Saya Kubota: Material Witness (Daiwa Foundation, London 20 January – 22 February 2016)

There is a certain drift among contemporary Japanese artists that focus on poetic playfulness, humbling simplicity, as well as a detachment from strict representation. Their artistic practice often revolves around minimal and visually whimsical interventions into the structure of remnants of the past without separating from tradition and continuity. The disaster that hit Japan on the 3 March 2011, brought by the magnitude 9.0 Tōhoku earthquake, resulted in a society shattered by the unpredictability of life. Surprisingly, this enormous catastrophe breathed new life and hope into the ordinary life of many of Japan’s artists and emphasised the end of the Neo-Tokyo flamboyance. The Japan of the everyday was awakened.


The timelessness and transitory character of life can be observed in the works of Saya Kubota (b. 1987), whose artistic practice focuses on hints of the past (re)stored in the archaeological and antiquarian objects acquired from diverse sources. She later transforms these in unexpected and visually evocative ways. Currently exhibiting in Daiwa Foundation in London, this collection of unprecedented objects titled ‘Material Witness’ reminds us of a cabinet of curiosities; a visual palimpsest of the past, the present and the future. Rather than restoring objects to their original appearance, Kubota rejuvenates their faded patina and cracked surfaces with precious crystals and gold leaf – a process that deconstructs their meanings and gives them a new, ambiguous life. Her art escapes a specific time-frame and drifts somewhere in between the old and the new, the familiar and the unknown, the lost and the found.


Take, for example, ‘Material Witness #1’, consisting of a light box and incense-burnt tracing paper that depicts the poised face of a goddess. The portrait draws the spectator in with its overlapping outlines, which reveal not one, but five portraits of goddesses representing different iconographies. On another antique oil portrait, a wide blindfold made of Swarovski crystals conceals the gaze of an unidentified sitter, evoking an uncanny feeling of an otherworldly hide-and-seek game. Not far away, a small tortoiseshell half covered in gold leaf sits under a glassy dome. The materials used by Kubota are precious and glittery. They embellish the flotsam, as the artist says, to pay respect to the ancestors. Expanding from their physicality, these alluring objects evoke memories and stimulate our imagination but altered from their historical origin, they exist without any pretence to symbolic reading. They simply are and their resilience comes from their transformation. This is best epitomised in ‘Material Witness #7’, a piece that is a triumph of imagination and lightness. Placed on a glossy mantelpiece are golden binoculars with false eyelashes attached at the front and sharply-ended Swarovski crystals on the other side. Beautiful and surreal, this highly sensorial object seems to have morphed with the body of its owner. Inspired by a memory of her granddad and the mechanical noise made by his artificial leg, Kubota creates an object that is a ‘jewellery of the future’ and as the curator of the show, Eiko Honda, explains, if we inserted the crystals into our eyes, the boundary between the flesh and the non-body would vanish. It also hints toward the lesser-known disturbing history of Swarovski crystals, used in rifle scopes and drilling machinery.


Though Kubota’s art isn’t directly inspired by the tsunami, she confirms that it had a tremendous influence on the lives of the Japanese, for whom the spirit of community and fortune’s follies have become significant. Driven by pure coincidence is the second part of the exhibition documenting the ongoing project Missing Post Office that originated on the small Japanese island of Awashima. When visiting the island, Kubota came across an abandoned post office. This sparked an idea to transform it into a place for all memories and thoughts that do not have an addressee. Anyone can post letters here and while awaiting their delivery to an unknown destination, they are taken care of by a postman, Mr Nakata, who places them in shiny letter holders mounted on a turntable covered in mirrors. When he moves it, the machinery sounds like waves of the sea. This brings back memories of the flotsam. I notice once more that Kubota has a penchant for materials that reflect. By spreading them around her sculptural interventions, they echo reality to the point where we lose ourselves in time and question its meaning. When speaking to the artist and curator, as well as Bryan, being the UK counterpart to Mr. Nakata, I learnt how sheer serendipity shaped this project and how the unexpected has been embraced by Kubota and her team. First exhibited in Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, the ‘Missing Post Office’ post box was moved to Daiwa Foundation for just a month and soon it will travel further; but even the artist doesn’t know where that might be.

