When Japanese Bodies Make Their Mark

by Liz on January 21, 2015

in Art & Design

1. 1961_Chijikusei Gotenrai

Kazuo Shiraga's Chijikusei Gotenrai

If man came from mud, then Japanese artist Kazuo Shiraga was the man who returned to its depths.

In 1955, using his half-naked body as his instrument, Shiraga dug into a pile of clay, constructing abstract, unruly shapes. This performance, later preserved as body sculptures, set the stage for his paintings, which he created with his feet, or sometimes by suspending his body from the ceiling.

1. Shiraga in his studio, 1960

Shiraga in his studio, 1960

The paintings will be on view at the Dominique Lévy Gallery in New York from Jan. 29 to Apr. 4, in an exhibit titled ‘Body and Matter.’

Alongside Shiraga’s moving body paintings, Satoru Hoshino’s finger ceramics will also be on display. For a refreshing change of pace, traces of the artists’ bodies, the source of labor, will occupy the space as much as the art itself.

A prominent member of the postwar Japanese art group Gutai, Shiraga (1924-2008) used his body toward what art historian John Rajchman describes as ‘social dis-identification.’ The act brought out the singular creativity of the artist, expressing individualism in its most raw, and therefore honest form.

It’s a beautiful concept. Shiraga, like his fellow artists, wanted his viewers to stir from their polite amnesia after war, surrender and occupation had transformed the landscape — and a new agenda socialized Japanese bodies for the nation’s next chapter. To that end he engaged in painting as an act that erupts violently from the artist’s body, guiding the gaze back to the power of flesh, blood, bone before it is labeled, packaged and categorized by outside forces.

But the question remains: even as Gutai as an art movement received recognition as an avant-garde event that challenged mass conformity, how much of Gutai was a result of similar movements in abstract expressionist circles in France or the United States? Did the movement correspond to a singular modernity, or did it branch out to new Japanese expressions?

There may be no definitive answer but perhaps one plausible explanation lies in Shiraga’s post-Gutai activities — which included a turn to Zen asceticism and his engagement in painting as a spiritual practice, where paint became emblematic of the artist’s ki, or spirit.

For more information on this upcoming exhibit, visit Dominique Lévy Gallery. (An opening reception will be held from 6 to 8 p.m., and a panel discussion with Koichi Kawasaki, Alexandra Munroe, Ming Tiampo, and Reiko Tomii, moderated by Professor Rajchman, is scheduled for Feb. 15.)


Cultural Symbols and Nationalism

by Liz on January 29, 2013

in Opinion

Source: Tumblr

With all the buzz about the clash of nationalisms in Asia today, I found my attention slowly turning towards less newsworthy but visually arresting items.

Like this captivating photograph of a Japanese geisha, whose finery, grace, and beauty underscores an important point about gender: because in Japan, even if men are politically powerful, it is Japanese women, or at least their symbolic significance, who carry the charged aura of their nation.

Nationalism in Asia, of course, and the visceral discourse that it naturally gives rise to, is an unending conversation mired in a bit of modern absurdity.

The long forgotten logic of East Asia, or even the subjective notion that it is somewhere ‘in the East’ didn’t really enter the national vocabulary until the mid- to late 19th century, a pivotal historical period that I’ve been studying independently.

It was around this time both destruction and creation took place, starting in Japan, then moving along the Korean peninsula and Qing China.

Which kind of brings us back to the geisha.

When I look at this picture, I see a powerfully seductive image of not an actual woman, but rather an abstraction of femininity that may be a paragon of Japanese culture. (And please do correct me if I am wrong.)

But perhaps on a more subversive level, I also see an expression and vision of the Japanese nation that binds the collective imagination. It stays on, it lingers. We remember Japan because we remember the geisha.

And it’s images like these, or Korean pop music, or even the Beijing Olympics, that posits a near-superficial cultural unity or a source of pride for an East Asian national.

What we forget, though, is that limiting Asian identities to the cultural-turned-national symbol, in a way, also creates paradoxical dependencies on these potent concepts that now differentiate one population from another.

They fuel the nationalisms that make the headlines, and encourages the hostilities we see today.


The Last Prince Of Korea

by Liz on October 31, 2012

in Opinion

Many people don’t know this — but Korea’s royal family was guaranteed into the mid-twentieth century to regain their role as monarchs if Korea was ever liberated from Japanese colonial rule. For Korea’s royals, it was only a matter of time.

The end of the second World War and the near immediate effect of the Cold War, though, dispelled any dreams of that possibility.

I’m currently researching the Daehan Empire (1897-1910) and came across this photograph of Prince Yi U (1912-1945) who was born after the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, and was educated and later served in the Japanese Imperial Army. (Note the uniform.)

He was intelligent. First-hand accounts testify he refused to take a second seat to his Japanese peers, excelling in the Japanese language and in his military education. And when pushed to take a Japanese princess as a spouse, he adamantly refused and instead wed a commoner, Pak Chan-ju, the daughter of Pak Young-ho, a politician and noted ‘Chin-il-pa,’ or pro-Japanese collaborator.

