Interview: Katsutoshi Yuasa, from photographic imagination to woodcut reality

Katsutoshi Yuasa is a Japanese artist who has revitalized the original idea of photography, thinking about its early techniques, and bringing the digital production close to ancient Japanese printmaking practices. His detailed and lengthy artistic process starts usually with a digital snapshot. Eventually the image finds a new life as woodcut print or relief work, which the artist carves and prints all by a hand. In this production the original alters into something else, depicting a feeling or experience. Katsutoshi Yuasa was born in Tokyo. He graduated from the Royal College of Art in London, and has exhibited internationally for over a decade now.

For Katsutoshi Yuasa, the photography contains several layers of meaning. The complexity of the medium implies that the production cannot be perceived as pure images.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Your woodcutting is based on photography, did this practice in your mind transform the idea of photography?

Katsutoshi Yuasa: Yes, my process of making art works is a way of thinking about an origin of photography. Or it is about image-making. How we understand and transform an image in front of our eyes to our mind.

I start from a photographic snapshot, but re-emergence of a photographic image is not my goal. My purpose of using a photograph is to make visible something which is perceived but no one sees.

Katsutoshi Yuasa, 2014, After a long pause  60cm x 150cm  Oil-based woodcut on paper
Katsutoshi Yuasa, 2014, After a long pause, 60cm x 150 cm, oil-based woodcut on paper.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What is your background in the arts, how did you end up choosing woodcutting?

KY: I studied painting at first when I was a student. But I gave up my paintings because I couldn’t find a good future in my paintings. So I participated in a short printmaking course, and then found positive possibilities in the printmaking. Even that time my interest was photography, so I was thinking photo etching or screen print technique as my primary expression. At first, woodcut print seemed to be too far from photography. But later I concerned carving lines on wood as a similar process to making lights in the dark room. Now I’ve been making woodcut prints and works related to wood for over 10 years. Basically, woodcut print includes questions about light, image, water and colour.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: In how many countries have you exhibited so far, including art galleries and art fairs?

KY: Maybe about 15 or 16 countries.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Coming from Japan, do you find that there are common approaches to making art in Japanese and Nordic cultures, asking this also because your art has been showed in Nordic countries quite often?

KY: My main subject is woodcut print but it is about light, image, water and colour. So I made a project with an idea of these and created a concept from a place where I stayed. When I visited Norway with the art project “20 Coastal Stations”, my subject was water & colour. I’m going to have a exhibition in October 2016 with artists who traveled together in Norway last year (see info here  http://www.sfk.museum.no/nn/node/48).

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You spent also some artist residence time in Finland, how was this experience like, did it change your artistry, how about finding new influences?

KY: I spend a really good time in Finland. During the artist residence in Finland, I searched Scandinavian myths and poems. I’m interested in how myths are made. I made woodcut prints titled as “Illmatar” and “The world without words”. Also “Listen, Nature is full of songs and truth” is a phrase that I borrowed from Finland.

Katsutoshi Yuasa, 2013, The world without words, water-based woodcut on paper
Katsutoshi Yuasa, 2013, The world without words, water-based woodcut on paper.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: It seems that many of your photographs carry nature imagery, what is your artistic philosophy about nature and how does it change in the process of making your works?

KY: I am not interested in making just beautiful pictures. My interest are words, stories and myths behind the nature and the landscape. The topics are words, images, art, nature, politics and beauty. I would also like to show and include ambivalence in my works.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: In recent years, you have made a series of works that imply thematic concerns about what is happening in the world. You did a series titled  “The Colors of the Innocents”; the theme is based on events in the Middle East adopting Syrian crisis. How did this project come about?

KY: Everyday we see many shocking images on TV or on a screen. There are too many images around us via the internet. I have the works titled as “We lost something but we don’t know what we lost”. And, we can say “We see anything but we don’t remember what we saw” and also “We know something is happening in the world but we don’t know the smell and temperature”. These topics are about cruelty and colour.

