Day 2 (Ashiya/Kobe): Who are Tsukiyo to Syonen?

This residency would not have been possible without an incredible support of Tsukiyo to Syonen, a small yet enthusiastic art organisation run by a couple Mio and Koh Yoshida (with their son Shiroshi). Focused on creating a more personal art experience – whether through the visual arts, music or even food – Mio and Koh are eager to introduce Japanese audience to artists from different countries. Similarly, they welcome opportunities to share their vision of art; sometimes linked to Japanese tradition, but often crossing the boundaries between cultures. Currently, I am taking part in their micro residency for artists, curators and researchers, who wish to create a golden link between Japan and other distant places. I will be browsing Japanese photobooks (and most importantly I will be purchasing them), visiting galleries, talking to their owners and asking about some Japanese terms that remain either vague or dangerously soaked with the Western attitudes. What ma (negative space, where pause balances the structure and gives it its shape) means for the Japanese? Has it got the same oneiric and opaque meaning in Japan as outside of it? Why is Japanese photography so intrinsically connected to the idea of a shadow?

 

Inspired by Mimei Ogawa’s early 1900th century collection of stories The Golden Link, Tsukiyo to Syonen took its name from one of  Ogawa’s tales. In the simplest words

‘Tsukiyo’ (月夜) means the Moon

‘to’ (と)… and

‘Syonen’ (少年) stands for juvenile.

But this is just a clumsy and painfully literal translation from Japanese to English. What I gathered from the gallery’s programme, conversations with the owners, as well as my own impressions is that these general terms are an invitation to simply meet; wherever we come from and whoever we are. The Moon is for everyone and it can have as many forms as one wishes for. Our differences do not matter, making the meeting worthwhile. Tsukiyo to Syonen remains then an excuse to consider art from diverse angles.

Tsukiyo to Syonen seeks to create opportunities to meet, to look and to talk. Koh being educated in music and Mio, a graphic designer form a curatorial duet, which celebrates craftsmanship, originality and multidisciplinarity. Coming from non-visual art backgrounds allows them to look beyond definitions and decorums. Their home is filled with curiosities – as imaginative as their owners; the humanity shines through their projects, leaving commercial galleries and overthought ideas in the grey area, where sameness supports pseudo-intellectual cliques.

 

Previously owning a gallery in Osaka, Mio and Koh have recently renovated one of the rooms in their small flat in Ashiya City, creating a more personal gallery experience; where one can talk to the owners about the displays and other things that matter more or less. Decorated as traditional washitsu (Japanese-style) room with tatami mats and two pieces of antique furniture, up until now Koh and Mio staged here two exhibitions: Kaikou  by two Japanese artists under one name KENONI and drawings by Yusako Kuno’s Ultramarine ZarathustraIn 2015 they visited Air Space Gallery in Stoke on Trent with the display on the Indefinable Cities.

Later on, the exhibition travelled to Japan and toured across six venues in different places.

 

 

Future projects include painting exhibition and a display of works by artists supported by the UK’s own Room Art space from Birmingham.

 

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* The review is a result of  a research trip kindly supported by the The Great British Sasakawa Foundation

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Research in Japan, Day 1 (Ashiya City, Hyogo): Why Ashiya?

Day 1, Ashiya (Hyogo Prefecture)

A shuttle coach took me from the Kansai Airport (Osaka) to the location of my residency. Here I will be exploring Japanese art and aesthetics with the assistance of Tsukiyo to Syonen, a small private art gallery in Ashiya, which aims at cultural exchange between Japanese and European artists.  With their help, I will be looking at imagery and its relationship with the everyday. I will be asking questions about how? and why? and who? and what?

But before all that, I arrived at Osaka Bay. Greys, blues and haze rolled outside the shuttle car windows and I was mesmerised; or maybe just sleepy after the whole flight adventure. Osaka Bay was subtly monochromatic. Mr Whistler would love this.

 

Ashiya is a small but irresistible city. Perfectly trimmed, leaning on the Rokko Mountains on one side and attached to Osaka Bay on the other, it is a heaven for those who wish to unwind, walk in a blissful silence or just look at everyday life passing by. No one is rushing here, there are more bikes than cars (what is a car?)

and there are more walkers than bikers. If any…

 

Arriving in the middle of the week and almost at the dawn helps to experience the everyday of this small city (approx. 100 000 inhabitants). The hidden sign posts are peeking out from the bushes; discreet reminders that ‘You are politely asked not to park here’. Lotus root is in season and so I grab a truly informative leaflet with recipes from a local CO OP (convenience store). Ume mochi (plum mochi) are on sale, as ume season is over. Do not despair though, as there is always a season for something. Eat lotus. It will be gone sooner than you think.

 

 

Ashiya’s quietude is basking in the sun and cherry blossoms developed hastily this year. Apparently, I have just about missed the sakura watching craze which culminated last Sunday. There are still some ‘pikunikku’ goers (traditional way of celebrating the event) around and they are catching the last glimpse of the falling petals. The everyday of this city is unhurried but amusing. And are small things of value here? Of course they are.

