The grace lays in falling: ‘Cosmogenesis’ by Hiroe Saeki (Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, London)

‘But I am talking about the time when there wasn’t any Earth underneath or anything else solid, not even a celestial body in the distance capable of attracting you into its orbit. You simply fell, indefinitely, for an indefinite length of time’

(Italo Calvino, The Form of Space)

 

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There is an elegance and organic malleability in Hiroe Saeki’s (b. 1978, Osaka) drawings which depict landscapes reminiscent of galaxies captured in a brief moment of their formation. Some of the scapes seem to fall from the firmament, others rise from the ground or stretch from both sides of the panels, creating an illusion of a languid movement and another dimension hidden outside the edges of the paper sheet. Lightweight and amorphous, Saeki’s terrains recollect the timelessness of Italo Calvino’s solitary orbits, where ‘you simply fell’.

Currently exhibited in the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation in London is a collection of Saeki’s ten prints titled Cosmogenesis (meaning ‘the origin of the universe’), executed in pencil, graphite powder, acrylic ink, water colour, gold leaf and bronze pigment. Emerging from the white sheets of paper speckled with black holes and iridescent particles, are the nebulae of dots, vessels, sprays and cosmic dust layered onto a Japanese washi paper in a meticulous yet spontaneous manner. Sombre and delicate from afar, the drawings burst with queues of lines and atoms of ink upon closer inspection, revealing a complex network of phenomena that guides the viewer’s eyes into multiple directions. In a way, these undescriptive scapes recall maps of no particular place or time, but rather of movements and journeys within the crevices of the universe; ‘a kind of catalog/ Of the lights of all ages’, as Japanese writer Kenji Miyazawa would have perhaps described it. Thus, the attractiveness of Saeki’s art comes not only from its visual stardom, but the suggestion of stories that unravel in front of the spectator. Stories of the universe, science and humankind written within all the smallest particles, undetected by the eye.

Spread across two rooms of the Daiwa Foundation gallery in London, the show has been perfectly balanced between somewhat panoramic drawings of sculptural formations (Park Side Gallery), and smaller, more detailed pictures gathered in the Mews Side Gallery. Whilst the former room offers a wider glimpse into Saeki’s lyrical landscapes made of shapes and forms merging, separating and unfolding towards the empty planes of the pictures, the latter room focuses on their microscopic view. Here, we discover a surprising vibrancy and depth created by layers of graphite, ink and gold patterns. Together, the exhibition presents a beautifully crafted interpretation of continuous movement and interdependence between void and form, stillness and change, immateriality and physicality. Above all, Cosmogenesis expresses a curiosity about the unknown and is a testimony to simplicity that conveys the most complex ideas in the clearest way.

 

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The craftsmanship of the show lays in the method, with which the artist handles a representation of unrestrained matter through controlled techniques and a discipline of form, resultant in a visual balance between energy and subtlety. This can be seen in Saeki’s use of vast empty or semi-transparent spaces, as well as a combination of forms, some of which appear constrained and others ‘released’. Collectively, they create a multidimensional landscape that parallels Miyazawa’s galaxies, inhabited by ‘Papers and mineral ink assembling/ Everything that flickers within me/ Everyone senses at the same time’. That is why, Cosmogenesis is a form of an aesthetic meditation on the way in which we look at the universe, how we encounter it and expand within it.

* The artist is represented by Taka Ishii Gallery in Tokyo

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Where I am when I am not here: Ayaka Nishi, Carsten Rabe and Jessica Leinen (Galerie Speckstraße, Hamburg)

Objects and words also have hollow places in which a past sleeps, as in everyday acts of walking, eating, going to bed, in which ancient revolutions slumber.’

(Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life)

 

‘He cannot stop; he must go on to another city, where another of his pasts awaits him, or something perhaps that had been a possible future of his and is now someone else’s present.’

(Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities)

 

In his The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau writes about the modes of social behaviour and how both the visible (walking, talking, eating) and the hidden practices of the everyday life (sleeping, dreaming, thinking) are responsible for the production of the city/place.[i] Somewhere in-between the perceptible and the hidden dwell multiple urban narratives and they come up to the surface when the city’s residents (permanent and temporary) unravel their readings of memory, gaze, time and places.

Expressed through different mediums, such as photography, sculptural assemblages and found objects, the exhibition Where I am when I am not here in Galerie Speckstraße in Hamburg captures the idea of distance, expressed through accidental connections and fleeting time that meet in a shared space, which is formed of many places. Crossing the boundaries of temporality, the exhibition displays a conversation between three artists, Carsten Rabe and Jessica Leinen from Germany, joined by Ayaka Nishi from Japan. It is a dialogue in the making. Creating an opportunity for a societal exchange – of art, of views, of stories – seems to be a focal point of this show, in which nowness is never completed. Instead, now constantly evolves and is formed of everyday practices: fluid, open and attentive. As Leinen, who is with Koh Yoshida (Tsukiyo to Syonen) the co-curator of the show says, its main attempt is the act of ‘becoming’ – instinctively and often indiscriminately.

Thus, the pieces exhibited capture something of a momentary experience, with their contemporaneity and curiosity that carry a potential to develop into narratives engaging on many levels (visual and personal). Inevitably, they interpret the invisible networks spread across the cities, which do not exist on any material map, but rather, they draw on personal geographies formed of the past and the future journeys. This is shown for example on the photographs by Carsten Rabe, who captures the stillness of the commonplaces. Approaching his subject matter in a detached way, he depicts kindergartens, decorative insides of the churches and the seaside scenes equally banal and interesting at once. Quiet and self-reflective, they are portraits which reveal thoughts about relationships formed through the act of looking; like in Rabe’s photographs of people taking photos of what’s in front of them, yet oblivious to what’s happening around. They are humorous vignettes of the contemporary society. Formally tailored and employing deadpan aesthetics, Rabe’s photographs play with ideas of depth and openness by hinting to the space outside the photo frame and creating a subtle linkage between the viewer, the photographer, the scene and what’s behind it.

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Carsten Rabe

A more corporeal interpretation of the bonding are Jessica Leinen’s organically shaped sculptures reminding us of fragile nettings attached onto sheets of transparent foil and hanging from the ceiling. Some of the accumulated webs recollect embryos shaped by the movement of the air, suggesting perhaps the beginnings of relationships that form spontaneously with every encounter taking place in the space. On the other hand, they bring in mind the time and process involved in formatting delicate folds of the cobwebs. Stripped of colour and positioned in between the Rabe’s and Nishi’s rooms, Leinen’s display offers an interpretation of time and communication taking place almost beyond words and images. The centrepiece of the installation is a small sculpture with a short dialogue written inside its cavities:

– (Pause)  – Do you have a lighter?  – I’m a non-smoker  – (Pause)  – OK.

This understated exchange sounds like an urban haiku; the essence and the alchemy of making bonds – transformative and inexplicable at times.

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Jessica Leinen

Similarly, Ayaka Nishi’s installation of around 1000 small paper boats responds to the idea of invisible bonds that appear through time and between different objects, places and people. Interested in the Japanese literary tradition of monogatari, which translates as a narrative about events: fantastic, historic, poetic and anecdotal, Ayaka Nishi employs both real and dream-like elements in her art, which could be seen as a visual poetry. She also draws on the Japanese idea of anima which Shigeo Goto handsomely defined as ‘the wonder of things’[i]. Animism supposes that everything has a spirit and this potential is revealed through Ayaka Nishi’s boats, which recollect not only multiple journeys in life but harks back also to Hamburg’s waterside location. For a brief moment we are reminded that Hamburg is one of the most important port cities in Europe. It is telling that the careful folding of the origami boats took the artist a month and she used leaflets, old books’ pages, maps, wrapping paper and other ordinary scraps of paper – each recalling a meeting, an acquaintance, a moment of being that somehow entered her life. ‘A story is born from anything’ she tells me. Spread in the gallery as a shoal of fish and secretly peeking from the gallery walls, its ceiling and parapets, the boats echo the nature’s natural movements and cast a reflection on the window – suggestive of a journey that continues outside the gallery walls.

