Interview done by Sara Jaspan for Paper Magazine 12/10/2017
Rui Matsunaga is a Japanese born artist who lives and works in London. She graduated from the Royal Academy of Arts in 2002 and will be exhibiting with PAPER at Manchester Contemporary 2017. Here we catch up with the artist about her practice.
Could you tell us a bit about your practice? What subjects does it deal with? What references do you draw upon and from where do these originate? What ideas or concerns are you interested in exploring through your work?
I am interested in creating imagery that implies a certain narrative and sense of poetry. I draw inspiration from myth, folklore and popular culture such as books, films and manga. I am also very drawn to the idea of animism – that everything in the world has a consciousness and behind all things there is anima. Animism has been a way of understanding the world since ancient times and still continues to some extent today.
Old Japanese scroll paintings (emakimono) are a big influence for me, especially the Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga from the 12th century. They are visually woven with animism and possess an ambiguous sense of story-telling that I love. The manga films of Hayao Miyazaki are also very important. I’m drawn to their subject matter (which often deals with the complex shades of human light and darkness), and the way that the animals are drawn. Each of his works are based on such acute observation and affection that everyday actions become beautiful expressions of humanity.
In my own work, I like to create a type of landscape that is not a real but touches upon an inner reality; our sense of time passing, its inevitably and the knowledge that nothing can prevent or change this. Lives are born, rise, fall and die, but the vast landscape continues on as it always has. Our lives are mere echoes that fade. The seasons pass and the wind blows the same. The sense of time and space where everything happens in a place of joy or tragedy passes eventually; leaving, as if everything was a dream.
Your paintings are said to touch partly upon the idea of a post-nuclear bombed society, and the cultural impact of this in relation to nature and fiction. Could you expand upon this?
As a post-nuclear bombed country that has undergone intense industrialization including nuclear power in the 1970s and 80s, Japanese society and culture shows deep concern for the environment. This is reflected in TV series like Godzilla (a giant salamander mutated by radiation), and manga such as Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicca. Both Otomo and Miyazaki present post-apocalyptic worlds and focus on stories of survival, leading to new understandings of reality and our relationship with nature.
I paint small creatures such as frogs and rabbits often in deserted, bone scattered, ruinous landscapes. These images are intended as dystopic visions of the possible future we might be creating for ourselves. Though they appear as animals, the creatures could also be seen as projected forms of ourselves, tapping into a critical core where everyday reason and logic is suspended (in the same way that a fight with Godzilla can be metaphorically understood as a symbol of our fear and concern for the environment, for example).
Similarly, your work is said to deal with the increasingly technology based nature of society today. How do you think technology has shaped us and our relationship with nature? And how is this explored in your work?
My work does not deal with the technology based nature of society, but rather I draw inspiration from the type of change occurring in our culture as a result of today’s increasingly technological world.
Myth and folklore are constantly being reshaped, morphed and retold to fit the needs of the time. And with people continually moving from one place to another, cultural crossover has become far more significant. As a result, the narratives we carry have had to change. For example, I have recently been working on a drypoint piece inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s Apocalypse series. In Dürer’s prints, God and His angels are a type of transcendence which infuse all beings with the principles of monotheism. Transcendence is like a single beacon on top of a hierarchy. In such a system, everything has its value set by referring to the top beacon, which creates light and shadow, good and bad etc. However, in today’s more secular and scientific world, such divinity or judgement is less applicable. I therefore wanted to create a more ambiguous image of how an apocalypse might be, and fuse it with a mythological vision of our relationship with nature over the remaining course of the 21st century.
You seem to also reference European folklore and art history (Renaissance painting, drawings and etchings etc.). Is this deliberate? Are you consciously trying to merge or examine the relationship between different cultures?
Living in the UK and frequently visiting museums containing a lot of European Western paintings, it’s hard not to be inspired and influenced by the work that I see. I’m also very interested in Christianity as it plays such a central role in the old masters’ works. When you look at older works of art, they are often infused with stories from the Bible, Greek mythology and folklore, and this can play a significant part in understanding what the work is about. I like this aspect as it adds another layer of story – the artist expanding on the original. This makes me want to expand in my own way, to help the stories continue on.
What draws you to the medium of paper? Do you work across other mediums as well?
I mostly create oil paintings, drypoint etchings and drawings. I like the boundary of the frame in which I can explore many layers of narrative. I’ve always admired story book illustrations and manga comics, some of which are utterly beautiful. And I love paper as a material itself. I have seen some of the amazing ways it can be made, such as Samarkand silk paper which is polished using stones and shells, and am fascinated by the many methods and often locally sourced materials that are used.
