In Harmony with Nature

The Art of Aki Inomata

Aki Inomata uses her art to amply depict the anxieties of her time. Series like Why Not Hand Over a “Shelter” to Hermit Crabs? is an unerring commentary on the synthetic to downright ludicrous aspects of modern civilisation. Questions are often raised loud and clear. Somewhat ironically though, these very aspects of her art tend to harmonise instead of polarising views. For in the heart of heart, Aki carries the precious age old sentiments of her land that believes in life, in its every form and expression, to be sacred and reverential. Despite the wide usage of modern technology such as 3d modelling and printing, her art remains very close to nature and intends to be an interpretation of it.

Born and brought up in Tokyo, Aki may have been enclosed in an eternally expanding urban landscape all her life, but she knows where her inspiration lies. After all, she has been busy worldwide in solo and group exhibitions ever since the completion of her MFA in Intermedia Art from University of Tokyo (2008). In the process she showcased her art installations in places such as Hamburg, Linz, Paris, New York, Shanghai and of course at home in Tokyo. Such cultural exchanges only helped to expand her views. Her latest Hermit Crab series named White Chapel is testimony to that.

On the question of a distinguishable existence of man in respect to other living beings, ancient philosopher Zhuang Zhou narrated his experience, Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamed I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awoke, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things. When in the maze of modern living our ways seem to be hopelessly lost, then in art do we find solace. Because in art remains discreet the answers of such painfully pertinent questions that we continue to bury deep within us till we lose that crucial perspective about our own existence.

Tell us of your childhood days and how the environment at home and in your immediate surrounding influenced you.

I was born and raised in Tokyo, one of the biggest metropolitan cities of the world. It is very much an ‘artificial’ city surrounded by asphalts and highrise concrete structures. However, my elementary school in the centre of the city was not like that. It was inside of a huge university campus and was surrounded by lush greenery. As a child I was so much into catching dragonflies, crickets, grasshoppers and so on. I also liked picking up and studying fruits such as raspberries, loquats etc.

The contrast between the artificial city, orderly and clean, and the life in an organically inspired natural surrounding had a direct influence on me and provided ideas and themes for of my artworks. It continues to inspire me even today.

When and how did you decide to pursue a career in art? In that respect how much of an aid your education in Tokyo University of Arts has been?

Everything started when I was a college student and got to know playwright and actor Juro Kara (1940 — ). I was living without knowing the realities of life which I found it out while watching his plays. All of a sudden, the reality of ‘I’m here now’ dawned upon me.

One of the prominent characteristics of Kara’s play is a style of Japanese art expression called shakkei. Shakkei means ‘borrowing the scene’ and is applicable the way art ‘borrows’ from nature and synthesises into a new work. Kara’s plays are performed in tents. And in the final phase the tent suddenly opens up and shakkei is realised. The first time I saw it, I was literally stunned.

The fusion of the artificial world with the surrounding nature strongly impacted me. I didn’t intend to be a playwright or an actor, however, I felt that I could be a contemporary artist, face the reality, express it in my own way and show it through my art.

It seems that many characters in Kara’s plays live only in the past and speak of their memories. While we communicate through internet we are doing so with people who are not present with us physically. Though it is very convenient, but sometimes I feel anxious about the fact that I don’t know the real person behind his or her online presence and also about my own existence in the maze of world wide web. Thinking about various aspects such as borders, foreign language, fashion etc through my creative work with living things teach me to a great deal about the reality of life.

You study animal behaviour and habitat closely for your work. What is your take on the relationship between human being and nature?

It is really a tough question, I have been asking this question to myself for a long time and I haven’t found any suitable answer yet. In Japan, we have a word ‘iki–toshi–ikeru–mono’ that means ‘to all the living things’ without any hierarchy and all creatures, such as butterflies, grasshoppers, sardines, chats, whales, etc, are equally precious and deserve equal respect. This might sound really oriental, but I believe this feeling is universal and is very important for all of us to live together in harmony on earth.

Aki with her dog

Your latest project ‘I Wear the Dog’s Hair, and the Dog Wears My Hair’ is based on a unique relationship between people and their pets. Through this project what are the aspects of this unique relationship you became aware of which were unknown to you before?

Through working on this piece of art of mine, I became strongly conscious of the co–dependency between dogs and human beings. They are essential for each other.

