Interview: Yasushi Koyama, cuteness and nature in Finnish and Japanese aesthetics

Japanese sculptor Yasushi Koyama lives in Helsinki, Finland and exhibits frequently in the local galleries. In this interview, he ponders the aesthetics behind his cute wooden sculptures. The artist brings the two artistic worlds together in his deep knowledge of both Finnish and Japanese cultures. One of his revelations connects to an idea of etic (or ethic), a general belief that influences people’s behavior and attitudes.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: When did you move to Finland, and how did you decide to go there to study?

Yasushi Koyama: I moved to Finland in Autumn 2007 to study Fine arts in Saimaa University of Applied Sciences in Imatra. In 2006, I met Finnish printmaker Tuula Moilanen and took her art courses in Kyoto Japan. She was a good teacher and gave me some advice for Finnish education and art school. Then I decided to come to Finland to study.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What is the best part of having two cultures to live in and with?

YK: The best part is to have another viewpoint beyond one culture. In addition, in my own artwork Finnish culture meets Japanese culture automatically, unconsciously and unintentionally. It is a good mixture of two cultures for me.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Do you think that new cultural heritage transforms you?

YK: I am transformed by Finnish culture on a daily basis especially with the sense of nature and with the contemporary culture of art & design in Helsinki. While in Imatra I experienced a lot of nature such as forest, lake, snow, river, waterfall etc. I took many photos of the beautiful Finnish nature during each season. In this point I was transformed to be a person who likes nature. At the same time, it reminded me of how to be a Japanese, because a life with nature is the very style of Japanese culture too. I came to Helsinki in 2012 to have my solo exhibition in NAPA Gallery. In 2012 Helsinki was the world design capital and my exhibition joined in with some events of World design capital 2012. NAPA Gallery had many artists who were related to graphic design. It was very fresh for me. The art of NAPA members inspired my own art language to absorb the feeling of contemporary graphic design into my art. So I am transformed to get the design viewpoint from the Helsinki contemporary culture.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You are currently taking part of an exhibition at the Cable Factory in Helsinki. Tell about the background for this particular show.

YK: The show is called “Masters of Saimaa’16”. It is Masters of Fine Arts graduation exhibition in The Saimaa University of Applied Sciences. 9 master degree students have joined in the show. My artworks are 3 works. There are 2 wood sculptures and 1 wood installation from me.

One of the wood sculptures is titled Panda papa and child. It is a large sculpture, 160cm high and weighting more than 400 kg. The artwork is made for my Art for Children project in 2016. People can touch & hug this Panda papa sculpture, so it is interactive art, and the art also connects to our well-being. It is going to be donated to children’s public place as a public art after my upcoming solo exhibition in Galleria AARNI. I have a good memory attached to Panda. When I was 6 years old Panda came to Ueno Zoo in Japan from China. I visited the Zoo to watch the Panda with my father.

Another wood sculpture is titled Walking cat with Katja’s T-shirt – collaboration with Katja Tukiainen. It is 150 cm high and weights more than 200 kg. Artist Katja Tukiainen is my supervisor for my final works of my thesis. Both Katja and I had a similar experience of having cats as pets in our childhood, and we both like cats. Katja Tukiainen has also designed the official T-shirt for the Cable factory. I liked the T-shirts and so got the idea for the collaboration with her.

Then, my  wood installation’s goes with the title The horizontal – wood installation. It is composed of 6 pieces of woods that were originally from one large tree (5m high). Each piece weights between 30 kg to 150 kg. It is made from ash wood that my friend gave me. The title is from Eija–Liisa Ahtila’s video work “The horizontal “ to use 6 screen panels to show one long tree in horizontal way. Her video work “The house” was the first contemporary Finnish art that I saw in Tokyo in 2003. Through this work I wanted to express the culture of wood in Finland and Japan, the process of wood sculpting and wood as a material itself. In Finland the forest area is 71% of the entire land area. In Japan the forest area is about 68% of the land area. In the world, the average of forest area is 31%. So in comparison, our countries have a lot of forest and woods. I think that we both have the tradition of wood culture such as wooden buildings, wooden houses, wooden tools, wooden arts etc. So wood is really important material for me.

yasushi-koyama-panda-papa-and-child-2016-birch-house-paint-oil-color-162x85x80cm
Yasushi Koyama, Panda papa & child, 2016, birch, oil color, house paint, 162 x 85 x 80 cm.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You hear often that Finnish and Japanese cultures have something in common from the point of view of the design cultures. Do you think it’s true and in what ways?

YK: Yes, it is true. As I told, both Finland and Japan have the culture of wood. Both Finnish and Japanese like nature in life. So natural materials have an influence on the expression of our cultures of design, architecture and art. In addition simplicity, clarity and repetitive nature are similar in both cultures.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How did you find your artistic expression with the sculpture? 

YK: My artworks are animal sculptures described as “Cute, lovely and humorous”. Most of my works are made from one piece of wood by using hand chisels. The rich textures of wood sculpting give people a warm impression. My wood sculptures have the good mixture between traditional wood sculpting and contemporary expression.

I learnt traditional wood sculpturing in Japan, New Zealand, Transylvania and Finland. For example in Finland in school I learnt wood sculpting from Finnish sculptor Pasi Karjula. He cherished the traditional way of wood sculpting using axe and hand chisels as well as other methods.