You’ll be exhibiting with PAPER at this year’s Manchester Contemporary. Is this the first time that your work will be shown as part of the fair, and what pieces are you planning to exhibit?
Yes, it’s the first time. I’ll be showing a series of drypoints inspired by Albreht Durer’s woodcut series of The Revelation of St John.
Where do you think your work sits in relation to the field of contemporary painting today?
I’m on the margins of contemporary art. I make only what I am inspired to make. I let others to decide where my work sits.
How do you think your practice will develop going forwards?
This year was dedicated to creating a series of etchings. I have just returned from a three-week journey across part of the Silk Road. It started in China at the extraordinary Buddhist painted Dunhuang caves, and ended at Uzbekistan’s beautiful mosques, palaces and the Necropolis, which opened my eyes to the crossroads of cultures and beliefs at the edge of China and Central Asia. I think next year will be about how those inspiring experiences will visually inform my paintings.
Interview by Sara Jaspan
© Rui Matsunaga
Interviewed by Susie Pentelow, Traction Magazine, 29/08/16
‘Hardboiled Wonderland’ brings together three artists who each draw inspiration from Surrealist canon. How has Surrealism influenced you and your work?
The Surrealist canon that deals with the human psyche and explores our unconscious as a main subject is one of my influences, but perhaps the main aspect is that which relates to the idea of the overlapping realities which is outside of a perceived reality. These aspects explore the reality in which our reason and logic get put aside, things happen in a more symbolic manner which can be described as mythological or perhaps like what Jung called the collective unconscious. I am interested in creating spaces dealing with those different layers of reality where things of nature and animal can exist as spirit, the sense of time and space is non locational. These can be seen as fantastical worlds and also our internal landscape. One of my favourite artists is Leonora Carrington as she uses a lot of symbolic language which refers to her background of folklore, mysticism, paganism, and alchemy to create the world which looks like one’s dreamscape, or altered conscious reality.
There is an eerie quality to the almost-deserted landscapes in your compositions. Are these inspired by a particular place?
Not a real place but the place I imagined from books, films and poems that touch our inner reality. Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” or Akira Kurosawa’s film “Ran” are some of the big inspirations in terms of atmosphere of landscape.
I like to create landscapes where you feel time passing, an inevitable sense that nothing can prevent the passage of time and change. Lives born, rise, be, fall, and die. But the vast landscape continues on as they always have, our lives a mere echo that fades. The seasons pass and the wind blows the same. Like a Haiku poem by Basho “That summer grasses, All that remains, Of ancient warriors’ dreams”. The sense of time and space where everything happens in a place of joy or tragedy passes eventually, leaving as if everything was dream. I like to create the contrast to highlight our tenuous existence and fragile mortality.
Looking at your work I am struck by the fact that your subjects often seem to be striving for a connection - with nature, or with one another - especially in those pieces which depict rituals or ceremonies, such ‘Rock Party’. Is this an important theme in your work?
I love reading books about various mystic traditions and have attended rituals in the deep mountains of Japan. The experience gave me long lasting impression and some understanding to the sense that there are many layer’s of reality and our everyday normal living are deeply connected to the surrounding nature in every moment. It also led to interests in animism which consider everything in this world has some sort of consciousness, and there are lots of ceremony and rituals based on this philosophy. They symbolise not only trying to connect people, but people with the land they live in, or sometimes people with more abstracted ideas such as another world. I am interested in this aspect because they express our sensibility to the very layer of reality we live in and its boundary, a sensibility to the worlds beyond our perception of reality. Animals in my work can be seen as a projected form of our personality tapping into its critical core where our everyday reason and logic is suspended.
The title of the exhibition references a novel by the author Haruki Murakami. How does this work reflect the themes present in the exhibition?
Murakami’s “Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World” is a novel in which two seemingly independent stories or reality proceed, one is closer to what we live in, the other more fable, symbolic and fantastical. They seem unrelated at first but as the stories unfold it is revealed the two worlds are deeply connected and interdependent. This can be seen as different layers of realities in one person. We think we are living our surface conscious, but in truth, what lies beneath are thoughts, emotions and images accumulating every day to form something which affects our every day narrative and decision making. Murakami put someone, something or an event as a catalyst to work as gateways to access this abyss which gives an understanding and communication to the everyday. These things are applicable to the subject of my work and to the act of painting itself. Also I like the novel's ambiguous ending that feels like everything is not lost, the end of one dimension continues to the next even though it seems like echoes or ripples across time and space left from one point of view. The sensitivity to the fragility of life yet the interconnectivity of multiple dimensions of reality gives me a deep sense of spiritual recovery and profound meaning that I find in the expression of painting.
