Anthropologist and painter Werner Sasse on the fine art of linking cultures to his meditative canvases
Over a cup of coffee in Seoul, a scintillating conversation ensued about Korean culture, language, painting, music, dance and calligraphy with anthropologist and painter Werner Sasse, acclaimed dancer and choreographer Sin Cha Hong and Inko Centre director, Rathi Jafer. Jafer was completely drawn into the flitting weaving exchange with this extraordinary couple. “Both are strong in what they do. Both have a meditative framework within which their performance takes shape. Werner and Sin Cha were travelling to India this year and I invited them to Chennai.” Inko Centre hosted Werner’s show From Darkness to Light with Palaniappan of Lalit Kala Akademi and Kyungsoo Kim South Korea Consul-General, Chennai.
Sasse is an anthropologist with a long academic career, most fruitfully taking Korean culture to Germany. At the age of 25, he went to Korea doing development aid. He kept going back ever since, drawing the links between Japanese, Chinese and Korean cultures. The first German to get a doctorate in Korean studies, Sasse has since retired from Hanyang University. His recent book reinterprets the lost connect with agriculture for modern Korean society . Werner writes the book’s title in Korean, which I cannot read. “ Min-natchi yeppeun Korean ,” he reads out, now writing for me in English. “It means The Beautiful Korean Without The Make-Up. You see, Koreans always try to exaggerate their culture. If you stick to what is your culture — that is good enough. It is important in India as in Korea. Never introduce the culture that is not living. That is for the museum. Introduce the culture that is alive now.” An agglomerate of influences, Korean culture is a changing canvas. “It is the speed at which it is changing now that is unbelievable. I tell my students not to rely on my teachings. I am the past. You are the future.”
Yet, everything Sasse says and does resonates with timelessness. “The study of culture is anthropology. History and literature is not just for written culture. When somebody reads living literature, his mind is changed!” I ask Werner about our ability to grasp oral communication easily. “When you see people and you hear their voices, recognition comes instantly. We are immediately able to understand what they write.” This direct contact with persona through sensory experience plays out in Werner’s artistic performance. Famous calligraphers always destroyed evidence of their writing, exhorting Werner to imbibe the process and its participatory qualities. “People can see the surface of the beauty but if they cannot experience the making of calligraphy, they are losing. The process of writing is so much more important.”
Painting began for Werner Sasse as a schoolboy and stayed his companion through academia. He is drawn to black and white and seldom uses colour, at most earthy tones. “I like doing calligraphy on the Korean paper Hanji. There are 30 to 40 different varieties of paper, all of different qualities. Hanji is not rice paper! It is made from the bark of the mulberry tree.” For his presentation in the open courtyard at Lalit Kala Akademi, Werner arranges eight panels as the eightfold path of Buddha. Werner paints the first scroll black and progressively adds strokes, finally ending in white — moving from dark to light, from material world to immaterial world. “Most of us are moving to and fro the middle stages. Even if you get to the enlightened state, you won’t be there forever! One has to continuously practise.” Language and culture both can pose impediments, yet as Sasse paints with a big brush attached to a long pole, all differences dissolve. “I call it a meditation really. In Korean tradition, you don’t just start. You meditate. And in Zen, sometimes after you have meditated for a long time, the actual painting happens in a flash.” He uses the long utility brush and broom for his painting because these are everyday objects. “Everywhere is the Buddha like the poem — The Moon Reflected in a 1000 Rivers.”
Werner never teaches painting, but if ever asked, he gives a worldview, not a lesson. “If you can see, you can paint. The rest is technique. One dot can be an eye and suddenly the whole thing is an animal.” As Werner paints, his presence channelises our energies and by the same stroke, we find ourselves immersed in his painting, in the blacks and whites, till man and character are one and the same.