Interview with Asae Sotani|I want to depict the “extraordinary in the ordinary”

曽谷朝絵 インタビュー|「日常のなかの非日常」を描きたい

A painting full of gentle light and color, as if guided by its own name. Furthermore, artist Asae Sotani has been attracting attention for her installations that reverberate with vivid light throughout the space, as well as her video works that seem to pop out of colors and shapes from paintings. Currently residing in New York as an Agency for Cultural Affairs overseas trainee, he is further expanding the range of his activities.

Born in Kanagawa and based in Yokohama, she has deep ties to the local community, having won the Yokohama Cultural Award (Culture and Arts Encouragement Award) and the Kanagawa Cultural Award/Sports Award (Kanagawa Cultural Award Future Award). The latest exhibition to take place in Yokohama this summer will surprisingly be held at the city's performing arts hub, KAAT Kanagawa Arts Theater.

We asked her about the origin of her creation and her thoughts on her latest work when she returned to Japan for a short time in preparation for the project.

Interview & Text: Shinichi Uchida
Photo (Portrait): Masamasa Nishino

Composing landscapes relying on the “sounds of color”

*Asae Sotani=S

"Circles" / 2007 / Oil on paneled cotton cloth

“Circles” / 2007 / Oil on paneled cotton cloth / 130×162cm

- Today we will be asking about Mr. Soya's past creations and the latest exhibition at KAAT Kanagawa Arts Theater. Mr. Soya's work began with paintings, and eventually evolved into installations and videos that are in line with his worldview. What kind of existence does the thing “depicted” there mean to you?

S : I think I've been drawing since I was around 3 years old, but color has always been important to me. It feels like every color emits a "sound". There are various types of sounds, such as those that give the impression of musical instruments such as a piano or violin, or those that sound like the sound of the wind blowing, a heartbeat, or the noise of a street corner. Relying on these sounds, I have been painting pictures as if composing or tuning landscapes.

- Is it something like what is called "synaesthesia" (a perceptual phenomenon in which a person feels a different type of sensation than usual in response to a certain stimulus, such as sensing colors in letters or sounds)?

S : I don't know the details myself. Partly because I've always taken it for granted (laughs). For example, if you place one color next to another, the sounds of each color will resonate together. I feel that the work is complete when I feel the echoes and chords and suddenly find the best harmony.

- Many of your early paintings depict familiar water scenes such as bathrooms and washrooms being flooded with light. Did these subjects come naturally to you when depicting the sensations you just described?

S : Yes. Water itself has no color, but it can take on any color depending on the light and environment. It also brings out the nature of light more clearly through ripples and reflections. Furthermore, while water is essential to human life—mineral water is still available right in front of our eyes—it is also a very mysterious entity. I continue to have a strong interest in things that are too close to be seen.

- Your work gives the impression of being fantastical, but do you think it's not a fantasy far removed from reality?

S : I guess you want to depict ``the extraordinary in the ordinary.'' In the series ``Circles,'' he depicts water in a bathtub, and the light that illuminates the ripples on the water's surface travels deeper and is reflected on the bottom of the bathtub. You could say that I depicted the relationship between light and water, but in some ways I have been able to more clearly feed back my "discoveries" into my work.

- Now that you ask me, I feel that the recent installations that make bold use of space are also connected, although their forms may be different.

S : No matter what method you use, the roots are all connected. However, I also think that the reason I started creating installations was because I had a strong interest in space. I also believe that this has something to do with my experience in Yokohama, which has been my production base.

- Mr. Soya, you were born in Kanagawa, and after studying at Tokyo University of the Arts, you set up studios in Yokohama where creators gather, such as Kitanaka BRICK and ZAIM, and created your work.

S : Yes. I think it was there that I was able to meet artists who use a variety of expressive methods and architects whose job is to create spaces, which had an impact on me. If you think about it, Kitanaka BRICK was the first to turn a space into a work of art.

"Hanging Garden" 2006/Size variable Kitanaka BRICK & Kitanaka WHITE (Kanagawa)

“Hanging Garden” 2006/Size variable Kitanaka BRICK & Kitanaka WHITE (Kanagawa)

- Hanging Garden (2006) is a blank space where the walls of two buildings face each other, and colorful paintings are scattered in the places where the white paint has peeled off.

S : That work was born from the feeling that there is an unknown world of colors within and on the other side of the wall. At ZAIM, I also had the opportunity to live paint every room in the building, giving me the experience of being surrounded by my own paintings. This led to my solo exhibition “Ringing Colors” (2010) at Shiseido Gallery. In this exhibition, I was able to take on a new challenge of painting on sheets, then cutting them out into various shapes and pasting them together. Furthermore, I believe that the experience of cutting a large number of sheets at this time gave me a new awareness of ``line,'' and I have since developed that line.

