Floating wonderment

The ethereal spirit of Japan's ukiyo-e prints lives on in contemporary art, writes Richard James Havis

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 April, 2013, 3:44pm

The more things change, the more things stay the same. A new exhibition at New York's Japan Society, entitled "Edo Pop: The Graphic Impact of Japanese Prints", looks at the relationship between modern art and the ukiyo-e woodblock prints that were popular in Japan during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The show, assembled by the gallery's new curator, Miwako Tezuka, and on 

until June 9, draws parallels between the techniques, style and content of contemporary artists and those of the Edo period. The surprise is that there is a remarkable correlation between artists across the centuries. What's more, the times themselves have a lot in common, too, Tezuka says.

"Ukiyo-e prints never seem to get old. They date from the 18th and 19th centuries, but they still look vibrant and lively," she says. "Although they depict the lives of people from the past, you can find many connections with our lives today in them."

The similarities make the art produced during the Edo period relevant to the modern viewer, Tezuka says. "Because of this correlation, the visual arts produced at that time become even closer to us when we look at them. So in this exhibition, I decided to explore the synergy and dialogue between the past and the present. I was interested in how contemporary artists digest the visual impact of the ukiyo-e prints."

The Edo period is particularly interesting because scholars call it the early modern period of Japanese history, the curator says. "That's when commerce started to bloom in Japan, and even though the country was still ruled under the Confucian feudal system, it included the rise of the merchant class. This created a wealthy society and a social environment where people started to demand entertainment and pastimes. So society became much like our contemporary world, and we can see a lot of socio-structural similarities between then and now. For us, living in this late-capitalist society, the way people lived back then does not look too old."

They date from the 18th and 19th centuries, but they still look vibrant and lively. Although they depict the lives of people from the past, you can find many connections with our lives today in them
Miwako Tezuka, of Ukiyo-E Art

Ukiyo-e woodblocks came into being during the Edo period (around 1600-1868), a time of relative quiet in Japan after centuries of civil war. Peace, and the rise of urban living, brought a need for entertainment, and this led to the inexpensive art form of ukiyo-e or "floating world pictures". Woodblock prints were drawn by artists on paper, cut in wood by block-cutters, and then printed. They were produced as albums or books.

These were sold cheaply by booksellers. "Buyers would look at the books with their friends, and talk about them. Sometimes the prints would be of real local people, and those looking would say things like, 'It's her, do you know her?'"

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), Hokusai Katsushika (1760-1849), Kuniyoshi Utagawa (1797-1862) and Hiroshige Utagara (1797-1858) are the best known ukiyo-e artists.

"I think ukiyo-e prints are part of the DNA of Japanese people," says Tezuka. "It was the popular art form of the time, and we, as Japanese, still know all about them today. There is nothing esoteric about them. They are already somewhere in our minds. We are familiar with the floaty feeling of water and of the in-between realm, which conceptually relates to what ukiyo-e means - floating world pictures."

In Japanese, "uki" means floating and "yo" means world, while the "e" means pictures. The name evolved from a Buddhist term which meant "sad world". "In Buddhism, your life is ephemeral, and you are only here momentarily. There is a poignant, religious sense to it," says Tezuka.

Contemporary artists in the show come from all over the world, and are not all Japanese: Lady Aiko, born in Tokyo, is based in New York, Paul Binnie is from Scotland, and Jimmy Robert is based in Belgium, for example. "I tried to find artists who were not only looking at the images, but also acknowledging the conceptual and functional side of ukiyo-e prints," says Tezuka. "Prints are produced in multiples, so they become a medium for the distribution of information. Some contemporary artists are interested in that aspect. Others are more directly influenced by the colour, technique, and composition."

The Brooklyn-based Lady Aiko was brought up in Tokyo. "If you walk around the streets of Tokyo, you still see many ukiyo-e-style designs, colours, graphics and icons everywhere, so I guess that influenced me subconsciously," the artist says.

Her installation work draws on the heritage of ukiyo-e, but expresses it in a modern style. The graffiti artist has made a colourful, beautiful installation for the opening room of the exhibition. The wall-painting features some icons of ukiyo-e, such as Mt Fuji, and imparts the vibrancy that prints would have afforded viewers of the albums in Edo times.

The method of production - paper stencils are used with aerosol paint on the walls - also references the way ukiyo-e artists traced the pictures on to blocks for the carving process. "Aiko uses elements that come straight out of ukiyo-e prints. The way she depicts the two lovers embracing is a reference to ukiyo-e," says Tezuka. Lady Aiko also uses a cartouche to identify herself as the creator: "There is a long tradition of that in ukiyo-e," says Tezuka.

Binnie, an oil painter who studied Asian art history, became interested in ukiyo-e techniques and moved to Japan in 1993 to study woodblock carving for six years. He trained under carver and printer Seki Kenji. "Binnie understands the form, technique and colour of ukiyo-e," says Tezuka. "He was motivated to learn it because of the influence it had on Western painters such as Monet, Manet and van Gogh, who had seen it, and been influenced by it. [Binnie] became a successor to the artists. He creates the drawings, cuts the woodblocks, does the printing, and even publishes his works himself."

Asako Narahashi brings the "floating world" spirit of ukiyo-e to her work. The photographer captures coastal cities and landscapes from a unique perspective: she wades out into the sea and turns her camera on the shore. The photographs are unusual, destabilising views of the cityscapes. "Her focus is the buoyancy of water," Tezuka says. "The composition is very interesting as the lower part of her body is under the water. You only see a glimpse of the sky, a glimpse of a bridge, and so on. The viewers feel like they are actually in the water."

Narahashi says she does not consciously think about ukiyo-e prints when she is working, but Tezuka notes a similarity of perspective: "Her vantage point is similar to that of the ukiyo-e artists of the 19th century, when artists like Hokusai were working. It's a very magical perspective. She is seeing the water and the landscape beyond it. She captures the spirit of ukiyo-e prints, even though she told me she is not really thinking about them."

Art that is old today was once new, and was once as novel as the work of these contemporary artists, Tezuka says. "Classical art was the contemporary art of its time. By doing a trans-historical exhibition, I wanted to make people aware of that idea. I have tried to provide a window to see classical art with a new insight with this show. We can reflect back on the Edo period, and hopefully something will go 'pop' in our minds."