Japanese-Swiss artist Leiko Ikemura showing in-between creatures and possibilities of representation of self in Riding The Waves at Tim Van Laere Gallery in Antwerp
Life of Leiko Ikemura
Leiko Ikemura was born in Tsu, Mie Prefecture, Japan, and studied at the State University in Osaka. In 1973 she moved to Europe to study at the Academia de Belas Artes de Santa Isabel de Hungría in Sevilla, Spain. Before moving to Germany, she worked for four years in Zürich, Switzerland. She now lives and has worked since 1990 between Berlin and Cologne.
Her works are not strictly autobiographical and don’t follow a chronological scheme but represent her ongoing inner path. The different environments Leiko Ikemura interacted with at various stages of her life reflect how she works fluidly with other media. Drawing, painting, sculpture, and photography recall the western-European traditional techniques, but the substrate, the layer underneath, evokes Japanese culture and imagination.
It’s in the unconscious, spirit, silence, power of colors such as white and black, and raw materials. It’s a form of hybridization that shows how different creatures can peacefully cohabit, that there can be other forms of representing them and that no form is wrong.
Turning, appearing, and disappearing
«As an artist, I am very conscious about nature, animals, and surroundings, but I would like to express them through my body, my inner language, and not just ideas. Animals and trees are all a part of me. I’m not afraid to turn into a penguin; I’m a bird and I’m a penguin. And this is a feeling that I would like to liberate through my hybrids».
From figurative to abstraction and back to figurative, from human beings to mythical creatures. Some are fantasy figures and some are allegories. Some come from the Japanese imaginary, like the Usagi (that in Japanese means rabbit) sculptures, which assume vast scales and become architecture.
The artist shifts through the mediums and makes its meaningful layered creatures appear in a circular, nonlinear, and chaotic motion: the same movement of creation, the life cycle, the rhythm of the earth and universe, and the sea. «My works juxtapose these elements, turning, appearing, and disappearing».
Riding The Waves at Tim Van Laere Gallery in Antwerp
Towards New Seas was the title of the last exhibition in Kunstmuseum Basel in 2019, and more recently, Riding The Waves was the name of the last solo exhibition at Tim Van Laere Gallery in Antwerp, where bronze, ceramic, and glass sculptures, as well as paintings, were installed in a space conceived in collaboration with her partner Philipp von Matt, his architects’ studio and curatorial team, with which Leiko Ikemura collaborates since 2005.
For the artist, it’s not just putting the works into the space, but it’s willing to transform it into an active space. «It’s my world, but I share it with people. We do it together teamwork: conception and perception of space are vital. I like people to sit in front of the works, to become part of the exhibition».
This was made possible also with the help of the gallerist Tim Van Laere with whom Leiko worked 20 years ago, a friendship that never faded. The exhibition’s title comes from the artist’s interest in the movement of the sea that recalls transformation. The verb riding resembles the life journey, and the direction of the waves reflects the act of creation. In the artist’s words: «The sea is the origin of life but also transformation, suggested by the movement of the waves, that are elements of new life, a symbol of creation, that create energies. A holistic approach to the idea of time».
Young girls, trees, hybrids, symbolic and mythical figures
In Leiko’s world, figures made into sculptures such as Pinguin People, Double Figure with Bird in Arm, Yellow Figure with Three Arms, and Usagi Greeting peacefully cohabit. The artists wish to overcome differences to enrich and empower ourselves and others around us: «I wish human beings would accept differences and similarities between each other and other species. I wish we could live together without war. I think it’s very relevant for the western and western world to have more understanding of each other through culture, through art».
In the Leiko Ikemura’s opinion, we must look at ourselves as human beings inside a major context: «What we see is only a short part of the whole, just like when we look at a horizon. I can’t just look at it. I want to feel it. Suppose you can concentrate on meditation, for example. In that case, you feel the earth, the planet, the connection with the world, beyond sex and national boundaries».
When dealing with analyzing conflicts, the artist assumes: «We have to think of it from a larger point of view. If we put our eyes outside a closed given context, we can perceive that we are part of the universe. We need to be flexible to change our point of view constantly. What I try to do in my works is to combine these different contexts; this is made possible thanks to fantasy, imagination, and art».
For the artist, it’s also a matter of reconsidering our primary needs: «We are living in an artificial world, and we should be more conscious about our primary needs, that should be a raw contact with more elementary materials, our dreams, our desire to be part nature. I would like to have this primary experience with materials and painting by making my colors».
Painting through the canvas
Primary colors are white, black, yellow, red, grey, and in-between shades. Each one is blended, blurred, transmitting indeterminacy, suggesting that there is something more behind human beings living on the earth: their complexity comes from being part of nature.
«I am very fascinated by black. I was told in school back is not a color, but I think the contrary. Like white, I think it’s an exceptional and philosophical color. The modulation of the black when preparing the color is somehow philosophical. I think it’s about emptiness, nothingness, void, and unsureness», the most fragile yet powerful human traits. The artist explains: «In the black, we don’t recognize anything, yet we think. But black also makes the light possible and makes the colors more lively. This juxtaposition of the blackness of the color is what makes this color so vivid and active».