Fact-of-the-day: Ashiya is the only city in Japan that has banned gambling and gaming centres.

 

It might be then pretty difficult to believe that Ashiya is a place where the experimental vigour of the Gutai Art Collective gathered in the 1950’s. Artists revolted against the conventions, stagnation, sleepiness and the sky*. Instead, they used force, movement and industrial materials to express the uncertainty and fuzziness of their surroundings. They went out onto the streets to perform art. They held an exhibition in the local Ashiya Park (just round the corner) and became one of the most important contemporary Japanese art movements. All of us, who know Gutai would recognise some of the most iconic images taken in the Ashiya Park. One could say that Gutai woke Ashiya up!

 

There are more surprises to Ashiya City and its surrounding (Kobe):

Haruki Murakami was raised here.

One of Junichiro Tanizaki’s (who was inspired by Kansai region) books Makikoka Sisters is based in Ashiya … and his memorial is here.

Tadao Ando designed a plethora of beautiful buildings around here: Shibata House (Ashiya), Takanata House (Ashiya), Koshino House, 4 x 4 House (Kobe), Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art (Kobe), Rokko Housing (Kobe) and plenty more.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s (a collector of Japanese art who inspired Tadao Ando) design Yamamura House is here.

Yoko Ogawa (contemporary writer) simply lives here.

Quietly.

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*A loose paraphrase from Alexandra Munroe.

* The review is a result of  a research trip kindly supported by the The Great British Sasakawa Foundation

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The Alchemy of Matter: ‘Confluence’ by Takesada Matsutani & Aliska Lahusen (Manggha Museum, Kraków)

 

Eternity will be velocity or pause  (Emily Dickinson)
                                                                                                                                                   

In one of the interviews screened at the exhibition Confluence in Manggha Centre in Kraków (Poland), Japanese artist Takesada Matsutani (b. 1937) describes his art, as ‘a communication of feelings’ through ‘creating beauty in black and white’. Quiet and contemplative just like its author, Matsutani’s work expresses the relationships with the world, human beings and the artist’s inner self communicated through materials sculpted in time and space. Coming from the artistic collective Gutai (meaning ‘concrete’)*, which took the Japanese and international postwar milieu by storm with uninhibited thirst for experimentation, Matsutani’s newest pieces reveal a similar curiosity about matter. Gutai’s foremost rule was to challenge formats, materials and blur distinctions between painting and other art practices and these thoughts resonate in the Confluence, transforming the gallery space into a journey of two artists, Takesada Matsutani and Aliska Lahusen. It is a meeting of forms, their qualities and the voids in-between them.

 

 

Similarly to Matsutani, Lahusen (b. 1946) – a Polish artist living and working in Paris creates paintings and sculptures which aim at equilibrium between emptiness filled with tensions and cavities suggesting movements. Inspired by Japanese aesthetics and lacquering methods, Lahusen nevertheless trials our perception of traditional materials. She also crosses boundaries between painting and sculpture, which inevitably reveal their primal inspiration: Japanese woodcuts and ceramics. Delicacy and endurance co-habit her pieces side by side, suggesting perhaps that time and its suspension are one and that everything will linger, just as everything will eventually disappear. Or is it vanishing right now… in its temporal actuality?

 

 

The project joint venture between Matsutani and Lahusen is a very successful attempt at telling a story of creative relationship between two artists, born on the other sides of the world and differing in styles. By sharing profound consideration for materiality, they invite the audience to look closer at natural materials such as wood, ink and canvas, as well as synthetic vinyl and glue, and to reconsider them as a breathing matter buoyed by the artist’s hand. Confluence – meaning ‘the meeting of two rivers’ – lies at the heart of this show and stems from the idea of diversity that can become synergetic. As we contemplate the lustre qualities of the glaze and the richness of the colours in Lahusen’s works, we also discover an intense depth in these otherwise flat surfaces. Concurrently, Matsutani’s matte canvases attempt at spherical shapes, which express a beautiful balance between control and chance. It might not be Gutai’s ‘the scream of matter itself’, but rather a quickened heartbeat; disquieting enough. In this way, the materials and their qualities are exercised and energized. It is refreshing and aesthetically rewarding.

