Japan's alchemist-in-chief brings mutant DNA and the distant cosmos to Europe

Updated 7th October 2015
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Japan's alchemist-in-chief brings mutant DNA and the distant cosmos to Europe
Written by Matthew Ponsford, CNNLondon
Japan's Kohei Nawa is one of his homeland's best known contemporary sculptors, sharing exhibitions there with the likes of Takashi Murakami and Anish Kapoor. Although "sculpture" might not be a big enough word to describe the shape-shifting phenomena that have become his dreamlike domain.
Foam, 2013 : "They should just feel like they're walking through clouds," Nawa has said.
Foam, 2013 : "They should just feel like they're walking through clouds," Nawa has said. Credit: Nobutada OMOTE | SANDWICH
In the series that has become a calling card for the 40-year-old artist, Nawa combs the internet's taxidemermy auction sites for preserved animals, before pixelating their bodies with spheres of transparent epoxy resin. A sparkling deer sculpture from the series, "PixCell-Deer#24," was purchased by the New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and is now in the institutions permanent collection. In October, a more modest deer's head sold at auction for over $300,000.
But Nawa is prolific, and his armory includes an alchemical appreciation of a disparate materials, resulting in artworks that are less easily defined. For this years' Force he snake-charmed a mystery, jet black liquid into ropes that trailed to the floor in a continually looping fountain. For an immersive installation Foam in 2013, he created a cloud-like, mountainous landscape from a critically balanced recipe of detergent, glycerin and water. And in an new series Moment he trails ink from a pendulum across a canvas in hypnotic, gyroscopic patterns.
On canvas or in sculpture Nawa's works habitually harness physics as phenomenon and chemistry as spectacle. (See gallery at top.)
Force, 2015: A black liquid polymer drips in unbroken strands on the floor Credit: Nobutada OMOTE | SANDWICH
In Europe and America, recognition of Nawa is growing -- with megastars Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor reported among his fans -- but he is yet to achieve the same fame as in his native Japan.
Yet London is where Nawa traces his birth as a contemporary artist. He landed here in 1998 to spend seven months as an exchange student at the Royal College of Art: "In London, the YBAs had taken over the art scene, and spending time here during that period was the inspiration that led me into contemporary art," he says. "I've wanted to hold an exhibition in London ever since I was a student, and I hope that this will lead to further opportunities to exhibit in Europe."
Today, Nawa is back for his first-ever UK installation as part of She Inspires Art, a performance and fundraising evening on 16 September in support of charity Women for Women International's work with women in Nigeria and Syrian refugees in Iraq, for which he will be creating a major installation at Bonhams auction house, New Bond St, open to the public on 15 and 16 September. A concurrent exhibition at Pace Gallery London -- which explores "Force" through his Moment canvases and three other series -- runs until 19 September.
Here, he talks collaborating with COMME des GARÇONS, what he learned at Art Camp, and how forces move him.
Many of your works take inspiration from physics and the forces which control the physical universe.
I've been interested in astronomy ever since I was a child. I used to go outside at night and stay there until dawn, observing and taking photographs of the moon and the stars. I no longer have the time to do that, but a continual awareness of the cosmos may well be appearing unconsciously in my work. When I experience something hazy being communicated by one sensibility within the cosmos to another sensibility via a material, I feel driven to capture that experience in a sculpture of some form.
Kohei Nawa
Kohei Nawa Credit: Courtesy Pace London
My exhibition at Pace London explores the idea of force which also relates to physics, which I conceive as a set of invisible operations dictating the behavior of materials. Force in this sense refers to the gravity that exerts an influence on all things that exist in a space, the force that allows vegetation to grow up from the ground, and the force that enables slime mold to creep along a wall. The exhibition includes drawings, sculptures and site-specific installations from my Direction, Ether, Catalyst and Moment series.
In my Moment series for instance, I use a pendulum device, unleashing ink onto a paper surface, creating a swirling set of concentric circles and overarching lines. The orderly nature of the lines seems to contradict the haphazard nature of their making, yet my work forces viewers to consider the effects of air pressure, distance, and the motion of the pendulum as agents in making the work.
Many people are now discovering your sculptures through the spectacular images shared online. Are they missing something by not seeing them in the flesh?
My art is three-dimensional, so it's important to come face to face with the materials and to sense the whole of the space. Visually, my works have a very powerful image, but because of that, it's easy to overlook much of the content if you do not see the actual work. This applies particularly to installations, where sounds and textures play a significant part.
Is there a person -- living or dead -- who has most influenced this recent work?
There is no particular artist who I see as a significant influence, but one formative event was Art Camp Hakushu, which I participated in as a student. Organized by Min Tanaka, the camp brought together dancers, artists and musicians from around the world to think about their art while sharing a self-sufficient agricultural lifestyle. That was where I first became interested in the idea of physicality, and I remember the camp as providing the trigger that caused me to think about the skin of a sculpture.
You're known for employing extremely finely manipulated materials -- especially plastics -- to create unique outcomes.
My interest in phenomena and materials that exist on this earth predates any attempt to create a work. Constantly-changing materials sometimes lead me to discover phenomena that facilitate the visualization of human senses or the visualization of the invisible forces that exist on our earth. On other occasions, my approach includes deliberately investigating what sort of material to utilize in what sort of system in order to get closer to an expression that I am trying to attain in a particular piece.
What does "craft" mean to you, in an age where we'll soon be able to 3D print to exact specifications? Will there come a point where craft is more about digital skill than physical skill?
3D printing and other advanced technologies are changing the concepts of time and space in the visual arts. In that context, artists and creative people involved in crafts need to cultivate the ability to distinguish between, and achieve a good balance between, techniques that can be expressed digitally and techniques that can only be expressed through human sensibilities.
At the launch of the Pace Gallery exhibition, you live-produced work at the gallery. Is it stressful to create in front of an audience?
I've done live painting in front of an audience several times. It can feel a little stressful at first, but as soon as I begin, my focus goes onto what I'm painting, and I forget that I'm being watched. In that sense, the audience does not really influence the work. Like the Ether work, I employ a fluid material in my Catalyst sculptures -- in this case hot glue -- to highlight the transition between liquid and material states. Catalyst works are net-like sculpture drawn directly on the wall. The strands of glue accumulate into an almost biological form that seems to crawl across the wall.
Was it a surprise to be chosen for Women for Women International?
I was a little uneasy about being asked to create something that would only be exhibited for such a short period, but I'm keen to participate in and contribute to an event that can make a real difference to the lives of women in desperate circumstances or recovering from trauma.
In 2011, Nawa was recruited to design headwear for Comme des Garcons' Spring/Summer 2012 runway show.
In 2011, Nawa was recruited to design headwear for Comme des Garcons' Spring/Summer 2012 runway show. Credit: courtesy pace london
You worked with COMME des GARÇONS in 2012. Did you have a lot of discussions with (founder and designer) Rei Kawakubo?
There wasn't a great deal of time available to complete this project, but I had an abstract discussion with Rei Kawakubo about texture, and she told me that she envisaged white as the color. However, I didn't know what the collection's theme was, or what sort of clothes would be worn together with the works I was producing. In those circumstances I kept experimenting with different shapes and materials until I was satisfied with the result. I'm sure it was a deliberate decision by Kawakubo to let me work freely without being influenced by considerations about designs or themes.