 

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Ayaka Nishi

 

The ‘movement’ of the boats lends itself to the surrounding space and forces one’s gaze to consider the history of the building and the area in which it stands.  It is apt that a show dealing with the layers of time and encounters is presented in a gallery with so much history, which is literally peeling off its walls. Reclaimed and saved in 2009 from developers by the artists and activists, The Gallery Speckstraße is now a vivid, covered with street art, 19th century listed building facing the new offices – the glass houses – of the Brahmsquarter. It is a stark reminder of the anti-community politics sweeping across the cities around the world and yet, it is also a symbol of humanism and activism. Up until now the gallery has hosted around 200 artists from all over the world and it shows through a visceral appearance of the gallery’s inside. Covered in a mosaic of leftover wallpapers, writings, holes after past installations, the Gallery Speckstraße is now a palimpsest of its past and present dwellers, fashions and ideas, of human presence and absence.

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Hence, the title of the show is an invitation to look closer at the relationships between space (where), time (when) and liminality (when I am not). Despite a suggestion of absence, Where I am when I am not here is about presence formed of fragments and reminiscences. This brings in mind Edward Soja’s theory of the third space, which postulates openness to new spatial and geographical imaginations and can be described ‘as a creative recombination and extension, one that builds on a Firstspace perspective that is focused on the “real” material world and a Secondspace perspective that interprets this reality through “imagined” representations of spatiality’.[iii] Humorous, touching and personal, the encounters depicted by the artists formulate a space that asks important questions about the nature of human bonds, spaces we would like to share and the narratives that dwell in the everyday.

[i] Certeau, M. D. 1988. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
[ii] Goto, S. 2014. Anima on Photo: Hidden Sense of Japanese Photography. Tokyo: Artbeat Publishers.
[iii] Soja, E. 1995. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 6.

 

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Tokyo Photographic Research at CO-OP/ Unseen Photo Fair (Amsterdam)

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Tokyo Photographic Research (website soon to be launched) is heading towards its phase two, digging deeper and bolder into Tokyo’s fractured layers. Inspired by the changes in the city undergoing major redevelopment before the Tokyo Olympics 2020, the photographers shift their focus to different aspects of the urban landscapes, including the everyday, the unseen and the eradicated. The project, founded by Taisuke Koyama (b. 1978), aims at conducting a multidisciplinary study and documenting Tokyo’s new metabolisms. In addition to Koyama’s pixelated images of Tokyo’s patterns exhibited previously as Tokyo Photographic Research #01: Phase Trans at G/P gallery in Tokyo, two other artists – Mayumi Hosokura (b. 1979) and Arata Mino (b. 1987) are contributing to the second stage of the project.

The current state of technological advance allows us to manipulate images to an unprecedented degree and we now live in the era when ‘to create’ often means ‘to delete’. Cropped, filtered, reproduced and erased (REPEAT), an image becomes a self-obliterating and self-reincarnated medium. Data extracted from the old are used to create the new, and vice versa – thanks to artificial intelligence, we can recover the photographic ghosts from the past. The creative potential of such a revolution is a prevalent narrative and a method of the contemporary Japanese photographers. Through its hybridity, Tokyo stimulates a collaborative spirit encompassing all means of expression and crossing the boundaries of visual art, writings, sound and architectural forms.

 

 

Consequently, the collective’s display assisted by a manifesto presented at the CO-OP programme of Unseen Photo Fair 2018 (Amsterdam) looks at Tokyo as an endless stream of data – mutable and infinite. Hosokura’s newest image TYV #1 depicts a frontman of a Japanese hip hop band Tokyo Young Vision, while Mino shows drawings tracing the transmission of electricity in Tokyo. These wide-ranging perspectives record photographic encounters which ultimately question the direction towards Tokyo is heading. Somewhere down the line, they become inquiries about the future of Japan.

