If you’re Japanese, you can’t help but be influenced by Japanese traditions. Yet the samurai don’t walk the streets of Japan today. We live in a world full of intermingling global cultures and people. In this way, Mai Miyake, now holding an exhibition at the Pola Museum Annex in Ginza, is an artist whose work encompasses both past and present Japan. Traditional and contemporary — her work sums up what Japan is today. We went along to find out more.
We’ve heard that you originally studied literature. How did you come to enter the art world?
I got accepted into an art college but then I thought long and hard about it, and I didn’t really feel like I wanted to become an artist or even show artworks to people. I like drawing pictures but I wasn’t interested in exhibiting. My parents were also against it so in the end I went to a regular university. I like reading and felt like I could keep doing that for a while, so I chose literature.
Then after graduating I was working at a place and my senior colleague was asked to make some postcards. He told me he’d buy me a meal if I designed them, so I did — and by chance they were sent off to someone in the art world. They were then seen by a gallery person who was impressed and wanted to exhibit my work. But I’d heard from friends at art college that to do a solo show costs lots of money and I didn’t understand the difference at the time between rental galleries and regular exhibitions. I thought I would have to take a part-time job and really struggle financially if I had a solo show. That was a bit scary and I guess I saw gallery people as like people who sold bric-a-brac, so at first I turned them down. [Laughs]
But then they told me that the gallery would be exhibiting the work at its own risk and didn’t need any money from me. They just wanted me to paint around twenty pictures. So I simply took it on and this kind of led to where I am now.
Many of your artworks show a kind of traditional Japanese side. Has anything changed from when you first started?
Yes. Fundamentally there is no change in the things that I find beautiful or what I like. I’m Japanese and believe there are things that only Japanese can have, such as a way of seeing something, being sensitive to certain objects. This is inevitably influenced by Japanese arts and the environment.
In the Japanese arts people make art to order. For example, when you are deciding the measurements of a kakejuku hanging scroll, there is the size of the alcove. It’s not ordered art where the client just tells the artist what to make, but — and I call this “spontaneous order art” — the artist considers how he or she wants to make an artwork, and reconciles this with the space.
Rather than just making something and sticking it in a white space, I start by considering what I want to hang in a certain place or season. Whenever I’m asked to make or exhibit something, I first look at the space and then link that with the seasons and the concept of what I want to do. The size of the space and the individuality of the space influence the elements and size of the artwork. It assimilates with the environment, the space and the seasons.
The things that are my concepts can ultimately only come from what I experience and comprehend. The artwork can be found in between the internalized concept and the external environment, the factors and limitations. I always feel that this is similar to language. The language I use comes from who I am and my life, and the language of others is similarly derived from their experiences and bodies. Conversation is born in the intermediation of this, and likewise my artworks are the same, located midway between myself and the environment and things around me.
You make a lot of kakejuku hanging scroll artworks. Compared to an ordinary frame, the scroll itself is something very special and seems to play a large role in your work. When did you first encounter scrolls?
It was twelve years ago, just by coincidence. The exhibits at my first solo show all sold and the gallery was very happy. They told me to do whatever I wanted next year. When I was young it was my job to take care of changing the hanging scroll whenever guests came to our house. Though I liked old scrolls, I wasn’t so interested in the ones sold or in people’s homes today. I had made a bit of money now, so I thought I’d try to make twelve scrolls.
When I think about it today, the production costs went way beyond what I earned! [Laughs] But anyway, my second exhibition was just scrolls. At the time, no one was making hanging scrolls. Fundamentally, the scroll has to be in complete accord with the picture — if they don’t form a co-ordinated microcosm, then it’s pointless. But usually the painter would do just the picture, and the scroll would then be left to the gallery or the paperhanger shop. There was no direction connecting the scroll with the picture, so hanging scrolls had become boring. That’s why I decided to do the whole thing myself. And it was for this second solo exhibition that I wanted to make something where you can see straightaway how interesting paperhanging can be.
In our lives recently we don’t tend to see kakejuku, do we? And even in art regular frames are the norm. Taking a proper look now, there really is something very nice about scrolls as a means for decorating pictures. And they’re convenient, right?