On the other hand, features of dogs have undergone drastic changes in the last one hundred years or so through various breeding programs. Also, I have found out that many dogs have suffered serious health issues due to countless inbreeding. The essence of co–dependency hardly seems to exist. How should a man maintain his relationship with other creatures? The relationship between us and our pet pets is one of most familiar issues and I expect to revisit this challenging topic through my work in future.

How did you connect a historical event that took place between France and Japan to the animal lifecycle as seen in ‘Why Not Hand Over A “Shelter” To Hermit Crabs?’ How spontaneous are you in the development of your art?

Since Japan is an island country, I really never had a sense of ‘borders’. When I had held the exhibition in the French Embassy, I needed to think about immigrants, refugees, change of nationalities and so on. Is it possible for us to solely choose the place we wish to live in? As I was born and raised in Japan such a question did not struck me before and I was surprised to think of it. Slowly this idea developed — the change of nationalities or living beyond the ‘boundaries’. I felt it is so much like the relationship between their shelters and main bodies of hermit crabs.

‘World Outside Your World’ synergistically presents mythology, geography and current events. Tell us of the process of your conceptualisation for this project. How did you manage harmonising different facets into a single expression as seen in this project?

The World Outside Your World is a work produced for the Nakanojo Biennale in 2011. I travelled there and explored the region as much as possible. The area that most fascinated me was Akaiwa. The village has preserved traditional Japanese landscape and values for centuries and continues to do so even today. Raising silkworms was the main business of the villagers in Meiji era, from late 19th to early 20th century. The houses are built on the foot of a mountain. A river runs through Akaiwa. The village kept itself cocooned from the influences of the outer world.

Due to its unique topography, when I went there for the first time, I felt that the village is riding on the back of some animal. Interestingly it reminded me of a lore of ancient India which says the world is carried by four elephants which is riding a turtle.

Through your work, art marries technology successfully. How do you feel about communicating a message through your art based on the skilful use of technology? What are the challenges you most often face during your work?

I am using a lot of technological instruments, for example, CT scanners, 3D printers, infrared sensors etc. And, this is quite natural for me because I was born and live in an era of technological advancements. On the other hand, I have a very strong interest in the skills of all animals and other living things — anthills, bird’s nests, beaver dams and so on. I absolutely want to call them ‘animals’ technology’. I think these instances of organic technology inspire us to see the world from new angles. I compare and conjoin the technologies of people and animal.

During an exhibition of yours, has there ever been any lesson learnt from the audience’s response?

I get very different reactions varying with location or country. That is interesting for me and I can further expand my point of view. The consideration of various problems faced during the process of creation also helps to do that. I continue to be fascinated by the unique culture and way of thinking of the places I visit. I want to have a lot of chances to showcase my work around the world and learn from the audience about their feelings regarding my work.

Japanese have a tendency of not divulging their opinions on the first impression. They continue to check the exhibitions and store their thoughts in their minds. On the other hand, in Germany where I had my last solo exhibition in 2014, audience spoke about their thoughts openly. It was a very exciting experience for me. I am thinking if we too may have a culture where we can share our experiences regarding an exhibition with such frankness.

What does a typical day look like for Aki? Both in life and art what are the sources of inspiration you tend to draw upon?

I teach part time at a university from Monday to Wednesday. I do my work as an artist on other days. I almost don’t have daily or weekly routine because depending on the project my work demands different timeframe.

In most of the cases, I get the ideas of my works when I am talking with people. Especially, miscommunication or misunderstandings become the origins of big inspirations. I try to capitalise on as many chances of everyday conversations or trivialities I get with people everyday.

I love to see contemporary arts and I often do visit galleries and museums. But I get very few inspirations from them. I go there because I purely enjoy watching them and to check the current trends. The origins of my creations exist outside the museums or galleries.

How do you see your artistic pathway unfolding in front of you from here?

I wish to keep working with animals and other living things. I am working on a new series of Why Not Hand Over a ‘Shelter’ to Hermit Crabs?. At the same time I am starting a new project using shellfish.

Through my work, I would like people to be aware of the world from perspectives of other creatures and bridge the gap between artificially clean and ordered cities and nature.

What Aki does in her spare time?

Beyond her work and artistic explorations Aki loves spending time with her close ones and her pets. In fact her close tryst with her pets resulted in such successful projects as French Lessons with a Parakeet (2010) and I Wear Dog’s Hair and the Dog Wears My Hair (2014). And you may not believe it, but Aki has quite a weakness for rakugan and a bowl of brown rice!

Find more of her work at her website.

Image Courtesy: Aki Inomata