 

Even though the exhibition space is soundless and discreet, it is filled with fictional sounds (rain, water, a gong, ink dripping) and becomes performative. The carefully crafted materials communicate through their shapes, colours and titles, which often refer to the idea of a journey, recurring along the display with the symbol of a circle.  Lahusen’s Barroque Errante (Baroque Boat, 2017), Tambou d’eau verte (Gong of the Green Water, 2017) and Pluie de Hiroshige (Hiroshige’s Rain, 2015) are lyrical and narrative, recollecting spiritual pilgrimage. At the same time, Matsutani’s Propagation (2015), Balance (2015) and Stream (2015) evoke movement, process and rhythm; a journey too, but more dynamic and unsettling. Inevitably, the focal point of the show becomes a black sphere used during the performance at the Venice Biennale 2017. It is covered in ink which was dripping unhurriedly from a pierced canvas bag suspended above it. With time, tiny splashes form a halo – amorphous and mesmeric. There is something sensual and compelling about the liquidized processes, delicacy and cogency evoked by the Stream and re-energized in Manggha’s different setting and with the use of canvas. The sphere is a reminder of the past, which also instigates the newness. Therefore, the circle (sphere) continues; the process of negotiation between the stubborn matter and artist’s energy must carry on. This awareness is clearly shared by both, Matsutani and Lahusen.

Perhaps this – along with the minimalism – is the confluence between both artists: an idea of a poetic journey prompted by curiosity, influenced by their potential and resulting in the creative exchange. Which of course, continues through Hiroshige’s rain.

 

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Spring rain – 

under the trees

crystal stream.

(Basho)

 

 

 

* The 1st Gutai Art Exhibition took place in 1955 in Ohara Hall (Tokyo).

Toshio Shibata ‘Bridge’ (Daiwa Foundation, London & Ibasho Gallery, Antwerp)

“During the shooting, I often imagine unrelated matters which are the impressions I receive from the subject; going away from the simple intention to explain or to illustrate the subject, one somehow attains abstraction” (Toshio Shibata)

 

Toshio Shibata’s (b. 1949) new exhibition ‘Bridge’ in the Daiwa Foundation (London) , organized in collaboration with Ibasho Gallery in Antwerp, can be viewed on many levels. Firstly, the show presents mainly photographs of bridges, often from remote mountainous areas, exposed to heavy rains and prone to landslides. This already points at the theme of a strong interdependence between man and natural environment, in which the power of the nature and the ingenuity of humans coexist side by side, creating often stunning habitats. When driving around the countryside, Shibata stumbles upon such oneiric scenes and – in his words – borrows them to ‘design’ photographic landscapes in a swift and intuitive way. Secondly, the show bridges two periods in Shibata’s artistic oeuvre spanning over four decades: the early years dominated by black and white style, and the later one (2004 onwards), significant for Shibata’s rediscovery of colour. Revealing exceptional attention to detail and compositional rigour, Shibata’s fragments of landscapes somehow maintain an unprompted and accidental charisma.

More importantly the bridges are, literally and metaphorically the places where two sides of the world meet: the manmade and the natural, the tamed and the wild, the old and the new. Without farfetched symbolism and overly imposing political commentary about technology conquering the wilderness, Shibata conveys images of everyday realities hidden from the human eye and devoid of human existence. The sheer visual aesthetics of these spectacles surpasses the allegorical tropes. Unresolved and arresting, the photographs recollect visions of the Earth just after everyone abandoned it. There is a sense of an open narrative in these images, which prompt imagination.

 

 

 

When considering Shibata’s photographs, one cannot resist from musing on the uncanny relationship between both the surrounding nature and the bridges, which look like they sprang organically from the neighbouring shrubbery. With the light captured as it moves across the constructions, we can also take a closer look at the qualities of the manufactured materials and subtly weathered surfaces. The passing of time and the  changeability of seasons, very much celebrated in the Japanese culture which reveres in all things transient, is an important context for Shibata’s imagery. The bridges therefore appear as they have always been there, suspended between their birth and obliteration; bridging two time platforms – between their own longevity and the camera’s hasty shutter. The mood of the pictures relies on their timelessness.

Having been trained in oil painting, the artist quickly realised that the medium was too heavy for him and – inspired by Edward Weston’s style – switched to photography that allows for greater spontaneity. His early affair with paint handling can be observed though in the consideration of the forms and the fluidity of colours. Take for instance image of perhaps the most recognized ‘Red Bridge’ (Okawa Village, Tosa County, Kochi Prefecture, 2005), in which the strong red presence of the construction cuts through the foggy land behind. Despite its dynamic angular appearance the bridge gains subtlety through plays of light, shadows and air that make it more eerie and sublime.

Often shot from striking perspectives, for example the stunning ‘Grand Coulee Dam’ (Douglas County, WA, USA, 1996) which looks rather like a black and white theatre curtain, the photographs challenge the viewer’s gaze. The asymmetrical layout of the exhibition, resolved in a very Ibasho Gallery style also contributes to the task that Shibata so exquisitely laid in front of us: to reimagine the world and to be thrilled by it once more.

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Further reading

Shibata, T. 2015. The Red Bridge. Le Pont Rouge.

Cavaliero, S. (ed). 2013. ‘Toshio Shibata’. Revelations: Photographie Japonaise Contemporaine. Poitiers: Le Lezard Noir. pp. 26-35.