"Sounding Colors" / 2010 / Mixed media / Shiseido Gallery photo: Nacása & Partners Inc
"Sounding Colors" / 2010 / Mixed media / Shiseido Gallery photo: Nacása & Partners Inc

- After all, everything is connected. The ``Ringing Light'' series, which can be seen as an extension of ``Ringing Colors'', was created using sheets that reflect light, and attempts to develop these onto glass surfaces were also born.

S : Yes. After all, I feel that the light gave me such an encounter.

Drawing light/Art drawing with light

"Ringing Light" / 2013 / Film on the floor and walls / SHIBAURA HOUSE (Tokyo)

"Ringing Light" / 2013 / Film on the floor and walls / SHIBAURA HOUSE (Tokyo)

- Mr. Soya, who has continued to paint with light with a paintbrush, feels like he has also started ``painting with light itself'' in works such as Ringing Light. Are there any differences or changes in yourself in this regard?

S : I haven't completely transitioned from one to the other; painting is still an important medium of expression for me. However, I feel that I have gained a certain degree of understanding of the nature of light through my experience of looking at light in my paintings - how it is applied, how it is reflected, etc. - and that I am able to apply that knowledge to my installations as well. Of course, I worked with specialized technical staff to create the work, but I guess I had mastered the basics of how this kind of light would be produced.

- Was your solo exhibition “Sorairo” (2013) at Art Tower Mito the culmination of your creative journey at that point? In particular, ``Sora'', in which a painting he drew himself was turned into an animation that filled a room with movement, became a hot topic.

S : At that time, I was able to show my past expressions in all seven rooms. At that time, I wanted the high-ceilinged room in the middle to be the place where something was being born right now. It is the center of creation, a place that beats like a heart. From there, I decided to take on the challenge of making my first video work. Specifically, I scanned the original drawings I drew on a computer, traced them, converted them into data, and then combined them into an animation.

-The painting is not simply divided into parts and moves, but lines like plants grow and overlap, giving the impression of an organic space depicting creativity as if it were a living thing.

S : I had the image of a forest of colors growing in the sky. Depending on the person looking at it, it may look like a beating heart, blood vessels, or cells, and I think all of these are correct.

- Do you have any hesitation or hesitation when attempting a completely unknown method of expression?

S : Of course, but there is also the strength of not knowing how difficult it is (lol). Even if you don't know much about it, you might feel hesitant to try it anyway. In the end, it is very difficult, but the experience often makes the next attempt easier or leads to a further step. With Space, I was able to create a visual that I had never seen before, so I'm also thinking about whether I can feed back that experience into my paintings.

“Sora” / 2013 / Animation/Sphere / Contemporary Art Center, Art Tower Mito

“Sora” / 2013 / Animation/Sphere / Contemporary Art Center, Art Tower Mito
photo: Nacasa & Partners Inc.

Sometimes, don't be afraid of friction and be yourself.

- Mr. Soya is currently working as an Agency for Cultural Affairs Overseas Trainee in a rented studio at ISCP (The International Studio & Curatorial Program) in New York. Today I am taking advantage of your precious time to return to Japan for an interview, but how was your experience there?

S : Artists from all over the world gather at ISCP, and each is given a room to create their work. In addition to interacting with artists, I also have the opportunity to present my work to art professionals who often visit, making it a valuable experience.

- Do you get any inspiration from the city of New York?

S : Up until now, I have mainly been based in Yokohama and Tokyo, and compared to these places, New York is more stimulating because of the diversity of values and how they collide. Various beauties and ugliness are asserting themselves without compromising each other easily. When I come back for the first time in a long time, I realize that Japan has a different quality to it, and to be honest, I feel like I'm not calming down (lol), but of course I've gained a lot from being there.

- What kind of part is it specifically?

S : For example, conflicting values and friction can be difficult, but on the other hand, it encourages me to do what I believe without hesitation. While Japanese people tend to avoid conflict with others, there is also the impression that they tend to feel suffocated and bound by shackles of their own making. It was a rewarding experience for me to realize that I could be more free. Well, I've always done whatever I wanted, but even more so (lol).

- Speaking of "tuning" and "chords" that were mentioned at the beginning of today's talk, "friction" seems to be a troublesome element, what do you think?

S : Both harmonious chords and broken chords are beautiful, and the presence of both makes it stand out. Sometimes new energy can be created by intentionally destroying something. For example, the city of New York is full of colors, so if I were to do some public art there, I might think that it might be a good idea to use a monochrome expression, which I haven't done before. When I was creating my work, I always had the idea that placing things that don't exist here will liven up the space. Even in terms of realizing this, it was a good experience to be able to experience two contrasting urban cultures.

- Your stay will be until January 2015, but it seems like there are still many experiences to be had.

S : Yes. I was surprised to hear that the people over there were surprised at the drawings I usually make and asked, ``How do you create such delicate lines and colors?'' I wonder if there are things that I thought were obvious that are unique to me or Japanese. I feel like I can see myself more now than before.

- Do you sometimes think about your own position in the history of art in relation to your predecessors?

