TimeOut Shanghai Interview with Naoko Tosa

Japanese sound artist Naoko Tosa updates the ancient art of flower arrangement in her Shanghai exhibition Sound of Ikebana. Time Out finds out more


Naoko Tosa first started fusing sound and images in the 1980s, before the era of computers. Yet for the renowned Japanese sound artist, the interplay between what we hear and what we see had always held a particular fascination. ‘I was,’ she explains, ‘interested in the story and the emotions of sound and images.’


More than two decades later and Tosa has utilised the latest technology to create her new exhibition Sound of Ikebana, opening this month in Shanghai. In Japanese, ikebana (literally ‘living flowers’) refers to the art of flower arrangement. Tosa has created her own take on the ancient art form through four separate works. For the pieces, vibrating sound was placed beneath pools of paint. Tosa then shot the resulting bubbles, leaps, and movements of the liquid at 2,000 frames per second with a high-speed camera. The artist says that the resulting images are not only an exploration of flowers and flower arranging, but also of the perpetually transient and evolving four seasons.


‘The effect of the vibration of sound on various forms of paint has created stunning images,’ says Tosa of her work. ‘Many of the images are evocative of the beauty of flowers. It was creative. It was beautiful.’ It is not only visually gorgeous but technically complicated. To create the pieces, Tosa first made basslines to provide the vibrations. This was followed by changing the parameters of the computer software used to generate the sounds and designing the shape and form of the paint. ‘After that,’ she says, ‘I shot with a high-speed camera. However, what I can control is only about 60 per cent. The rest are masterful works of nature.’


The colour spectrum is also crucial to the works. ‘In Asia, colours have always played a very significant role in religious and cultural expression,’ adds Tosa. ‘For example, red and white were the signature colours of kimonos during Japan’s Heian period (794 to 1185), while gold and red are the auspicious colours of the Chinese New Year.’ White, gold, and red are also symbols of Japanese wabi-sabi, an aesthetic that accepts the beauty of imperfection and impermanence. Tosa hopes to use the colours in her artworks to ‘encourage reflection of our own internal “seasons” as we progress through life.’


Tosa, 52, grew up in Fukuoka city on Kyushu island, where her mother was a homemaker and her father the president of a company that sold machine tools. From high school, she harboured ambitions to be an artist and has succeeded: her work has been exhibited in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the New York Metropolitan Art Museum. But this was not before she had received a PhD in engineering from the University of Tokyo. Today, she is a professor at Kyoto University.


Part of Tosa’s inspiration comes from three years of collaboration in Boston at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) where she was a fellow from 2002 to 2004. ‘I researched creative engineering,’ recalls the artist. ‘The MIT CAVS director asked me to explore Japanese media art and new technology. As such, I made The Art of Zen.’ The piece is an interactive study of Zen by computer, which juxtaposes the hesitations and delays of human consciousness with the immediacy of computer software. As Tosa points out, ‘technology has allowed us to create new forms of artwork that could never be possible before.’


In Sound of Ikebana, the traditional Japanese art form of haiku – three line poems of 17 syllables each – are also incorporated. These are sourced from masters including Yosa Buson, Matsuo Basho and Kobayashi Issa. So what is Tosa’s favourite haiku from the exhibition? The answer matches her favourite season of autumn – a time of passing and transition. ‘Looking up/A deer cries its tears/Dew of the moon.’


Sound of Ikebana is at LWH Gallery from Friday 7 February to Wednesday 5 March.


By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

TimeOut Shanghai Interview with Chinese Artist – Zhang Zuo

Zhang Zuo hails from a small rural village in northern Hebei province. Born in 1986, his work, usually ink and paint on paper, relays the journey of migrant youth through images of birds and trees. Ahead of his first solo exhibition, Solace of Youth, Time Out finds out more


Your work reflects on the angst and joy of migrant youth in China. Why is this important? 

I am reflecting on the present state of my country and myself. There are many young people like me who migrate from villages to Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. According to an official survey in 2011, of the nine million who migrated to the cities, four million of them are aged 20-34 years old, accounting for 47 per cent of the migrant population. This figure is set to grow. For the millions of youths who move, their objectives are very similar: to seek a better life, to find a decent paying job, to pursue their aspirations. Most of them came from villages where conditions are harsh. When they arrive in the city, although many are unprepared for the challenges, they wait it out despite the uncertainty. They endure the struggles, and bury their desire for the familiar, for their family. But they persevere knowing that the journey will be long – for this is the spirit of youth. For our generation, we did not suffer under the revolutions, we have benefited from the grace of development. Although we struggle, we know that this is our time. It belongs to us.


