Interview with Aiko Miyanaga

(This interview was translated from Japanese into English)

AAA: You use naphthalene (the material used in moth balls) and salt distilled from seawater for your works. How did you come across these materials – and why did you decide to use them?

Aiko Miyanaga (AM): Many people have asked me why I use these materials, especially my use of naphthalene. I personally don't think that I am making something unusual. The first work that I produced was a sculpture in the shape of the veins of a leaf. I made this work because I was interested in somehow stopping or capturing time. So, I created specimen-like objects modelled on the leaves of a whole tree. Trees are always growing and changing, so I thought that by making this work I could capture the state of one moment. That was the first artwork I ever made. Then, I thought I would like to make a work out of a special material when I was producing a work for my college thesis. It was when the seasons were changing, just like now, and I was changing my clothing for the coming season. I found a moth repellent in my chest but it was sublimated so only a bag remained. I talked to my mother about it and realized that I could produce a work that would disappear if I used naphthalene. I wasn’t a chemistry specialist, and didn’t have any information about naphthalene, so I started researching this material – with chemistry books and so on.   

AAA: So you have been interested in capturing time since you were a student?   

AM: Yes, but if you had asked me if I had a concrete interest in time at that time, then I am not sure. It was just a clue in the path of finding my own artistic expression.  

AAA: You create objects made from naphthalene and these objects are usually the things we see everyday, such as shoes, keys, or clothes. Why did you choose these shapes? 

AM: The first thing I made out of naphthalene was a shirt. The reason was simple; I came across naphthalene while I was changing clothes for the coming season, so I just decided to make a shirt. The beginning was really simple but I spent a while researching the nature of naphthalene. While I was researching, I thought that I would like to take an impression of something already used, something that holds time. For example, brand-new shoes and used shoes are obviously different in their shape. I could sense the time around the things that had been used. I was really interested in this. That's one of the reasons.

Also, I see my artistic activities as an extension of daily life. Since I was a child, I never had any interest in artificial fantasy such as animation. I was more interested in the things we actually see everyday. For example, if you keep looking at the patterns of a carpet, you see it differently after a while. It is the things that are hiding in daily life that catch my heart. For example, I produced a pair of shoes out of naphthalene. The sublimation started immediately when I poured naphthalene into the shoe-shaped mould. It looks the same but it’s not the same, because it's changing. I am not a chemist so I cannot see exactly how the shape is changing, but I think that it's a lovely thing for me to be aware that it’s changing.

AAA: So, your expression developed gradually based on your interests or your way of seeing the world. I know you are from Kyoto. What was it like growing up? How did the city influence you?  

AM: My family has been running a traditional ceramic kiln in Kyoto for more than 100 years. There are many ceramic works in my house that were made in the factory. Some are unfinished and others are completed. They all came from different times, so I could sense the different times in one place. It was like time had nowhere to go. I hadn't thought of doing ceramics but I was interested in this sense of times floating in the factory; I didn’t want to make any more time that had nowhere to go. Probably my artistic expression was influenced by the place I grew up, because people around me have told me that they can see a clear relation between my artworks and my surroundings. I grew up in a place that was surrounded by old stuff, and I also had a complex feeling. I wanted to create my own world – which did not have any relation with my family business.

The good thing is that my family's kiln is unique, in the sense that they change their policy with each new generation. Continuing traditional techniques is not the main thing they do. For example, my great-grandfather put great importance on innovative design, and usability was the most important thing in my grandfather's time. Then my father produced more objects than ceramics with practical uses. Even though the material is the same, each generation did different things. Therefore I had no worries about being restrained by tradition.

Also, during my father's time it was a contemporary ceramics business so many strange visitors came to my house. These things influenced me to think: “doing something normal is something to be ashamed of." Therefore, it came about that I couldn't draw or paint normally. Probably my parents' education was like “don't do the things that people already do!” My father also took me to exhibitions of Gutai or other post-war avant-garde art. I went to the exhibitions with my father because people at the galleries used to give me candy. But I think this finally helped me to use unusual materials for my expression without hesitation.   