In the contemporary art context my wood sculptures have the expression of cuteness and positive energy. Finnish painter Katja Tukiainen had an influence on those expressions. And Finnish sculptor Kim Simonsson inspired me with his innocence of cartoonish sculpture. In addition, the graphic design of Marimekko etc., as well as the culture of the Finnish children’s characters, especially the Moomins took effect on me.

At the same time Japanese Manga & Anime and “neo-pop” art by Japanese painter Yoshitomo Nara have influenced my art language of cuteness. The ideas of art works are inspired by animals, natural shape of wood, self-drawing, Finnish art, illustration, textile design and Japanese art & culture.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Are your cute animal sculptures loved by both Finnish and Japanese audiences alike?

YK: Yes, I think so. They are loved and sold in both Finland and Japan. The interesting issue is that Finnish people say Yasushi’s works have Japanese feeling, and Japanese people say that Yasushi’s works have Finnish feeling in them. I accept their viewpoints as a good mixture between Finnish and Japanese culture.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How do you develop and teach your concepts to kids? 

YK: I remember that I was making animal sculptures with clay almost every day when I was between 4-6 years old. My father gave me photo books of animals. After I looked at them I made animals. It was my ordinary life during my childhood. So it was natural for me to make cute animals. Although I was making a human sculpture while in school, after my graduation I remembered my enjoyment with animal sculptures. So it is normal and natural for me to make these cute animal sculptures. After starting to create animals, some friends and gallerists told me that my artworks include concepts for kids. So I will continue developing art based on my own childhood memories.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What is your favorite museum or museums in Finland and why?

YK: I have many favorite museums in Finland. It is difficult to tell of all the museums. So I point my favorite 3 art museums with exhibitions in 2016. I liked Ai Weiwei & Yayoi Kusama exhibitions in Helsinki Art Museum, Ernesto Neto’s exhibition in 5th floor in Kiasma and “Suomen Taiteen Tarina” (Stories of Finnish Art) in Ateneum Art Museum. Ai Weiwei and Yayoi Kusama are top well-known artists in the world. I appreciate HAM to have offered their exhibitions to people in Finland. I also like the space in Kiasma’s 5th floor. Ernesto Neto’s exhibition gave us the participation and experience, the post colonial and interdisciplinary disciplines in the contemporary art context. “Stories of Finnish Art” was very compact exhibition, but at the same time a very profound way to show Finnish art history. I thought it was a great opportunity for tourists in summer to see the exhibition in Ateneum and also for Finland to show their image through Finnish art.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How would you describe Finnish aesthetics?

YK: I want to describe 3 concepts of “less is more”, “silence” and “sorrow” as Finnish aesthetics.

When I think about aesthetics, I always think about “etic” of aesthetics. Etic (or ethic) is a general idea or belief that influences people’s behavior and attitudes. I think that Finnish etic are diligent, honest and simple. Finnish aesthetics is the general idea that influences Finnish people’s behavior to understand beauty. So in my opinion one of Finnish aesthetics is about “less is more”. When I see the simple structures of Finnish architectures, it is so obvious.

About “silence” (hiljaisuus in Finnish), and how it is connected to nature. I remember silent landscape of snow in forest during winter. It was very beautiful. One of my Finnish friends gave me the message about nature, comparing sisu to silence (sisu is a Finnish spirit against strong power). “Nature means more than forests or lakes. It means freedom for oneself. Sisu is the most important for Finns. But how can one respect the other’s freedom? To respect one’s own freedom and the other’s freedom, Finns are keeping silent.” It is poetic but precisely showing the Finnish behavior of silence.It says that silence is the expression to respect one’s own and other’s freedom. Silence is one core of beauty related to the idea of freedom in Finnish culture.

About “sorrow” (suru in Finnish). A Finnish pop singer-song writer Kaija Koo says the phrase: Niin kaunis on hiljaisuus, mutta kauniimpaa on kaipaus. It means: So beautiful is silence but more beautiful is longing. So, when a Finn misses another person or a place, they feel sorrow. The sense of sorrow is connected to the feeling of longing and missing. In addition, a Finnish sense of sorrow takes place in the melancholic climate of Finland, such as during cold, dark and snow etc. “Sorrow” is a general and profound concept in Finnish art, film, novel, mythology etc.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What does innovation mean to you?

YK: Innovation is the attitude to look for new applications of old knowledge and the one to create new concepts by mixing more than two different concepts and cultures.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Who do you collaborate with and where do you work? Is teamwork important to you? 

YK: To meet a person is very important for me. So I would like to cherish meeting a person. This time I collaborated with Finnish painter Katja Tukiainen in Cable Factory, Helsinki. I met her in Cable Factory in 2009 coincidentally, when I was walking around the Cable Factory. She was very kind to me even though I didn’t know her at all at that time. She talked to me friendly about Japan and her exhibition in Yokohama, Japan. I think that meeting is sometimes coincidental but often meaningful. I would like to cherish such a meeting. For the collaboration it is important for me to have a similar concepts, and to be able to share ideas. It is important for me to make collaboration beyond your own culture and to create something new from it. I have collaborated with artists such as painters, sculptors and printmakers. For the future I am interested in collaborating with not only artists but also with designers, anthropologists, philosophers, children, and with ordinary people to be transforming my art.

yasushi-koyama-walking-cat-with-tshirt-by-katja-tukiainen-2016-birch-house-paint-156-x-72-x-71-cm
Yasushi Koyama, Walking cat, T-shirt collaboration with Katja Tukiainen, 2016, birch, paint, 152 x 72 x 71 cm.

