In a cramped studio in Ravenna, Italy, Takako Hirai runs her finger along the cracks in a mosaic artwork depicting dappled light in a park. The spaces between the tiles, she explains, determine the flow and movement of a mosaic, even more than the arrangement of the pieces themselves — as if meaning were slipping through the cracks to be teased out by the observer. It makes mosaic the perfect medium for embedding the kakushi-e, or hidden images, that the artist from Kumamoto places in her work — both to hide her inner self and reveal it.
“The gaps determine the way the artist wished to express their work,” she says.
Secrets lurk in mosaics from ancient times, and they have been essential to Hirai’s work in Ravenna, home to magnificent sixth-century Byzantine mosaics and today the epicenter of a surprising Italian efflorescence of mosaic as contemporary art.
Since moving to the city in 2005, Hirai has presented her pieces in numerous group exhibitions and this year held her first solo show at the MAR (Museum of Art of the City of Ravenna). Even as she tastes success, however, Hirai finds herself struggling with deep dilemmas, seeking new direction in art, fretting about life “in the lowest Italian tax-bracket” (she supports herself working part-time in a piadina flatbread bakery) and wondering whether she should continue struggling in Italy or start over in Japan. What sustains her is both friendship in Ravenna and the inner life she takes refuge in to produce works of subtle beauty.
Hirai is a dreamy woman who punctuates her speech with long, reflective pauses that seem the verbal counterpoint to the empty spaces that are the clues to meaning in her work. She spends much time on solitary walks, contemplating trees in parks and dragging home interesting objects such as broken blocks from road construction, chunks of fallen wood and colorful stones from riverbeds. She can come across like a character in a Haruki Murakami novel, pondering dilemmas such as “why was I born a human” and feeling herself adrift in an “inability to plan my life” that results in moments of anxiety as well as creative release.
Currently she is working with an indeterminate green sludge that forms naturally inside marble, carefully cutting the stone with her mosaic tools to extract a substance most artists would consider “muck that gets in the way of cutting uniform tiles.” She arranges these irregular shapes to form an organically growing mosaic — seemingly released from some dark, hidden place.
“This sludge, you don’t know when or where it formed, it’s like a living thing, a thing that entered the stone and took life there,” says Hirai, who studied oil painting at Hiroshima City University. “You don’t know how long it took to take form. I thought that’s amazing. It must have thought how unexpected after all this time to be cracked open and let out, like fate. It was cracked open and discovered by me, to be exposed to the eyes of the world.”
Hirai seems drawn to the strange green sludge perhaps as a metaphor for her own preoccupation in art: the need to shield herself from the world and yet be seen. She struggled in her oil painting to find ways to bring kakushi-e into her work, then found the ideal solution with mosaic. “I have trouble expressing myself clearly,” she explains, tracing the contours of a reclining female figure concealed within a mosaic garden. “So I place myself, hide myself in that green scenery.”
Hirai first encountered mosaic nearly 20 years ago during a study trip to Italy for her university art degree. She chanced upon a mosaic of birds in a church in Rome and fell under its spell.
“It was an ordinary scene, but something communicated very strongly to me,” she says. “I felt I want to do this.”
Upon graduation, she worked for three years as an oil painter in an artist community in the mountains above Hiroshima — never forgetting the thrilling mosaic discovery in the Roman church. She began studying Italian alone, listening to NHK radio programs and studying textbooks. After saving up enough money, she went to Ravenna for three months to learn the craft. She returned the following year, winning a break by being invited to participate in a major reproduction project of a mosaic of Alexander the Great for the Pompeii archaeological site.
Encouraged by the experience, she moved to Ravenna and joined the newly opened mosaic studio of her friend and first mosaic teacher, Arianna Gallo. At Koko Mosaico, she worked on reproductions and works-to-order, instead of her own creations. At the time, she continued to see oil painting as her artistic vocation. But soon she realized she was chipping away at the artistic solution she had been seeking all along. After six years with Koko Mosaico, she went independent as an artist.
The decision has brought her recognition in the Ravenna art scene, but also a precarious life in which she gets by “with just the bare necessities.” That burden is eased somewhat by an analogue mindset that drives her to seek pleasure in natural materials and life without a computer.
In her early years in Ravenna, she made as many Italian friends as she could and went out often, but after a while began “to take distance from people” — seeing a small network of intimates and spending much time alone. “Even in Japan I didn’t have much experience of social life,” she says. “I graduated from university and went straight into the mountains.”
Hirai’s private nature inevitably led to some challenges adjusting to Italian life. “People here ask a lot of questions,” she says. “I think, ‘Why are you asking me all of these things?’ For my part, I don’t ask people personal questions, so they probably think I’m not interested in them, but it’s not the case.”
The cultural differences extend to work in the art studio. “Italians like to chat while producing art, that’s completely different from me. Most Japanese work silently,” she says. “The way Italians can chatter away while working, it’s hard to tell if they have no concentration or great concentration.”
Like other Ravenna artists, Hirai also grapples with the struggle for mosaic to be recognized as art, rather than an artisanal craft or ancient tradition — despite groundbreaking work by contemporary artists such as Riccardo Licata and Felice Nittolo. Today she feels herself “on the cusp of change” as she returns to oil painting and experiments with other forms. “From this year, I’ve started working on installations and even wood carving, challenging new things,” she says.
The changes Hirai grapples with go beyond the choice of artistic medium, she has been rethinking the entire direction of her life — a crisis that has left her exhausted and sometimes dejected.
“I have spent the past year worrying, thinking about my future,” she says. “I need to break open some new path.”
She finds herself torn between taking new directions in Ravenna, seeking inspiration in another European country and returning to Japan. This winter, Hirai goes home to Kumamoto for a couple of months to think about her life, take a yearned-for rest and perhaps stage an exhibition.
“There are times I feel like giving everything up. But when I hit rock bottom, there’s always something to bring me back,” Hirai says.
“Art keeps me going. The other things like money, don’t have any, love life,” she continues with a laugh. “What remains for me is art. And being appreciated for my art.”
Name: Takako Hirai
Profession: Mosaic artist
Key moments in career:
2003 — Goes to Ravenna to study language and mosaic art
2005 — Moves to Ravenna to start training in mosaic art
2013 — Wins the Orsoni award for GAEM (Young artists and Mosaic exhibit)
2017 — Holds first solo exhibition at the Museum of Art of the City of Ravenna
Likes: “Walking, observing, daydreaming.”
Dislikes: “Waking up, planning, being on time.”
2013年 公募展GAEM-Young Artists and Mosaic において、Orsoni賞を受賞
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