Thus, there is a noticeable shift in the young generation’s approach to photography as a subversive form of information rather than a referential idea. Born into a world saturated with imagery and its endless reproduction, the young Japanese artists embrace errors, both accidental and intentional. The process and materiality/immateriality of an image is more important than a finished product or its context. The process IS the context. In all its capacity for radical and transgressive, the new erosion-fuelled methods somewhat recollect a stream of consciousness; a continuous flow of data generated pictures, embracing multitudinous viewpoints and impressions (visual, auditory, physical). The fluidity and interruption of Tokyo’s strata, its build-and-scrap character, as well as resistance towards tradition makes this city a perfect set for such a visual laboratory. We all who have visited Tokyo live vicariously through its endless façades.

Art in Making: AIR Onomichi (Komyouji Kaikan) & Abandoned House Reclamation Project

‘Certainly, for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the

idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found.’

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005)

‘I believe that art is about discovery, learning, exchange,

and collaboration. Art has the power to create

experiences and phenomenological effects’.

Fram Kitagawa, Art Place Japan (2014)

 

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Onomichi is a small town in the Hiroshima Prefecture right by the Seto Inland Sea. It spreads along steep slopes, inhabited by numerous temples cloaked by trees and bakeries so small that one discovers them only guided by your nose. ‘Watch out for the meandering cats’ somebody warns me, and I soon learn that if pastry is on show, the cats will claim it.  One of the family run wagashi (traditional Japanese confections) shop is Tatsumiya, where I was invited behind the scenes to sample edamame mochi and where I quickly became enveloped in the scent of butter, green tea, sticky rice paste and sweet mixtures of unknown origins. Tatsumiya’s emblem is a sea horse and once again I was reminded about the proximity of the sea, which makes this place so scenic and relaxed. In 1168 a port opened here and for the next five centuries it became a centre of rice shipment and trades with foreign countries. When talking about the origins of Onomichi, Kiyohito Mikami, a local artist and curator in the Nakata Museum of Art tells me that the town’s community remained accepting and unbiased about other cultures.

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I am looking at various brochures & texts received in Onomichi, which I visited in April as a part of my research residency in Japan. Here I was introduced to the AIR Onomichi project (acronym for Artist In Residence) with its hub in the Air Café/gallery run by Komyouji Kaikan, an art initiative founded around the Komyouji Temple. Not being able to read in Japanese (yet), I only paused at English phrases and this is what I picked up:

“Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form: WORKS – CONCEPTS – PROCESSES – SITUATIONS – INFORMATION”

“… by combining multi-layered materials”

“I edited it as a document with quality, such as movement of the creation site and feeling of air, established the situation of exchange and creation”

Crossroad Blues, Robert Johnson, a blues song written in 1936

Onomichi Art Crossroads

Beyond Boundaries (2017)

The inability to understand everything gives at times opportunity to focus on ideas that shine through. And when foraging through maps, photographs and my own memories of the place and its people, I am now able to create a picture of an inspired society that stunned me with its openness, engagement with the past and thirst for ‘exchange and creation’. During the presentation I gave in the AIR Café, I met Yutaka Inagawa, Ono Tamaki and Kiyohito Mikami, artists and art educators. They asked about a book that inspired me, any unrealized project dealing with utopia and my most current concern; questions suggesting curiosity about my relationship with the world. I also met art students, who shared with me their works: crafted, reflective and experimental. I was lucky to meet Fukuda Megumi, a photographer from Hiroshima, who planted hundreds of artificial red tulips around the country house that once belonged to her grandparents. She titled it Eternal Garden (2003). My views on Japanese photography were challenged by Akira Yasuda, a professor at the Fukuyama University, whose own photographs are seminar on light, form and tenuousness of the quotidian. Indeed, the AIR of philosophical and empirical investigations into the world fills the Onomichi’s historical landscape.

