artscape Japan
artscape Japanese site
Monthly Mail Contact Us
HOME FOCUS  PICKS MUSEUM DB ABOUT
image
image
image HOME > FOCUS > The Poetic Visions of Leiko Ikemura, at the National Art Center, Tokyo
image
Focus: More Focus
image
image
image

Focus features two in-depth reviews each month of fine art, architecture and design exhibitions and events at art museums, galleries and alternative spaces around Japan. The contributors are non-Japanese residents of Japan.

image
image image The Poetic Visions of Leiko Ikemura, at the National Art Center, Tokyo
Susan Rogers Chikuba
image
image

Three tempera works on jute -- Tokaido, Genesis and Tokaido (each 2015) -- span a wall of the "Cosmicscape" gallery, one of 16 installations in Leiko Ikemura's largest solo show to date.

Sculptor, painter, illustrator, photographer, poet . . . Leiko Ikemura embraces it all. "Be the vessel. Don't refuse the material," she says. Her exhibition Our Planet - Earth & Stars at the National Art Center, Tokyo reveals an artist digging deep into the bony earth of things to spelunk the primal pulses of her own, and our collective, heart.

"Poesy," in its original sense of "creation," is the portal through which Ikemura invites us to take a broader view of our world. It seems fitting that her show opened just as the sensualist writings of Mary Oliver filled our newsfeeds upon reports of that poet's death. The two women are kindred spirits: mystic spiritualists seeking to understand our place in the cosmos while maintaining a sense of innocence toward life and a healthy detachment from its vicissitudes.

Yet where Oliver took as her material the immediacy of the natural world around her, intuiting the stars and their mysteries from such earthly acts as thrusting one's fingers into fragrant soil or running streams, Ikemura begins with the stars -- the intangible stuff of our dreams and fears -- and offers up her gatherings in equally lush, but mythical, scenes. Each works from a place of fearless, if understated, compassion. Showing up in mindful presence, they would surely agree, is the greatest gift we can offer.

image

The artist poses in front of one her latest works, from the dreamlike Sinus Spring series.

Now based in Berlin, Ikemura left Japan for Spain in the 1970s, when still in college. "I was attracted to the musicality of Spanish," she says. "Language is a living thing. I wasn't interested in studies I could do at my desk. I wanted to be part of the world, part of something larger. It was a time of student unrest in Japan, but I felt apart from it. I don't believe you can create something from rebellion."

In Spain Ikemura witnessed the advent of democracy with the 1975 death of dictator Francisco Franco. From there she moved to Switzerland amid that country's rising pacifist movement of the 1980s. She next lived in Germany, where she saw the collapse of the Berlin Wall. "It seems I have always been in these states of turbulence, epochs where history was changing," she reflects. All the while, Japan remained very present in her mind. "Though Heisei was named an era of peace," she says, "it is anything but, because the wounds and scars of the Pacific War still remain."

image

Leiko Ikemura, Trees out of Head, 2015, private collection

"Maintaining hope in our capacity to love and build peace is a human responsibility. But artists are not moralists, nor are we educators," Ikemura believes. "So I drag out these burdens of mankind and the darkness within my own depths of being. And as I look at it all, thinking 'How frightening!,' I keep on confronting it."

The exhibition begins with an enlarged print of Circle of Life, a mandala-like etching Ikemura did in 1977, after she had left Japan to study in Seville. "I was a young art student abroad, trying to find my way," she says of it. "Now when I look back I see that the groundwork for all of the themes I would later address is there."

image

Leiko Ikemura, Ocean III (Between Horizons), 2000/01, Hilti Art Foundation

That circularity is manifest in the exhibition layout, conceived in collaboration with her architect husband, Philipp von Matt. Though each of its 16 separate sections is complete in itself, the thinking behind them is fluid. The paintings, sculptures, drawings, watercolors, prints and photographs breathe and spill over into one another, themes large and small expanding and contracting from one installation to the next in a grand metaphor of life and our cognitive processing of it. A sculpture of a tree seen early on in one gallery may reemerge in a painting and a different context rooms later; shapes and parts of rabbits, a creature that is a talisman of sorts for Ikemura, appear again and again.

