View the sun through a shitajiki, those transparent, decorative pencil-boards ubiquitous to elementary school children in Japan, and you can gaze, squint-free, into its rays. The world transforms when you look directly at the sun because perceptions shift. Shoichi Sakurai, 49, artist, discovered this world view at an early age and has been manipulating perspectives ever since.
Sakurai creates and lives near Hayama, Kanagawa Prefecture, but he typically travels overseas twice a year, showcasing the unusual creations he describes as “redefined, recovered, reclaimed art.”
“Especially in Japan, there are so many things left over, things people do not care about anymore, the discarded and abandoned materials, and of course, since I was a kid I did not like the rules, so when I see something that was supposed to be one way, I make it another way,” Sakurai said.
Although the term is frequently shorthanded as “recycle art,” Sakurai acknowledges a looser definition: “Japan has a long tradition of discovering the beauty in something recycled or redefined: wabi-sabi. There is more character in something flawed than mere perfection.”
Sakurai’s art is an extension of this idea.
Typical of Sakurai’s creations: a gorgeous chandelier formed from oil heater coils; an old iron rice cooker, a Chinese oil strainer and washi (hand-made paper); a piece of “wearable art” in the form of an old cotton judogi (judo uniform), hand-stitched and illustrated with sumi-e (ink paintings); an upturned mochi (glutinous rice) hammer; elegantly draped with washi transmuted into a free-standing illuminated sculpture; an old basement door; a Japanese helmet from the war; and barbed wire shaped into an artwork to signify peace.
Sakurai turned his focus toward redefined art more than 10 years ago.
“I’ve explored many genres, from pottery to clothing, and as an artist, I was always looking for materials,” he said. “In the beginning, I would just go buy wood, but it was not very fun, so I naturally started returning to antique markets, looking at old things for inspiration. It was natural for me to take these things and refashion them into something else.”
Sakurai is busy preparing for an exhibition in Germany in 2012 that will showcase his original line of jewelry: redefined aluminum from kitchen appliances transformed into wearable sculptures.
Sakurai, who was a second-grader when he discovered an alternative use for his shitajiki, made a drawing of the sun at school, but his teachers called it the moon. Sakurai’s early insistence on a different perspective gave him a reputation as a rebel.
He soon began to truly rebel. “I didn’t like Japanese traditions and customs — I called all that ‘square.’ “
Although born in 1962, Sakurai aligned himself with a previous generation across the seas, the America of the 1950s. “From the time I was 15 years old and met rock ‘n’ roll, I started going to Harajuku to secondhand clothing shops, trying to dress like Elvis Presley, wearing vintage American clothes with my hair in this high pompadour with a ducktail, always collecting vintage memorabilia,” he said.
Sakurai also formed one of the original street dancing groups in Harajuku, played in a rockabilly band and generally “looked like a bad boy in society.”
Life itself pushed him out of the typical path of an adolescent. His father’s work, as a shoji maker and tategu-shokunin (partition and window artisan), slumped in the 1970s when the housing industry began rejecting traditional Japanese materials. Sakurai returned home from a sixth-grade field trip to find his financially comfortable life traded in for one of hardship: The big house in Tokyo with the pond and the garden was repossessed, and Sakurai’s family suddenly started living in an apartment comprising two six-tatami rooms.
Accustomed to doing things differently, Sakurai put himself through private high school (“I looked older than I was, and I took advantage of my appearance to find different odd jobs at night”), but decided to bypass university to enter the hospitality business.
“I wanted to open up my own 1950s club, like an old-fashioned drive-in restaurant, where all the waitresses wore roller skates,” he said.
Sakurai spent almost 10 years learning the hospitality trade, first at the Hotel New Otani in Tokyo, and then as manager of several small but popular clubs, finding financial success and new insights into the business.
Unfortunately, some of the insights unfavorably shaded his perception of the hospitality trade.
“It was the late ’80s, and I was surrounded by a newly rich clientele, people who would slap down ¥100,000 in one night.” The corruption became too much for Sakurai, and nearing 30 years old, he decided to make a break.
“My dream had always been to go to America. Now I had the money, I had the time, so I thought, let’s go!”
Sakurai returned to his early love of vintage memorabilia and began a small export-import business, finding and selling Japanese antiques in the U.S. and searching out vintage American antiques to sell back in Japan.
Two and a half years later, he returned to Japan to care for his ailing mother. “My mother was only given a few months to live, diagnosed with sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. My younger sister was already married, and I felt it was my responsibility to help my father.”
The few months stretched into a year and two months until she died, but Sakurai appreciated the time he had to re-establish ties with his family. With no choice but to re-enter the hospitality trade to help cover the medical costs, Sakurai started managing an African club in Tokyo, where he went on to meet his future wife, Colleen Whaley, a jazz singer and paper artist.
Rediscovering an appreciation for Japanese traditional arts and antiques, with time to re-evaluate his career and direction in life, Sakurai shifted perspective again. Once the 49-day official mourning period for his mother passed, Sakurai boarded a plane and flew to California to get married.
After a prolonged honeymoon touring Southeast Asia and learning about various types of Asian traditional art, the couple returned to Japan, inspired to create works together.
An opportunity suddenly arose when a friend introduced them to Design Festa 1995, an international arts festival held in Tokyo, and a space unexpectedly opened up. Naming their collaborations “illuminated sculptures,” Sakurai and his wife managed to fill their booth and garnered considerable media attention with their designs. Ever since, Sakurai has made his living from his artwork.
One of his early successes came from his father’s own visions: While cleaning up the house after his mother’s death, Sakurai and his father rediscovered seven notebooks of original shoji designs his father created before Sakurai was born.
“They were so beautiful and modern, but most of them had never been made before, because they were too modern for Japanese tastes at that time,” he said. So Sakurai crafted miniature shoji panels based on his father’s designs to create “traditionally modern” night lights.
Sakurai finds challenge and satisfaction in his life as an artist, as well success, with customers all over the world and a prestigious artist residency on Inish Turk Beg in Ireland.
Sakurai also enjoys finding the discarded in other countries: “Wherever I go, I am inspired by the different culture, by seeing things I have never seen before — all of a sudden, a new idea is born. To me, every material has the potential to be redefined as art. I look at the abandoned piece, and the full idea springs into my imagination, what I want to make.”
Although Sakurai has not met any other serious artist working extensively with reclaimed materials, to him it is as natural as the sun rising each day: “Combine the past with new ideas and you can enjoy art as furniture or clothes or jewelry. You can actually use art in everyday life, not just something to look at. Don’t waste. Re-create. Redefine. Life (and value) doesn’t have to be measured in ‘what was.’ “
For more information on Sakurai and his art, see: www.artslant.com/ew/artists/show/130846-shoichi-sakurai and www.shoichi-sakurai.com/