What is coming up next for you?
I have a solo exhibition at the House of St. Barnabas from Oct 2016 to Jan 2017 followed by a three person exhibition, including Nahem (who is also in Hardboiled Wonderland) at the Royal Albert Memorium Museum in Exeter in 2017 summer.
© Rui Matsunaga
Interviewed by Marcello Milteer, JapanCinema.net, 29/04/13
You currently reside in London and it seems Asian art is very prominent there as international auctioneers of rare Imperial and Export Chinese ceramics. Is it a challenge at all developing your artwork in a foreign land?
"I feel the opposite of it being more difficult to develop my work because I live in London. By being in such a culturally diverse city, I come to be more aware of otherwise what was unnoticed in me, which is very useful to develop the work."
What role does folklore play in your art and where did this interest in myths enter at what stage in your life?
"We had kids TV programme called “Once upon a time in Japan” (Nihon Mukashi Banashi) every Saturday night which gave 3 animation folk stories each time. I enjoyed watching them since 7 years old. They had a story like a deep haunted pond was exocised only to find it was resided by huge white dragon as a guardian who flew to the sky, or metal baby boy was born from mountain hug to become a hero to defeat alcohol drinking giants (Oni). I was fascinated by those stories full of wonders and imagination and through these atomospheres of stories interpreted and related the world around me as I lived in a relatively rural area. It was much later on that I realized these story had many layers, often talking about the story of suppressed/oppressed race and cultures in symbolic manners."
You have a show at Beastly Hall that showcases unlikely monsters and unnatural beings. Could you tell us a bit how you approached this theme and your creative process?
"I did not make work specifically for this theme. Work was made already and Art Wise (curater) has selected them."
A lot can be said about how a subject walks, carries themselves, the way they wear their hair, etc. How do you incorporate such subtle nuances into your work and how receptive is your audience to picking up these small, yet important, details?
"These nuances are very important fro me. Ultimately these nuances are one of the prominent way to communicate the world I want to create there, where animal and plant talk, dance, pray like human, and the boundary between human and other beings starts to melt as they are fundamentally mythological language which overcome any normal sense of logic and reasoning of everyday."
Manga is also an influence of yours. Could you go into detail how these publications, and maybe even anime, have an impact on your work?
"Hayao Miyazaki’s work is a huge influence on my work. I watched “ Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no Tani no Naushika, 1984) ” when I was sixteen. It became my mythology, by which I mean they gave me a perspective/understanding on what is happening in the world I am living in and basic relationship between myself and the world around me in a prophetic way. My childhood 70’s and early 80’s Japan was still going through intense industrialization and expansion which also caused lots of environmental concern. Nausicaa’s post apocalyptic world where giant worms guard fungus forest which cleanse the toxin human has created did have a deep reality even by then. Miyazaki does not try to describe about the struggle between nature and human world but always it is more about the journey and search of someone who can intermediate between them. I think this is the theme of comtemporary world and mythology of this planet.
Also I love the way he draw animal and especially their face and movement as it has such love and understanding in it backed by acute observation. When I make my work general tone of balance between positiveness and negativeness is something I learned from his work."
Aside from which, what are some of your favorite Asian films?
"Princess Mononoke, Laputa, Spirited Away, Drunken Masters, Mr Vampire"
The type of art you produce, the aesthetic debate in America has endlessly circled around the contradiction between so-called autonomous or pure art on the one hand and engaged or political art on the other. How important is it as an artist to have autonomy in your process?
"I just create what my heart want to do. I am not thinking whether the works are autonomous. I am not sure anything can be truly autonomous in such an interconnected world."
On the other side of the coin, even if you agree art is autonomous, that autonomy is a product of a fundamental unfreedom—an unfreedom before which artists are extremely vulnerable. Since you give so much of yourself in your artwork (your feelings, imagination, passion, etc.), do you ever have a sense of uneasiness when you release art to the masses?
"I do feel vulnerable, but that is ok. I enjoy looking at other people’s work. Some I like, some not, some I love. I will be really happy if someone happen to like what I like. But everyone has different view and senses."
Regarding formal education, how has your masters degree aided you in your career and has it heightened your sense of technique and fundamentals?
"Doing MA and painting in my studio on my own are not so different for me. However, being Royal Academy and able to look at old masters works in their old building has broadend my interest and appreciation towards old masters."
© Rui Matsunaga