, trains pass through the center of department stores. Now, the bombardment of street images and banked TV monitors seen in shop windows forms a cumulative assault of fragmented sign language. No longer a single, linear motion, the multileveled city sprawls out from the central neon hub to jumbled suburbs that radiate to farther coastal cities and relentlessly beyond, as far as Hiroshima.

The illusion of space, and its implied divorce from the external world, is the key to surviving the fragmented city.

At an address where the street numbering refers not to a numerical sequence but to the age of the building, the exterior facade is of course nondescript. I open a doorway onto a courtyard which contains a stone lantern and shrubs. It is a place of transition. David Hockney, speaking recently at a conference in Kyōto, made a distinction between a Western view, which framed an image as if through a window, and an Oriental perception, which saw it as if through a door. The latter implies no barrier between the viewer and the space into which he or she projects. From the entrance of the house to the center, the absence of the superfluous yields space. Color is tones of clay and wood. Light through the paper screens is soft and diffuse-.The eye is guided into the visible and the vacant details, the ear into a conspicuous silence. The room is, in fact, a capsule detached from the exterior (chaos). The absence of glass seals the insularity.

The Tokyo winter is severe. Siberian winds cut across the country. The heavy snowfalls of the west coast, celebrated in Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Snow Country (1937), drift over the central mountains to Tokyo. The arrival of spring is clearly defined. The seasonal mood and its transience lie at the basis of Japanese perception. The first blossom in the city parks is confirmation of optimism that the cycle will be renewed. The cherry blossom, a clichéd image, is the sign of change from hermetic winter life to flamboyant spring. Pink plastic petals are tied to lampposts all year round in permanent optimism. The word “cherry” has become the trade name for cigarettes and cars. Marketing aces have realized the potential of synthetic spring. Natural transience is frozen, synthesized.

Japan overturns the notion of conflict with wilderness. The Japanese have an intimacy with the natural elements that is both harmonious and realistic. That intimacy is expressed in pronounced synthesis; formal Japanese art not only reflects the “natural” world, it serves as a mirror that reverses the process. The autumn light coincides with a haiku, the coast of Honshu with a Hokusai. A classical landscape screen opens out into a panorama. The space is infinite. The mountains disappear into clouds on an inestimable scale. People are depicted against this backdrop in brushstrokes no more significant than the mark of a tree or the sail of a boat. Figures merge into view as details, not as focal points. People are part of the space that contains them.

The Heian nobility of the 10th and 11th centuries lived in pavilions which reflected their intimacy with the landscape. The walls consisted of shutters and blinds which could be fully opened so that the room could face directly onto the surrounding garden and the hills beyond. The barriers between interior and exterior were removed, with the garden and the “natural” world becoming an extension of the internal space. The seasonal mood could penetrate the center of the home.

The framing of space was the first stage in the Japanese illusion of its extension. The architectural origins of Japan are in the designation of the sacred tree around which a sanctified space was defined by a fence. At the shrine to the Sun Goddess at Ise, the holiest Shinto site (ca. 100 B.c.), a raised wooden structure that houses the Mirror, emblem of the Sun Goddess, stands in a rectangular courtyard of pebbles. It is enclosed by a simple fence, a boundary between the sacred and the forest beyond, as Zamiatin’s glass dome had divided the zone of political control from the wilderness outside. Suitably symbolic, when seen from above the space of the shrine is like a lake in a forest, at the center of which is a boat-shaped island, within which is a mirror.

By the 11th century, a profound conceptual shift in the relationship to the landscape had occurred. The iconographic Buddhist painting, the mandala, had been transposed from its two-dimensional form onto the landscape around the temple, thus elevating the environment to the status of sacred paradise. The temple and its surrounds, which together constituted the mandala, could only be contemplated in their entirety when viewed from above. Such a view was hypothetical; to experience the mandala you had to project yourself directly overhead to a point in space.

