From time to time we like to look at the connections between traditional ukiyo-e and contemporary art. One contemporary Japanese woodblock artist of particular note is Nana Shiomi whose work in extending the reach of the medium and embedding traditional iconography and motifs in the contemporary mien is outstanding.
Shiomi’s technique using water-based inks, and printing off woodblocks (albeit on a large scale) is traditional. Her use of scale and her employment of not only modern motifs drawn from western art, but also a modern and knowing cultural aesthetic is unique. It’s very difficult to handle a medium that is historically so well explored and to bring a new life to it whilst on the one hand respecting (or at least acknowledging) tradition without sinking into pastiche or indeed sentimental nostalgia.
Nana Shiomi achieves this difficult balance seemingly effortlessly. There’s a resonance of the tradition of ukiyo-e in her work but there is also (to the western observer) a deep familiarity with both the texts and the narrative of contemporary art… or at least the aesthetics of modernism. Perhaps these prints work so well because of rather than despite her reliance on the familiar. There is a conflict at the heart of these pieces… an opposition that she acknowledges and exploits. Duality – left and right, image and its mirror, east and west, tradition and modernity – consistently imbues each piece. In her large series Mitate for example, motifs from traditional ukiyo-e are set within a perspectival proscenium reminiscent of the European surrealists; de Chirico perhaps or Paul Delvaux. There is a darkness not only to the setting but also in mood, maybe even a sense of desolation that is emphasised by the playfulness of the motifs which inhabit the foreground space. Many of these motifs will be familiar to anyone with an interest inwoodblock prints – the tub of water, the leaping carp, the beached fishing smack or Hokusai’s Great Wave crashing across the floorboards of the empty stage. Nevertheless, the dream like cine-frame setting allows us to contemplate each motif and to draw meaning and connections of our own, as is intended.
Elsewhere in her dramatic and large scale pieces the Japanese motif is replaced by iconic images derived wholly from western art history. Most striking here is the beautiful double sheet image of Marcel Duchamp’s chocolate grinder Duchampean and her back or the appropriated Venus de Milo torso and bananas lifted from the surrealist Giorgio de Chirico. The choice of these motifs compels us to think about the work not only from the perspective of a knowing cultural historian but also on a personal level to contemplate the works in a dream like state, something that fits so well and so instinctively into what we in the west know of the ‘floating world’.
This is Japanese art divorced from its specific historical context and re-imagined not as a worthy exercise in craft revival and equally importantly, not as a kind of cultural plunder; this is a new art, fresh and vital that prods at our memory and allows us to explore again images that might have become over-familiar.
Since the writing of this piece there has been the terrible events of the earthquake and tsunami of the 11th of March. Perhaps in all nations there is a sensibility born of experience. Perhaps Hokusai’s Great Wave represents a collective anxiety about the fragility of civilisation in the region of Japan. Looking again at the dark foreboding of Shiomi’s interpretation of the wave – isolated but not contained in the grid like structure of her print – this too expresses the dark power of nature and the helplessness of nations to contain it.
Nana Shiomi’s work is available at her website.