The lecture theatre is brimful of bright-eyed people listening to a lecture by Kohei Nawa — an artist considered by many to be at the forefront of contemporary art in Japan. The public lecture offers insight into the design and production process of the often complex and intricate work on display in his current solo exhibition titled “Synthesis” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo.
Nawa grew up in the Kansai region and studied art locally and in London. He later spent time in both the New York and Berlin art scenes, which helped him find direction and inspiration for his work. Since his first solo exhibition in Osaka in 2000, he has quickly built both a domestic and international reputation for himself at the relatively young age of 36. Yet, it is in his necessarily large art “factory” named Sandwich in the suburbs of Kyoto that he brainstorms and creates his often grandiose work, which could comfortably sit alongside pieces by Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons.
His distinctive focus on choice of mediums, which range from polyurethane foam and silicon oil to stuffed toys he buys on the Internet and covers in perspective-defying glass beads, helps create art that is both tactile and visually impressive.
How did living in Kansai influence you? Did the area’s traditional arts affect you?
I lived right between Kyoto and Osaka. There are six major art colleges in Kyoto, making it a very good place to produce art to my taste. I went to Kyoto City University of Art to major in sculpture and I traveled around the many temples and shrines of Kyoto and Nara while I was in school there. However, I feel that ancient religious art does not apply to our society today, so I thought about what I could do to replace the effect that religious art had on society at the time. Then, while I was studying outside of Japan, I experienced other historic religious art such as Christian art — it is not just Kyoto and Nara that influence my work now.
Through your experience, how does the art scene in the West and Japan differ?
I feel that the scale is bigger in Western society, while Japan also produces unique artists and is a good place to practice art. Japanese contemporary artists seem to integrate Japanese culture into their work well. I think Tokyo is very active in producing young artists but there is limited support and there are few sponsors compared with Western art scenes. I personally do not concentrate on Japanese culture, instead I am more interested in human nature that applies to all cultures.
How did you design this current “Synthesis” exhibition?
This is my first solo show in Tokyo, and I received the offer a year ago. I had one year to produce the show and it has about 100 art works — 90 percent of which were made within the year I was given. I divided the show into 12 parts, so in each room you experience completely different themes. There are no explanation panels, as I’m hoping each room activates different senses in the audience.
The exhibition is divided into different mediums, how do you choose the mediums you work with?
There are two patterns. I think of a concept first and start searching for the right medium, or during that searching process I come across a material that I think can be a piece of art. For this exhibition, I displayed different materials in each room depending on the works’ theme.
Can you tell us how you made your famous “Beads” series?
I start with an Internet search for specific objects such as a stuffed deer. For the last 10 years the search words I have set up send hundreds of pictures of stuffed animals into my email box. I choose from those pictures and make them the basis of my work. That is the general process for my “Beads” and “Prism” series. For “Beads” I glue crystal beads on stuffed animals one by one. The only reason I show a lot of deer in my work is that there are no bigger stuffed animals produced in Japan.
The beads are meant to change and enlarge the existing surface. From a distance the works seem very unreal, but up close each bead highlights the surface underneath. This is how I feel when I’m buying stuffed animals online. First I look at the picture the seller uploads, but it is a completely different feeling when I actually receive the object. There are then a number of ways I apply beads to the animals.
Tell us about your Sandwich studio in Kyoto.
At first I was searching for a bigger studio place when I came across an old sandwich factory and decided to renovate it. During the renovation process, many art students as well as artist friends came to help and by the end it didn’t feel like my own studio anymore. There are a number of creators at Sandwich working together and we even started residency programs for students from all over the world. At this moment, there are art students from Tokyo and Thailand doing internships at Sandwich. There is also a production team in Sandwich that I work with most of the time when making my designs.
What are your plans for the future?
I am most excited about my project called “Manifold,” which is on display in pieces in this exhibit. It will be the largest sculpture I’ve made so far, 13 meters tall with an aluminium core. All being well it will be installed in South Korea next summer.
“Synthesis” is at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, Miyoshi, Koto-ku; 10-min walk from Kiyosumi Shirakawa Station (Hanzomon and Oedo lines); 10 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Mon. ¥1,100. Till Aug. 28. For more information, visit www.mot-art-museum.jp .