Art

The Louvre has a new seat of power

by Jae Lee

Contributing Writer

This year, Paris has had a little bit of a Japanese makeover. To celebrate the 160th anniversary of diplomatic ties between France and Japan, the capital is hosting Japonismes 2018: Les Ames en Resonance, a large-scale initiative running through February 2019 involving numerous exhibitions and events promoting Japanese art and design, spread across many of the city’s top institutions.

Among the high-profile works involved, which include screenings of films, stage performances, art installations and showcases of historical works, visual artist Kohei Nawa’s monumental sculpture “Throne” has one of the most prestigious spots in Paris: the Louvre.

“I see the location as a connecting portal of modern lifestyles and the past, says Nawa, the Kyoto-based artist whose 10.4-meter-tall work is installed under I.M. Pei’s 1989 glass pyramid in the Louvre’s main courtyard. “From the street level, you enter the pyramid and (to get to the museum) you descend to where history lives.”

The throne, a complex work of intertwining bubble-like shapes and long protruding curved spikes, itself reflects a similar meeting of present and past. Though designed using state-of-the-art 3D modeling software and carved by robotic arms, its gleaming gold leaf exterior was hand-applied by Japanese traditional craftspeople — a process that took months.

“The maximum capacity the pyramid can hold is 3 tons, so I told the museum I would ship a sculpture weighing exactly 3 tons,” says Nawa about the work’s creation. “I think they were bit worried, but after it went up, the Louvre’s curator, Martin Kiefer, told me the sculpture looks like it’s been at the pyramid all along.”

It’s not Nawa’s first “Throne.” But as one of several that have been showcased in Japan and overseas, it is unusual. In previous iterations, seated within Nawa’s unique abstract shapes, geometric forms and religious references, there is usually a figure of a small child. For the Louvre, the seat is strikingly empty.

“Thrones are for kings. Here, the seat is for the authority that will eventually take over the control in the future. I left the seat empty to emphasize the invisibility,” says Nawa.

It sounds ominous, but Nawa goes on to explain that he foresees the type of power we see controlling today’s politics, economy and lifestyles as disappearing in the future, and in its place will be a very different form of authority. It could be artificial intelligence and advanced computer technology that will “take the throne,” he suggests, while we blindly follow, something that history has shown us that humans have had the tendency to do.

Such commentary on leadership makes the Louvre an even more apt setting for Nawa’s “Throne.”

Originally built as a fortress commissioned by Phillip II of France during the late 12th to 13th century, the Louvre has a compelling history of power struggle that predates most its best-known exhibits. It served as a palace for French kings and then as an artists’ residence for craftspeople under royal patronage, until the French Revolution (1789-99) brought about the imprisonment and execution of King Louis XVI. The “royal collection” of artworks became national property and part of the Louvre debuted as a museum open to the public in 1793. Acquisitions from Napoleon Bonaparte followed — some spoils of conquests, others from treaty agreements and gifts — until the fall of his empire, when thousands of pieces were returned to their original countries.

It was the publication of “Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte” (1802-29) by the artist, writer, diplomat and archaeologist Dominique Vivant and “Descriptions de l’Egypte” (1809), a set of volumes written by participants of the Napoleonic expeditions, that led to an interest in Egyptian civilization and eventually the acquisition of collections of Egyptian art for the Louvre by King Charles X (1757-1836).

Now, the museum has an extensive Egyptian collection that Nawa acknowledges as inspiring. “The museum also has a research lab dedicated to the ancient gold leaf (gilding) technique,” he says, explaining that the technique was brought to Southeast Asia via the Silk Road trading routes.

In Japan, gold leaf is often used decoratively in temples, shrines, on altars and for religious artwork, and Nawa’s throne seems to allude to statues of gods on Asian religious festival floats. The artist, however, has often said that, whether being Asian or Western, religious art — its focus on eliciting awe, admiration, even fear — is no longer relevant in contemporary society.

“I am aiming to create something sacred or a ‘void physical body,'” he says. “Let’s say there is a rock in front of us (and) it communicates a concept or a spirit and it possesses us. Or it could be an empty room instead of a rock. In Japan, we call these yorishiro,” he continues, referring to the Shinto term for objects that are used to attract and temporarily house spirits to allow humans access to them for rituals and ceremonies.

“While there may be stereotypes around Japanese art, stereotypes or trends do not hold the truth. As an artist, I choose not to fight that. I would rather focus on my creations,” says Nawa when asked his opinion on past preoccupations the West has had with “orientalism” and the more recent depictions of cute, kawaii Japan.

Nawa’s philosophy reminds us that we now live in an age of globalization and therefore multiculturalism, and that his underlying themes of technology, human experience and primeval life forms are universal — not necessarily Japanese or Asian.

“We are already living in a diverse society. I am not sure how much of an impression I will make on French culture, but if my work sparks a change somewhere, that could be seen as contemporary Japonisme. But for me, (Japonisme) is a tool of communication.”

Back to the Louvre’s “Throne” and its seat of invisible power, though; as an observer, I can’t help but wonder if Nawa thinks we should be worried and try to pull the plug on this digital age.

“No, there is no fear,” he assures us. “I am simply drawing a picture of our near future.”

Kohei Nawa’s “Throne” is on view at the Louvre museum till Jan. 14, 2019. He is also showcasing a “Foam” installation and a collaborative work with fashion designers Anrealage at Hotel Salomon de Rothschild as part of Japonismes 2018. For more information on these and other events at Japonismes 2018, visit japonismes.org/en. Nawa’s next Tokyo exhibition, “Biomatrix,” will be at SCAI The Bathhouse, starting Oct. 10. For more information, keep an eye on the gallery’s website at www.scaithebathhouse.com/en.