 

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Do you have an opinion about Kusama’s works, she is now extremely popular in the West. How do you like the exhibition in Helsinki at the moment?

In my opinion Kusama’s exhibition includes an important concept of interdisciplinarity, the roles of post colonial and gender in the contemporary art world. So it is natural for the West to accept her art. And her exhibition shows not only art but also an idea to share an experience of her art with visitors. It means that her art works are not only objects but also the image of her art, spirit and that of the contemporary culture. Her exhibition goes beyond art and connects with people in the gallery space to share their experiences. From this point of view, the visitors can participate in her exhibition. And I find that her paintings have an influence coming from native art and aboriginal art. Then, I think that her dot art includes not only pop art but also biological consideration of a cell, Shintoism and neo animism. I imagine that those concepts are fresh and still new to the West. So I admire HAM (Helsinki Art Museum) to have her exhibition.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Does Kusama have an approach that can be applied to other things, or could there be a recipe for a good idea to be developed further. There seems to be something that makes people really want to participate in it?

YK: Yayoi Kusama was the world’s most popular artist in 2014. And she is still one of the most popular artist in 2016. I think that the quality of this exhibition is among the top of the world. And her exhibition has been already developed by the point of visitor’s participation, comparing it to her exhibition that I saw in Matsumoto, Japan in 2003. It would be possible for her to use 5 senses to prompt visitors to participate in her art, such as the sense of touch, the sense of smell and auditory sense.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Do you think that art should be more sensorial, and available for people to touch?

YK: Yes, at least for me. I think touching art is a much deeper experience than seeing art. I make my large animal wooden sculptures (about 160 x 80 x70 cm) to be touchable and huggable. It is a hands-on way of “interactive art” in a sense that visitors also take action towards the art. And it is also “participation art” as you are touching and hugging a sculpture in the exhibition gallery space or in the public space. The importance of touching art is also connected to the internet period or described as a post-internet period. Although we can see a lot of images through internet, we can’t get a sense of touch through internet as well. So the sense of touch is a strong point attached to my animal sculptures. The feeling of a wood material is little warm and nice to human body. My animal sculptures have been already in some public places as public art. It gives people happiness and experiences in a way that they participate in a society through art.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Is there a line between art and design in contemporary art or does there have to be?

YK: For me such a line is not so meaningful in our contemporary time. Design can be art and art can be design. I think that art and design have an effect on each other especially here in Helsinki.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What are you planning next, do you have new ideas and exhibitions coming up? 

YK: My next exhibition is coming soon 23.11-18.12.2016 in Galleria AARNI in Espoo, Finland. The concept is “Cute” –between SÖPÖ and Kawaii. I mix Finnish cuteness “SÖPÖ” with Japanese cuteness “Kawaii” in my art. In Japan “Kawaii” (= the quality of cuteness) has become a prominent aspect of Japanese popular culture. This term Kawaii has taken on the secondary meanings of cool, groovy, charming and innocent. The book “Kawaii Syndrome” tells “cute” and “neat” have taken precedence over the former Japanese aesthetics of “beautiful” and “refined”. So cuteness is a new cultural wave of Japanese postwar generation especially of the ones born in 70’s and 80’s. This cultural wave has come to Europe particularly through Manga and Anime. For the design of my animal wood sculptures I use Finnish wood, and the Finnish cuteness of SÖPÖ is inspired by Finnish art and design. In the exhibition visitors can see ”Cute” animal sculptures, touch & hug a large sculpture ”Panda Papa & Child”. I am hoping the audiences will enjoy Yasushi Koyama’s world of cute animals in the exhibition coming to Galleria AARNI.

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yasushi-koyama-photo-by-ayana-palander
Yasushi Koyama, photo by Ayana Palander

Artist profile: http://www.kuvataiteilijamatrikkeli.fi/en/artists/3620

Cho Kuwakado: making murals

Cho Kuwakado is a Buddhist priest and director of Lumbini Kindergarten in Saiki City in Japan. He is an Arts educator together with his team that makes Chara-Rimpa mural projects in Japan and abroad. The most recent international collaboration was for the opening event for the celebration of Colegio Madrid’s 75th anniversary in Mexico. In the interview, Cho discusses the background of these projects, and encourages us to think together with his educational philosophy, which is rooted in the history of Art and in the Buddhist thinking.

There are two levels of nature in my thinking. One is a superficial level like weather, vegetation, and ecosystem. Another is a cosmological level from which the superficial workings of nature emerge. Valuable works of art for me entail some elements of nature at a cosmological level. I think that is the source of the universal appeal of fine art work.

 

Chara-Rimpa is an art project initiative with a global production perspective, how did it get started and when?

It started in Spring 2013 when I began planning for our kindergarten’s 50th anniversary event. I contacted Dr. Yasuyuki Sakura, a graduate of our school and an established artist based in Tokyo, to ask him to be involved in our celebration event. Dr. Sakura agreed to be the art director of our kindergarten as well as to be a co-planner of our anniversary celebration- this was the initiation of the Chara-Rimpa project.

