Artist spotlight: Ryoko Aoki and Zon Ito, Japanese contemporary artists exhibited at Yamamoto Keiko Rochaix in Spitalfields

The joint exhibition of two contemporary artists Ryoko Aoki and Zon Ito at Yamamoto Keiko Rochaix brings out the traditional and contemporary culture of Japan with its rich references.

Ryoko Aoki and Zon Ito - Image by Alexander Christie

Showcasing their unique collaboration, Yamamoto Keiko Rochaix exhibits the works of Ryoko Aoki and Zon Ito in London for the first time since they started collaborating in 2000. Curated by Hikotaro Kanehira, the exhibition encompasses paintings, embroidery, small objects and video installations.

“Each contributed parts of drawings, the schema which worked very well as it was relatively easy to reconcile the differences.  They continue to work the same way for the videos and for this exhibition we have three of them, installed as one installation,” the gallery representatives describe the curation process. “They understand each other’s work in depth.  Though most of the works are created separately by either of the two artists, it was enchanting to witness that at the time of the installation all the elements of the exhibition, works of Aoki, works of Ito, found objects and others, smoothly fell into their own places and made the show coherent.  It’s a testimony that they are looking at the same direction despite the difference in media and methods of work they employ.”

Both artists were interested in children’s character-building and psychological development. In their artworks, they refer to the writings of a well-known Japanese mathematician Kiyoshi Oka, who has written several essays that discuss culture and society.

Yamamoto Keiko Rochaix Gallery_Ryoko Aoki and Z… Ninagawa_1
Ryoko Aoki, Seeing the Thicket through the Eyes of a Nine-Year-Old, 2012-2013, photo Alexander Christie

“One of the recurring themes of his essays is the importance of education and especially the importance of fostering sensibility and healthy emotions.  He notes the key faculty of mind which must be developed during the earliest years in one’s life as the ‘pure instinct’ which enables one to distinguish self-evident as self-evident, or good from bad.  Then comes the period when a young infant starts to be aware of the others and the development of particularly human emotion of empathy.  These are a backbone piercing through the mind as well as emotions, making up a significant part of the personality of a person, and without which sheer knowledge would not be substantiated as intellect,” explain the gallery representatives.

“The exhibition isn’t a literal interpretation of such complex writing, but it has been inspired by it.  For example, the three videos that are exhibited downstairs of the gallery show the great extent of the curiosity and imagination of young children using hand-drawn animation by two artists.  Though simple and straightforward at the first sight, they’re a mesmerising set of moving images that draw the audience in, in a way reminding them how their mind worked when they were young children. Throughout the exhibition, the two artists put up labels for the works with relevant short quotes from a Japanese daily newspaper for children along with Aoki’s illustrations.  Many lines are derived from interviews with children, revealing how their mind works at a young age, and the artists took the cues from the laconic lines, used their imagination and turned it into visual artworks.”

Ryoko Aoki’s works use geometric forms and vibrant colours, and she eagerly incorporates found objects into her artworks to influence their meaning. Zon Ito is also inspired by the everyday life, repurposing these regular items in his creations.

“They pick up small objects from a street or in a park, or they may keep small objects which other people may throw away as waste. They also like to go to second-hand shops to look for interesting finds,” the gallery representatives explain. Interestingly, some of the artworks on display reference the city by using objects they found during their stay in London last summer.

“Ito created installation works of strings made from tree bark that was stripped from fallen branches in the London parks.  Aoki incorporated a tube map that is distributed at stations, bird feathers or glass bits they scraped from the River Thames on a low tide afternoon.  These objects serve to connect the works to the audience and make one’s experience closer to the other’s.”

Ryoko Aoki and Zon Ito - Image Alexander Christie
Ryoko Aoki and Zon Ito – Image Alexander Christie

Zon Ito’s techniques allow him to aim for unpredictable results – he says that working with hard-to-manipulate materials allows him to slow down and listen to what the material has inside.

“For him, the process of creation is the process of extracting what it is behind the surface or making the material’s true character and quality visible. To be able to do this, his mind has to be in tune with the material.  In a way, the mind has to return to its infant state, ready to absorb the ‘universal and perpetual truth’ as when it became aware of others and society and started to be ‘smeared’ by them, as described by Professor Oka,” say the gallery representatives.

“For this exhibition, Ito uses trees in their various phases. Several works have tree branches embedded, and others are only made with tree barks.  For installation he also uses tree branches and timber, some parts of it painted. The choice evidently alludes to nature and natural environment, and the installation of four poles of timber and tree branches give a sensation that they have grown naturally from the gallery floor piercing upward beyond the ceiling. With the tree bark installation hanging high behind these poles, it creates a coherent space, somewhere in between natural and man-made.  It is almost like searching for a point of equilibrium which also rhymes with the overall inspiration for the exhibition, psychological development of a child and how you strike a balance between nature and intelligence or reason as a man.”

The works they exhibit at Yamamoto Keiko Rochaix tie up the elements of nature to Dr Oka’s writing, as well as the influences of writing by and for children.

“They have very Japanese ways of understanding nature, that is, to think that we humans are simply a part of it.  Nature is something that gives guidance even in developing emotions and intellect,” the gallery representatives explain. “It isn’t surprising that they physically incorporate wood branches, tree bark, bird feathers or other natural objects into their work, making them feel like an extension of nature.  Even their video works and drawings and paintings often have the themes centred around nature.”

From their connection to wildlife springs their fascination with the subconscious, which is also a prominent theme in their work. Its position at the bottom of the mind, out of reach for the artificial, links to their understanding of nature and human’s place in it.

“Aoki specifically used parts of her painting she considered failure, cut it up into small bits and incorporated into one of the works. Along with the work is a label with a quote from the Children’s Newspaper that reads ‘We are not perfect.  That is why we can have the ‘room’ or ‘margin’.  Within the ‘room’ lurk many failures and a handful of great success.’  In doing so, the artist tried to read something that was in the failure piece, something that did not come out right as originally planned, but still said something meaningful,” we learned.

“The video works also could be read as subconscious turned visible.  The audience becomes mesmerised with the moving image as the simple shapes dance and transform into different forms sometimes not resembling anything, other times into something recognisable.  It’s almost like observing the unconscious mind wander right and left, surfacing to the conscious as a clear idea, or staying as a collection of unnoticeable bodies of ideas or memories.  Interestingly, viewing these videos doesn’t feel ‘foreign’, rather it feels like we see something familiar. “

Ryoko Aoki and Zon Ito at Yamamoto Keiko Rochaix. Friday 7 September 2018 ‒ Thursday 22 November. Yamamoto Keiko Rochaix, 19 Goulston St, London, E1 7TP. Opening hours:  Wednesday to Saturday, 11am ‒ 6pm. Website: www.yamamotokeiko.com

Kasia Kwasniewska

Editor in Chief

Passionate about far too many things. Loves reading, watching films, eyeing (and producing) good design, listening to music and stuffing her face with chocolate on a daily basis. Cooks from time to time, and drinks far too much coffee to be a normal human being. Liked my work? Buy me a coffee!

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