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In Session: Virtuality as Potentiality in Early Modern East Asia
3: The Virtuality of Japanese Playing Cards in Early Modern Material Culture
Thursday, March 25, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
Yale University, United States
In the sixteenth century, Japanese merchants engaged in robust trade with visitors from the Iberian Peninsula, known as nanban-jin or “Southern Barbarians.” The arrival of nanban ships introduced new technologies and pastimes to the Japanese archipelago, including European-style playing cards, which were known in Japanese as karuta (Port. carta; Eng. card). The Iberian deck of forty-eight cards served as a prototype for a Japanese deck, which retained the four suits of clubs, swords, cups, and coins, and the three face cards of king, knight, and female knave. Popularized by samurai gambling practices, the Japanese deck provided an influx of exotic imagery that was used to decorate a variety of material objects. By the seventeenth century, the original deck was transformed into a pack of seventy-five cards, which hybridized images of mounted knights, the Seven Lucky Gods, winged dragons, and Chinese officials. These cards were sometimes pasted on folding screens to portray a game-in-progress, complicating the perception of the screens’ two-dimensional surface. The use of cards in multimedia artworks demonstrates the artisan’s ludic engagement with optical illusion, which questions the border of reality through the virtual space of the game. Furthermore, the pasted cards not only lend a self-reflexive element to the artwork, as images within images, but also, like text, perpetuate a system of diagrammatic signs that inscribe its material substrate with meaning. This paper explores the ways in which screens deploy playing cards to add narrative dimension and a sense of “the virtual” to the artworks that feature them.