New York-based artist Mizuki Nishiyama opens the doors to her Hong Kong studio and opens up about her cultural influences in Hong Kong and New York, her toxic relationship with artistic creation, and how she is drawn to the philosophical intricacies of the human condition as she prepares for a long-awaited trip to Japan to reclaim her roots.
TEXT: Ashlyn Chak
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist
When I finally met Mizuki Nishiyama in person at her studio in Hong Kong, she greeted me warmly and spoke in full English—now her primary language—with a few Japanese words sprinkled in for context, but it wasn’t always so for the 23-year-old artist. Juggling six languages at home while growing up in Hong Kong, it used to be nearly impossible for Nishiyama to articulate her emotions and needs in an organised way with just one language—she recounts it as a tortuous pursuit. Nevertheless, this was before Nishiyama found her method of expression in the practice of painting.
“I wanted to be a violinist at one point, but it requires so much regimen that I couldn’t be abstract with, which clashes with my personality like an ill-fitting shoe. I still play the violin, and the music I choose to play now is a lot more baroque—I like the roughness and rawness of it, though I don’t think it does the instrument justice when I disregard the rules,” confesses Nishiyama. With painting, although she has a proper academic background, she chooses to not follow the rules and play with the structure instead. “Painting is a language of its own that gave me a linear platform to explore my feelings in my intellect,” says the artist, describing the “sweet spot” that felt right to her core
However, it is not always smooth sailing. While artistic creation may be therapeutic to some, for Nishiyama, it can transform into a toxic relationship as well. Aside from attempting to process her childhood traumas, the artist works with profoundly confrontational themes: from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno to Michel Foucault and Yukio Mishima’s notions about the human condition. Often complex, bleak, and almost sadistic, there were more than several instances where she had to pull the brakes on those investigations because they were no longer feeding into her actual being. On the other hand, she is fueled by the cathartic intensity that makes her feel more human than ever as she works through these capricious waves.
Perhaps that is the reason for the abundance of red in Nishiyama’s paintings, although she denies that she deliberately chooses the colour. “A lot of the time, I would start with a different colour but always end up feeling safer with red,” she explains. “There’s an aura to it that’s very thick and viscous and rich—it is erotic, sexy, yet also powerful and submissive at the same time. There’s just so much to it that I always end up reaching for it. It’s got an emotional and aggressive personality.”
One example is her 2019 Moroi (“brittle” or “fragile” in Japanese) series, an inquiry into different faces of fragility and trauma, including 晴れ Swollen (2019)—a visually and emotionally violent piece accompanied by knife marks—which she created after the “blood rainstorm” of grief from losing family members consecutively in one year. Having made Moroi in New York, Nishiyama remembers her style as more aggressive and extreme back then.
“My main studio is in East Harlem, New York, a developing neighbourhood with quite some projects going on. I was maybe the only East Asian within the ten-mile radius,” Nishiyama says, “It built a lot of character and strengthened everything that I love.” Coming from a somewhat international background myself, I asked Nishiyama if being abroad and away from the family allowed her to be more adventurous in her creative endeavours and self-discovery, to which she nods: “I felt freer to make mistakes, meaning I could be more fearless—which I think is what an artist needs to be. New York is so much larger than Hong Kong as cities as well as the collective mindsets; I know that’s what I need to get back into.”
Whilst her work in the past resembled the fiery vigour of German Expressionism, being back in Hong Kong has rendered the artist’s aesthetics and style to become much more reserved. Two years ago, when Nishiyama first made the trip back to Hong Kong, she had planned to go back and forth between the two cities—which she did at first, until COVID-19 protocols prohibited that from happening. Nishiyama divulges: “I plummeted quite hard to a very dark place. It was difficult for me to get the same spark here; the people, the mindset, the different priorities in different cities; a lot has to do with what people like to occupy their time with every day, what they like to see or taste. I started feeling trapped and dry; I was losing myself, and I didn’t know what to do.”
Retracting into herself, Nishiyama didn’t go back to the studio for two months. “When you hit rock bottom, you start grasping onto the things that give you life. For me, it’s my family, and thankfully, they’re here in Hong Kong. It kept me going and pushed me to see that light and to take things one at a time,” she reflects pensively, “Eventually, you recognise it’s a privilege to be here and to have a space to be creating.” Fortunately, she got out of the trough a few months ago as she tries to make the most out of her situation, expressing a new-found appreciation for what the dark time has given her: a healthier mindset, with the realisation that she needs to locate a balance between her New York extremity and Hong Kong reservedness. Now, all she wants is to make something new again.
Ultimately, Nishiyama looks forward to her trip to Japan in the coming month. In her previous trips, she has always visited the country with family for no more than two weeks. This time, Nishiyama is eager to see the country with her own eyes and reclaim a cultural and integral part of herself that has been sheltered for years, if not decades. “Hopefully, this time, I will get to experiment and explore Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo. I’m curious about the art scene over there as well.”
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