The global production idea came up when teachers from our sister school in California visited our school in Saiki. They were quite attracted by the professional work of Dr. Sakura and in the large mural in our school play yard that was created with 64 kindergartners in one day. I then thought about the possibility of doing a Chara-Rimpa art project in California and was interested to see how it could be carried out. I made a proposal to one of the teachers, Sarah Clark, to visit her school with my artist team. Then we started to talk about the details of a possible mural making project in California. After six months, in June 2014, we visited the town of Burney, CA where the movie “Stand by Me” was filmed. We worked with the sixth graders of Burney Elementary School. Our Chara-Rimpa project in Burney was a great success.

I’m very curious, what is your own background in the intersection of the arts and community involvement/community work?

My family has resided in Saiki City, Oita Prefecture, Japan since the 17th century as a hereditary Buddhist temple chief-priest/caretaker family. I am the 17th head priest of a Shin Buddhist temple, Zenkyoji, as well as the director of its kindergarten. As I grew up, I often looked into the writings and possessions of the former head priests, and I learned that india-ink painting, calligraphy, and mastery in classical Chinese poetry were common practices of former Buddhist priests until a century ago. Nowadays some limited groups of priests do continue these traditional practices. My interest in art came from my predecessor’s interest in Chinese art culture.

With 1500 households belonging to my temple, I think it is an important part of my responsibility to serve our community. Planning art events and workshops building relationships between children and adults is one of my community commitments.

Where did you study, and how did you find your international networks?

I was trained in Buddhist practice at my temple since the age of five. I studied social anthropology at Claremont Colleges (Pitzer) in Southern California, University College London, and Cornell University. My father was a Buddhist priest and a child education specialist. He studied in the US for one year. He developed a scholarly network then, which later led to my interest in studying at a university in the US. When I was a student there, I was fortunate to make friends from various countries, though I lost contact with many of them after graduation. However, through Internet SNS, mainly Facebook, I have reconnected with many friends that I studied with in the US and the UK.

Your recent project took place in Mexico City, how did the murals come about? How do you feel, what was the impact at the local level?   Do you use multicultural tactics?

Dr. Sakura and his partner Toshie Yoshioka worked together to develop the design theme of the mural. In a photograph of the elementary school wall, they noticed a water fountain in the lower central part of the wall. The shape of the water fountain resembled a plant pot and they decided to draw a big tree growing from ‘the pot.’ It came out incredibly vibrant and beautiful and the impact of the mural was greater than I had expected. It was an opening event for the celebration of Colegio Madrid’s 75th anniversary. About 20 teachers and 70~80 students participated in making a giant mural on its elementary school building wall. I felt the power of the artists’ imaginations, which enabled many people to work together for the same purpose enthusiastically. The directors, teachers, students, and invited guests all looked happy and marveled to see the beauty of the completed mural. We also organized and ran workshops which incorporated elements of traditional Japanese culture. Our photographer took photographs of Mexican people in “on the job/off the job” style to be used for later workshops in other countries.

Who are your greatest influencers in terms of the arts and creativity?

I have always been influenced by the thoughts and activities of Ryuichi Sakamoto (Japanese composer/musician), Levi-Strauss (Claude) for his work “La Pensée Sauvage,” and the Vienna Secession for their quest for freedom in art, departure from historicism and conservatism.

Could you tell us about your most important collaborators, who are they and what is their role in the projects?

Dr. Yasuyuki Sakura is the key artist of our project, conceptualizing the overall plan. His partner Toshie Yoshioka is a splendid designer who creates our workshops and mural design. Hiroaki Seo is our indispensable photographer who records the process of our activities, the finished work, and also captures the fleeting expressions of the participants. Hiroaki is responsible for all those vibrant images of the project and the people involved. Hanako Suro, our writer, communicates in a friendly and warm style to share information about our projects for a Japanese audience. Keiko, my wife, helps me making plans and doing projects. Kate Milling Yonezawa always helps me with English wording. Hao Phan, my friend from Cornell University, has been very helpful in planning overseas projects. It was thanks to Hao that our project in Mexico was so successful. I am very appreciative of Hao’s support with her global network. Another Cornell alumna, Young Ju Kwon, owner of the sushi restaurant YUZU, is helping us with possible project development in New York City.

When we plan our overseas projects, it is crucial to have a devoted, experienced person in charge of the art project. Sarah Clark in Burney and Laura Gilabert at Colegio Madrid were such teachers. We were very lucky to have Sarah and Laura in charge of the project at each school.

Do you have a specific education philosophy that gives you guidelines? Does being Japanese implement ideas that you think are unique, and that the world should learn about?

My education philosophy has its base in Buddhism; every individual’s potential is valued equally and is educated accordingly, everyone needs to play a role for a peaceful society.

A former professor of Tokyo University of Arts, art critic Hideto Fuse points out that one of the distinctive characteristics of Japanese art throughout its history is to cultivate “the mind of children” as expressed in the facial beauty of Buddhist statues. I agree with him that the Japanese art tradition valued “the mind of a child” in the sense that Picasso expressed, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child. “ I think that if there is something Japanese artists can offer to the world, one thing is its artistic tradition of expressing “the mind of a child” in art forms as can be seen in the contemporary works of Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara.