Text originally commissioned by This is Tomorrow available here.

Tetsumi Kudo: Retrospective (Houser & Wirth, London, 22 Sep – 21 Nov 2015)

The first thing that hits you as you enter the new show of Japanese avant-garde artist Tetsumi Kudo (1935-1990) at Hauser & Wirth, is the smell of synthetic substances and the fluorescent colours that dominate the display. There is also a strange tactile sensation underfoot, as the floor is completely covered by artificial grass. It is reminiscent of a playground designed by a drug-influenced architect: a garden of unearthly delights. Obscure scenes are hidden in detail and sexual innuendos drip from almost every part of Kudo’s mixed-media assemblage. As you approach the sculptures that, from a distance look like mutated growths after a radioactive explosion, you distinguish plastic phalluses that spring from the soil like fungi. Some of them appear in the form of snails, larvae and flowers surrounded by slimy amphibians whose addition adds to the general feeling of disgust. Each are kept in miniature forms and hidden in cages and terrariums. These kitsch creations carry some sort of venereal disease and connect to themes of impotency, painful sexuality and repression.


One artist in particular can be distinguished as an inspiration for Kudo’s gruesome spectacles where erotica and death walk side by side: Charles Baudelaire. There’s a noticeable shift in Kudo’s art made in Paris, where he lived between 1962 and 1981, where he was exposed to symbolist aesthetics and the theatre of absurd. Baudelaire’s ‘Flowers of Evil’ (1857) has been inspiring artists for decades with its atmosphere of anxiety, deprivation and suffering. Baudelaire caught the mood of the époque with psychoanalysis and the distorted perceptions of an opium eater. In one of his most famous poems ‘To the Reader’, the French poet writes,

If poison, arson, sex, narcotics, knives
have not yet ruined us and stitched their quick,
loud patterns on the canvas of our lives,
it is because our souls are still too sick.

There is an imposing similarity between these words and Kudo’s statement of 1972 triggered by the overwhelming technological boom. On his work Kudo commented: ‘Decomposition of humanity! The end of the world!’.

The show in Hauser & Wirth also reveals how very Japanese Kudo’s art is, albeit a rather anti-establishment, nightmarish version of the aesthetics usually associated with Zen, emptiness and Wabi Sabi. Just as other Japanese artists that belonged to the post-war generation were torn between militarism and Western culture, Kudo was disillusioned with the world and joined the Anti-Art Movement with its hub in Tokyo. He witnessed the horrors of the bombing. He stared at the disfigured corpses and that is precisely what we see in his installations: gore, toxic environments and an attempt to rebuild the world from scrap. Inorganic melted buckets, kitchen utensils and discarded junk are mixed in his sculptures with organic hair and soil. His flower arrangements are not pleasing to the eye and are not reminiscent of a perfect Ikebana. Instead, their decomposition gives life to other horrific creatures. The flowers of evil indeed.


Text originally commissioned by This is Tomorrow available here

Mat Collishaw: In Camera (The New Art Gallery Walsall & Library of Birmingham, 25 September – 10 January 2016)

Mat Collishaw’s approach to art is filled with respect for the past. Victorian and Baroque cultures in particular are being constantly reiterated in his oeuvre, with the artist seemingly spellbound by their dubious character. Filled with symbols of religion and disease, innocence and corruption, desire and crime, both periods constantly oscillate between excitement and disgust, and both use illusions to trick us into the worlds of beautiful abominations. Two current displays by Collishaw gather evidence of the artist’s fascination with darkness and manipulation of one’s perception, ‘Mat Collishaw’ at Walsall’s New Art Gallery and In Camera at the Library of Birmingham.

Spread across two floors in the New Art Gallery is the largest survey of Collishaw’s work to date, a spectacle of the sacred and profane that bursts with allusions to art history. It also questions the viewer’s role in the history of imagery: Are we just the vulnerable victims or rather voyeuristic spectators of the media-dominated world? ‘Insecticides’ (2006), for example, is an ongoing project, in which Collishaw photographs squashed butterflies, magnified to magnificent proportions. Here, the camera behaves like a 347501Victorian entomologist mercilessly dissecting the delicate, dismembered bodies of the insects to reveal beauty of a cosmic nature. Their crushed wings are transformed into a colourful powder that awes spectators, who end up staring at death in its unearthly presence. The same illusion appears when admiring works from ‘Venal Muse’ (2012), a series of sculptures shaped into exotic flowers that are ridden with venereal diseases. Springing out of the soil and spoilage that kept its seductive shine, we end up examining these ‘flowers of evil’ that are reminiscent of rotting sexual organs. ‘Catching Fairies’ (1996) on the other hand is a series of photographs that explore the Victorian interest in the ephemeral. Here, Collishaw depicts himself trying to capture the fairies of the title – an idyllic scene we desperately want to believe in.

