Leiko Ikemura on Rabbits, Cosmic Beings and Metamorphosis

Installation view of "Leiko Ikemura: Usagi in Wonderland" at the Sainsbury Centre, Norwich, 2021. Photo by Andi Sapey. Image courtesy of the Sainsbury Centre.
Installation view of “Leiko Ikemura: Usagi in Wonderland” at the Sainsbury Centre, Norwich, 2021. Photo by Andi Sapey. Image courtesy of the Sainsbury Centre.
Usagi Kannon, 2012/19, patinated bronze. © Leiko Ikemura and VG Bild-Kunst 2021. Photo Andreas Lange. Image courtesy of the Sainsbury Centre.
Berlin Horizon I, 2012, tempera and oil on jute. © Leiko Ikemura and VG Bild-Kunst 2021. Photo by Jörg von Bruchhausen. Image courtesy of the Sainsbury Centre.
Landing, 1998-99, oil on jute. Private collection. Photo by Lothar Schnepf. Image courtesy of the Sainsbury Centre.
Installation view of “Leiko Ikemura: Usagi in Wonderland” at the Sainsbury Centre, Norwich, 2021. Photo by Andi Sapey. Image courtesy of the Sainsbury Centre.
Installation view of “Leiko Ikemura: Usagi in Wonderland” at the Sainsbury Centre, Norwich, 2021. Photo by Andi Sapey. Image courtesy of the Sainsbury Centre.
Leiko Ikemura. Photo by María Rúnarsdóttir. Image courtesy of the Sainsbury Centre.
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Art Gate

On the occasion of her first UK exhibition, we spoke to Japanese artist Leiko Ikemura about the beliefs that lay the foundation for her art, the books that inspire, and forthcoming projects to look forward to.

TEXT: Nicholas Stephens
IMAGES: Courtesy the artist

 

In her first UK exhibition, Berlin-based Japanese artist Leiko Ikemura presents 50 works spanning three decades bringing visitors her primeval, fantastical barrage of bronze and ceramic sculptures, photographs, drawings and landscape paintings—which are sometimes described as “psychic maps”. The show opens with a “Girls” section which summons into life young women at points of vulnerability, transience and hesitancy, possibly at the fleeting crossroads of adolescence and adulthood. Her largest sculpture is the Usagi Kannon, produced in response to the Tōhoku earthquake and Fukushima nuclear accident of 2011, which affords visitors refuge under its voluminous metal skirts. This is an artist who seeks out the interconnectivity of all matter, of all life forces, pointing to a world where beings and forms of all kinds are worthy of love and respect. In a conversation with Cobo Social, Ikemura opens up about her influences and inspirations, the advantage words have over images, and new directions for her art.

 

Installation view of “Leiko Ikemura: Usagi in Wonderland” at the Sainsbury Centre, Norwich, 2021. Photo by Andi Sapey. Image courtesy of the Sainsbury Centre.

 

Looking at Usagi Kannon, what is it about the rabbit that is a source of comfort and inspiration for you?
Originally “usagi” means rabbit or hare in Japanese, but the word’s meaning goes beyond that. I emphasise that this word should include all universal beings. It’s about life itself essentially—all circles of life on earth and in the universe. Usagi should become a new terminology for our awareness of all kinds of cosmic beings and our love for them.

 

Usagi Kannon, 2012/19, patinated bronze. © Leiko Ikemura and VG Bild-Kunst 2021. Photo Andreas Lange. Image courtesy of the Sainsbury Centre.

 

How did you choose the exhibition title “Usagi in Wonderland”? Is it connected to Alice in Wonderland?
Yes, this exhibition is an invitation to the other world of mystery and innocence in an unknown world of the imaginary. But it’s also sincere with regards to the problems of our time, such as the environment, gender, etc..

You are a successful poet as well as a visual artist. What can you express in words that you can’t express in paintings, photographs or sculpture?
The immediate quality of a voice, breathing, dreaming…

Words, which lose their usual purpose of directing objects or concepts, then reach a new dimension of power and beauty.