Do you have a favorite art form, performing arts or visual arts, what does being so multidisciplinary mean to you?

Visiting museums is always a treat for my mind. I was fascinated by William Turner’s work in London. I love music very much. A solo performance by Rostropovich that I attended at Cornell Concert Hall was one of my most fortunate experiences. A Sankaijuku dance performance that I saw in LA was impressive. Form itself does not define my preference. I am more attracted to the spirit expressed in any kind of art form. I think multidisciplinary is a very stimulating concept. It is a very effective approach to reach more audience in the context of technologically progressing diversified modern society. I think our art project can be viewed as a type of participatory art or relational art, which is usually, categorized as multidisciplinary art.

What kind of role does nature play in your thinking? Are there any specific metaphors in the nature that are important for you personally, and in your creative process?

There are two levels of nature in my thinking. One is a superficial level like weather, vegetation, and ecosystem. Another is a cosmological level from which the superficial workings of nature emerge. Valuable works of art for me entail some elements of nature at a cosmological level. I think that is the source of the universal appeal of fine art work.

What kinds of projects you have in mind for the future in Japan and overseas?

Dr. Sakura and I are planning mural making projects in Japanese towns. We are also planning another overseas art project for the next year involving mural making and cultural exchange art workshops. The mural design and the workshops are planned taking into account the project location and the country’s unique culture and traditions.

We are also planning to partake in a local festival here to attract more people and to create an improvisational call-and-response singing event. We are hoping that more people will experience and enjoy the spirit of Chara-Rimpa.

The mural design and the workshops are planned taking into account the project location and the country’s unique culture and traditions.

Around Armory 2015: the moments

What are the most celebrated features in the international art scene at the moment? The big art fairs, such as The Armory Show display candy art, and communicate the global tends. What strikes through from the art fair’s mass volume is the moment factor. The art takes place in the now, and is grasped as intensely global. Sometimes the moment appears as too loud and cacophonic, and as hard to perceive. However, it is always interesting to see how new ideas are shaping the content of the art world. Currently, we certainly live in an era of an object, we believe in the objects, and are looking for new center pieces that reflect more dynamic, perhaps organic, maybe even transformative ideas. With the object comes the abject, the ideas, the observations in the chaotic, the necessary artistic vision and paradox. The abject visualizes our need to give shape to turmoil in the world and in our personal lives. In the midst of it, there is a sense of calm, a need to seek out to other realms, or to give the paradoxes a more usual everyday reference. Art has hardly ever been so metaphorical as it is now.  Here pulsates both the object and (its) abject. Berta Fischer’s sculptures attracted with their transparency and with their neon-candy volume of lightness, they are popular and easy to access. Some of her works have a different texture in them, like the oval-shape, red-yellow wall sculpture below. It comes closer to definition of an abject reminiscing of the interior, and the morphological.  Nicole Eisenman’s reclining head-sculpture titled Big Head Sleeping, spoke about the materiality and shape, asking how a single body part connects to a dominance of a head, but with a cut-out presence. Her sculpture stood as an abject with introspection, critically studying our contemporary culture.

Jumana Manna, ‘Menace of Origins’, 2014, installation view, presented by CRG Gallery.
Jumana Manna, ‘Menace of Origins’, 2014, installation view, presented by CRG Gallery.

This year, The Armory Show included a curated section highlighting the geographic region of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean. Jumana Manna was one of the artists featured in this section, presented by CRG Gallery, New York.  Manna’s  works stand for ruins, and act out the disappearing landscape of people and their cultural heritage. More general references are to the origins of the culture, since the artifact nature of the ruins is present. Yet, her works narrate of the idea of the home, and perhaps of the lost home. The artist uses film and sculpture to capture history, anthropological sensibility, and truly benefits from the performative ways to present realities of her projects. Another focus artist was Mona Hatoum’s art presented by Alexander and Bonin, New York.  Mona Hatoumi’s black circle on the floor, appears as if it is glued to the space, leaving lots of room for interpretation. Overall, the curated section in this year’s art fair comprised of fifteen gallery presentations from across the globe, including non-for-profit institutions. The Armory Focus 2015 was curated by Omar Kholeif, a curator based at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.

Mona Hatoum, Turbulence, black, 2014
Mona Hatoum, ‘Turbulence (black)’, 2014, glass marbles, 3 x 250 cm diameter. Presented by Alexander and Bonin.

What else was capturing the moment factor? The time of the selfies, and an act of self-reflection, when we are looking at ourselves and the others in the mirror, having object-devices as the backdrop of our doings: performing ourselves, and putting ourselves out there in the social media, which in someways acts as today’s mirror. This is a theme that young generation artists will return to with new and different ideas. One is the always relevant question of identity, how we look ourselves in the mirror, and what does the mirror show. This interplay is shown in Alicja Kwade’s mirror-sculpture titled, Figure. It stands on a leg, being humorous, historic, reflecting the person-in-charge, whoever looks into the depths.

Alicja Kwade, Figure, 2014
Alicja Kwade, Figure (2014), presented by Johann König. The Armory Show 2015.
Yargo Alexopoulos, The Long Swell 2014, presented by Bryce Wolkowitz.
Yargo Alexopoulos, The Long Swell, 2014, digital animation on custom cut LCD display, powder coated aluminum, polished stainless steel, glass, custom electronics, 10 x 31 x 6 inches, edition of 8 + 2 AP, duration: infinite loop, presented by Bryce Wolkowitz.