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traditional tatami room I stayed in
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The view from my room
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Onomichi’s hills

Every year AIR Onomichi invites artists from around the world to participate in their residency programme. The scheme coincides with the Abandoned House Reclamation Project, an ongoing renovation (2007- ) of derelict houses scattered around Onomichi’s rolling hills. The number of vacant houses in Japan is rapidly growing and some say that by 2020 there might be almost 10 million of such properties.  I stayed overnight in one of these renovated homes and woke up to a breathtaking view lit up by the sun (and an empty house just in front of the window). Often left behind by the elderly who can’t cope with the town’s vertical layout, the dwellings have been slowly reclaimed by  nature. Seeing them as a legacy of the past and a hope for the future, they are used for the artist residencies, projects and performances. One of such initiatives is ‘Organizing Abandon’ in collaboration with Malaysian artist Shooshie Sulaiman (b. 1973). By scrupulous collection of literally everything (from wooden beams to ashes) found in the ruins of a former greengrocer, Sulaiman acts as an archivist unravelling the unknown stories to map her own narratives. Blending Malay and Jomon culture, astronomical observations, carpentry from Indonesia and new materials, the project turns into a conversation about multiculturalism and histories of the others that become ours. Deconstruction is being replaced by enrichment through participation and interpretation.

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The map of the Abandoned House Reclamation project
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Pictures of properties before and after renovation
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Pencils found in the greengrocers

Onomichi’s artistic scene is driven by multi-layered debates, intellectual inquiry and experimentation. Arts are thriving here, whether they are visual, literary, performative or architectural. One could say that AIR Onomichi, or maybe even the Onomichi’s society are an experiment themselves. Being artists and art teachers, Yutaka Inagawa, Ono Tamaki and Kiyohito Mikami place the emphasis on cognition and investigation. The process of unearthing something and the path to understanding are productions of art too. Art’s place therefore is not only in the galleries and the exhibition venues, but it also belongs to the playing ground, garden, studios, laboratory, kitchen, inquiry and the infinity of try and error.

Japanese art critic Arigo Tsuguchi writes in his short essay To Create Everyday Life that ‘art doesn’t really exist somewhere in isolation separate from our lives’ and adds that ‘we can understand “art” as an activity of creating a new way of life and an investigation of the (possible) ways of life/or the world we live in’. Here in Onomichi art does come out from the institutional walls into the surrounding fields; and vice versa, the ways of living implicate artistic perspectives. The possibilities of such collaborations are endless, and the walls come down creating an open stage; borderless and beautifully unpredictable. In this way, Onomichi’s artistic collaborations remind me of situationism with its spontaneous mapping of the everyday geographies.

And that is precisely why standing at the crossroads with the blues in one’s ears is as artistic as any portrait by Cezanne, readymade by Duchamp and Jack Kerouac’s poem. It gives us choice and makes us alive. Thank god for journeys and intersections!

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AIR Cafe

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Bridge connecting the seaside with the hillside

 

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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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Kyoto is Life: International Photo Festival Kyotographie 2018 (Kyoto)

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I am visiting Kyoto and Japan for the first time ever. I was never going to be objective about the land of the Rising Sun because – as shallow as it sounds – this is Japan; a distant country that has fascinated me for quite some time. At the beginning, you can’t believe you are here, remaining fooled by the beauty of the temple gardens, the sound of the gongs and the grassy scent of the matcha tea. After a period of a sheer disbelief, the curiosity kicks in. Your senses become spongeous, absorbing all things big and small: the linguistic expressions, the order in disorder, the invisible movements, the organic rhythms, the in-between colours and tastes: delicate, opulent and often indescribable.  Some things are different here, some are pretty much the same as in ‘the West’ and everything is either overwhelming or underwhelming (but in a good way). Bear with me. This is a story of Kyotographie 2018, the International Photo Festival taking place in Kyoto right here and right now.