The intelligence of Collishaw’s work is informed by its constant play with the spectator and allusions to the masters of fine arts. He breathes life into Albrecht Dϋrer’s depiction of turf by animating it with a gentle breeze and changing the original title into ‘Whispering Weeds’ (2011), onomatopoeia that is an illusion in itself. He adds a new dimension to George de la Tour’s Madonna-like depictions of women, and in ‘Last Meal on Death Row, Texas’ (2011) creates a series of harrowing photographs that borrow from the aesthetics of 17th century Dutch still lives and draw on the theme of the death penalty. Placed in the chapel-like gallery, these conversations with classical artists have a focal point and my personal favourite, ‘For Your Eyes Only’ (2010), is as ecclesiastical as it is erotic. Here, three surveillance mirrors flanked by wooden frames play a video of a pole dancer in slow motion. Hung on a red wall, this triptych is accompanied by intense music and becomes a gruesome display of a vulnerable body that we devour with our greedy eyes. Alluding to the history of sexual exploitation within the thick walls of the church, the spectacle is not for our eyes only. Others are watching too. The exclusivity is just another illusion.


On the second floor of the gallery is Collishaw’s latest zoetrope ‘All Things Fall’ (2014). Combining a biblical theme (the Massacre of the Innocents) with a Baroque design and a Victorian mechanism, this 3D sculpture rotates in frenzy and seduces us with its illusion of reality. Everything here is timed precisely and aimed at a single purpose: to expose the mechanisms of the trickery and then, to trap the spectator in his or her own desires.

Rapid movements, restricted vision and flashing ephemera are the stimuli that Collishaw deliberately engages to attack and fool his audience. ‘In Camera’ at the Library of Birmingham is a small show but it is as poignant and hypnotising as the exhibition at the New Gallery. Again, we descend into darkness as soon as we open the gallery doors. But it is not an Beef-1atmospheric light of the baroque that emphasises the shadows. It is a darkness of death with no light. It is a room of sins with no contrition. Twelve negatives from the 1930s and 1940s taken at the crime scenes are placed in the transparent boxes that are dispersed around the pitch-black room. The images, found by the artist in the Library’s archives remind us of some photographic off cuts; pictures that say nothing at all. But it is precisely their uncanny silence and emptiness that makes them so disconcerting. One by one, they are randomly lit up by a flash bulb. Like disorientated moths we instantly turn towards the phosphorescent image but it transforms into blackness soon after. Experiencing ‘In Camera’ is like reliving a nightmare, and by implementing digital technology alongside antique mediums, Collishaw, the Caravaggio for our times, once more plays with the eye and enhances the impression of a ghost inhabiting the machine; a voice from the past hidden behind the photograph.

Text originally commissioned by This is Tomorrow available here

Photographic HAIKU: Bettina von Zwehl and Sophy Rickett, Album 31 (Library of Birmingham 20 June – 29 August 2015)

In her beautifully poetic book ‘On Photography’, Susan Sontag describes a so-called ‘involuntary memory’ that Marcel Proust applied in his remembrance-fuelled writing. Bleak footprints of the past mix with the meshes of reality so powerfully sealed within us that they cannot be erased. Photography and the archive carry an elusive notion of depicting reality, yet they can also take us on an uncanny journey into worlds that are barely tangible and only just visible. The latest exhibition at the Library of Birmingham ‘Album 31’ epitomises the idea of a photograph that is a trace of reality and, most importantly, an encounter with the unreal.