Environment is one topic in the current art world. And it should be. Among the chaos, across the globe, where natural disasters and turmoil take place on a regular basis. Art necessarily reflects this. The references are not too obvious, but you can understand the point through the presentation. Such was the installation by Yargo Alexopoulos, presented by Bryce Wolkowitz from New York.  The infinite loop might as well be artificial, but it connects to the ocean, presenting a dynamics of the water surface, as monotonous and as moving with tension.
Similar subliminal feel comes out of the visual imagery of Catherine Yass, presented by Galerie Lelong, New York. This work was a light-box installation, in which the artist used photographic exposures of the lighthouse and blue-colored filters. The result is eerie, and comes with a message, where the source of light has turned black.

Catherine Yass, Lighthouse, 2011.
Catherine Yass, Lighthouse (East), 2011, presented by Galerie Lelong.

One of the personal favorites in this year’s Armory Show was a Los Angeles based gallery which brought along fresh ideas to the East Coast. The meditative palette by artist Luke Diiorio, presented by Anat Ebgi, was unique. The gallery showed his recent work-series titled ttylenol. These linen works praise craft, meditate, and encompass, and have some feel of the work-in-progress.

Anat Ebgi
Anat Ebgi booth with Luke Diiorio’s ttylenol-series
Luke Diiorio’s ttylenol-series, 2015, presented by Anat Ebgi.

(images: Firstindigo&Lifestyle)

Chantal Joffe’s women visit Helsinki

Chantal Joffe’s oil paintings raise questions about women as subjects of art. What is feminist art, and what makes women portraitures as subjects of feminist art? What makes Joffe’s paintings so appealing in the world of portraits is their movement and their character; whether it is the angles, features, colors and their environment. The domesticity or the everyday versus iconographic femininity is so intriguing. The art historical note would be multiple references. One thing that comes to mind in relation to Joffe is her psychological approach. Her portraits create emotional landscapes of the person they portray. Chantal Joffe’s art will come to Helsinki in August 2013. Gallerie Forsblom will feature the artist together with two other artists. According to the gallery this is the first time her art will be shown in the Nordic Countries. It is about time, as she is an international celebrity.

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Between August 30 and September 22 Joffe’s art will be seen, together with Adel Abidin and Nelli Palomäki, at the Gallerie Forsblom.

Gallerie Forsblom: http://www.galerieforsblom.com/artists/chantal_joffe/representative_works/

More information about Chantal Joffe: http://www.victoria-miro.com/artists/_19/

Galleria Saima brings Italian art influence to Helsinki

Gallerist Lea Karttunen founded her art gallery Galleria Saima in the heart of Helsinki in 2012. She is a graduate from the Graphic Design program at the Institute of Design and Fine Arts in Lahti Finland. Lea has worked in the graphic industry for decades, and painted in her free time in Italy where she is inspired by the ancient Etruscans.

LeaKarttunen, Saniaisen olemus, Akvarell painting, 37×27 cm, 2012

Lea, How did you start your Saima Galleria?

LK: The art gallery has been my long term dream. My idea is basically to create a platform for young talent. Then I want to work with different artistic genres, I want to mix forms and overall be very interdisciplinary. In my opinion, this is the way to create a new type of artistic space. And it is situated in the heart of Helsinki.

What is your background in the arts?

I have always worked with painting myself, but I love and respect all the other art forms as well, for example music and theater. I studied visual communication, Russian classical portrait painting, and akvarell painting with many prominent artist-mentors. I find that this is truly a life-long learning process, to acquire techniques takes a long time. In addition, I have been involved in the business world for decades so I have that experience as well.

I visited Saima after it had opened in August 2012. I was impressed by Mari Vuolanto’s huge black-and-white works on paper, which you presented for the opening without frames. She has lived and worked in Italy too. I understood that your dream is to bring Italian art world closer to our Finnish one. How do these two places meet in your gallery?

I love Italy, its culture and nature, and the ‘Etruscan influence’ in Mazzano Romano is a constant source of inspiration. Perhaps this is the reason why Italy has been part of my vision from the very beginning. I personally think that Italian artists are more expressive or courageous, and more multiple in their approach than we often are here in the North.

What is your curating principle and the set of goals?

By combining different art forms and using interdisciplinary means, I want to bring something new to the art field. I want to be taking part in the current trends, or what is timely, both locally and internationally.

This is what we have planned for the near future in the gallery. We will have very interesting event coming up, when we are working together and in conjunction with another show taking place in London. On April 20th 2013, one artist paints here at Saima Galleria and the ’other part’ paints simultaneously in London. These two artists are making portraits of each other. The project examines memories, discovers distance and  longing. We will use internet in the process of making the portraits.

Then we will have an exhibition coming up, which will be based on music, and focuses on the musical and the sound experience. I believe that when wecombine different art forms we promote new kind of art-loving participation and we create new opportunities for audiences.

Tell me about your current exhibition with artist Valentina Toma?