This UP-beat impression of the city might have been stimulated by the Kyotographie’s inclusive character. With its fifth edition and a theme of ‘UP’, this young photo festival has been growing into an influential enterprise which prides itself not only on rediscovering the established artists and noticing the most talented ones, but most of all on showing thought provoking themes. As Lucille Reyboz and Yusuke Nakanishi, the festival directors say, the main concern of this year’s programme was to stimulate and to provoke, which perhaps eventually may lead to a change: in looking, thinking and understanding the world we live in. I also sensed that the idea behind the ‘UP’ leitmotif is to stay alert and not to become immune to the things that do matter, whether they are local affairs or global issues.

To rise UP

To wake UP

To show UP

To make something UP

To blow UP

To look UP

To set UP

To keep UP

but not to give up.

 

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With this message, Kyotographie touches on the national Japanese psyche strongly bound with societal responsibility, historically placed here beyond and above the individual. Concurrently, there is a clear allusion to a national stagnation – both economical and sometimes cultural. Kyoto, as an old capital and a beacon of Japanese tradition remains as unchanged as it possibly can, protecting its unique ways of being and seeing. Even its geographical position surrounded by mountains gives it an air of a protectionism. Being different can be risky here and both Reyboz and Nakanishi have been determined since the beginning of the festival’s life to open the city up onto new trends and influences. Remaining unchanged becomes with time a false comfort. Promoting diversification, openness and, most importantly – curiosity about the other is what makes this festival so powerful and relevant. Especially at times when the world needs to stay UP and together.

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Being a photo festival, Kyotographie definitely delivers on the visual side with its programme rich with striking exhibitions that linger in memory for long, whether it’s a documentary about fashion (Jean-Paul Goude, So Far So Goude), images of the workers from a local wholesale food market (The Hatarakimono Project), Stephen Shames’s photographs of Black Panther’s protest in the 1960’s or a photo document about the richest teenagers on Earth. Kyotographie is constantly opening our eyes onto the world’s most impending or exciting affairs through its main curriculum, which is accompanied by KG+, the festival’s satellite event that aims at providing a networking platform for emerging photographers, curators and writers. A plethora of talks, screenings, guided tours and performances take place across the city, rejuvenating it and making it a celebration of photography, arts and passion for life.

Moreover, Kyotographie aims at providing a more unique understanding of the city through the choice of the venues, which the attendees have to find by meandering across Kyoto with a map. Take for example the exhibition Flowers at Their Fate by Yukio Nakagawa, an ikebana artist that fashioned his own form of this traditional Japanese art of flower arrangement. Perceiving flowers as humans, he understood that when cut and artificially composed, flowers – just as people – become devoid of life, remaining rather symbols of death; however seductive and elaborately composed. The photographs of the flowers and vegetables occupy the interior of a Ryosokuin (Kennin-ji, the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto) and face a beautiful vegetation of the garden outside the windows. Tradition and modernism sit side by side here, forming an irresistible dialogue on the perils of beauty.

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Then we reach the Sazanga-Kyu (a former Ice house), an abandoned space which is as claustrophobic and disquieting as the exposition of Gideon Mendel’s Drowning World. Presenting a personal effect of the flooding across the globe, he inevitably comments on the endangered ecosystem and the fate of our planet. Filmed from the water surface level, the recordings of the submerged streets and houses inhabited by people ploughing through the high waters, the audience very soon becomes a part of the narrative: hopeless and discomforting. This is additionally heightened by the darkness of the ice house, corroded and filled with the stench of damp. Another display in the ice house challenges us to face the Irreductibles by Alberto Garcia-Alix, portraits of the outcasts, who dared to live differently and cherished the freedom of expression (political, artistic and sexual). The use of rough interiors stresses a tender and compassionate attitude of the photographer towards his sitters. His humanity and sincerity prompt questions about our own openness and acceptance of the unfamiliar.

Afterwards we visit a retrospective of Masahisa Fukase Masahisa Fukase: Play in a machiya, a traditional wooden townhouse typical for Kyoto’s downtown. Later we follow onto the Former Printing Plant to view the Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield, where the lingering smell of ink plays on the blackness of this vast underground space. The humid, suffocating scent of the interiors play on the leitmotif of the money and wealth, displayed so unashamedly by the characters on the photographs. The golden path guides us around the show and the overwhelmingly vast space, ornamented with rusted pipes, hand written notes and red alert lights; remnants of life, work and money which all once inhabited this place.