To watch the video with Shibata’s commentary go here

 

 

Takashi Kawashima, Absence and Ambience (Daiwa Foundation, London 4 – 27 October 2017)

“Maybe it is not the destructiveness of the volcano that pleases most, though everyone loves a conflagration, but its defiance of the law of gravity to which every inorganic mass is subject. What pleases first at the sight of the plant world is its vertical upward direction. ”

* Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover

 

The volcano eruption is a profound spectacle from which we cannot turn our eyes away. Imbued with volatile beauty and metaphysical facet concomitant with being, time and substance, it is a trance-inducing show, in which the mountain imposes decease on others through its own resurrection. And then comes silence and a shadow, which transcend physicality and force us to question our very perishable selves. There’s death, but there is also a rebirth in this tragic act that spares no lovers. *

The latest multimedia show Absence and Ambience by Takashi Kawashima in the Daiwa Foundation is an attempt to communicate an atmosphere and its physical imprint, rather than gather material evidence of the disaster. Following a growing interest in the new generation of Japanese photographers, who experiment with the photographic medium and the materiality of the image, the show offers another – after last years’ revelatory ‘Generated Images’ by Taisuke Koyama – exercise in photographic style. Some prints here are manipulated, zoomed in and pasted on fabric tubes shaped in organic forms. Among them stands ‘A Rubble’ (2017), a found piece of wood with naturally corroded patterns. The sculptural aspect of the display recollects forms encountered in the post-tsunami landscape. This is not just another photo show. It is a conceptual installation proposing a new photographic language to come. **

 

 

Born in Miyagi prefecture in Tōhoku region that gave name to the calamitous 3/11 Great Tōhoku Earthquake, Kawashima is naturally drawn to the post-catastrophic imagery, which revolves around traces of things, lives and their inner light. They are often gathered and presented in a non-sequential way, making this miscellany more open to interpretation.  Through proposing a new way of narrating the catastrophe, Kawashima engages in a dialogue about the photography that feeds on oppositions such as light-darkness and life-death. Consequently, the show is a discussion about the nature of the photography, its fundamental laws and new potentials in revealing the unseen. Just as death would not exist without life, shadow/image disappears when deprived of light.

Take for example a video projection of ‘A Place of Red Clay’ (2015), in which the footage of the swirling ashes being fired out from the crater is intertwined with fragments of Susan Sontag’s novel The Volcano Lover (1992). Seemingly a true record, the video was created from both internet and Kawashima’s images, which generates questions about the purpose of such a documentation. Likewise, the quote from Sontag is a commentary on the aesthetic appeal of the spectacle, while dismissing its measurable qualities. Facing a print of ‘The Sun (Blue)’ with a luminescent halo impossible to discern with the naked eye, the projection confirms that the artist ponders on the nature of photography and its malleable character.

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The Sun (Blue)

When talking to Kawashima, one gets a sense of his deep interest in the literature, particularly the non-linear narratives that depict the story’s fragments, scattered around like rocks and ashes. Rather than putting them all together into a coherent entity, Kawashima leaves the viewer with an opportunity to shape their own version of the calamitous events out of multiple images, objects and words. He surveys the topography of the devastation and obsessively gathers evidence of destruction to reveal, paradoxically, the beauty in what has vanished. There’s no finish or aim in this task, apart from collecting memories and shadows.

And perhaps the best words underpinning Kawashima’s project are ‘The shadow has been burned into the wall’ displayed right next to the photograph of a withered dune, on which human footprints are barely visible. Printed on glass and casting a gentle shadow, the phrase leaves impression that Kawashima’s photographs are the vehicles for something more than just the image; they are moments of fragile and uncertain lives enclosed within a frame of artful reflection about the inseparable relationship of humans with nature.

** A reference to Takuma Nakahira’s For a Language to Come (1970), a canonical text of the Japanese post war discourse on photography, in which the author postulates a necessity to find new ways of expression for the medium. Nakahira was one of the founders of the Provoke magazine, a photographic periodical that promoted so-called are-bure-boke aesthetics (rough-blurred-out of focus).

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FEMALE FORCE FROM JAPAN, Ibasho Gallery (1 June — 3 September 2017, Antwerp)

Tucked away on a quiet residential street in the cultural district of Antwerp (Zuid) is Ibasho Gallery, an exhibition space devoted to contemporary Japanese photography with an impressive collection of collectible prints and photobooks. Conceived in the spring of  2015 by a couple, Annmarie Zethof and Martijn van Pieterson, this small gallery combines original architectural features with clean lines of the white washed walls and a homely feel, allowing for the displays to be appreciated in a casual atmosphere. It truly epitomizes the ‘ibasho’, which in Japanese means ‘a place where one can feel at home’. Both devoted to sharing their enthusiasm for Japanese photography, Annmarie and Martijn decided to swap corporate jobs and set up a space that quickly became one of the hubs of the Belgian photographic scene. Their zeal becomes infectious as they talk about striving to promote both recognised and new artists, whose images prove that there is a strong need for a dialogue about the new voices of the photographic Japan.