Katsutoshi Yuasa, 2015, The colours of the Innocents #4  60cm x 90.5cm  Water-based woodcut on paper
Katsutoshi Yuasa, 2015, The colours of the Innocents #4 60cm x 90.5cm. Water-based woodcut on paper.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: The result of these prints is quite amazing. Tell about the aesthetic choices of making “The Colors of the Innocents”? They are quite different from your other works, which are more representational.

KY: For these works, I was more interested in making colourful works because colour is getting more important in my practice. One colour work is following up from my CMYK printing system. So I made 4 wood blocks with different lines and printed with 4 CMYK colours.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You can see that in 2015 there are new lines and shapes emerging, and result is perhaps more geometry and color. The prints titled All is Vanity, CMYCYMMCYMYCYCMYMC, and Nordlys, to name a few, have this form. Can you say that there is a fine line between design and art in the project that you are doing with these shapes?

KY: The most important idea for these works is “A Throw of the Dice Never Abolish Chance”. My interest is making an Image by a chance. Especially the I Ching is very interesting. There is a question that we choose something by a will or a chance. So my latest solo exhibition was titled as Colour/Numbers. How we choose numbers or how a number was chosen by us.

 

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Tell about the “Beyond assumption” exhibition, which you had in Copenhagen in 2011, you kind of wanted to create an oppositional imagery of disaster, could you tell about this background, and what did you choose to be part of the imagery beyond assumption?

Yes, the exhibition “Beyond assumption” is a word from the Natural disaster that hit in Japan in 2011. Artists want to make their art works beyond assumption in the end. And of course Nature is always beyond our assumption. But we made a system under an unstable base. So here art connects to nature.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: The works from 2016 also are experimenting with different shapes, reflecting pattern explorations, and bringing forth new influences. It seems that you have a flux of going between geometry and nature, to create and implement beauty?

Katsutoshi Yuasa, 2015, Observation point  95.5cm x 190cm  Oil-based woodcut on aluminum leaf paper
Katsutoshi Yuasa, 2015, Observation point 95.5cm x 190cm Oil-based woodcut on aluminum leaf paper.

KY: Yes, I’m very interested in geometry and patterns. It is about image-making. History and culture are included behind an image.

Katsutoshi Yuasa, 2016, Aesthetics of 12 #1  28cm x 45cm  Oil-based woodcut on paper
Katsutoshi Yuasa, 2016 Aesthetics of 12 #1 28cm x 45 cm, oil-based woodcut on paper.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Where are you heading next with your art and career?

KY: My next exhibition will be in Norway in October. It includes works from 20 Coastal Stations project. So 6 artists will be showing together, presenting the project. Also, I will have a group exhibition with young Japanese artists, who make water-based woodcut prints, in Melbourne in October.

Artist website: http://www.katsutoshiyuasa.com/

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.

Japanese Nakajima Mugi paints blue on blue

Japanese artist Nakajima Mugi’s works open into a world of intense color and detail, and are filled with nuances and interactive play around the hues of the natural world. The artist often thinks and displays his works in pairs, as a group of three, or even in large groups on the wall. Putting the art pieces together changes the atmosphere of the space. What attracts me in his style is probably the technique of letting the color drop on canvas while in the process, which results in a possibility of chance, or accident. Yet the control of the colors and their order in the palette is made by the artist who masters the materiality of his vision. A series of paintings ‘blue on blue’ represents chaosmos paintings which are abstract (chaosmos: chaos and cosmos). The vivid colors of acrylics show off the surfaces of plastered paint. The ‘cosmos’ means order where accumulation of drawings create an entire landscape. The outcome comes close to patterned design textiles that expose bold attitude. Japanese and Finnish design and art worlds have something very similar in their approach, whether they meet in minimalism paying attention to detail and form, or stand for an oasis of calm. The interpretation of nature is present.

