Kristine Bilkau


Mental Spaces



The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually.


These lines open Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, and they sound as though Woolf was describing the Ocean paintings by Miwa Ogasawara. Inversely, when I look at these paintings, in which the sea touches the sky and the waves with their sharp contours almost seem to move, they make Woolf’s words resonate once more, provide them with a resonance chamber, a mental space that expands and expands. Painting resembles writing, writing resembles painting, both of them a process through which we attempt to grasp the moment—with our means—in all of its complexity, fragility, and grandeur. This is the question that I continually ponder in my work as a writer, even if it is not always present in me: How do you find expression for a present that is always interwoven with memories, hopes, and wishes with a foreboding of loss and transience? 


“Don’t worry. You will have the richness of your thoughts,” my mother told me during one of our last conversations. In those days she seldom left the house, her heart had become too weak. I was worried and felt a quiet sadness; to me she seemed cut off from the world. During our talk I asked her, “How does it feel? Be honest with me, how does it feel day after day, when your scope of activities has become so small?” I was afraid of old age, of loneliness. Yet her answer reassured me. “Whoever is rich in thoughts lives as though on an island, possesses a great inner world constantly renewing itself, one that has everything in it, the beautiful, the sad, the mysterious, the fleeting, and the permanent.”


My mother’s words fuse with Miwa Ogasawara’s paintings miraculously, for in her paintings I encounter them again, these expansive mental spaces: the gaze upwards in an agitated sky with birds, some of which fade into the gray. Drops of rain that capture the light. Foaming waves that crash on a beach. A diffuse landscape, like one that flies by during a train ride, the sun low on the horizon, a day draws to its end—or is just beginning. Miwa Ogasawara’s paintings speak of this, of how complex a single moment can be, a moment in which everything flows, our sensations and expectations, our memories. “The moment was all; the moment was enough,” writes Virginia Woolf in The Waves. Everything counts, every small detail can shine and have meaning through our observation. 


Miwa Ogasawara’s paintings are full of a special silence: they speak of pausing, yet at the same time they bring to life the shimmering impressions of the immediate present. Even the rapid tempo at which our world today pulses is perceivable. I look at the landscape passing by me, with the delicate outlines of trees and the feeble light of the tired winter sun amid the masses of clouds. In it I recognize both the speed of our high-tech world and the quietly flowing, inward-directed perception, for which a journey in a train compartment offers space. The word daydream crosses my mind, for the interplay of being in the middle of it all and at the same time feeling outside. Thoughts, sensations, and yearnings are expressed; suddenly, I grasp it: a single moment of perception always revolves around the whole as well, around our existence, around us, those we love, or feel loved by, lost or protected. 


Now the sun had sunk. Sky and sea were indistinguishable. The waves breaking spread their white fans far out over the shore, sent white shadows into the recesses of sonorous caves and then rolled back sighing over the shingle.


A few weeks after my mother died, I sat in her living room, on her sofa, heard her music and read her books. I felt protected, and I began to understand what she had meant during our conversation by her world of thoughts. The lived years, the store of impressions and memories, all that together gave her the feeling of being connected with everything outside. Whether we stand at the sea and watch the movement of the waves, which have no beginning and no end, or whether we imagine it, the sea, and recall a certain day, there, at the breakers, or whether we look at a work of art that triggers all these impressions—the transitions are fluid. The philosopher, psychologist, and Harvard professor William James wrote at the end of the nineteenth century about the vital necessity of resonance. We need—as much as the air we breathe—that we are seen, heard, and recognized by another person. James was concerned primarily with social ties, but the idea of resonance can be spun further, as we all know; it can apply to painting, music, literature, to any type of art. Just like the reader awakens a novel to life through their perception, so an observer awakens a painting to life. And vice versa: the painting touches something in us, something that was buried or forgotten. I can feel recognized and comforted by another person,  and also by an artwork. 


When I look at Miwa Ogasawara’s series Weltbild (World Picture), I look into the breadth of the universe, which is filled with lights, with stars, glimmering and inaccessible. Then I sense the insurmountable isolation that each one of us bears. A form of loneliness that begins in the first months of life in the seclusion of the uterus and ends in the unrelenting, ever narrowing scope of action of aging and dying. A state inherent to our being human, to our existence. I regard the blurred lights and see that we too are like these lights; we drift toward one another, move away from one another, circle one another, touch each other briefly and yet each one of us remains on their own. Miwa Ogasawara’s paintings make the space that occurs between two persons visible, the place between you and me. 


“Why I write, why I live, merges into one another. Because I want to find out what I am doing here. On this strange planet,” says the poet Sarah Kirsch. What is it that bears us, that keeps us moving? I believe it is the incessant search and yearning for attachment, or as William James wrote, the need for resonance. And, of this I am convinced, the inexhaustible hope for resonance. A hope that can always be rekindled. For a woman with a weak heart as well, who can no longer leave her home. Through people that we love; through the language of a poet, that makes something in us resound; through a painting by Miwa Ogasawara that captures the fragile, shimmering present, the beauty and frailty of our existence. The painting is my mental space.



© Kristine Bilkau