The show Female Force from Japan proves nothing less than that. The selection of the artists and the variety of themes and techniques it exhibits is truly thought provoking. Moving beyond the topographies of particular gender, time and genre, the photographers seem to rather embrace the potential of the medium through experiments with textures, framing and realities. There is confidence and excitement in these attempts that share a certain penchant for the surreal, the ambiguous and transgressive. Miki Nitadori for instance utilises her dual-nationality and multidisciplinary approach to consider (and to surpass) social, national and medium related limitations of the photographic practice. Focused on her unresolved identity is also Tokyo Rumando, who projects dreams and desires onto images of her posing as death, temptress and a young girl – images that engage with the viewer through their voyeuristic intensity. In this, erotically charged series titled ‘Orphee’ Tokyo Rumando becomes artist of many selves, crossing the boundaries of time and sexuality.

 

 

The otherworldly and subjective also prevail in the oeuvre of Kumi Oguro, dominated by the images of women’s faces obscured by serpents of hair. Dressed in chemises, they recollect somnambulists awoken in the middle of the dream while continuing to engage with the uncanny interiors they inhabit. Other artists’ photographs occupy more spiritual realm, like in the blurry photos of Miho Kajioka influenced by the aftermath of the 3/11 tsunami. The sheer power and unpredictability of the catastrophe made her look at the worldly things ‘just as they are’ and portray them with wonderful simplicity. Mayumi Suzuki’s pictures revolve around documenting the post-tsunami landscape covered in photographs and objects; reminiscence of communities, families and personal stories, like her own embodied in objects found among the post tsunami rubble, such as a camera belonging to her father, who perished in the waves. White washed and fading, the images and memories disappear as life moves on.

 

 

Concurrently, Akiko Takizawa is fascinated by the dichotomies between the modern fast paced Japan and its unshaken devotion to the world of the supernatural. She photographs people travelling to or inhabiting near-solitary mountainous lands that, according to ancient beliefs allow for connecting with lost relatives and friends; lands where time stops in a perfect equilibrium between life and death. Yukari Chikura’s and Mika Horie’s works are similarly preoccupied by mysterious landscapes and their transcendental appearance, yet incorporating different techniques. While Horie makes her own Japanese paper, which texture is of a sculptural quality, Chikura takes eerie photographs of hauntingly beautiful skies and snowy landscapes populated by hints of her deceased father.

 

 

Meanwhile, Yoko Ikeda, Hiromi Kakimoto and Reiko Imoto focus on the small epiphanies of their surroundings: pale pink balloons invading a kitchen, light pattern formed on a concrete wall and a woman’s shoe anonymously playing peek-a-boo with the viewer. Whereas Ikeda and Kakimoto’s pictures are light and almost transparent, Imoto’s images are more saturated, exposing the textures, angles and dramatic structures of the urban realm. Accident, chance and seizing the ongoing moment are also the key components of Mikiko Hara’s works, where the lives of random passer-by’s (mostly women), are captured without using a viewfinder and resulting in the portrait of the frenetic, fragmented world of the everyday. Shot from unusual angles and obstructed by unexpected objects, the figures are depicted when lost in thoughts and living their ordinary lives. Lives that are more evocative and multi-dimensional than we could ever imagine.

 

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The Japanese House: Architecture and Life After 1945 (Barbican, London)



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It might come as a surprise but the average life span of a building in Tokyo is thirty years. Decimated by natural disasters and the catastrophic bombing during the 2nd World War, Japanese houses tell a story of resilient architecture that chases the modern while evoking the traditional. Endlessly erased, adapted and mutated, it is a palimpsest of the old and the new, the fleeting and the enduring, the ephemerality and physicality. While post war Japanese architecture might have struggled to find its identity, it never ceased to amuse with its inventiveness and sophistication. Somewhere between the functionalism and impermanence is what we’d call the essence of Japanese living.

The survey of Japanese House: Architecture and Life After 1945 in London’s Barbican is an exhibition that, alongside showing ground breaking architectural designs and their socio-economical contexts, attempts to dig deeper into the psyche of the Japanese family. Spread across two floors centred around a courtyard with lovingly reconstructed walk-through models of contemporary Japanese rooms, the show allows us to sense what it’s like to live in these finest examples of nanotecture. The gallery’s split level layout creates a peek-a-boo viewing experience, also attributed to the use of spatial margins (such as staircases, floor landings etc.) that create a feeling of openness and homeliness simultaneously. The soundtracks from Japanese home dramas and cartoons screened in various rooms permeate the air, recalling neighbours living next door and creating a space, where the public and the private spheres blend organically.