When wandering around the exhibition I caught myself in a subconscious (or rather ‘involuntary’ according to Mr Proust) attempt to categorise and to find a common denominator between the images, sitting next to each other in the sterile white-grey-black exhibition space. But as the title of the exhibition states, it is an album. Nothing more, nothing less. Portraits of children follow images of butterflies, tree tops, a dark chocolate Leibniz biscuit, an X-ray of Bettina von Zwehl’s hands and other seemingly album_31_page_101__largeunrelated objects. Or perhaps unrelated only for us. What we know is that the exhibition was inspired by the Library of Birmingham’s photographic archives, particularly an archive of images created by Sir Benjamin Stone, a Victorian photographer who managed to neatly label almost all of his prints under sensible categories, except one labelled ‘Album 31: MISCELLANOUS’. Stone’s album encompasses everything that is fascinating about archives: exceptions, misfits, curiosities and photographic orphans. The idea of a what-not collection was very much in vogue among Victorians, who liked to surround themselves with memories of people, places and events that even though unrelated to each other, formed a private cabinet of curiosities; a visual diary with no theme and no date but endless possibilities. And just as the Borgesian idea of a library, these collections encapsulated the indefinite, the invariable and the infinite. Labyrinths of memory among the labyrinths of library.


The exhibition poses an interesting challenge by combining the sensitivities and practices of two different artists, presenting both separately made photographs and a series of newer collaborative works. While Rickett examines relationships between humans and nature, von Zwehl is known for her sombre portraits and Georgian-style profiles, particularly of children. Even though the two artists are interested in different subjects, one can sense that there is something that unifies their work and these ‘accidental’ images: memory and intimacy. In the collaborative works, row by row, dream-like images remind us of visions interrupted just before wakefulness. Accompanying them, poetic diary entries are presented almost as a stream of consciousness than any other traditional linear narrative. Rickett’s series of black and white photographs of butterflies titled ‘The Death of a Beautiful Subject’ are close-ups revealing something of the relationship with her father, a personal engagement with the subject, as well as a preoccupation with their fragility. Similarly, von Zwehl’s child sitters can appear vulnerable and delicate, on the border of fairy-like appearances. We are here meandering between fleeting reminiscences, un/fathomable images and random thoughts, all wrapped up in a conversation between two artists and two sensibilities that take all shapes and forms.


Take, for example, ‘Page 4, Album 31’ which consists of the medallion shaped centrepiece depicting a baby with eyes gently shut, surrounded by three black and white images of a ship and the word ‘CURTAIN’ typed on grey card. The exhibition guide states that this word derives from a misunderstanding between Rickett and von Zwehl. Suddenly, out of the unexpected juxtaposition of the pictures and words, emerges a vague meaning. Or rather an impression of a very thin string that binds the contents of the album together: half-closed eyes, a curtain, a ship finishing its journey … the end of the day. A photographic haiku.

Text originally commissioned by This is Tomorrow available here

Indefinable Cities (AirSpace Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, 10 April – 16 May 2015)

A city is a place that has been described by many, but still remains indescribable. ‘Indefinable Cities’, a new multi-media exhibition at AirSpace Gallery situated in the heart of Stoke-on-Trent draws on the city’s inexhaustible character. It tackles not only the subject of how a city can be represented in art but also illustrates how the relationship between the artist and the ever-changing city evolves, and the ways in which artists inhabit new places and spaces. The show is the result of a project led by Stoke-On-Trent based artist and AirSpace curator Anna Francis and Japanese curator Koh Yoshida, representing Tsukiyo to Syonen, an artistic initiative from Osaka. The exhibition provides an international dialogue between two artistic sensibilities and practices married by one multidimensional theme: the city and its possibilities. With Stoke’s post-industrial landscape outside the gallery’s window and the quietude of the gallery space, we are transported to a dream-like land; an in-between shelter filled with pictures and stories constructed by three Japanese – Ayaka Nishi, Hirofumi Suzuki and Daiki Murakami, and three British artists – Emily Speed, Ben Cove and Rebecca Chesney. Two countries, six artists, endless possibilities.