Valentina comes from Italy, she has lived two years in Helsinki, and this is her first exhibition in Finland. Most of her works, now on view at our gallery, are from 2011-2012, and her show is named as E´IL TEMPO DEI COLORI BRILLANTI (Its time for brilliant colors). During the 1990s and 2000s, Valentina had exhibitions all around the world, including in New York, in Hong Kong, in Mexico City, as well as in numerous European cities. Her paintings are combining pop surrealism with neo-realism. These paintings are very strong and powerful. The colors are strong, and her technique is very detailed and expressively disciplined. Valentina is a graduate from the Florence Academy of Art.

Galleria Saima is open during the exhibitions: Wednesday-Friday 11 am –5 pm, Saturday-Sunday12-4 pm.Adress: Neitsytpolku 9,00140 Helsinki. (Valentina Toma’s exhibition in on view until 10.2.2013.)

www.galleriasaima.fi

Artist Valentina Toma’s webpage on Artbreak/Greenpoison.

Artist Mari Vuolanto’s webpage.

Artist Nozomi Rose: Dai Dai

Nozomi Rose is a rocking Japanese woman artist, who has a lot to say about the women’s role in the fine arts. From traditional Japanese Nihonga to Western artistic techniques, she uses fingernails to add dimension to the paintings. She was trained in painting at Cornell University and earned an MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The focus for our discussion is on diversity of artistic practices. We listen to her plans from organizing a conference in New York City, where artists and scholars who have more than one practice get to present their work and share knowledge on how one discipline informs the other. She is publishing an e-book in Japanese on hybrid art teaching and learning for Tatsu-zine Publishing. Her exhibition ‘Dai Dai’ will open in New York at Japanese Embassy on October 2nd. This exhibition will feature her latest paintings of multiple techniques, along with her other works.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: We had a discussion about patriarchal Japanese art-institution, could you explain that a bit?

NR: Haha. Are we really starting out our interview with this question? I was talking about the wife of Ikuo Hirayama, one of the most important Nihonga painters in Japan. Ikuo Hirayama is a Hiroshima-A bomb survivor, served as the President of Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music (a.k.a Geidai) twice, and a synonym for Nihonga, so I would say he is a Japanese version of Jackson Pollock. Well, sort of…Hirayama paints landscape and is known for Silk Road paintings. Everyone in Japanese art knows his name. His wife Michiko Hirayama entered the same university with Ikuo and was the top of their class. Ikuo was the second. Michiko, however, gave up on her painting career when they got married because their best man told her that having two painters in one household would not work. Michiko took the advice and stopped painting, and then, Ikuo truly climbed to the top of the field. It sounds similar to Lee Krasner now I think about it. There is a Japanese idiom “breaking one’s brush,” which typically means “stop writing stories,” but Japanese painters see that the words symbolize a female painter’s marriage with a male painter in Nihonga. Michiko’s episode is an urban folklore among Japanese painters worldwide. I heard this story for the first time when I was studying painting in Paris, France!

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You are using both western means of creating art and Japanese traditional Nihonga in your art, how naturally this came about to you as an artist and when?

NR: Oh, you mean, I use Nihonga paints with acrylic medium on canvas and you see it as unusual? That is a very good point. The fact is that, though, many Japanese painters trained in Nihonga use this method in New York. Also, Nihonga pigments are heavy because their particles are much larger than western pigments, so I can’t really use gum arabic for this, like you do in watercolor. I can’t mix it with oil painting medium because oil paints cure through oxidation, and oxidation changes the colors in Nihonga pigments. These are scientific sides of why and how it came to me. The technical diversity creates the differences in visual effects in western and Japanese paintings. I am curious to see how Nihonga paints react to various western painting mediums in my work. I might try it with oil paints at a later time. I have increasingly been attracted to casual ways of making paintings, so the color change may be okay for certain types of work that I will create in the near future.

You may be asking me about the conceptual side of the work. For me, using Nihonga paints is one way of “citing” Japan in my work, but this is not the main theme I promote in art. Personally, making art has more to do with erasing my own identity as Japanese rather than emphasizing it. I was told at an early stage of my artistic career that I should stay away from quoting Japanese art materials or Japanese visual languages for my own work because they can never make my art original. For example, I can never be unique by copying Ukiyo-e patterns as art because many people have seen those. I have never trained in Nihonga; learning Japanese traditional painting never attracted me. When I was still in Japan, I was studying oil painting; I liked Japanese oil painters such as Ryuzaburo Umehara who studied with Pierre-Auguste Renoir. I enjoyed seeing the world through the lens of Japanese artists influenced by the western aesthetics.

I also liked the works by westerners influenced by the Japanese aesthetics. This included Impressionists and conceptual artists like Daniel Buren, so I went to Paris in 1999. I even went to Monet’s house in Giverny, but you know…he had a strong collection of Japanese woodcut prints and that was the secret! It was a bit unfair that I had to travel all the way from Japan to France only to witness that Claude Monet was a big fan of Japanese art. Daniel Buren, on the other hand, might not be familiar with Japan although his work looks very Japanese, especially the installations with color stripes.

Do you know there was no art in Japan until Ernest Fenollosa came and made it happen with Okakura Tenshin, who established Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music and was a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston? Okakura Tenshin was Fenollosa’s assistant and both of them worked for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. People who say that the Japanese Constitution was written by the United States would probably claim that Americans created Japanese art, but I am not a historian.