Nakajima Mugi1
Nakajima Mugi

The artist uses different techniques to enhance his vision. ‘Blue on blue’ series includes two types of paintings of different techniques and textures. In one the fluid colors run on canvas as mentioned above. The other is a quiet one-color painting.  Nakajima Mugi’s color-drop style recalls art informel and abstract expressionism. Solid color, then, reminds of Hard-edge paintings (Ellsworth Kelly) or Color field paintings (Barnett Newman). When Mugi’s works are arranged side by side the combinations do not follow strict rules but form an installation. The cosmos is ever-changing its rhythm, and the works show seasons and time. ‘Blue on blue’ changes according to exhibit space aiming to demonstrate the polyphonic of the paintings.

Nakajima Mugi2
Nakajima Mugi2

Nakajima Mugi was represented at the New City Art Fair in Chelsea, New York City in March of 2014 with the Gallery OUT of PLACE which is located in Nara and Tokyo. The gallery presented variations from his ‘blue on blue’ series. It also showed his other works that communicate well with urban and architectural environments. The artist has created installations with spatial variation including traditional Japanese houses as well as urban window-displays which communicate both inside and outside.

 

Artist spotlight: Hiroaki Umeda discusses his recent works

Japanese contemporary choreographer Hiroaki Umeda recently presented his new choreography Peripheral Stream with L.A. Dance Project at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. in 2013, he worked with an ensemble of 11 dancers from GöteborgsOperans Danskompani in Sweden. In the piece, Interfacial Scale, Umeda created the choreography, set, costume, light and sound design. As well as being a choreographer and dancer, Umeda is a visual artist, photographer and video artist. He established his own company S20 in 2000. Umeda has entered the international scene with his multimedia performance works that employ his own body and self-created video images, music and lighting designs. These are recorded on a single notebook computer.

(On the video Hiroaki Umeda talks about the Interfacial Scale which he created for the GöteborgsOperans Danskompani in Sweden in 2013)

Since he first drew attention at the 2002 Yokohama Dance Collection R, Umeda has gone on to win praise of dance professionals around the world for the way he wraps his improvisational body movement in intricately woven spaces defined by light (video) and music with the beauty of an art installation. (Tatsuro Ishii for 国際交流基金 / The Japan Foundation Performing Arts Network)

FIRSTINDIGO&LIFESTYLE: You are known for your own choreographic language that has influences from different styles, and, from the movement point of view is highly flowing and gestural. Is there a way to trace the evolution of it, how did the movement develop?

Hiroaki Umeda: I started to dance at the age of 20, which is very late in general. At the beginning, I took some dance classes, such as Ballet, Hip Hop and etc. After a year of taking some dance lessons, I realized that there is no specific “dance style” that I want to learn: the dance I wanted to pursue had in fact not existed yet. Plus, I found that what is interesting for me in dance was, not the style, but what lays beneath those styles which is the “principal of movement.” So I started figuring out and understanding the principal of movement by myself, then I applied that principal to my body movement. I would say that my dance should be addressed not as dance but rather as a movement, since I focus on, again, what lays beneath the system of dance, which is the system of movement.

HIROAKI UMEDA: "Haptic." Photo: Shin Yamagata.
HIROAKI UMEDA: “Haptic.” Photo: Shin Yamagata.

You are a Japanese contemporary choreographer, can you describe the dance scene in Japan?

HU: I have been accepted more abroad than in Japan from the beginning of my career, so I cannot say much on behalf of the Japanese choreographers about what you are asking. However, I personally feel that contemporary dance scene in Japan has not been developed enough yet. The scene is very closed. But on the other hand, it is also true that because of the close-knit circumstances, it has developed very idiosyncratic styles. I cannot say if this close-knit condition is good or not good for the Japanese contemporary dance scene. Anyway, in Japan now, there are so many people who have been struggling and working hard to develop and open-up the scene more; that is a really big hope for me and I thank them a lot.

You started your artistic career with photography, and then moved towards dance, how did this transition happen?

HU: I was looking for an art style, which can accept real-time expression, thus, more than photography, I found that dance could be suitable for what I want to express. Dance is an art form in which I can physically put myself into in real time. In photography, on the contrary, it was really hard for me to materialize a piece in real. That is why I shifted to dance from photography. However, I have not totally detached myself from the photographic art form since I have been taking a standpoint throughout that dance can be a form of visual art. Lighting design, which I learned in photography, is now an essential factor for a dance piece.