Are there any authors or novels which have impacted your work or life?
Shakespeare, Kawabata, Mishima, Peter Handke, The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil, Proust, Sei Shōnagon, Murasaki Shikibu, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, Medea by Christa Wolf, Friedrich Nietzsche, Robert Walser, Fernando Pessoa, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ingrid Bachmann, Dostoevsky, and more.

 

Berlin Horizon I, 2012, tempera and oil on jute. © Leiko Ikemura and VG Bild-Kunst 2021. Photo by Jörg von Bruchhausen. Image courtesy of the Sainsbury Centre.
Landing, 1998-99, oil on jute. Private collection. Photo by Lothar Schnepf. Image courtesy of the Sainsbury Centre.

 

Ai Weiwei left Berlin with some noise, voicing criticism of the city. What have you found in Berlin that keeps you there? When you look at your painting Berlin Horizon, does it feel like home?
It does not really feel like home. Everything is in transition. There are conflicts and struggles which are not comfortable, but problems serve to keep me awake and alert. It’s easy to criticise the superficial character and social divisions of the city. However, I also want to understand history and I wish to contribute to the contemporary cultural scene here through my position as an artist.

Could you tell us about your 1998/99 work Landing? When I first saw it, I thought of a girl diving for pearls. Or perhaps she is coming from another world into our world?
Your comment is beautiful. Yes, either way and more. I like motifs which may be interpreted in multiple ways.

At the time, it was important to create a visual record of the uncertainty of our being, and of our essential loneliness. The girls are significant; they dignify the moment of their utmost vulnerability. I wanted to depict the poetic state of being lost while searching for something precious.

 

Installation view of “Leiko Ikemura: Usagi in Wonderland” at the Sainsbury Centre, Norwich, 2021. Photo by Andi Sapey. Image courtesy of the Sainsbury Centre.
Installation view of “Leiko Ikemura: Usagi in Wonderland” at the Sainsbury Centre, Norwich, 2021. Photo by Andi Sapey. Image courtesy of the Sainsbury Centre.

 

Your art has highlighted the strength, potential and vulnerability of girls on their journey to adulthood. Is this psychological investigation of adolescent life even more relevant in today’s world?
In a certain way, yes. It is fortunate that this stage of life has gained more attention. It is my wish that adolescent life will be explored in more depth, no longer only considering the adult point of view.

Your artworks sometimes seem to show people or animals in states of change or metamorphosis, combining with other species or forms. Are humans constantly changing, or are we standing still?
I believe we are changing constantly, even if we can’t perceive it. The metamorphosis comes from our inner life, which is so connected to the rhythm of the earth and universe. All beings should be respected and loved. It’s time to reverse the evolutionary belief system of humans having domain over animals.

Tears and Darkness become light is a line from your poem, Awaken in Darkness. Would you describe yourself as an optimist
Not in the usual sense of the word. I believe in the possibility of transcendence through the power of belief.

 

Leiko Ikemura. Photo by María Rúnarsdóttir. Image courtesy of the Sainsbury Centre.

 

You projected patterns of light above the altar of a church in Berlin during lockdown. Will you create more digital artworks in the future?
Yes, I am in process of making a new one already. The combination of analogue and digital is interesting. It’s not antagonism; it reflects a new language of possibilities enabled by crisis. There is a need for manifoldness, which goes hand in hand with our fragile time.

What plans do you have for the coming 12 months?
A lot. Painting is always my starting point, but I’m also creating large sculptures, which are almost architectural. They will be shown in Valencia in the outdoor space of a museum, which is exciting! I’m going to make films out of analogue paintings. I’m also working with music for the first time for a concert hall. And making books is my other passion as well!

 

 

Leiko Ikemura: Usagi in Wonderland
18 July – 12 December 2021
The Sainsbury Centre, University of East Anglia, Norwich

 

 

 

 

 
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