So my short answer is that it has always been on my mind. However, inserting something very Japanese directly into my own artwork, which I have long been resisted, came to me only when the Japan Tsunami Earthquake Disaster happened.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: The collaboration between Fenollosa and Tenshin is very moving, and kind of tells us how the world of artists has always been connected.  Do you feel you are mediating between East and West with your art, or do you think that it is stereotypical to make this opposition?

NR: As a visual artist, color is my “language.” I would like color to mediate between east and west in my work, so my answer is yes and I feel there is no way for me to escape this. I am certainly interested in mediating between Japanese and American visual effects and aesthetics. Japanese art has borrowed elements from Indian and Chinese art, so it is the idea of East. I think the question is more about “how” I am doing it. I am watching how my art can mediate both east and west.

(Courtesy of A. Sortie, Inc. Nozomi Rose, ‘Happening’, 2012. oil on canvas. 8″ x 10″)

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You participated in the Japan’s Earthquake and TsunamI 2011 art-project, could you tell me more about it?

NR: I was an organizer for Silent Art Auction and a curator for Charity Art Exhibition, but they were both student-driven projects. Our students learned a lot by carrying out those charity art events. I was just a tool for them to communicate with the College and Japan. Students who wanted to show and sell their art for their fundraisers, first on campus and then in a Chelsea art gallery, got together, and through myself, they were able to even have a commercial gallery owner donate his space for one day, for free.

We see those activities as our students’ educational experiences as well as healing processes. As a result, affected students successfully survived the crisis and graduated. I just presented on this theme with two other Professors, Kyoko Toyama in College Discovery/Counseling and Tomonori Nagano in Education and Language Acquisition, at the Opening Session at LaGuardia Community College: (For more details, look the website: http://www.lagcc.cuny.edu/Opening-Sessions/Workshops-II/)

Our College President Dr. Gail O. Mellow has been sympathetic about what Japanese students went through due to the unfortunate disaster, so she briefly came to our presentation. I felt her attendance symbolized a kind gesture by the College to the affected population in Japan.

The title of our paper is “Respecting Tradition and Creating a Community: Culturally Appropriate Response to the needs of Japanese Students and the College in the aftermath of Japan’s Earthquake and Tsunami.” We previously presented the same research in a session under the same title at the 2011 Asian American Psychological Association Conference in Washington D. C.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Then, I am always curious what an artist like you holds for their future. I guess it is about the dreams, what are your dreams and future plans?

NR: Wow, this is an interesting question. My dreams:

1) Sending 1000 young women from the disaster areas of Japan to New York City to study visual arts at LaGuardia Community College. This can be for three months or longer like two years. They do not need to be all Japanese citizens and I believe this is the right way for us to start spending more money on women’s education. This art project is after “Fairytale” by Ai Weiwei. Please let me know if you know anyone who would be interested in funding this project!

2) Creating a visiting East Asia artists and curators’ lecture series where people from various East Asia countries peacefully collaborate. After 3/11, my school suggested me to create an East Asia art course, so I wrote and proposed HUA191: the Art of Eastern Asia. It is now part of the College’s official course offerings. We are currently developing a new East Asia/ Japanese major, in collaboration with Queens College, so the new East Asia art course is becoming a permanent addition to the major. This is a bold step for diversity in the arts of Long Island City, Queens/ NYC. The next logical step would be an art lecture series with the same theme.

Future plans

1) To film “Dai Dai.” The title of my exhibition came from a film project that I started in 2010 entitled, “Orange.” Daidai is a Japanese word for one specific shade of orange, whose sound also connotes the concept of genealogy. The film content was mainly about my personal experience with the color orange, the largest earthquake in Japan, which was the Kobe earthquake before 3/11, and the sarin gas attack on Tokyo Subway system. I think production of a contemporary Japanese folklore was my initial purpose of this project. The tsunami earthquake was literally a life altering experience for me as an artist in part because it forced me to stop writing this script, but I recently decided to re-start it by re-structuring the entire work.

2) Swan Hill Art Biennale. I am helping the Swan Hill Museum of Contemporary Art in Himeji, Japan, to create an art biennale. Himeji literally means “Princess Road.” It currently promotes art made by women and I want to eventually include transgender women. For that, I think the conservative region needs a good woman’s medical center. We want a feminist art “museum-medical center,” so I will start talking to artists and doctors who may be interested in this type of project. This can sound very different from what I have done in the past, but I think the fundraisers for Japan last year were really about helping to raise funds for medical treatments.

3) Interdisciplinary Art Practices Conference in NYC. I am planning to organize a conference where artists and scholars who have more than one practice present their work and discuss how one discipline informs another one in their own practice.

4) E-Publication. I am writing an e-book for Tatsu-zine Publishing (http://tatsu-zine.com/) in Tokyo, Japan. This will probably be about Art-in-NY for non-majors and online art learning tools because this Japanese publisher specializes in e-books for computer programmers.

(Courtesy of A. Sortie, Inc. Nozomi Rose, ‘One Summer Dream’, 2012. oil on unstretched linen)

The artist’s website: http://nozomirose.com/

Information about the upcoming ‘Dai Dai’ -exhibition: Opening Reception: Thursday, Oct. 4th, 2012. 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m, Discussion with the artist: Friday, October 5th, 2012, at 1:00 p.m.

http://www.ny.us.emb-japan.go.jp/en/i2/special_2012-10-02–31_DaiDaiExibition.html Opening

  • (Daidai is a fruit)