Yes, you can roll them up and take them around with you. The seasons in Japan are very delicate and we change our clothes, our crockery and food every month — so it’s not good to leave pictures just hanging on the wall. In summer one should hang something summery, in autumn something autumnal. When a certain person comes over, hang something for them. This kind of lifestyle rhythm needs something light like scrolls. With frames it’s a real hassle to get them out and put them away. And with living spaces so small, this kind of thing is the most appropriate.
And there’s another function to it. It’s like our television today — it plays the role of facilitating conversation between guests and the host. If someone just turns up and asks you how you are, it makes you nervous, right? So you talk about sport or something. Well, the hanging scroll was like that because Japanese people are good at indirect communication. The conversation starts like this: “Oh, that’s by so-and-so, isn’t it?” or “That’s really good for the season.” It was a communication tool for learning things like how the other person like a certain someone’s paintings or they hate the heat and so on, and then the conversation proceeds smoothly.
The hanging scrolls in your current exhibition are really nice. Did you do something special this time?
The paper used here is very special lining paper that only artisans usually see. Lining paper is very beautiful and I thought it was a shame that people never see it, so I made this design using it on the top and bottom.
I sometimes make things in this way after encountering materials that regular people can never see through my work with craftsmen.
When you work with artisans, how do things proceed?
I learn a lot from craftsmen so when we work together, it’s mostly about absorbing what they teach me. Our temperaments are similar; I find it very easy to work with them. They let me study and get interested in my ideas, try them out for me, and though many of the things don’t turn out well, there are some that do. Then I ask them to make that. Well, we take our time.
The artwork in the entrance was made in a ceramics kiln at Mikawachi in Nagasaki. I’ve known them for two years and wanted to work with them because the quality of their technique is very high, and the materials are interesting. They looked at my work and felt there was some kinship between what we were doing. Originally the Senju Kannon (Thousand-Armed Avalokiteśvara) is represented by forty-two arms but in this work, there are only forty arms. It’s an interactive artwork. When the viewer stands in front of it, then it becomes forty-two arms and thus the “thousand” arms. It took two years to do this. It was tough because Nagasaki is so far from Tokyo.
Is it not tough also just to work with artisans? They have their traditions that they have been doing up till now and there must be many who oppose making new things.
Well, when someone comes along completely out of the blue, it like throws craftsmen a bit. I ask to see their studio and watch them work, and then come back a few days later and ask them to make something in a certain way.
I always work with an architect on the layout of the venue. I also don’t categorize things as product, art, crafts, and so on. It’s really interesting to share information with people I know and make things together. Many media are separated for convenience’s sake but in my world there are just two kinds of people — people who are doing a good job and those who don’t like their job. People doing a good job work with everyone, regardless of the medium. Everyone’s interests and direction and way of doing things is different, but the core is the same.
For example, if I was by myself it would just be the output I could do from thirty years of life experience — but then if another person comes in, then we also have their thirty years of experience. Add this to the sixty years of experience that an artisan may have and we have an artwork with around 120 years of know-how behind it. The viewer can sense this. It comes out, the accumulating, the layering up of techniques, the appeal in the artwork that is created by joining together.
You cannot do everything by yourself. For example, if I wanted to do something with metal, I’d have to start studying it from scratch and that would take some ten years, and you’d have to be taught by someone who was trained. My medium changes depending on what I want to do at the time — paper, porcelain, metal, glass. It’s impossible to study them all from scratch so I work with a specialist in that field who can teach me. This is fun.
There are lots of interesting motifs in your work. Sometimes it feels very contemporary, other times it’s more Buddhist. The combination of motifs, assigning meaning to different elements, is fun. Sometimes it’s cute on the surface but then more complex when you look closer.
My artworks are devices for renewing people’s awareness of what is happening in society today. Today we can only digest things that we can understand straightaway. Our ability to digest culture has weakened. There’s just so much now; there’s less careful and instinctive picking out, less picking up what’s been missed. I like things that are layered, the more you bite the more you find. Art is communication, so it’s important to have lots of layers so anyone — from novices to experts — can find something. My artwork is structured in layers, like mille-feuille. I like layers!
Thank you, Mai Miyake.
Mai Miyake ‘Little Lily-White Lie’
May 25 to June 30, 2013
11:00-20:00 (Last entry: 19:30)
Venue: Pola Museum Annex