Beyond Light and Shadow, and Into Our Future
by Shinya Watanabe

Shinji Ohmaki is a Japanese artist born in Gifu in 1971. Trained as a sculptor at Tokyo University of the Arts, Ohmaki has been active worldwide as a contemporary artist.

Many of Ohmaki’s works address themes such as light and shadow, life and death, and the natural world. When I curated the charity exhibition “Remembrance of the Future to Come” in Basel, Switzerland, right after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, Ohmaki exhibited a new work: “Echo – Eclipse of Life.”

Ohmaki’s series “Echoes” is a floor work. Using stone pigment, Ohmaki drew colorful flowers on the carpet, and when the audience stepped on it, the colors began to spread, transforming the area into a reborn space. However, for “Echo — Eclipse of Life,” the audience was not allowed direct contact with it; and once a day, the sunlight entering from a window perfectly overlapped with the red flower patterns on the floor.

By crystallizing the memory of the earthquake into the moment of the sunlight overlapping with the artwork as if it were a solar eclipse, Ohmaki successfully retained the memory of the earthquake, and also beautifully positioned the contrast of human life and death as part of the cycle of cosmic nature.

Even before the earthquake, Ohmaki made many works with motifs of life and death, but in this exhibition “Disappearance and Formation,” the artist deals more directly with issues of life and death, and also impermanence. In this regard, his experience witnessing the demolition of the fiber wholesaler’s district in Gifu for re-development, where his family’s business was located, had a large impact on him.

The “Echo” series had been made up of two-dimensional floor works, but in this exhibition, the new series of three-dimensional works “Echo Crystallization” shows a new phase of the artist. On display in the center of the exhibition space is a work consisting of an acrylic box containing a made-in-the-Philippines red dress (“Echoes Crystallization – Red Dress”), surrounded by boxes containing grey men’s dress shirts made ​​of pineapple fabric (“Echoes Crystallization – White Shirt”).

The light passing through the white flowers drawn on the ceiling of the acrylic case shines on the clothes therein. It is almost as if the life force and rising power of the flowers drawn by Ohmaki crystallize and sublimate the memory of the soul, which still persists within the red dress and the shirts but may soon disappear.

In “Echoes Crystallization – Under the Tree,” there is a dress made ​​out of a banana in the acrylic case. If you look closely at the drawings drawn on the ceiling of the acrylic case, you will find a hidden map of the United States, Japan, and Spain; then you will notice that the light passing through illuminates the clothes inside.

The banana dress, evoking fruit that would have been shined upon by the sunlight streaming through the leaves of its tree, retains the memory of the colonial past. However, the soft nature of the drawn flowers and the light coming through wrap around the hard existence of the nations represented, and remind us that all our lives are subsumed under the one big Tree of Life.

Pertaining to the map, in “Echoes Crystallization – Metabolism,” traditional Philippines cloths are stretched like a canvas, and on top of these is drawn the current map of the Philippines. These maps show where Japanese Christians once fled to Christian churches for sanctuary, and also the places where Japanese troops were stationed during World War II.

The theme of metabolism, along with those of transitions — of history, the city, and the changes wrought on the people who live there — reflects Ohmaki’s own experience of witnessing the transformation of the familiar scenery of his hometown. Also there is a glimpse of Ohmaki’s Japanese Buddhist idea of impermanence: in our world, there is nothing that continues to exist all the time, but by repeating the circuit of disappearance and formation, it will be reborn into something new.

The reason why the Japanese love sakura (cherry blossoms) so much is because these blossoms allow them to feel the beauty of impermanence. Impermanence means that all the world’s phenomena are in transition, and repeating the cycle of disappearance and formation. Impermanence is of two kinds: the phenomena that repeat disappearance and creation in a single moment (Momentary Impermanence), and what characterizes the death of humans, the withering of plants, and the evaporation of water (Continuous Impermanence). While Westerners feel beauty from eternity, most Japanese have a deep-rooted tendency to feel beauty from something transitory and impermanent.

For this exhibition, entitled “Disappearance and Formation,” Ohmaki created the three-dimensional glass object “Echoes Crystallization – Vanitas.” Vanitas is a genre of still-life which was often created in northern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, which depicted skulls and other objects that are reminiscent of death, but in doing so it illuminates life, the opposite of death.

While Vanitas works in the West dealt only with material death, Ohmaki’s Vanitas of glass visualizes the non-existence of the shadow, created by placing light on the material.

As opposed to modern Western thinking, which always starts from the constant sense of existence, Eastern thinking, which considers the world to be impermanent and the self, created by centering the human being, to actually be non-self, is here made visual via a shadow in the interior of the white flower’s ephemeral life. The contrast of light and shadow suggests the presence of life and death.

Just as the “Echo” series gently asks us to listen carefully to those faint sounds which have become inaudible in the noise of modern society, by daringly focusing on death, which tends to be concealed and forgotten, Ohmaki’s Vanitas questions the essential meaning of life and death.

And just as within the cityscape there repeats the cycle of disappearance and formation along with the transitions of history, our lives are also impermanent, repeating a process of disappearance and formation. How do we create a new world, which comes after the disappearance? Ohmaki created light and shadow, but in that spectral presence we are in the moment but drawn out of it, into the future that is to come.