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This staple Japanese concept of openness, incorporating the outside environment into the family dwelling is introduced in the example of Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto (ca. 1615-56), exquisitely photographed by Yasuhiro Ishimoto in the 1950’s. Built with traditional materials such as wood and bamboo, every arrangement of the smallest detail was designed to be followed by the human’s natural movement. At the core of the house is a veranda; an in-between zone and a symbol of the loose boundary between the privacy of the home and the external landscape. Profoundly traditional as it may seem, the Katsura Villa was also uniquely modern and inspired such brutalists as Le Cobusier and Walter Gropius who praised its Mondrianesque design. Suddenly, viewing the show whilst being surrounded by the Barbican Estate gains more significance. It feels right to be here.

Room by room, the exhibition draws a history of Japanese architecture, responding to the post war austerity with concrete utilitarianism, and to the economic affluence of the 1970’s with technologically advanced experimental housing. Complemented by films, documentaries and photographs, this show gradually becomes more of a survey on Japanese family life, often hiding its darker underbelly. The overarching impression of being steeped in architectural bliss soon disappears, especially when viewing some artistic responses to the society’s consumerism and alienation. Mako Idemitsu’s short film Another Day of a Housewife (1977-78), is a record of a mundane existence surveyed by the ever-present TV monitor. The exhibition also includes Katsuhira Miyamoto’s Zenkai House (1997) that illustrates the catastrophic consequences of the earthquakes and unforgiving governmental policies that favour erecting endless new structures above preserving the old ones. Another problematic aspect of Japanese housing is considered in the black and white photographs of Ryuji Miyamoto, who documented homelessness in the post bubble 1990’s through images of tiny cardboard homes, some of which fit between perfectly trimmed bushes.

Perhaps these uncomfortable aspects of Japanese housing problems are not exploited enough in the show. Not all these homes are airy and holistic, with most of the Japanese society still living in claustrophobic flats crammed with most peculiar collections, as depicted by Kyoichi Tsuzuki in Tokyo: A Certain Style. Nevertheless, this survey is a delight for the eye, a feast for the senses and a food for thought too. It’s a joy of architecture. Even though it seems to be sometimes only a joyous utopia.

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originally commissioned by This is Tomorrow and published here.

BOOK, Imitation and Creativity in Japanese Arts. From Kishida Ryūsei to Miyazaki Hayao (2016) by Michael Lucken

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In his book A Japanese Mirror (1984), Ian Buruma, a Dutch historian and author of numerous volumes on Japan describes ‘continuities behind the façade of constant change’ that epitomize so-called Japaneseness. Japanese arts have long been considered as somewhat schizophrenic in their constant attempts to reproduce the West on one hand and their pursuit to portray the ‘national identity’ on the other. Marked by natural disasters and the tragic outcomes of its militarisation that erased Japanese cities to the ground, the history of Japan reveals a peculiar and fascinating need to look into the past with zeal to rebuild, to reimagine, and to remember.

This approach of discerning the past, while focusing on innovative aspects of Japanese art in the Twentieth century, is represented by Michael Lucken in his interdisciplinary study Imitation and Creativity in Japanese Arts. From Kishida Ryūsei to Miyazaki Hayao (2016). The book is a survey of Japanese ‘creative imitation’ and the author argues for the elasticity of mimetism that makes Japanese art so hard to pinpoint. It explores Kishida Ryūsei’s Portraits of Reiko (1917-1929), Kurosawa Akira’s Ikiru (1952), Araki Nobuyoshi’s Sentimental Journey – Winter (1970-1990) and Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away (2001), and the author’s method is based on initial description, followed by careful historical and theoretical examination. In this way, the author avoids playing with pre-requisite ideas for the sake of proving the argument. All pieces present an interesting and chronological array that play with the idea of art’s reflective qualities and form an enriching dialogue between the old and the new.

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The book starts with Kishida’s Portraits of Reiko, a series of twelve depictions of the artist’s daughter, executed every year around her birthday. The viewer witnesses the striking transformation in the artist’s style and technique; from realistic oil painting a la Holbein, to chilling ink portrait of Reiko’s demonic face, conceived from simple brush strokes in traditional Japanese style. Through borrowing different methods from other artists but applying them in a highly personalised ‘distorted’ way, Kishida created an uncanny illustration of the passage of time and his own artistic education.

Similarly Kurosawa, famous for adapting Western literature, tends to direct attention to the nature of the medium. Watanabe, the dying protagonist of Ikiru wants to make a change; to leave a trace and build a playground in the post-war Tokyo’s poor neighbourhood. While the film bears a similarity to Tolstoy’s story The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), it is also the director’s personal statement. What is the need of recording? What is the nature of mirroring the world in film? Lucken highlights that Kurosawa’s answers are to seek originality in a collective creation and juxtapose ‘the real’ with ‘aesthetical’; like Watanabe’s death, discernible on an X-ray photograph, and memorized through the cinematic medium. It is suggested that art seems to be at its best when meeting life.

