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One day, I was sent a cryptic message out of the blue suggesting I should read The Story of Mimi-Nashi- Hoichi written in 1903 by the Irish/Greek writer Lafcadio Hearn also sometimes known as Koizumi Yakumo. This is a ghost story and features in Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. Hearn recalls an encounter that befell the blind storyteller Hoichi who was particularly adept at telling the story of a sea battle between the Heike and the Minamoto clans in the straits of Shimonoseki, just off the Yamaguchi Prefecture in Japan. The entire Heike clan including women and children and their six-year-old infant emperor were all lost at sea. To this day the Heike crab found in this region is said to have human faces on their back and posses the spirits of the lost Heike clan.\ud \ud
Blind Hoichi lived in a temple near by the cemetery that honored the names of the Heike lost at sea. One night he received an invitation to recite the battle of Dan-no-ura to the accompaniment of the Biwa to a distinguished high-ranking lord who would repay him handsomely for his performance. Hoichi’s disappearance each night eventually aroused concern in the priest who had him followed. Hoichi was found by the servants alone reciting the story amongst the cemetery of the Heike believing he was in the midst of a great performance to nobleman and samurai. At this point the priest realized that ghosts had bewitched poor Hoichi. The priest promised to protect Hoichi and proceeded to paint Hoichi’s body with magical kanji characters from a holy sutra that would render him invisible to the ghost and told him to await his visitor on the veranda but warned him to stay perfectly still and not to make a sound. Later that night the visiting lords messenger who couldn’t see Hoichi apart from his ears that the priest had failed or forgotten to cover in the sacred text visited Hoichi. Fearing returning to his master empty-handed the messenger decided to tear off the ears to take them back to his master. Hoichi felt his ears being torn off but remained completely silent until he heard the messenger leave and his friend the priest return who instantly realized the result of his error. Hoichi was never visited again but did receive great notoriety for recalling his own story and was rewarded handsomely by audiences that were gripped by his tale.\ud \ud
On the same day of reading this tale for the first time I had been working in the studio preparing for a drawing class and had been researching the work of Edouard Lanteri, particularly his plaster cast of an ecorche from 1908. I had recently acquired a copy of Lanteri’s cast of the anatomical study the year before with its missing left arm and peculiar pose of right hand grasping its head in a tortured fashion whilst maintaining a strangely elegant stance. Coincidentally, I had also been practicing with Lanteri’s method of modeling an ear in clay the same day.\ud \ud
I began to imagine a hypothetical meeting that might have took place between Lanteri and Hearn about the moment Hoichi had his ears torn off and how this might have looked or be represented. What sort of image would have been conjured up at that point? How could Hoichi’s silent composure have been maintained through such fear and agony? The Battle of Dan-no-ura took place around 900 years ago and made me wonder how many times did the ghosts of the Heike clan visit the land of the living and invade the innocent mind of folk. I went to bed that night and had the strangest of dreams where Hearn’s Greek cultural background coalesced with Lanteri’s interest in classical sculpture and the agony experienced by Hoichi with the tortured soul in Lanteri’s ecorche. The role of the storyteller was mixed with the role of the artist. The ear conjured up half remembered half forgotten images of a scene in Blue Velvet (1986) a film written and directed by David Lynch and what ever happened to Van Gogh’s ear?\ud \ud
It has been widely believed that van Gogh cut off his own earlobe and presented it to a prostitute on the 23rd December 1888, who in-turn alerted the authorities the following day. According to new research by Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans in their book Van Goghs Ohr: Paul Gauguin und der Pakt des Schweigens, published in 2001, what actually happened was a conspiracy concocted by Gauguin and Van Gogh to keep them out of prison and to cover up a fight between the artists that led to Gauguin slicing Van Gogh’s ear. Nevertheless this uncertainty between truth and myth reminds me of a friend’s favorite saying of ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story’.\ud \ud
I would like to thank Martin Greening at Sculptured Art Studio (www.marble-sculpture.com) for his generous expertise and help in realizing this project.\ud \ud
Andrew Sneddon, 2012