image

Leiko Ikemura, Berlin Horizon I, 2012, collection of the artist

With no absolute starts or endings, the show is, as von Matt told me, a "magic box." Ikemura wants her audience's experience to be one of kinetic discovery, not passive appreciation. "The plan is about holding nothingness and infinity in the bowl of the world," he explained. "From materia prima emerge death, war, awareness. In the center is a public square." That section is called "Horizon." For Ikemura, the horizon is a threshold between living energy and emptiness, between life and death -- a place that binds this world with another.

image

Leiko Ikemura, Bride, 1990, collection of the artist

Whimsical clay figures in the gallery entitled "Organic and Inorganic" conflate the two concepts, presenting, for example, a bride as a pagoda-like tower, a house as a living creature. Dualistic thinking -- the polarization of ideas -- is what gets us into trouble, Ikemura offers. "Expanding our thinking to three or four or more poles: this is the mission of an artist." Some of the sculptures, like the housewife / househusband pair, or the head that is a cabbage, are based on humorous wordplay. The poem "self questioning," a contemplation on the source of creativity, or of creation, covers one wall. It posits a classic Buddhist lesson on the origin of thought -- who is the thinker doing the thinking? -- and playfully ends "shall I show you my birdness?".

image

Leiko Ikemura, Haruko I, 2017, private collection, courtesy of Jim Murren, Chairman of MGM Resorts

Throughout the installations, Ikemura challenges us to examine how we approach narrative. In the section "War," a plane hurtles toward an oceangoing craft in a 1980 painting titled Kamikaze. This work hangs with five smaller scenes painted in 2006-7 that may, or may not, be close-ups of a battle between the two craft. Though the lines are quick, the imagery is blurred, drawing us in to the emotional state of the imagined combatants in each scene. But what is the order of events? The paintings' numbered sequencing offers no hint, and it is unclear whether they are meant to be viewed left to right, or right to left, or whether there is even any causal relation among the pictures. There is, after all, no sense to be made of war. Next door, meanwhile, in the "Amazon" gallery, insects chirp, wind whooshes, a train or drums or hooves sound, and there's a soft hum like chanting.

image

Leiko Ikemura, Sinus Spring, 2018, collection of the artist

The gallery "Realm of Drawings" introduces early works in pastel, pencil and charcoal. "My drawings are the foundation of my oeuvre," Ikemura says. "They are an archeology of the subconscious -- my own as well as that of culture. I liberated myself through drawing." In these works, creatures spring from boxes or float above plants, pull others from their mouths, fold in on one another like a snake swallowing its tail. Arms morph into legs, figures kiss under the spreading teats of a beast, the lines grow darker, thicker, more disturbed.

If drawings are a kind of extemporaneous expression, then paintings are its reduction, Ikemura claims, and they are her ongoing path to freedom. "There are so many obstructions one must overcome," she explains. "This tension between conceiving and creating -- one must repeatedly come back and try to gain a sense of freedom from it."

image

Leiko Ikemura, Genesis, 2015, collection of the artist

The ten monumental works hung in the "Cosmicscape" gallery are landscapes of mind, both abstract and memory-based. A face is a mountain; the earthly crust a skeleton; crouched or reclining bodies a root, a boulder, a slope, a cascade. Shadowy figures and tendrils of mist play on the canvases.

