Who says an art work must exist?

Aiko Miyanaga produces delicate pieces that disintegrate during their exhibitions

by D.H. Rosen

Like precious gems, Aiko Miyanaga’s crystalline sculptures reflect light and shine with a brilliance that beguiles the viewer. But while diamonds are forever, Miyanaga’s carefully crafted forms are not long for this world. In fact, some of her pieces are gone before her exhibitions even come to a close.

Cast in naphthalene (the stuff moth balls are made of), Miyanaga’s ephemeral pieces begin to disintegrate the moment she puts them on display. Naphthalene is not designed to be a stable material; it’s designed to slowly sublime (turn from solid to gas) at room temperature and create vapors that keep textile-eating moths at bay.

Most people would never even think to use such a volatile substance as a building material for original works of art, but Miyanaga is clearly not “most people.”

Born in Kyoto, Miyanaga’s childhood was far from typical. She is a third-generation heir to the famed Miyanaga Tozan kiln, and visitors to her family-run pottery included the likes of ceramic giants Tomimoto Kenkichi and Kitaoji Rosanjin. Her father is a revered ceramic artist himself, and was a member of the influential avant-garde collective Sodeisha that turned the world of ceramics on its head in post-war Japan.

From the time she was a young girl, Aiko seemed destined to become a creator. “I was born into an environment where ‘anything goes,’ ” says Miyanaga in an interview with the Japan Times. “I was exposed to all kinds of art as a child. If I went to see a ceramics show, they weren’t the kind where you saw tableware sitting on pedestals. At my house, when we went to see a ceramics exhibition, there would be masses of clay with nails sticking out of them. Or at a painting exhibition, there would be someone painting with their feet. You know, the kind of art where I thought, ‘Anyone could do this.’ But when my father took us to see more traditional art, he would offer the same comment: ‘Anyone could do this.’ In my family, it was good to do something no one else was doing.”

Her father must be proud, because Miyanaga’s work is certainly original. The idea of spending endless hours meticulously creating work that disappears in a few weeks is most artists’ idea of a nightmare. In this way Miyanaga’s pieces are paradoxes, at once wonderful in their ethereal quality and ability to change, and also tragic as viewers must accept that the pieces will be different day to day, and that soon they will cease to exist at all.

While her work is clearly built with painstaking attention to detail, Miyanaga relinquishes control of the work the moment she finishes creating it. Once exposed to air or liquid, the mold-cast figurines offer themselves up to the whims of their environment, dissipating into thin air; or in the case of the Shiseido exhibit, depositing translucent crystals on the walls of the water-filled acrylic tubes in which they are encased.

Thus Miyanaga’s works are true collaborations with time itself; the artist can anticipate outcomes, but she can never calculate precise results, a quandary that keeps the viewer’s interest far longer than most static art forms and subverts traditional preconceptions about fine art.

“People think that art is something that doesn’t change form, that art is the thing right in front of you,” says Miyanaga. “I wonder about that. If you look at a work for a long time, doesn’t it change? If you go to see work, and enter that world, it is this encounter that is art; that is the part that is the most alluring, regardless of what happens to the piece itself.”

Themes of temporality and transience draw obvious comparisons to Buddhist philosophy, and Miyanaga’s works are often described as “Oriental ” or “Zenlike.” But the artist remains noncommittal when describing the underlying themes of her work, and doesn’t agree with the assessment that her work doesn’t last.

“People tell me my work is very Japanese, but I never thought of it that way,” she explains. “I don’t really worry about how my work is interpreted or categorized. I’m not intentionally trying to send a message.

“And what does it mean ‘not to last’? For people who believe that something without a physical form is no longer there, then yes, that’s true. My work doesn’t last. But if someone sees my work and remembers it, if it makes a deep impression, it stays with them. At that point I wonder, does it matter that the piece itself no longer exists?”

Like the performing arts, this work is an experience that can only be enjoyed in the present, and only exists thereafter in the memory of those lucky enough to share the same space during a brief period of time. On display until Sunday — and then never again — Miyanaga’s current solo show at Shiseido is definitely something to see before it disappears.

“Aiko Miyanaga: mirage of water” is at Shiseido Gallery till Feb. 1 as part of the “Shiseido Art Egg,” an annual exhibition that spotlights three up-and-coming artists from across Japan. (With the show now in its third year, the 2008 open call for proposals got a response from 321 artists in a diverse range of media.) After Miyanaga’s exhibition, Kanako Sasaki will display a photo and video installation from Feb. 6 to March 1, followed by Kouseki Ono’s mind-boggling screen prints on exhibit from March 6-29. For more information, call (03) 3572-3901 or visit