What do you want to convey with your work?

I know some people say my paintings express the beauty in sadness, but I do wish that people could see hope from sorrow. I believe there is hope in the city.


Which artists have you been most influenced by?

I am influenced by different artists at different stages of my life. When I was a kid, my first contact with Western art was through paintings by Matisse, and I emulated them countless times. I also like Edvard Munch’s works and hence in my works there are moments of shades of grey. Once I took an interest in sculptures from the Sui and Tang dynasties. Later on, I appreciated the grace and arrogance of works by Chinese artist Zhu Da. Most importantly, my life experience affects me.


Your first move from home was to Beijing and while there you worked in a company that creates mass-produced artworks to sell. Did you feel that compromised your creativity at the time?

It is a reality of life. I bear no grudges. Imagine a person who has just graduated from a fine art course, goes to Beijing’s Songzhuang artist village hoping to pursue his artistic creation but needs a stable income. Working in a painting factory is probably the best option. He can paint, earn an income and perhaps create his own works in the evening. Those mass-produced paintingshad minimal impact on me, but the job allowed me to better understand myself and sharpen my creative endeavour. I value the importance of inspiration; I appreciate the role of technical competency.


In 2010 you joined the army…

I always feel people should try different things, have different life experiences. The rules of society differ from the rules in the military. I wanted to express my gratitude and appreciation to my country. Another practical reason was that afterwards I was able to repay the student loan that I took up. The pay was almost equivalent to three years of my family’s crop income.


Finally, what do the birds in your paintings represent?

The birds represent the many young people who are like me. I believe that every artist sees themselves in their own works.


Solace of Youth is at LWH Gallery from Friday 10 to Tuesday 28 January.


By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

That’s Shanghai Interview with Zhang Zuo

Last October, Wuhan-born Zeng Fanzhi set a new contemporary Asian art record with the US$23.3 million sale of his painting The Last Supper at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. The news confirms that there’s gold in these hills. But new artist Zhang Zuo is unimpressed by the growing cult of personality surrounding Mainland contemporary artists.


“There is no such good thing as a good artist in any form,” Zhang declares. “There are only good pieces of art.”


Born in a small town of roughly 1,000 people in Hebei Province, Zhang’s artistic journey has been a pure one. His debut solo exhibition, Solace of Youth, opens at LWH Gallery in m50 on January 10, and he’ll be milling around on weekends eavesdropping to hear the audience’s unfiltered thoughts on his work.


“I feel very fortunate,” he says. “An artist I knew, Mo Xin, recently died, and he didn’t get his first exhibition until his late 60s.”


The mixed-media show features nearly thirty pieces centering around the experiences of modern migrant youth in China. It’s an experience that Zhang knows too well.


“Unlike my father and forefathers who had a very intense history and experienced a great deal, I was born in good times,” he says. “I wanted to record this era. Although there’s a lack of revolutions, there are still challenges.”


“There’s a huge gap between migrant youth’s aspirations and what reality is able to provide. Traditional education and cultural values have failed to catch up to give these young people the tools to survive in this new reality.”


Zhang’s artistic journey began before kindergarten. Growing up in a poor and toy-less household, he spent his childhood routinely cutting out cartoon characters painted on instant noodles packages and pasting them on discarded paper.


Although he studied design at Mei San University, Zhang’s heart was in art. At 24, he moved to Beijing’s creative haven Songzhuang – a move he says he didn’t dare tell his parents about – where he survived on menthol cigarettes and four buns a day flavored with bottled minced meat sauce. Days were spent painting in an unheated concrete slab with fellow aspiring artists.


To make ends meet, he took a job at a company that specialized in mass produced artwork where he developed the ability to paint four works a day. Despite seeing his peers succumb to the stability day jobs provided, Zhang was passionate about his artistic life of drinking, smoking and creating.


“I was very raw, rough and arrogant then,” he says. “I wasn’t scared of anything and didn’t think about selling any of my paintings.”


Things changed in 2010 when he joined the army as a way to pay off his school fees – “My military income was the equivalent of three years of my family’s annual crop” – which left little time for art. Doodling any chance he got, Zhang left the army two years later with much more discipline and determination.


He moved to Shanghai last March to be closer to his girlfriend, and works and lives in a 15 square meter apartment in Pudong where, he says, “I eat, sleep, drink, smoke, paint and … (smiles cheekily) on that floor.”


