Total Immersion : Realising My Dreams in a Japanese Style
25 November 2014
Minamioguni-machi, Aso, Kumamoto, Japan
Having been inspired by the Koshirakura Landscape Workshop run by Shin Egashira that I took part in several years ago as an AA student, I applied for an International Artist-in-Residence Programme in Aso. Needless to say, both the result and the process far exceeded my expectations!
At the site for my residency, Minamioguni-machi I created my first free-standing large-scale installation-pavilion ‘Syu Iro’ (朱色 しゅいろ), which in Japanese means ‘A Kind of Red Colour’ objectively perceived as bright orange, which is traditionally used in Torii gates.
Syu-Iro by day displays a chiaroscuro effect with an interplay of light and shadow.
I arrived in Japan without any specific plan apart from a firm intention to build a space from Oguni-cedar (-sugi, in Japanese) using Japanese joinery techniques. I had never worked with wood as a material before nor was I fully aware of how to cut Japanese joints. However, following my Koshirakura experience I had a continued fascination with the ability of Japanese joinery to create space, and the process of using tools that work outside of the normal logic.
To my great delight, I was introduced to the most professional carpenter and temple builder in the area, Kira-san, who became my sensei to learn everything about the incredible ways of working with tools and wood in Japan. If you turn everything you have ever known upside down, inside out or the other way around – that would best approximate what this experience was like for me!
Characteristically, Minamioguni-machi is a delightful, strikingly beautiful area surrounded by mountains and waterfalls with a renowned Kurokawa Onsen (thermal bath) at its centre. I lived in a traditional Japanese house with a waterfall in direct view of my window, and my host family owned a ryokan (a Japanese hotel with Onsen) called ’Ryukeien’ just across the bridge. My artistic activity spanned the whole area, from my studio at a separate location to where I was staying, to the vast well-equipped workshop to my installation site on a hill right above my house. The entire area was involved in my non-stop production. By having dinners with my host family (who literally became my second family) and going for onsen everyday, participating in mesmerising festivals (including the great Kagura), speaking without words but through signs and gestures, I totally dissolved in the cultural environment, landscape and spirit of this paradise land. Through these experiences I became someone I had never been before and had an outburst of inspiration culminating in achieving something that had been totally unrealistic to achieve.
This total immersion into Japan was a crucial aspect of my residency, paramount to my working process and the site-specific nature of my practice. Crucial to my professional development was how the residency transformed my practice by introducing free-standing installation and performance to my oeuvre (my first public performance happened during the Art-Plex street festival in Kumamoto, and the second was at ‘The End of The Beginning or The Beginning of The End,’ my installation at the Sakagura Gallery in Aso).
My installation site sits on a mountain in-between two hills. Stepping from the yard or the workshop through the tiny serpentine way that remains fairly dark even in daylight, you gradually arrive at an abandoned house. Once you pass this, you unavoidably enter ‘Syu Iro’. Another more distant way of approaching ‘Kind of Red’ is through a bamboo forest that protects the whole structure from the wind, simultaneously insuring its visibility to passers-by and cars rushing towards Kurokawa.
The bamboo forest partially obscures the installation, with glimpses of the red structure visible from the road.
Consequently, the middle layer of the mountain where my installation lives happily ever-after is autonomously transparent, or visually and physically penetrable. To me, these settings symbolise the open principle of Japanese architecture that unites a building with nature, expanding a house into a landscape. Moreover, the structure of ‘Syu Iro’ itself is an infinite agglomeration of ‘openings’ or ‘windows’ through which you can observe the universe as a fragmented sequence or slide through continuously, being present inside and outside at the same time.
Metaphysically and philosophically, ‘Syu Iro’ does not have any static moments – perspective constantly shifts, both vertically and horizontally, to create a dynamic and unpredictable experience. The height of the segments varies in correlation to Aso Mountain containing a breathable volcano. Perhaps, from this idea of breathing and their distinct odour – cedar-chips became part of the installation. They form a deep movable, sensory layer over the ‘floor’ area of ‘Syu Iro’, emphasising an importance of being immersed into a substance or state of mind, similar to the body being immersed in the onsen waters. In onsen, however, it happens vertically, from the top to the bottom, while in ‘Syu Iro’ it is horizontal by travelling through a long corridor of a life-long journey. The Japanese-joinery of this structure, built in a traditional way, is inherently anti-Japanese by one minute detail: its use of diagonals contradicts the Japanese tradition of straight angles and the overall logic of Japanese-joints. As an absurd contradiction, it is something I enjoy the most.
‘Syu Iro,’ as with all my other installations, is in no way master planned. Organically emerging from its surroundings, it is a being born during the process of inhabiting a site, which I typically call the construction process. No models. No plans. Nothing preconceived or predetermined. But everything that happens on site during construction matters and leaves traces in the final outcome. It forms the most enjoyable and yet the most anxious part of my work, not knowing what I am actually doing and where it could possibly lead until the end, when it reveals itself to me almost as a surprise.
Oguni-cedar or Oguni-sugi is an extremely bright, versatile, flexible and responsive material with a unique calming smell. Being embraced by a thin layer of orange paint as a container it allows the sun to penetrate all the way through the surface and bounce back into the open space creating a chiaroscuro effect. This natural unexpected effect transforms ‘Syu Iro’, giving it an extra dimension of light-shadow interplay. The uniqueness of your experience is mainly determined by the weather conditions and time of day. I expect it to change dramatically in winter, in the sheer glowing brilliance of the white snow. If anything, it will be a good excuse to return to Japan and hug everyone once more.
The dramatic effect of Syu-Iro by night, showcasing the combination of diagonal elements and traditional Japanese joinery techniques.
For more information:
A video of Syu Iro
Uliana Apatina’s website
Uliana Apatina’s blog
Artist in Aso
Koshirakura Landscape Workshop
Location: Tanoharu 6953, Minamioguni-machi, Aso-gun, Kumamoto-prefecture, Japan
Dimension: 5 x 1.1–5 x 1.5–20m
Material Supplier: Hideki Kawazu [main material supplier], Mitsuhito Kodama [cedar chips]
Master of Japanese-joinery: Yuji Kira
Host Family: Shinobu Yamauchi, Yuchirou Yamauchi, Takahito Yamauchi, Kazunori Kitazato, Eriko Kitazato, Akiko Kitazato, Naoko Kitazako, Yusuke Kitazato, Hiromi Kawadu
Programme: Artist in Aso – 2014 International Artists-in-Residence Programme in Aso – asoart.com
With infinite thanks to all the above, Artist in Aso Executive Committee, residents of Minamioguni and Oguni-machi and fellow-artists-in-residence: for providing me with this brilliant opportunity, and for their enormous help, support and love throughout all the stages.