Gaudí of the Orient

Etsuro Soto

In his mountain excursions, Gaudi tried the “amanita muscaria”, a mushroom that alters the conscience and the perception of reality; at least that is what a biography of the Catalan genius states, written by the anarchist Joan March. With this mushroom as a sculptural element he adorned the entrance to the Güell Park and there are those who say that his ingestion served as inspiration to create the wonderful designs that attract millions of visitors from all over the planet.

In 1978, a young Japanese Buddhist, graduate in Fine Arts, called Etsuro Sotoo wandered around the Ciudad Condal (Barcelona) when he came across the Sagrada Familia –a monument that each year competes with the Alhambra for the title of “most visited in Spain”, with both attracting around three million tourists -. While many gazed upwards in open-mouthed admiration, he was fascinated, bewitched by that heap of stone that promised intense pleasures to an upcoming sculptor. Three decades later, the pinnacles of the temple are crowned with Sotoo’s fruit, certainly different from that mushroom: the wheat and grapes symbols of the catholic Eucharist, faith to which he converted in 1991 thanks to Gaudi.

He shows the photo of his wedding to his pianist wife in a traditional Buddhist ceremony in a zen temple, “but seeing the Sagrada Familia . he confesses in reference to his conversion – took me to Gaudi and Gaudi took me further afield”. Perhaps he gained enlightenment during the nights he lay “alone in the centre of the temple upon blocks of stone, looking at the sky as if I were on the deck of a massive ship”. “I believe in Gaudi”, he asserts.

He has tried to attract to the cause many of his compatriots thanks to – a Nescafe advert! “I signed a contract for a year. A year in which I couldn’t go to my country because I was all over the place drinking coffee, on hoardings, on television... But thanks to that my work became known over here and also the Sagrada Familia”. In fact, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Japanese Government just granted him an award for contributing to the promotion of friendship between the two countries. And despite the Japanese who wander around this European cathedral, as Sotoo considers it to be, representing just 1% of the visitors, their presence is pretty visible.

We are in the interior cloister patio, where the Asian artist has his office. Before him, a model of the Sagrada Familia which a pensioner made in a few hours out of milk cartons. Next door, work his assistants; grafters such as Fernando Franco, who has spent 45 years raising this expiatory temple – defrayed by the donations of the devotees -.The veteran labourer remembers quieter times, when “ things were much slower; the year I did my military service it was just my father and I up here laying stones”. Neither has he forgotten the first time they saw Sotoo: “We were amazed by the things that the guy knew how to do with his hands and clay”. In accordance with the instructions of the Japanese sculptor, Franco uses a mould to make the enormous balls of cement decorated with Venetian mosaics. “”Gaudi chose it; it is incredibly expensive, but I agree that it is the best material”, recognises Sotoo. These balls will become the grapes that one finds at this height, full of scaffolding.

As soon as he arrived, in 1978, and muddling through with four words in Spanish, he asked those responsible for the temple that they let him “cut stone”. “They didn’t want to, because here the sculptors don’t do that, but in Japan they do, in Japan we do everything. In the end, they saw my designs, they liked them and they accepted my plans”. And so began three decades which changed the life of this man completely and also Gaudi’s greatest work, one of the most polemical, both inside and out.

The whims of Providence

The Japanese sculptor tried insofar as was possible to respect the soul with which Gaudi imbued his work, something difficult to do, as many of the original plaster models and the majority of his instructions were lost during a fire that took place in the crypt in July 1936, due to the military uprising that provoked the Civil War. That event paralysed everything for two decades. And makes the desire to respect Gaudi’s will an intense exercise of one’s own will-power, in this case, Sotoo’s.

But trying to second guess what Gaudi would be doing today is at times more to do with intuition than “Providence”. Sotoo shows a piece of plaster with markings: “We were cutting stone to create one of the gargoyles when I discovered it. I was designing a pinnacle dedicated to the bread of the Eucharist so when I recognised what I thought to be wheat in this lump I thought it must be Providence”. And thus, these stone ears of grain crowned by a holy wafer, glisten up above. “If I find a piece of something done by Gaudi, I use it as a basis for my creations. For me it is sacred.”

Hell and reincarnation

He has the as yet unfinished Heaven facade in mind, where he must reproduce Hell. “It’s too soon to talk about it, but there won’t be a devil in my Hell, he has become a videogame character. I would represent it as an elderly woman suffering from loneliness, a hungry child, an invalid...”. He also dreams of converting one of the facades into an immense piano and the other side into an organ: both could be heard throughout the city.

Buddhism’s love of Nature had to be translated into a greater facility for understanding the naturalist precepts that moved Gaudi, in which one could also discern oriental influences. Sotoo has been commissioned to make the door for the Birth facade: on the model there is a curious conglomeration of plants and insects he has conceived for this. But it is yet to be put into practice: “I have the contract, I have the model, but they won’t let me do it. Why? For political reasons”.

-Do you believe in the reincarnation of Gaudi?
-No, ha ha. That’s what Subirachs says – the Catalan artists stated at some point that he was born (11-3-1927) exactly nine months after the death of Gaudi (10-6-1926).
-If you could ask your admired artist one question, what would it be?
-...How would he do things with the techniques of today.
-What do you think he would say about your work?
-That I should go to Japan and not come back, ha ha ha...


Source: El Correo Digital