Setsuko Ishii


“Art exists at the border between the ordinary and the extraordinary,” Setsuko Ishii said. “Light is something that essentially cannot be bent, nor shaped, nor even held. Yet in holography light can be molded like clay, or woven like thread. Through holography I want to create a certain set of circumstances in an environment of light and space. I hope that the experience of this environment can stimulate new ideas and feelings in the viewer.”

Ishii goes by the sobriquet of “magician of light.” She is described as a “spinner of threads of luminescence through space, creator of a fantasy world.” She says light is her paint. She hates frames. She wants her work to be viewed from all sides, so that reflections and movement may be seen as they are in nature.

Hers are difficult concepts for anyone unfamiliar with the realm of holography. As an art medium, holography is less practiced than most. It is a three-dimensional technological type of photography in which images are formed, without the use of lenses, from light waves. Ishii chose to become a holographer about 25 years ago, and has been a specialist ever since. Nowadays, she said, she is “pursuing the possibility of expression in architectural and outdoor spaces.”

Ishii is noteworthy in her combination of science and art, and a surprise to her family. When she was newly graduated in applied physics from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, as a student painter she enrolled at the Sokei Academy of Fine Arts. She had the confidence, drive and spirit of inquiry then to take herself on a private venture to Beaux Arts in Paris, where she stayed for a year. On her return she undertook research in image science and engineering at her original technology institute. Last year this artist in holography received her Ph.D. from the institute.

Lecturing has taken her backward and forward across lands and oceans, from Japan to the U.S. and Canada, to Thailand and the U.K., to Ukraine and Brazil. Solo and group exhibitions have covered more ground. She has staged solo exhibitions in major world centers, and as guest artist participated in shows in more than 15 different countries. Often her work is on the move four times in one year. She gives evocative titles to her creations: “Images in Time and Space,” “Unfolding Light,” “Spinning Threads of Light.” Each supports her abiding theme: “Light within nature, nature within light. Light is the closest aspect of nature to us, and our existence is linked to the great composition of nature,” she said.

The recognition accorded her work makes Ishii a world figure. Three times she was named artist in residence at the Museum of Holography in New York. Paris made her an artist in residence. In Pulheim in Germany she received the European holography prize. Again as artist in residence she went to New York, this time at the Holo Center. Last year the Shearwater Foundation gave her an award for creative holography. She is the recipient of a Japanese government fellowship for artists and musicians, and of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology fellowship for advanced visual studies.

In Japan Ishii has set up permanent displays: a vast extravaganza in the atrium of a city building, and a depiction of serenity in the lake of a landscaped garden. In Finland she built an installation in a underground art center.

In her self-portrait laser transmission holograms, Ishii shows herself in action with beakers and flowers and water. Currently, she is creating her art with water as well as light. She said: “In everyday life we have many opportunities to appreciate light as it is conducted through water. The sun shining on a river reflects a pattern of waves on the bridge above. Direct rays on a pool reveal beautiful patterns of light at the bottom. Light and water move some organic, emotional sense within us. In a recent exhibition I also added sound. Sound approaches us directly, and can often provoke an emotional response. It arises tied to a certain set of circumstances or natural phenomena. Light, water and sound represent the essence from which nature is constructed. In my work I try to combine these elements to create a new nature. I am happy if I can direct the viewer to a new perspective.”