The way you construct your choreography seems multidisciplinary. The sound and lighting design, and the visual dimension is crucial in your composition? Can you even differentiate which comes first?

HU: In practice, I start from abstract drawings, in fact, just lines. This drawing expresses my image of the tension of space, and it functions like the score of the piece to become. According to the drawings, which envision the whole image of the piece, I put together all materials, such as sound, light, dance and etc.

The visual addition or sometimes ’distortion’ makes your compositions also appear aesthetically ’charged’, could you say something about it?

HU: In my work, I focus a lot on how the bodily sensation could emerge from the space, and how, in turn, the bodily sensation could change the tension of space. That is, first and foremost, what I am interested in. The basic composition of my piece is always based on choreographing the tension of the space. By acutely tuning into the space, it is possible to attain a lot of stimuli that can provide you with physical sensations.

What does it culturally mean to be a Japanese choreographer now, from the point of view of globalization?

HU: have not been working consciously as a “Japanese” choreographer. I have been working as just an artist, focusing on how to bring my pieces to more people all over the world. I think that it is more important to be one of the many artists of the world, than just a Japanese artist.

Does Butoh as art movement mean anything to you? How about Kabuki, Gutai, and action art? They have also called you ’’avant-garde’’?

HU: I really appreciate their art works. But actually I am not so close to those Japanese avant-garde cultures. And I cannot tell if they have called me as “avant-garde.”

What role a nature and technology play in your mind-set?

HU: Nature and technology are not oppositional concepts for me. As a matter of fact, technology is a tool to understand and approximate nature. By the same token, I think that human beings and art, which human beings create, are a part of nature.

Where did you grow up? Where do you work these days?

HU: For the last several years I have been traveling almost all year round. I grew up in Tokyo, and I consider Tokyo as my hometown. But I have been working everywhere in the world. I think that what I do in my art is not connected to any specific country, city or place, so actually I don’t mind working any place in the world.

You did a work for Gothenburg Dance Company (GöteborgsOperans Danskompani). How was it to work in Sweden, also in terms of cultural exchange? Did dancers like the movement?

HU: Dancers of the company were from all over the world. They were really skillful and had great intelligence, and were very professional. To start off with, I gave them a system of movement which becomes the under layer of my choreography, and the dancers tried to find their own movements from tapping into that system. I am sure that I enjoyed seeing their movements develop from my system, even more than they enjoyed learning my system. At the moment, I have limited experience as a choreographer for big companies so the dancers helped me a lot and I learned so much from them. I would say that the process was more of collaboration, rather than providing choreography to the dancers.

In terms of the cultural exchange you are asking, the company was too international to feel any specific cultural differences. I would say that working with them was rather like a kind of universal project, working in various mixed cultures.

How was it to collaborate in Benjamin Millepied’s LA Dance Project 2? How was the audience response in Paris?

HU: Compared to LA Dance Project, the Gothenburg Dance Company was strict in terms of working procedures and time schedule precisely because they are a huge public company; I needed to follow their administrative schedule in terms of creative process, which I totally understood. On the contrary, Benjamin’s LA Dance Project is, although they have diverse range or repertoire, still small in scale as a company. For this reason, I could work more closely with the dancers and staff that enabled me to go further and experiment more in the piece. To be very honest, I didn’t expect a good response from audience in the Châtlet. Surprisingly, however, the Paris audience quite openly accepted and appreciated my piece. I was impressed by their open-mindedness.

Can you name some of your influence or mentors, colleagues?

HU: There are too many names to list up here.

What are your plans for the future, and dreams?

HU: From last year, I have started making choreography devoid of human body. For me, human bodies are not the only elements for choreographic consideration. In fact, I want to really challenge choreographing anything with “movement,” and develop a dance piece with various elements. One of my dreams now is to choreograph water.