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Araki is known for his daily repetitive routine of taking photos continuously, often of similar subjects and objects. Repetition is a part of his artistic oeuvre and he uses it in his Sentimental Journey, a series of photographs focusing on Araki’s relationship with his beloved wife Yōko, from their honeymoon to her death in 1990. Lucken focuses here on the significant and unexpected image of Yōko’s hyoid bone, traditionally being retrieved after cremation. The author’s insightful description highlights how by placing this venerable, yet never photographed object next to other common ones, such as a Buddhist tablet and Yōko’s portrait, Araki confronts his own fears and society’s dogmas.

In its excellent last chapter, the book takes the reader on a journey around Spirited Away and its recurring visual geographies of verticals, horizontals and ‘adventures of the oblique’. The vertical scenes are echoed in the design of the treacherous bathhouse and recollect a city with its all-consuming aspirations. These are contrasted by horizontal passages filled with tranquillity and restorative powers. Lucken notes the conflicting facets of the high-rise and landscape perspectives that have underlying social implications, subtly offered by Miyazaki. Out of both, the director distils his own diagonal way, which signifies the unstable, but also the transitional and regenerative. Again, as Lucken proposes, it’s when the art goes askew, that it highlights the importance of the mundane recurrence.

Maybe the subtlest of all of Lucken’s interpretations is encapsulated in the outer book sleeve, with the reproduction of Untitled (1959) by Gutai member Sadamasa Motanaga. By using familiar materials and inspired by tarashikomi (a traditional technique of Nihonga), the painter created a new artistic phenomena in the shape of so-called ‘performance paintings’. Led by the words of Gutai’s leader, Yoshihara Jirō, ‘transformation is nothing other than renewal’, he understood that inventing lays in disseminating the past and repetition that comes from profound appreciation. Following Motanaga’s example, Lucken also harks back to the fathers of re-invention.

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Text originally commissioned by  The Japan Society Review available here

Ito Shun, Cosmic Birds & In a Landscape 2-20 May 2016 (Municipal Bank, Birmingham)

When several years ago two friends, Japanese kinetic sculptor Shun Ito and Birmingham based choreographer Miyata Kei, met in the UK’s second city, they came up with an idea for an interdisciplinary project, combining art installation and dance performance. Inspired by the rich industrial heritage of the Black Country, Ito and Miyata travelled across the area and absorbed the atmosphere of abandoned warehouses and workshops, filled with the sounds of metal, machines and human presence. This experience resulted in Ito’s exhibition Cosmic Birds, part of the International Dance Festival 2016 in Birmingham. Both ex-dancers, Ito and Miyata (the curator of the show) made movement a unifying theme, expressing not only a very personal understanding of motion, but its meditative and scientific aspects.

Orbit One website

Cosmic Birds comprised twenty mechanical assemblages dancing in the ghostly offices and spaces of the old Municipal Bank located in the very heart of Birmingham. The site of the show contributed to the pervading sense of otherness. The Bank remains closed to the public, rarely opening its heavy, cast-iron doors, and this architectural treasure, boasting the grandeur of its atrium and a maze of more dilapidated rooms, was once more brought back to life through Ito’s artistic intervention. His use of movement served to guide attendees through the building, the machines casting an intricate array of shadows and light, creating an immersive atmosphere and a strong sense of having stepped into a memory. (Indeed, throughout the bank, one is confronted by signs and symbols that hark back to a different age. One inscription reads ‘Thrift radiates happiness’).

While some sculptures were small and innocent in their merry-go-round structure and angelic appearance, others were clearly inspired by the Futurist movement, dynamic metal skeletons exposed. Wires, gears and cogs, all made from scratch, performed hypnotising dances as they span, climbed and fell. The way they cut through the air, much like archaic astronomical models, recalled the titular ‘cosmic birds’, combining mechanical, scientific and aesthetic sensibilities.

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Central to Ito’s artistic experiments is gravity and his sense of its profound beauty. In this exhibition he considered what gravity looks like and how it sounds. This effort came across most clearly in his trio of kinetic sculptures Cosmic Birds, which lend their name to the exhibition. Situated side by side, these three identical sculptures expose the engineering mechanisms that pass the movement continuously from one part onto another. Inside each of the steel frames, a satellite-like cosmic bird is moving up and down as if on a trapeze. The hypnotizing effect of this piece is additionally heightened by the heartbeat-like sounds emanating from the speakers. Created by spinning air and the amplified movements of the three ‘cosmic birds’, this is Ito’s rendering of the sound of motion.

Cells, a giant mobile suspended from the ceiling of the Bank’s main hall is the piece inspired and made in Birmingham. Consisting of two hundred steel rings that rotate slowly thanks to gravitational pull, the installation echoed the shape of the old Bank’s clock and emphasised the impermanence of life, a very potent symbol in Japanese aesthetics. The contemplative character of the sculpture, as well as its simplicity and universality was used by Kei Miyata for In a Landscape, a dance performance based on the beauty of ‘mindful’ movement. Created with an ensemble of local people practising dance, yoga and martial arts, the choreography presented a dreamlike landscape, where humans met in an austere place and influenced each other in often invisible, yet profound ways.