But the rest of Yi U’s biography remains murky. It’s plausible he worked assiduously for independence in his own way. But he worked his way up to the higher ranks of the Japanese Imperial Army, served in battalions in the Philippines and northeast China. He was, by most accounts, a loyal subject of Japan, until he met a tragic end during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

He’s also enshrined at Yasukuni, a Japanese memorial that has attracted controversy for its dedication to soldiers who died on behalf of the Emperor during the second world war.

Yi U’s mixed legacy is probably not a topic of discussion among South Korean historians, at least not on a public level. And it’s a telling sign of the kind of complicated issues surrounding the Japanese colonization of Korea that continues to this day.


Miya Ando (Photo courtesy of artist)

She’s the 16th generation of a family of swordmakers turned Buddhist priests, but as steeped in tradition is her namesake, Miya Ando’s art is anything but outdated. In fact, if the cold, hard steel plates that adorn the walls of her Brooklyn studio are any indication, Ando makes art that’s distinctly contemporary. Perhaps even timeless.

Ando's 'day 13:00' (steel, patina, pigment, resin)

Like the beams of light that run through her polished steel plates, Ando is possessed of unswerving wit and charm. There’s an air of absolute determination about her, a prerequisite, I’m sure, which comes with being a woman artist who works with a decidedly manly material.

“Steel is very masculine,” Ando said, “it’s our most strong substance.” But as the unmistakable descendent of Buddhist swordmakers, no one is more up to the task of metalwork than Ando. To create the zen polish that suffuses the surface of her metal plates, Ando sandpapers the steel with such meticulous finish that even the most prosaic lump of industrial grade slab is transformed into an unclouded mirror of self-reflection.

“For me, sanding is a meditative practice. In Japanese, the term ‘Migaku’ means to polish yourself. Making yourself pure through meditation.”

It’s this very notion of purification that presides over her September 11th monument for London, to be completed before the 10th observance of that fateful day. The structure is entirely made of World Trade Center steel, with parts sanded and polished to a mirror finish.

“My intention is to transform the steel, and put it back to the public. A metaphor for transforming tragedy.” The polished steel, through its reflection of light would serve as a symbol for peace.

2 pair geta (hot-rolled diamond plate steel, steel cable, automotive lacquer)

Ando is of Russian and Japanese descent, but grew up with Japanese as her first language. Raised in Okayama, Japan, she grew up with a deep sense of reverence for her Buddhist ancestors and Eastern philosophy. This year, she will partake in the Haein Art Project at Haeinsa, a renowned Korean Buddhist temple built in 802 AD. Her outdoor commission will consist of blocks of resin that absorbs light during the day, then glows at night, thanks to its phosphorescent properties.

“Us hybrid East-West people, we can take two disparate things, and bring them together. And it’s important we do that, to pay homage to our ancestors and to draw from their cultural values.”

Furisode Kimono, stainless steel and sterling silver metal finishing 56" x 70"

Miya Ando’s works are currently part of a nine-woman exhibit at Sundaram Tagore Gallery in New York, ongoing through July 30. The Gallery is participating in the Chelsea Art Walk on July 28 from 5 to 8 pm, so that might be a good time to go. Live music, chilled Bellinis, and artists from the show will be on hand during the event.


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Hikari Shimoda | Foley Gallery

by Liz on April 23, 2011

in Art & Design

Midnight Birthday Party (2010), 11"x9", Watercolor on paper

If you’re in the mood for sweet paintings with a palpable sense of childhood discomfort, look no further than Hikari Shimoda’s works, now on view at the Foley Gallery through May 7.

The exhibit, titled “me, as in the beast coat,” has some echoes of Shimoda’s Japanese contemporary and predecessor Nara Yoshitomo. According to Shimoda, children aren’t the carefree souls we oblivious grown-ups presuppose them to be. They suffer humiliation, sexual embarrassment, loneliness and hollowed out abandonment. That’s some pretty heavy emotional baggage, but whatever these real or imagined children are thinking is buried in the pretty pastel world where they reside. The presence of Teddy bears, birthday cakes, blue skies with fluffy white clouds, however, are still no match for the sad biography of childhood, interrupted.

I found it poignant that Shimoda, a native of Nagano, chose to depict children in a delicate palette, evocative of the Japanese kawaii culture but also light years apart from the feelings of trivial joy associated with cartoon characters. Unwritten chastisement of adults was visible everywhere. Who else could possibly be responsible for the false assurances and let-downs our little anti-heroes were enduring? The absence of the villain in the paintings seemed to further underscore my hypothesis that there was nothing more unforgivable, and therefore unmentionable, than the shadowy authority that would let this happen. The artist’s message also evoked the universal notion of an inner child residing in all of us, somehow forgotten after all these years, but still there, desperately seeking comfort, love, and an outpouring of empathy.

Shimoda’s paintings are beautiful, and had me looking forward to more from this young and talented Japanese artist. At 26 years old, she has probably put childhood well behind her. Still, as her works demonstrate, that makes her young enough to see glimpses of the past in the rearview mirror. For more information on the current exhibit, see here.

Comfortable Sadness, 2010, 57"x45"

Birthday Party, 2010, 29"x41", Acrylic and gouache on paper mounted on wood panel

Funeral of My Character, 2010, 45.5"x40", Acrylic on paper mounted on wood panel

Pensive art appreciation in the midst of gallery chaos.