S : I feel a connection with O'Keeffe in that he depicts something like the universal that can be arrived at by pursuing individual sensations. When it comes to depicting light, it goes without saying that Impressionism exists, and I think artists like Katsushika Hokusai have also strongly influenced my sense of balance in composition. For those of a more familiar generation, I love artists such as James Turrell and Bridget Riley, and I feel that there is something in common with Ernesto Neto's expressions in terms of their interest in physical sensations. If you can see things that are very close but cannot be seen, you can also see things that are very far away. For me, my work is like a report on that, and I believe that the predecessors I just mentioned were also doing the same thing. When I say "very close," I don't mean just what's around me, I mean closer, like in my head, in my body, and in my senses.

Raising the “vessel of creativity” called theater

"Sora" / 2013 / Watercolor

"Sora" / 2013 / Watercolor

- Here, we would like to ask you about Mr. Soya's latest work, which will appear on the ``stage'' at KAAT Kanagawa Arts Theater starting this summer. It seems that the exhibition will take advantage of the characteristics of this building, namely the open glass walls that surround it and the atrium that surrounds it - a 35m high atrium.

S : For the glass wall, I will create a new work called ``Splash'' using cutting sheets. In addition, we plan to use a high-brightness projector to project "Sky" on the large wall in front of the atrium starting in the evening. Regarding ``Splash'', I think it has a different look during the day due to sunlight and at night depending on the light from inside the building, and ``Air'' can create a scale that is completely different from the space in Mito, so I personally am very interested in it. I'm looking forward to it.

- Soya-san, you have been working on public art. From a creator's perspective, what is its appeal that makes it different from spaces such as art museums? Please let us know if you have any thoughts from your experience in New York.

S : It's true that in New York, there is art everywhere in public spaces. The range of expression varies from the masterpieces of famous artists to graffiti around town. Graffiti can be illegal, or it can be done in legally organized places. I feel that both of these exhibits are different from museums, and have the charm of allowing you to encounter works of art in your everyday life. However, what I am especially happy about having this opportunity is that I can express my work in the ``theatre'' that is KAAT.

-Certainly, a major feature of this event is that it is a work of art in a performing arts setting.

S : Theater is a place where a variety of people come together to create a stage performance. That's why various values are bound to collide, and there is bound to be some friction. But here, we are collaborating to overcome this and create something good. I think it's like a ``ship of creation'' where crew members with different specialties and talents aim for the same destination. Therefore, this exhibition also uses KAAT as that ship, with the splash-like ``Splash'' representing the waves that the ship is pushing through, and ``Air'' representing the source of creation. The title of this exhibition, ``Floating,'' comes from the desire to float such a ship of creation in Yokohama. Additionally, I think it's similar to Yokohama, which is a historic port town and is eager to support creators.

- If you ask me that, it sounds like you'll be able to experience a variety of different landscapes while experiencing the exhibition.

S : Originally, my creations were born out of an interest in what happens when people create something. ``Sora'' is a symbolic work in that respect as well, and light and sound are systems that have been involved in creation since ancient times, including art and stage. Also, my image of a theater is a place where I can make my dreams come true. And I want that space to be a place where I can maintain my dreams, no matter what they are, for as long as possible, without waking up. I think it would be wonderful if my work could make the charm of the theater more visible and function as a device to maintain dreams. I hope that not only regulars who love the stage, but also people who happen to be passing by, and people who just pass by every day, come inside and ask, ``What is this?'' I would be happy. KAAT's atrium is a pleasant space to just stand in, and I think everyone enjoys it in their own way. I would be happy if small children could enjoy it too.

Asae Soya

- I have the impression that Mr. Soya's works can be enjoyed naturally and without any preparation, regardless of generation. Come to think of it, when I previously won the VOCA Award, which is the grand prize at the VOCA Exhibition 2002, I also won the ``You are the judge!! Children's Award in VOCA'' at the same time.

S : Yes, at that time, I was happy to hear comments from the children such as ``It's like walking into a dream.''

- By the way, do you feel that this production is interesting because it is a performing arts venue?

S : I feel that the people on stage have a great sense of unity as they work together as a group, and on the other hand, they have great mobility to finish the work with great vigor. Is this due to the need to create a stage space that includes the actors' performances within a limited amount of time? I am also attracted to the ``beauty of the moment'' when the world that has been refined through this process disappears before our eyes when the curtain opens and the finale arrives.

- Mr. Soya's work this time could be said to be stage-like in that it colors KAAT for a certain period of time, and then lives on in people's memories.

S : Yes. If I can synchronize my work with the potential excitement of this place, a space beyond my imagination may be created. I want it to float in Yokohama like a ship of light floating in the air. I have such expectations and am looking forward to it myself.

- This is also connected to the ``harmony rising'' mentioned in the first story. I'm looking forward to seeing the new sights that will be created there, including the people who will be visiting. Thank you for your time today!

▽Exhibition information
Asae Sotani “Floating”
Period: August to November 2014 (tentative)
Venue: KAAT Kanagawa Arts Theater Atrium
Sponsored by: Kanagawa Arts and Culture Foundation

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