AAA: You said you use these materials without hesitation but have you experienced any difficulties in showing your works due to the materials?

AM: I know there are many people and many opinions so it’s totally fine to hear different opinions – even some saying bad things about my works. I haven’t had any problem about hearing different opinions. But I have wanted to hold exhibitions at commercial galleries, for example in Tokyo, which are connected to the world, but I could not do it for a long time. Artists in my generation, such as Kohei Nawa and Tabaimo who are both from Kyoto, have become really successful and I have wished to be like that for a long time. I lived in Kyoto so I only heard a lot of gorgeous stories about Tokyo. When I showed my works to some people from Tokyo, they would say things like “your works are good but what do you want to do with them?” I just wished to show my world, so I didn’t think of selling my works. I just had my own world and wanted to share it with people so I did not have any strategy to present my works for commercial galleries. It was just a longing to show at these venues. This has been the main worry or difficulty in my career.   

AAA: You have lived in New York and Edinburgh. What was your experience of these cities? Has living in different places influenced your work?

AM: I wanted to find a gallery that loved my work. I could not find one when I was in Japan. That's why I thought of going overseas – with hope. I wanted to go somewhere very far from where I had been. The United Kingdom came to mind as a destination. I decided to go to Scotland because I knew someone who was living there. Now I think it was the right decision. If I had moved to a large city like London, then I would have been perplexed by tonnes of information.

It was my first time living abroad and alone, and the distance made me think very deeply about Japan, my family, art, and my works. I lived in front of a castle and I could touch upon some Celtic culture in Edinburgh. I was thinking about many things, like the beginning of ethnicity and so on. I was also at times depressed by being really far from where I grew up. But then I thought to myself that the ground I was standing upon was in fact connected to anywhere, including Japan, by the bottom of the sea. Then I suddenly felt that everywhere was close. I became interested in the notion of “place” while I was abroad. Anyway, I had time to think about many things. I called it “the time of pure cultivation.”

In the end, I could not find any galleries overseas, which meant I could not accomplish the initial mission. I was just watching the art world there, from the outside. There was a thick glass between the art world and me. I cannot remember exactly how I felt but it was a sadness, a void or vexing feeling. In addition, I realized that I had to be in that world as an Asian. I met people who liked my works overseas but mostly they liked it because of the brilliance in the surface of my works. Also many people overseas have told me that my works are very “Japanese.” I did not sense it by myself because I did not make my works to look like something Japanese. That was another thing I realized while I lived abroad. In order to share the root of my works, which were based on my senses that I have been warming up since I was born, I thought I needed to restart form Japan and find a gallery in Japan. I also wanted to start again from Kyoto, where I came from, so I applied for an art competition organized by Kyoto Art Center while I was in Edinburgh. Then I won the competition and got a chance to show works here. That’s how I started again in Japan, after coming back from Edinburgh. 

AAA: You have also produced many site-specific installations. What was your motivation to engage in site-specific installation?

AM: Originally I was fascinated by the materials I was using and I was more interested in the aspect in my works which can be described as “changing sculpture.” After I lived abroad for a while, I became more interested in the idea of place, as I told you. I started seeing myself as an installation artist who produces something that can be only produced in a specific place.

AAA: How are you now developing your practice? Do you have any future plans?

AM: After I came back to Japan, I met a gallery in Tokyo and produced some exhibitions there. I told you that I just wanted to share my world with people and did not think about selling my works, but I experienced for the first time that people buy my works. This actually taught me something that I did not know. When I create site-specific installations for an exhibition, people can experience my works only within a certain period. After people buy my works, my works are no longer only for an exhibition. My works will exist in their home. I thought I knew about the idea of “existing” and “changing” but I actually did not. This was the biggest thing I learnt by showing at a commercial gallery. I would like to ask collectors to borrow my works and organize an exhibition in the future. My creation are spread around the world and stored in different conditions and spaces so it must be interesting to see them again after some time. This hasn’t been planned yet, but I would like to do something like that, say 10 years from now. 


Fri, 1 Oct 2010

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