KUMI MACHIDA

Child’s play

by Martin Webb

The annual “No Border” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, received unprecedented media coverage this year. Titled “From Nihonga to Nihonga,” it ran from January to March, and featured fast-rising stars, including Hisashi Tenmyouya, Fuyuko Matsui and Kumi Machida, all of whom were spuriously labeled as continuing the traditions of the nihonga — literally “Japanese painting” — style.

Tenmyouya has already found art world fame stateside, while the stunning Matsui is regularly featured on the pages of glossy magazines. Machida, however, remains more of an enigma, all the more fascinating because critics hailed her as the controversial show’s most promising talent: an assertion supported by the fact that three of her works — “Hiking,” “First Contact,” and “Relation” — are already in the public collection of New York’s MoMA.

The reclusive Machida agreed to speak to The Japan Times at the subterranean Nishimura Gallery in Tokyo’s genteel Ginza district, where her work will be on show until July 1. Clad all in black with a hat pulled down over her eyes, the 36-year-old artist exuded a fragility at once unnerving and endearing.

Having graduated from Tama University of Art with a degree in nihonga, it is understandable that Machida is labeled as part of that school, which is defined by its proponents’ adherence both to accepted subjects — animals, landscapes and historical or mythical figures — and to the use of powdered pigments.

But Machida rejects that classification: “True nihonga artists carefully follow a very strictly defined path — unless you rigorously stick to it your work can’t really be considered nihonga.”

She implies that more than one participant in “No Border” was uncomfortable with the label, which was a very liberal interpretation of the discipline by any standard.

Currently at the Nishimura Gallery are a selection of new works rendered in her signature, painstakingly painted fragile lines of ink or pigment on fine paper. Most depict disquieting scenes that feature robotlike children. In “Yubinhaitatsufu (Postman)” a podgy child with a postman’s satchel rides on the back of a unicycling cockerel, while “Gokko (Play)” shows helmeted toddlers skipping from a bird’s eye view.

Sitting with her back to “Hitori (Alone),” an image of a little girl whose hand is bandaged together with that of a sinister-looking man, Machida confesses that her own troubled childhood informs her aesthetic, and she hopes the messages are encoded in her work will help people who have been victims of alcoholic or abusive parents.

“I was pretty much ignored — you could call it neglected — as a child,” says the Gunma Prefecture-raised artist, her eyelids fluttering. “It wasn’t until I got to college in Tokyo that I learned what freedom was — to make decisions for myself.”

After university, the troubled young graduate survived by doing odd jobs and painting for friends, while living a hermitlike existence in a tiny East Tokyo apartment. It wasn’t until she was selected for three competitions in 1999 that she began to receive any recognition and sell the first few pieces of her work. But those years of doggedly painting out her heart in the face of indifference are recounted with a wistful smile.

Asked if, like fellow hot property Akira Yamaguchi, she is reluctant to part with her creations, Machida replies in the negative. “After I’ve finished a painting, I never want to see it again. . . . My relationship with it is over.” she says with a little smile.

With the creation of her disturbing imagery acting as a cathartic process, this sensitive soul is living proof of the power of art as therapy. What effect her work will have on the world remains to be seen, but provocative as it is, there will certainly be a reaction.