In Kyōto the distinctions between the traditional interior and the contemporary exterior are still more abrupt than in Tokyo. Kyōto is the only prewar city left. The 15th-century temple Ryoanji nestles among the lower forested slopes of the mountains. At the foot of the temple is a pond more than a millennium old. A path winds up to the temple with its high roof which curves like the slope behind- I walk on a polished 14,. wooden veranda alongside the rooms of the abbot. The screens are drawn; the barriers are up. The veranda faces a rectangular area about 80 feet by 30 feet, enclosed on three sides by a wall. It is the most famous garden in Japan, yet it is empty and looks nothing like its image in reproduction. With in the rectangular area are 15 stones, which lie as if scattered in five groups on a background of coarse, gray sand. There is forms are balanced between and within each group. The sand is raked in circular patterns around the stones and in straight, shallow furrows over the remaining surface. There are no plants except for moss at the base of the stones. The veranda is raised above a border of black pebbles.

I face the space from a seated point of equilibrium. The theoretical projection is from the base of the veranda to the suspended point above. The ground is like a scroll painting unrolled across the frame of the rectangle. The range of its abstraction is both panoramic and microscopic. The stones are islands, the sand is sea. The moss, even in it s smallest detail, is forest on the slopes of volcanic forms. You have the sense of flying over an archipelago. Then, as in focusing a lens, the eye is pulled down into the abstraction of the wave motion. The scale is molecular; lines of force are polarized in the circular patterns around the rocks. I remember a schoolroom diagram of magnetic attraction. The eye is guided from an expansive horizon to a tightly penetrating focus. The dimensions extend as far as the pivotal point of personal balance allows.

Leaving Kyōto the rocket-nosed train with a single red eye at its tip points back to Tokyo. It’s the city that, even if you’ve never been there, you know we’re going to. Taking the train is more like flying. The vehicle and its allied technology was an early symbol of expansive ingenuity, which even the old enemies on the mainland, the Chinese, could not resist in exchange for the raw materials of which Japan is devoid. The Industrial Revolution from the coal mines and iron foundries of Britain now clanks like the Dark Ages, a period for archaeologists. The nuclear age, the traumatic birthday of Modern Japan, was the early death rattle of that revolution and all its implied social structures. As the train, raised above the rice fields, touches the outskirts of Tokyo, for the first time it’s like coming home.

Japan, once a metaphor for the exotic, becomes a model for a future, the course to which is already charted. The machine is now an extension of the body itself, providing an illusion of personalized space, which has traditionally had a crucial priority on the other side of the Pacific. Time magazine described Sony’s brilliant marketing of the Walkman as “A Great Way to Snub the World”2—an attitude representative of the Western romantic interpretation of the machine as profoundly antisocial, and the environment in terms of conflict.

Japanese art is an art of suggestion, not definition. It is an art of reduction, not construction. While dinosaur technology rusts, Japanese ingenuity has found its moment. Personalized electronics close the gulf between body and machine. The miniaturization of product is the assertion of simplicity over redundant complexity. Space is the ultimate currency. The Japanese imagination, so “natural” world, becomes the leading exponent of the synthetic. Our understanding of “natural” refers back to Romanticism; the Self and Nature pitched in separate epic terms. Japanese sympathy for the “natural” is so intimate because there has been no divorce. Synthesis has been a Japanese cultural strategy since the sixth century, when Chinese art was imported and Japanized. The city of the future, to which a bullet train is driving you, is Japanese not because its inhabitants bow and eat sushi, but because synthesis is their survival policy; separation was exploded with the atom at Hiroshima. Tradition survives. There is a core identity behind the masks. The masters of illusion can sell you your own space. When you’ve bought your solitude machine, you still need imagination to make your projection, and that’s not marketable.

After an early persona as a Space Oddity, David Bowie, maestro of the synthetic, chose Japan as his futurist illusion. The man who had fallen to Earth used its vocabulary to comfort his alien sensibility. Prayer ropes hung from the tōrii archway of his lakeside home. Bowie’s impassive, masklike face stares from the cover of Crystal Japan. A pink chrysanthemum in the background, a clichélike cherry blossom, matches the pink of those plastic petals. It is a synthesized image.

The train is somewhere underground at the very center of the city. I get out and start my ascent, remembering how Major Tom lost Ground Control. It doesn’t matter if it’s an elevator or a rocket.

Mark Holborn is a writer living in London and the author of The Ocean in the Sand: Japan from Landscape to Garden (London: Gordon Fraser, and Boulder, CO.: Shambala, 1978).



1. William Burroughs, from The Job, interviews by Daniel Odier, New York: Grove Press, 1970.

2. Time magazine, May 18, 1981.