Fanning the flames of art

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

Shingo Tanaka (b. 1983) has installed his panels so seamlessly into Kyoto’s eN arts gallery that the works first appear to be done on the walls. Though having trained as an oil painter, the soft scumblings and wisps of smoke and licks of fire in a restricted palette of black and ochres on white background, are not in fact painted at all. Fire itself is Tanaka’s primary medium.

A square sheet of paper is hammered into place on the wall with two nails. It doesn’t rest flat but hovers slightly away from the vertical surface. The paper is then lit from the bottom, and as it burns, it begins to curl upward. Flames and smoke snake up high and singe the white panel — this is Tanaka’s take on capturing the ephemera of fire.

The results for individual works are never identical, though they carry something of a family resemblance in the shadowy traces of the burned square of paper in “Rise (test piece #02)” (2012) and in the flaring singe marks that soar up at right and left at the top of the paper, which can also be seen in various other works.

Other pieces in “Captured by Ephemera” offer processual variations. Sometimes Tanaka uses several layers of paper so that the traces of his artistic pyromania become further intense, while in “Rise” (2012), flames have not even touched the surface of the panel. Instead, the artist suspended the panel above him in his atelier and burned twisted up pieces of paper beneath it. The rising smoke made attractive impressions on the white surface in an experiment of controlled chance, and the transience that pervades the work resonates well with traditional Japanese aesthetic concepts of impermanence — even if the destructive potential of the medium is also suggestive of something far more uncontrollable.

Another work, also titled “Rise” (2012), spans two walls of the gallery and combines various of the above artistic processes. This time Tanaka has also added his own oil-paint brushstrokes. Paper was placed atop the panel and burned, and then the panel was raised skyward and paper burned beneath it, so that the smoky wisps could be recorded.

In other works that Tanaka has actually painted rather than “captured” ephemera, the process intrigues as much as the artworks themselves. Here he collected logs and twigs from the forest and then burned them until they became charcoal. Mixing the ashes with tempera, he recalled the images of the flames as the logs burned and worked his paintings up with a palette knife accordingly. Tanaka’s body of work is a subtly destructive one that finds an aesthetic ecstasy in the fleeting phenomena of brilliant light, then ash.

“Shingo Tanaka’s Solo Exhibition: Captivated by Ephemera” at eN arts, Kyoto, runs till Sep 30; open Fri-Sun 12 p.m.-6 p.m. Free admission. Closed Mon-Thu. www.en-arts.com.