We find such interpretation of the city in the art of Ayaka Nishi, who often works with discarded objects, such as in ‘Trace of Night’ (2009), a copper etching plate on board reminiscent of a glistening night sky. For the exhibition she has produced ‘Measuring Memory’, made of collected fragments of pottery scattered around Stoke-on-Trent, the capital of the British ceramics industry. Some broken pieces are reconnected with wire, reinventing an object that was once abandoned, forgotten – now lovingly reanimated. Placed side by side in the gallery’s small alcove recalling a Victorian mantelpiece, they encapsulate ideas of excavating as well as storytelling present in Nishi’s practice. Working also on archaeological sites in Japan, the artist often accompanies her trinkets with meticulous handmade drawings that add to the authenticity of her art. They form a dialogue between old and new, outside (where the items were found) and inside (where they find their new home), public and personal.

Similarly, Hirofumi Suzuki’s work presents spaces that blend private and public. His ‘Diary of a Stranger’ consists of a selection of drawings, some of which depict street views in Osaka, and others strangers on trains. Despite keeping a distance from the subjects, Suzuki captures the intimacy of the city with all its details of densely populated streets. The trees, the buildings and the pedestrians drawn from different perspectives over a period of time, provide a glimpse into the flux of the urban environment.


While Suzuki focuses on depicting the city in its very centre, Daiki Murakami ‘performs’ his vision of an almost utopian city construct titled ‘Manifesto for a Free Town’. The word ‘performs’ is not accidental, as the artist is known for working across many media (cartoons, drawings, installations, videos), in which performance takes a central role. For ‘Indefinable Cities’ Murakami has produced a large-scale wall drawing of a tree existing in a perfectly symbiotic relationship with inhabiting people. This paradise-like vision is accompanied by a ballot poll where visitors can vote for Murakami running for the ‘mayor of art’ in his Free Town. Despite raising serious issues of how people can create a sustainable city and what it means to be a socially engaged artist, Murakami’s art remains funny, touching and extremely engaging.


Next to the Japanese group’s art, characterised by a certain raw immediacy, the three English artists taking part in the show seem to represent a more conceptual vision of a city. Emily Speed, whose art – just as Murakami’s – also harks back to the idea of a shelter, draws primarily on the relationship between architecture and the body. In Speed’s work these ideas create a space that is the sum of such encounters, used as the palimpsest of things that hide and facades that perform. In this, constant overwriting and the covering of old layers by new ones reveals glimpses of an inner life. Speed’s video ‘Garbuglio/Tangle’ (2015) inspired by a recent residency in Rome is a beautiful peek-a-boo depiction of flesh, stone and cloth, which blend one into another, revealing the sheltering character of architecture. This is emphasised by a soft fabric curtain made by the artist, comprised of convex quilted diamond shapes.


Ben Cove also touches on the relationship between architectural constructs and internal spaces, but his work is characterised by the legacy of Modernism expressed in abstract forms and a sculptural language. For the exhibition he has created the installation ‘Look-See’ (2015) consisting of paintings, oak frame-like shelves and photographs that come together as a protruding façade – a screen with fragments of formalised thoughts projected onto it, or a half-emptied museum cabinet. Just as the title suggests, Cove’s piece balances on the idea of the in-between space that is neither in, neither out; the invisible area created by the relationship between the image and the thing itself.

The more natural aspect of cities is represented in the exhibition by Rebecca Chesney, whose art explores the impact imposed by humans on nature. Chesney’s works may be sombre and subdued in form but they are full of life that is written, imagined and heard. This very sensorial approach is reflected in her ‘Melodies 1, 2, 3 and 4’, a series of four simple pencil drawings depicting geometric shapes, accompanied by recordings of birds singing in Preston and legends (location, weather conditions, etc.) produced in relation to the specific city locations. The drawings, as well as the artist’s videos of roofs inhabited by birds, bees and ants invite us into a state of close observation and a focus that exposes the unexpected activities and qualities of these places.

Indefinable is a word that carries a huge potential. It means everything and nothing. It can be indescribable and ambiguous, but also subtle and transitory. The city’s state of flux is mirrored in the variety of media selected for the exhibition, creating a multi-sensory experience. The works feel like six different stories that, with the help of visual, written, oral and sensory language, speak about spaces and their inhabitants. As a result, the show echoes Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’, a book made of brief descriptions of imaginary cities that exist on an emotional rather than a physical basis. These municipal constructs are formed of encounters, memories and ruins. The stories create cities of an ephemeral atmosphere, because, as Calvino notes, ‘cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else’.