Other than personally mixing the colors with pigment and oil, for Leiko Ikemura, it’s crucial the preparation of the jute canvas: «The jute I prepare is roughly sewed, it’s almost transparent. It’s not a canvas that I put color on, but the color through it communicates on the other side of the canvas. It’s between me and the world, something in-between two worlds. I am not painting on the canvas but through the canvas. I am communicating my world to the other world. This is on making nature more visible and not visible simultaneously and recalls the problem of the gaze I am interested in».
‘All about girls’
Female figures in Leiko Ikemura’s paintings, such as Girl & Baby and Girl in Yellow, have been a topic for the artist. She believes young girls don’t have a natural position in art history: «There were women, mothers but not young girls as subjects and not as objects. If you think about Velázquez, he painted many girls, but we as spectators don’t feel how they feel. They are painted from the outside. Women were idealized as mothers, as attractive beautiful women, the objection of men. So I think it’s the time to give them another chance to be more themselves».
The artist thinks we must see childhood as a prosperous period, an «in-between time that is very difficult to treat. It’s not innocence alone; also it’s awakening sexuality, questions, and doubts. It’s a very unsure but vibrant period at the same time» it is worth continue questioning and represent.
Sculptures: different materialities
The transparency of the glassworks in the exhibitions was in dialogue with other works made in bronze that one can see and feel as grounded, but also the lucidness of the ceramic and the rawness of the works in clay. Each piece has its specific materiality, a different touching, but, as the artist says, «their common ground is that they all come from the earth», suggesting raw energy, an archaic, ancestral feeling, just like music or poetry.
No wonder musicians have dedicated songs to Leiko Ikemura’s paintings, like in the case of OF PEBBLES AND STONES (FOR LEIKO IKEMURA), a piece composed by Ayumi Paul (NDR. Leiko Ikemura. Paintings, published by Hatje Cantz Verlag GmbH, Berlin 2019). Leiko Ikemura also wrote a poem called Awaken in darkness on the occasion of her exhibition “Toward New Seas” at Kunstmuseum Basel in 2019.
Glass: trial and error, imperfections
On working with glass, the artist explains: «I have always been fond of objects in a glass but also glass itself, and its use in Persian, greek or roman art. I have always been fascinated by the transparency and the special colors of these objects».
The artist is intimately connected to her glassworks, as she had the chance to personally work the glass in all its creation process during the lockdown: «I had the chance to work at the glass objects in the first place, with an assistant, that is also an artist, with whom I collaborated well together in my studio and guided in me into this technique. I followed all the glass creation processes from the beginning to the result.
There was also a lot of trial and error, which was a good sign because it meant that there was perfection. I like to see how the figure is born. It’s a very emotional moment when the work comes out of the oven. Then, of course, you have a certain moment of direction, there is an initial form, but there is always something new at the end of the process. It’s like going on an adventure».
The adventure and fantasy recall the title of another exhibition called Usage in Wonderland, the first one in the Uk at the Sainsbury Centre in 2020 but also the excitement of the unknown like Before Thunder, After Dark, the first solo exhibition in Italy, curated by Frank Boehm in 2021 at BUILDING gallery in Milano, inspired by the homonym artist’s paintings.
Experimentation and creation: the double is us
The artist juxtaposes materials and techniques but always underlines how inventing is a fundamental part of her language. Of all the media, Leiko Ikemura started working with clay.
«The question is how to combine materials with ideas, which one to use, and how fast it dries when exposed to the heat. Every technique has its magical effect and characters that I’m interested in. I like to find out for which motive it is better to have ceramic. Bronze is interesting because of its heaviness, there is this characteristic of a kind of eternity, whilst ceramic is more fragile».
In a way, this reflects human beings, as so is the double theme of her sculptures such as Double, Double Players, Player, or Two Girls Sitting. «It’s like sisters, brothers, but it’s also the base of co-existence. We are alone and yet not alone. We are connected. It’s about beings, me, I, and you. Our culture separates the individuals, and that’s why we have longings. It’s one in double, or two, or a multiplication of one. I am fascinated about the idea of creation as a being and how it could be, it could be a mirroring too». All she wants is to leave it open.
Born in Tsu, Mie Prefecture, Japan, she emigrated to Europe in 1973. A Japanese-Swiss dual citizen, Ikemura has been living and working between Berlin and Cologne since 1990. Painter, sculptor, and photographer Leiko Ikemura work at the intersection of abstraction and figuration, shifting fluidly between media. Her creations depict young female figures, animals, trees. And cosmic landscapes that incorporate themes of hybridity, cross-culturalism, sexuality, and the life cycle.
Ikemura’s works have been presented in the Tokyo Biennale (1988) and the Melbourne Biennial (1999).
Leiko Ikemura’s last solo exhibitions were held at Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich (2021); Ciutat de Les Arts i les Ciències, Valencia (2021); BUILDING Gallery in Milano (2021) and present and upcoming at ShugoArts in Tokyo (2022); Herbert Gerisch-Stiftung in Neumunster, Germany (2022); Puerto Banus, Marbella in conjunction with CAC La Ciutat de Les Arts i les Ciènes Valencia, Spain, (2022).