Dressed in black, the dancers performed repetitive movements among the hanging Cells and exercised their own and the audience’s attention. Each brought their own emotional and physical quality to the dance, but only together were they able to create a symbiotic collective. In this way, they formed a muted, rhythmical surrounding for Miyata’s expressive performance.

Miyata, inspired by the writings of Miyazawa Kenji (also a key influence in Ito’s work), created a spectacle more abstract than narrative, where words are replaced by movements reminding us of shodō, the Japanese art of calligraphy: controlled but spontaneous, focused and impulsive. As a result, In a Landscape conveyed an impression of living art that is strongly related to nature and life; art that comes from the individual’s inside and is motivated by simply being part of the world.

Cells. Photo: Heather L. Thomas

Cells. Photo: Heather L. Thomas

Text originally commissioned by The Japan Society Review available here

Ryoichi Kurokawa, Unfold (FACT, Liverpool 2016)

The power of data with its immense diversity, unconceivable scale and sheer visual potency escapes definition, despite being encoded in definable systems. As we become an increasingly data-driven society, where nearly everything we do is prescribed onto a sleek graph and scrutinised by analysts, the possibilities of the data science are endless. Undeniably, data is an extremely powerful tool. But it can also be beautiful, especially when dry and impenetrable information patterns morph into organic forms in a frenzy spectacle that leaves no space for analysis and no time for linguistic command. This is what Ryoichi Kurokawa, a Japanese musician and visual artist does to his viewers. And in his artistic processes he uses a simple fact, that humans are a visual species that needs a powerful stimulus to remain in awe for longer than a split of a second.

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Kurokawa’s domain lies in a ‘synaesthetic’ approach, resulting in a multisensorial experience, where sounds, pictures and tactile simulations blend and disable us from differentiating one from another. Fully enclosed within a constructed space, we immerse ourselves in an artificial world residing in constrained surfaces and computer generated images that become a digital embodiment of the infinite universe. ‘Unfold’ is Kurokawa’s first UK exhibition and it focuses on marrying art with science. For this project, Kurokawa gained access to astrophysical data that speaks of a ten-billion-year evolution of stars and galaxies. Recorded by telescopes (predominantly the Herschel space telescope), these mind-blowing processes became a landscape for further artistic explorations and result in images and spectacles that literally unfold in front of our eyes. At their core is a skill that shines through complicated descriptions and high tech tools engaged in the show: a skill of observation. Something that should not be overlooked when considering Kurokawa’s method.

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There are only three pieces exhibited at FACT, ‘Unfold’ (Audiovisual installation), ‘Constrained Surface’ (HD display) and ‘Unfold.mod’ (a selection of metadata and scientific photography explored by the former two exhibits). There is no need for more, as they take our physical awareness to its limit and leave us with just about enough space to breathe. ‘Unfold’ does as it promises: unfolding a reconstruction of what seems to be the birth of the stars. Plunged in the darkness lit up only by three neighbouring screen panels, we observe shapeless forms and lines animated in a frenzy narration that stretches from pure silence, to rupture movements. And then, Kurokawa adds the sounds; fizzy, electronic, out of this world. The speakers installed beneath the floor make the noises tangible. From top to toe, the throbs reverberate in bodies and interrupt the audience’s minds. The synaesthesia becomes omnipresent and as a result, we physically experience the data. Similarly, in ‘Constrained Surfaces’ colourful networks of lines and signals travel across the screens in almost poetic way. Their uncontrolled proportions ebb and flow, in an attempt to push the screen out of their way. They come and go; emerging; unfolding. Remnants of the Big Bang. Nomads of the universe.

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Attending Kurokawa’s thirty-minute concert ‘Syn_’, a performance like no other, combining all the props used for his installations, gives an insight into artist’s musical oeuvre, but on a louder and bolder scale. Barely visible in the darkness and from behind a laptop ‘turntable’, Kurokawa performed his electronic compositions; a fusion of sounds punctuated by silence and visualised on two big screens. Again, abstract forms ran across the panels, accompanied by sharp sounds that pierced the air in the room, resulting in a surprisingly meditative atmosphere. One sensed that, beyond complicated science, equations and programming processes, Kurokawa’s main concern is nature – its precision, intricacy and amorphous abilities. By creating shapes that originate organically and evoking an atmosphere, in which the mind is almost entirely devoid of thoughts, the artist harks back to the Japanese ideas of ‘ma’ (emptiness saturated with meanings) and ‘impermanence’ (embracing the change of all things earthly). Kurokawa portrays nature that is being looked at yet again, reconsidered and elevated to another level. A perfect grasp of the ungraspable.

Text originally commissioned by This is Tomorrow available here