Reflections on the Residency at Youkobo, 2016: Liquid, Paper and the Space in Between

It has been almost two months since the residency, and the experience has been sitting in the shadow, not forgotten, but fragments of it come and go weaving into my routine existence in Sydney. Writing this down helps to make sense of it.

Why Tokyo? Simply, it was recommended to me by a studio mate. Tokyo is not my obvious choice for residency. Having grown up in a Chinese family, the history between the two countries, has predisposed me to certain feelings towards Japan. My grandfather was in the Second Sino-Japanese War. My memories of my grandfather and our relationship are unremarkable. My childhood was mostly spent away from him, and little, if ever, was there talk about the war. For me Japan as a nation conjures preconceptions of a nation of the 'supreme Asian race', fiercely patriotic, ruthless and inflexible. These views were formed during the adolescent periods, growing up in Taiwan and later in the West, mainly, through the history lessons and through popular media such as films made in Taiwan, and later, the United States.

That aside, as a young adult I was drawn to Japanese culture through its literature and cinematography. The immense beauty and sadness with little said, and the way the characters relate to one another in thoughtful, considered ways. I was drawn to the literature of Yasunari Kawbata and the modern existentialist writer, Kobo Abe. At another level, the layers of metaphors used, often drawn from daily life, observations of nature, while acknowledging something bigger at play that has little regard to the individual's plan. These writers strive for eternal truth of the human condition. I cannot remember how I stumbled onto their works, but they have made a strong impression on me.

It was a short residency in a short month of February. The feeling of being an outsider was felt. With the lack of language skills, it helped. There was a slight difference that created a nuance in the experience: my physical attributes did not give away my difference until I tried to communicate. In all my previous experiences as a migrant, my physical attributes identified me as an outsider. There is comfort in this, should the 'insiders' want to avoid interactions, they can do so discretely. On the other hand, when you are not identifiable as an outsider on the outset, the surprise of realising this occurs at a more intimate distance, at the point of a conversation. Both parties are put on the spot to act and respond in an instance, almost based on their conditioning on how to deal with such a situation of meeting of differences. Such recurring moments of recognition, in time and space, will be one of the many poignant memories I keep for this residency.

The memorable times of Tokyo city are the everyday, uneventful incidences and places: my studio space; getting lost in the narrow forked streets in the neighbourhood trying to get to Kichioji or Nishi-Ogikubo station; lunching in a cafe in Seikado art supply building where I got served a small plate of grattan, seaweed miso soup, American coffee, yoghurt fruit for dessert, in the ambient surrounds of Mozart's Little Night Music; the quiet train rides full of people respectful of public space and hygiene; the ever smiling female voice on the speakerphone in the train carriages; the kind cashier ladies who pack the groceries thoughtfully in the shopping basket; the little lullaby tune broadcasted every afternoon at precisely 5 pm telling children to return home...

In terms of art making, it was rewarding. For the convenience of transporting the works, I consciously made the decision to return to work with paper. It was a steep learning curve. I was plunged into the use of Japanese art materials: washi papers, design boards, water based paint with the painterly feel as its name suggests, acryl gouache . The heavy Japanese washi papers provided some challenges. I was alarmed by its degree of absorption, and the acryl gouache traps the light falling on the surface, giving the colour of the painted surface an unusual intensity I had not seen with water based paint on paper.

During the residency, the scalpel was used on medium-sized design board. The immediacy of its effect worked like a pencil- drawing ideas on paper. I have enjoyed the process for its spontaneity, the solidity of the shapes formed by the hard-edged lines. The lines are often incorporated into the reading of the compositions, as well as a way to demarcate borders.

The visual element that the body of works share is the various ways space was manipulated: through surface to suggest the qualitative nature of the spatial distance, use of colours and its juxtapositions to suggest visual forms. These were explored through drawings of hand size models constructed from design boards. Images that have sustained my interest are where there is an ambiguity of the pull and push of a space on a two dimensional surface created through the meeting of two defined spaces at blurred boundary. The viewer is left in wonder of this ambiguity.

Other aspects of the studio work is bringing tangible encounters of Tokyo into the works. The largest work on paper,On foot at Shinjuku, a little lost, saw the use of fluorescent colours, colours I would never have used if it were not for the experience of being in a space where they play an important part in giving the place and space its strong visual identity. I was also conscious of capturing the feel of my contact with people I met. Unfortunately, the lack of time and lack of language skill, I was not able to develop this experience to a deeper level.

The overall residency experience felt positive. I was made to feel welcome in a supportive work environment. The care and attention was received all around, from the generous hosts of the Youkobo Art Space, Directors Hiroko and Tatsuhiko Murato and their team of dedicated staff, to the ladies who served me at the cashier counter in the art supply stores, Sekaido and Yazawaya and the grocery stores. I also had some memorable time with the fellow artists taking the residency concurrently: Kate Just, Josh Richardson, Josh Shackleton.

I came away, through open, candid conversational exchanges with the Directors of Youkobo Art Space, feeling my encounters in Japan have added layers to my understanding of its people and culture-- a big step away from my predisposed views. These aspects of my experience, along with the visits to museums and temples for its history, and its renowned shopping districts for its consumer culture, they have added to my understanding of Japan. I would have liked to have met more locals outside the art scene, there is still yet much to discover and learn, for which language seems essential.

© 2016 text and images by the artist

Selected Works for the open studio event: Liquid, Paper and the Space in Between