The late jazz trumpeter Doc Cheatham said, "If you want them to hear, play loud. If you want them to listen, play soft." Ikemura would no doubt agree. "As an artist," she says, "I want to trigger engagement on the part of the viewer. But I have no interest in manipulating it." Paintings, she avers, demand investment from their audience -- the viewer, too, must slow down and take time to see.

image

Leiko Ikemura, Motherscape, 2011/15, collection of the artist

Ikemura deals also with what she calls "mothering" qualities -- life-affirming energies such as the fertile world of our dreams. In the oil painting Motherscape, two reclining figures fill the field, one decaying and returning to earth, the other resting on and rising from it. Here, too, is Ikemura's brand of poesy: the cycle of entering, receiving, accepting and creating anew.

And then there are the rabbits. Ikemura says rabbits are very much like people, a view that will make more sense once you've seen the show. Deconstructed shapes of rabbit-ness appear again and again, in sculptures, paintings, and even poems. Usagi Kannon, a three-meter tall ceramic hybrid of an open-skirted rabbit and the bodhisattva of mercy, stands with a tear on its face in a garden installation, gazing back at the gallerygoers within. Created after the Tohoku disasters of March 2011, its open lower half is hollow, a place where souls can seek refuge in the bodhisattva's embrace.

A poem on a wall nearby addresses Ikemura's fascination with the animal:

someone asks me, why rabbit
I wonder myself, why rabbit
I don't know
therefore I wonder….

The verse goes on to reference Joseph Beuys, whose seminal How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare performance in 1965 was a call for transcending rationalism in favor of mystery and questioning. But to Ikemura, a rabbit is more than the species and more than a symbol, it's a kind of alter ego. When she senses rabbit-sadness at the state of human affairs she offers, "I wipe your tears away . . . even though that won't save you." This maternal spirit is accessible to us all, she suggests -- a channel through which we intuit others and access the whole.

Although there is much, much more not covered here, the exhibition closes where it began: with the tiny original etching of Circle of Life. Ikemura jokes that the ideal way to view it all is to exit and start over again. With 213 works spread over 2,000 square meters, it's vast. A gallery map is provided in both English and Japanese (all captions and poems are thoughtfully translated as well), and the index of works has even been prepared in Hangul, but you might as well wander in and get lost for a while.

The exhibition will reopen in May, at Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland.

All images are by permission of The National Art Center, Tokyo.


image
Leiko Ikemura: Our Planet - Earth & Stars
18 January - 1 April 2019 (closed on Tuesdays)
The National Art Center, Tokyo
image
image
Susan Rogers Chikuba
Susan Rogers Chikuba, a Tokyo-based writer, editor and translator, has been following popular culture, architecture and design in Japan for three decades. She covers the country's travel, art, literary and culinary scenes for domestic and international publications.
image
More Focus
image
image
image
Recent Articles
FOCUS
The Poetic Visions of Leiko Ikemura, at the National Art Center, Tokyo
Susan Rogers Chikuba
1 February 2019
FOCUS
The Wanderer: Taiji Matsue's Roaming Camera
Christopher Stephens
1 February 2019
HERE/THERE
A Tree as Lovely as a Poem: Masao Yamamoto's Bonsai Photographs
Alan Gleason
1 February 2019
PICKS
A Thousand Wonders of Japanese Technology: A brief 150 year history of Japanese modernization
1 February 2019
FOCUS
Art Takes a Bath: Dogo Onsenart 2018
Colin Smith
17 December 2018
FOCUS
The Architecture of Tsuyoshi Tane: Searching for the Future by Digging into the Past
James Lambiasi
17 December 2018
HERE/THERE
Rumble in the Rubble: Chim↑Pom at Anomaly
Alan Gleason
17 December 2018
PICKS
The Breathing of Maps
17 December 2018
>> Back Issues
image
image
THIS IS MECENAT 2018
ggg ddd CCGA DNP Museum Lab DNP Kyoto Uzumasa Cultural Heritage Gallery Maison des Musées du Monde
DNP Art Communications ©1996- DAI NIPPON PRINTING Co., Ltd.
artscape is the registered trademark of DAI NIPPON PRINTING Co., Ltd.