A tender Bonsai tree delicately intertwined with strong typography: From "artless" a.k.a. Shun Kawakami’s "0," a numerical series for video production company WOW.

artless: About Japanese Essentials

We know for sure that you, beloved reader, want to know all about upcoming Japanese graphic designers! Maybe artless sounds familiar to you? Tokyo-based artless, a.k.a. Shun Kawakami is one of the hottest in Japan with a sophisticated blend of monochrome graphics with delicate calligraphy. Interestingly, he realised that his creative uniqueness lied in working with Japanese essentials (think of Bonsai) only when he went overseas to exhibit. At the moment, he is touring with the Art with Sound exhibition that will arrive in Tokyo by the end of November (see info below.) Time for PingMag to see his beautiful works and to have a chat with him, of course.

Written by Chiemi
Translated by Natsumi

I always thought that you handle everything from paper to video, but what do you actually do?

I do both client work and work for myself. But in either case, I generally don’t have any particular preference to the medium and I do art direction and design from a branding perspective.

Back to black! The brand concept book for Levi’s FLU, art direction by artless.
ISSEY MIYAKE’s shipping box for their product delivery.

And you put a lot of emphasis on exhibitions, too! You recently had one in Shanghai, right?

Yes, it was a joint show called Art with Sound with a designer from Singapore, SILNT. The exhibition toured to Berlin [for DMY] and Shanghai [for the Shanghai Design Biennial]and will come to Tokyo this month. For this show, we curated artists from Japan and Singapore and asked them to express their country’s culture through a monochrome world, based on the theme of “Art with Sound.” During the exhibition, visitors would view the posters while listening to specifically composed music through headphones.

The “Art with Sound” exhibition at DMY in Berlin this May.

What was the reaction in both cities like?

Totally different! In Berlin, perhaps many people like listening to music and visitors listened to every single track. But in Shanghai, they were more like buzzing around wondering “What’s this?” rather than actually appreciating the art. The main purpose of doing exhibitions in other countries is to find out how the locals receive your works and then how you react to that, so it was a really interesting experience.

On the left, the “Art with Sound” exhibition at Shanghai Design Biennial. On the right, you can see the jack of the headphone being directly plugged into the poster.

Tell us a bit about your own art work you showed at the exhibition, please!

For this show, I took a photo of a pine tree in the Imperial Palace and created an Ikebana-like image based on this photo. I wanted to give it the invisible spirit of the tree [in an animistic sense] so I tried combining a test writing given to me by calligrapher Gen Miyamura.

Look at the details, what a unique amalgam of graphics and calligraphy!

It’s so beautiful and vibrant! By the way, many of your works seem to be in monochrome but is there any reason for that?

I think fewer colours would stir people’s imaginations more and there is this feeling of making silhouettes. I feel that I’m creating the lines, compositions and spaces so I prefer to concentrate more on the lines rather than the colours.

A work presented at last year’s DESIGNTIDE. Here, he asked Japanese and Singaporean artists to create works using animals and plants that symbolised their countries and put them together to create this scroll. The finished work was eight meters long and was attached and displayed on an undulant board-shaped object. Shun feels quite inspired by seeing these results when he is working on commissioned projects.

You also did such wonderful graphics for the 10th anniversary artbook of Japanese video production company WOW

Yes, it’s a series of numbers based on the theme of trees and plants representing Japanese seasons, for example the cherry and plum blossoms and sunflowers. These were used in the title pages of WOW’s artbook.

From the number series for video company company WOW’s artbook, “1.”
And from the same numerical series, “2.”

Japanese culture plays a greater role in your overall work. Any specific reason for that?

I always keep the idea of presenting my works overseas in my mind, so I try to stress my originality based on the fact that I am Japanese. Then I use motifs that really interest me at the time, such as Ikebana, Bonsai, and calligraphy on top of that.

From the same numerical series, “3.” Shun explains, “I can’t draw or paint, but I love making images out of letters and so on. That’s why I like doing graphics.”

How come? Is there any incident or story to it?

When I participated in an exhibition for +81 magazine in New York, I wanted to make something surprising for the locals, something that made me aware of the ideas that only the Japanese can come up with. In the past, I used to create works that were aiming at Western styles. However, once I had stepped out of the country, I noticed that there were so many doing the same sort of stuff and that made me realise that there is probably no need for me as a Japanese to do the same… So since then, I started studying about Japan and began to look at Japanese ink and wash paintings with particular attention to spacing and compositions. I’d always liked Japanese paintings, but I became even more fond of it since.

The work in New York that brought him back to Japanese fundamentals. It’s printed on a thin wooden paper with special processing.

I suppose, living in Japan, you don’t really notice all the good things about this country….

That’s right. In my case, while I was still conscious of the Western style, a foreign designer pointed out to me that my way of structuring the characters was really Japanese and that made me aware of this something within me. Since then, I became much more conscious of Japanese culture, like “Starbucks is great but let’s whip green tea in traditional style for a change, shall we?” kind of… (Laughs)

artless a.k.a. Shun Kawakami

By the way, you are going to be part of the HIGH5 talk show hosted by Hitspaper on the 24th of this November. What will be your topic?

I’ll be talking about having exhibitions despite the fact that I’m a designer. I’m not an artist but my feeling is that I want to define the things I make as a piece of work. There has to be something for designers to design for themselves and not for clients. I personally feel that I do exhibitions to find out how the works I make for myself are received by society.

So there’s going to be even more interesting stories at the talk show! We can’t wait to hear more! Shun Kawakami of artless, thank you very much! Folks, drop by the “Art with Sound” exhibition with artless that will be opening at ALT SPACE in Nakameguro, Tokyo, from November 28th.

Art with Sound
Venue: ALT SPACE, Nakameguro, Tokyo. Map.
Date: From Friday, November 28th, till Sunday, December 7th, 2008.

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