Artist Kohei Nawa on representing our heavily digitised world.
Kohei Nawa is a Japanese artist considered as one of the most innovative working today. Over the last several years he has exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; the Joan Miró Foundation, Barcelona; and the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; and has his sculptures in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. He continues to challenge traditional perceptions and explore the interpretation of modern reality using unconventional media such as polyurethane foam, silicone oil, prism sheets and glass beads. His art acts as a cultural critique with subjective, subversive messages. Born in 1975, Nawa is now based in Kyoto where he renovated an old sandwich factory and founded Sandwich, a creative platform for multi-disciplinary art, architecture, and design projects.
Soft spoken, undemanding, and yet with an unequivocal quiet confidence, he shares with us his notions of art, reality and beauty.
What art means to me
“I don’t have a particular religion but I dedicate myself to art. I only feel my natural self, undisturbed and faithful, when I’m working with art. It has been and will undeniably be the most important aspect of my life. I don’t dare do it just for money, fame or approval. The extent that I believe in my practice is unconditional; art has become my religion.
“It’s comparable to praying I suppose — only for me it is the need to create every day. Art is not a deity, but it has always had significance in our predecessor’s lives. I envision my work becoming an expression of our time, and eventually part of history. With this mindset, I cannot leave behind inadequate work. So when I acknowledge an artwork as complete, it feels as though I am dedicating my work to someone or somewhere profound and otherworldly. If it’s not completed, one cannot righteously dedicatetheir work. I suspect all artists strive and struggle with attaining this sense of completion.
“Creating art is intrinsically personal. Ironically enough, I do not wish to pursue my feelings through my works. I remove my identity, I put myself inside the object instead. It’s very close to Zen. It’s not about self-expression, I aim to not have a presence. If the viewers can sense the presence of my touch or labour, then I’ve failed. I want to only have the object itself in front of you. When a bubble is formed, it becomes an artwork. The bubble is the focus, and I am just the medium for it to get there. Self-expressive art is modern art. Contemporary art is about overcoming self-expression. Reflecting the existing society, furthermore stimulating change in the contemporary world is what we need from artists today. It’s not about representing your own drama and seeking attention. No one cares anymore. Anyone can do this through SNS. There’s no point in artists doing that.”
Expressing the pixel and the new digitised world
“It all started with the introduction of the internet. Having access to the world through the computer screen struck me. With the internet revolution and advancements in technology, changes in film and cinematography soon followed; everything became digitised. I began using an iMac when I was studying abroad in 1998 at the Royal College of Art. I wanted to make an artwork using this ‘system’: how an object can become computerised information.
“I first began thinking about how to express a pixel, the unit used in digital imagery. I was at my grandmother’s house and randomly stuck some beads on the surface of a tangerine. It became a really weird cluster of an object. I questioned myself as to what it was and, after deep speculation, I concluded that this was in fact the three-dimensional version of a pixel, of a tangerine. Next, I bought a cabbage from the supermarket and did the same.
“By encapsulating an object with different-sized glass beads, this process fragments the surface into a myriad collection of elements, or cells. The visual experience brings a new depth in which details are magnified and can be seen simultaneously. This provokes the viewer to observe the inner object from an entirely new perspective and, hence, creates a new perception.
“I wanted to repeat this process on an animal. So I thought I would use taxidermy. I needed to find a source and used internet auctions. My search led me to a man in Kobe. He had a photo of himself standing with a sheep. It was ambiguous if the animal was dead or alive, and I found this uncertainty very creepy.
“When you see a photograph on the internet, you don’t know if it’s real or fabricated. Distinguishing if it is an image of life or of the deceased becomes impossible. What is captured through the lens becomes digitised, converted, and is stored on a platform of immortality. My ‘PixCell’ series represents the tangible expression of this reality. This interpretation of redefined reality, with a previously unimagined awareness, I believe is a beautiful achievement.”
Beauty is a sensation
“With my art, I don’t seek to intentionally allure viewers. I have no need to paint with bright colours for display, nor produce spectacles of grandiosity for entertainment. That is not aesthetically stimulating for me. My notion of beauty is more sensitive. I want to release and inspire the sense of feeling. This is what I aim to deliver through my work. When an artwork has enough power to touch the viewer’s subconscious, or culminate in a new understanding and appreciation — this heightened discovery of new value I find beautiful.”