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In this and many other ways Kyotographie remains an inclusive and enriching experience, which does not forget about the past, but forces us to investigate the present and to be vigilant – but also to look forward to – the future. Always onwards. Always upwards!

 

 

*Exhibitions & venues

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The essence of Kyoto

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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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Day 3: Osaka’s nomadic art scene

One thing is noticeable in Osaka’s art scene: a general lack of gallery space and an attempt to create something local, non-commercial and individual. Forced into reconsidering their own function, purpose and size, small galleries mushroom here and become flexible ideas, somewhat confined by physical proportions. Size does matter here. It is important that the city has always been a trading institution; a capital of commerce, looking outwards and more curious about the unknown than perhaps other Japanese megalopolis.

Run by artists who transport culture into their work space in the form of a hair-dresser/gallery, cafe gallery and a pub/gallery, the exhibition spaces here become concert rooms, bookshops and workshops studios.  The owners are mostly young, friendly and open minded, driven by ideas, in which art is a social enterprise. They remain adaptable and often move from one place to another in pursuit of inspiring connections. In this way, Osaka’s art scene is nomadic, which can be linked to the inclusive character of Gutai Collective, active in the area in the 1950’s and 60’s.

 

Private art buyers in Japan are sparse and their interest is caught rather by the big galleries owned (ergo internationally recognised) art. It makes it rather difficult for young artists to share their vision. Yet, the big exposure and money oriented projects are not at stake here. The creative independence is something of foremost importance and always striven for. One senses though that Japanese artistic scene would very much welcome a chance to connect with other artists through international exchange and as an opportunity to enrich art readings and dialogue. Experimentation is what perhaps should be prescribed here.

Osaka is then a place, where art can be encountered everywhere and the works exhibited (from what I have seen) are often of small format and represent the everyday experiences. Forming a diary of the quotidian, the subjects are as real as they are imagined, and as happy as melancholic. It might be that the presentation and character of the pieces reflect the confinement of the physical space. Small can be beautiful, but on a larger scale poses a danger of uniformity and falling into obscurity in the sea of charm.

 

Zazie Hair is a hair salon and a petite art gallery in one which is a space-invitation to stop by and breath in some art. Currently exhibiting Somebody Who Knows (or rather ‘Somebody Familiar’) by Hirofumi Suzuki and Naoko Izawa, the show tells of people and places we know, or assume we do; just as the gallery itself, which isn’t quite what we were thinking. While Suzuki creates drawings of monuments depicting esteemed Japanese figures, Izawa impersonates characters from famous Renaissance paintings. Her imaginings are often funny and recollect a travel journal from a trip to Italy. One could ask if the journeys actually took place or are simply ‘What if?’ scenarios: What if I was Botticelli’s muse? Similarly, Suzuki’s interpretations are based on his own perception and sculptors’ vision. The line between the real and fictional is vague. What matters is how we see things for ourselves, what they mean to us and how we remember them.

It helps to see Suzuki at work, sketching quickly and being attuned to movements taking place within the landscape.

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Other similar (but different) to Zazie Hair spaces are iTohen, Gallery Yolcha and Atelier Sangatsu. I-tohen is a cafe and a well stocked bookshop with publications of both established and new artists. Their new show Happy Delivery by Yuka Sakamaki from Tokyo, a collection of lively watercolours is again, a visual illustration of everyday encounters and things, with which she perhaps felt a brief connection.

Gallery Yolcha, apart from being a cafe/bar can also serve as a gig spot and even has got a relaxation room, all designed to create a sense of community outside the commercial environment. Atelier Sangatsu, whose director is also a Gutai fan, has collected a small permanent collection of contemporary artists and is currently presenting a show on the inexhaustible – so it seems – theme of cherry blossoms.

The research continues…

 

* 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).

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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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

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