While he misses the ability to mix with locals and kindred spirits in Songzhuang, this city has been kind to him. This exhibition is an accident as he first approached LWH Gallery to see if they were hiring.


“As a gallery, we mainly feature Southeast Asian art, but I believe that we should nurture and give back to society,” says LWH founder Woon Hoe. “Being in Shanghai’s art district, we should provide a platform for young aspiring Chinese artists.”


Impressed by Zhang’s earlier dreamscapes, Woon requested larger pieces for a solo show. Over the past few months, the theme emerged with work encompassing ink, spray paint and other mediums.


“The birds represent migrant youth and the barren landscape symbolizes the harsh environment they struggle in,” Zhang says. “This will probably be my most innocent and honest exhibition as I’m not tainted by commercial thinking.”


By Andrew Chin

Beauty + Violence

Everyday women around the world are exposed to violence. The most severe hits the news headlines. But perhaps the most disturbing of these aggressions are those that are covert and even embraced by women.

From fashion magazines that promote the indiscriminate idolisation of waifs-thin models to movies that continue to sexualise female side kicks, from societies that justify battery of women in the name of honour, to cultures that deny women equal access to opportunities. Despite growing literacy and development, many Asian cultures continue to bind woman from realising their full potential.

This is not an exhibition that attempts to address the aggression. It is an attempt to raise its awareness. But more importantly it is a celebration of woman. It is about an appreciation of her beauty, an attempt to understand her soul. It is about raising the awareness of the subjugation of women, but at the same time, it is also about the stories of women who have challenged the mould.

As Hillary Clinton once said;
“We need to understand that there is no formula for how women should lead their lives. That is why we must respect the choices that each woman makes for herself and her family. Every woman deserves the chance to realize her God-given potential.”

About the Art Works
Our artists certainly do not claim to be experts on women. And although the artworks may not provide any new insights on women, many of our artists, both man and women certainly have something to say about them.

Contemporary Nude has always been a favourite subject for Hein Thit from Myanmar However he has taken a step further and attempted to reveal the complex layers of female pysche – albeit with a more light hearted approach. This is done through the layering popular Burmese romance comics in his works as a simile for the age old social conditioning of gender roles. It is in contrast with Vietnam’s artist Bao Thih’s colourful impressionist works, which celebrate the man’s desire for the femme fatale in wanton passion.

Maw Thu Dan Nu from Myanmar addressed the commercial exploitation of feminine ideals through his signature style of highlighting social issues through glass reflections – from the display of sumptuous wedding gown for the dream wedding, to matching his-and-hers holiday beachwear to create the picture perfect honeymoon photo.

Digital media artist Naoko Tosa will release a special preview of her new work to commemorate International Women’s Day. Deep frozen flowers that symbolise the rigidity of gender roles, are aggravated and blown apart in this sensitively produced artwork. Harrowing as it may sound, there is a mesmerising beauty in the ‘destruction’. Perhaps it is sign of the things to come when binding gender roles are finally broken…


Sharing the Stories of 3 Women

Despite cultural pressures and social skepticism, Coco Chen took the leap of faith by taking the less travelled route of travelling independently around the world – from Jordon to Dubai, Nepal to Laos. She is amongst a growing group of young Chinese women who are now exerting their youthful exuberance and confidence.

At this show, Coco will showcase some of her stunning travel photographs and will be sharing her travel experiences and challenges as an independent female traveller. Come make an appointment with Coco at LWH Gallery on 8 and 15 March 2014.


Nadine, Philippines

Nadine is a young female artist living in Singapore. Despite growing up in one of Asia’s most open society, she grew up in an environment where conservative values pervade. “When I was young, I wanted to be a pilot but was told that females are not suited to be pilots. I felt that it was not right’, said Nadine.

Through highly intricate drawings, she challenges the gender stereotype, using strong geometric forms on female portraits, contrasting it with highly delicate and intricate motifs for the portrayal of the male gender.

Ren Yung, Singapore

Despite coming from an affluent family, Ren Yung from Singapore decides to strike it out on her on to start her own social enterprise that aims to positive impact in the communities she work with. Her company, aptly named “Matter”, produces block print fabrics with women in Rajasthan, India. Ren Yung believes that by giving village women the ability to earn their own income, we uplifting not just the women, we are uplifting their children, their family and ultimately the society.

During the show, LWH Gallery will showcase a selection of block prints fabrics created by the village women of Rajasthan. All nett proceeds of the sales of these fabrics will be donated to a charity supported by Matter.