The sparkling and sweet demeanor of Japanese artist Hikari Shimoda’s child subjects is equally enchanting and disarming, and full of possibilities. Born and currently based in Nagano, Japan, but raised on Japanese animation and comics, Hikari herself is not unlike her characters, living on the edge between a place deeply rooted in its beliefs and traditions and an exciting, however uncertain, future. First featured in Hi-Fructose Vol. 29, and also on our blog, her works in recent years have been deeply impacted by the Great East Japan Earthquake, created from the perspective of a young artist living in the countryside, where social media and the books she reads are her main portal to the outside world. Though her portraits feature anonymous starry-eyed children, they are also reflections of Hikari herself, who has amassed her experiences of traveling abroad and learning the English language into her new paintings. On January 16th at Corey Helford Gallery in Los Angeles, she will debut what are some of her most introspective works to date, seventeen paintings including two new series, “Children on the Edge” and “Children of Emptiness”, in her second major solo exhibition, “Recycling Humanity”. We sat down with her to discuss the meaning and influence behind her show in our exclusive interview below.
Disclaimer: This interview is translated from a conversation in Japanese between Hikari and her manager, Caro, who is also Hi-Fructose’s online editor.
HF: You are an artist who works primarily in series, and your upcoming exhibition, “Recycling Humanity” will introduce two new bodies of work, “Children on the Edge” and “Children of Emptiness”- when you first began planning the exhibit, did you think of it in terms of a single work, or several different works?
HS: I first realized “Children on the Edge” around the time of spring last year, and “Children of Emptiness” came about around November. Both delve into deeper themes than my previous works, and so I felt there was room for another series, and both are meant to be viewed this way.
HF: When did you begin work on your exhibit, and what is the most time you spent on a particular piece?
HS: Most of the works in my exhibition were started last summer. My “Whereabouts of God” series, being some of the larger and detailed pieces, took me the most time to complete. This time, there are four series altogether, my attempt to create new expressions from my previous series, and even changing the way that I draw my subjects- previously, the colors were more clear, softer, and complex, and I considered giving a different impression. I actually had a hard time finishing these pieces without a completely final image in my head to start with.
HF: Did you have an idea of what you wanted to create right from the beginning?
HS: I began drawing with a fairly good idea of what I wanted to paint from the beginning. I had pictured images expressing distress somewhere in the middle of everything, however, the idea of how I wanted to paint the eyes and skin was not decided. These are details that came about as I went along. I consider myself the type of artist who does not create art purely based on an initial concept, and most of my work exists vividly in my head, which changes into something new by the time it is finished.
HF: You currently live and work in the Nagano area of Japan, a place you describe as vast countryside, “like a place in a Ghibli movie”. Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?
HS: I have always lived in the Nagano prefecture, so it feels very natural for me to live and work there, and there’s no other place like this city anywhere else. Actually, for me, too much visual stimulation is a bit too excessive and can distract me from creating the pieces I want to make, and they may not turn out the same if I worked in another place. It’s a place where I can truly focus. As for the loneliness, the theme of loneliness is an important part of my art, so if I moved outside of the city, this might change my art for the worse (laughs). It’s something I’ve been accustomed to since my childhood, so I don’t think about it in a bad way.
HF: Several works in the exhibition incorporate English words and looser, more abstract details, some might say to the effect of spray paint or graffiti. Does this have anything to do with your recent travels abroad, and interest in other cultures?
HS: I put those words into my work because they feel more modern to me; for example, stamps or emoticons that young people send to eachother on social media apps like LINE and Facebook are using English words, and they’ve become very easy to use. At the same time, because the concept of speaking with emoticons is so simplified, sometimes the original intent of the speaker can get lost. My pieces are using words like “Love”, “Hate”, or “I wanna die”.
In today’s society, the meaning of words is taken so lightly to the point where I think we aren’t expressing our true feelings. English speaking people who are looking at my work may not understand the meaning of the Japanese words, and that creates some ambiguity, which I like, and vice versa for Japanese speakers. I’d like for Japanese speakers looking at my work to have this same experience that I did, when I first saw English words and couldn’t understand them. Rather than point directly to the meaning of the words, I want to share the sensation I felt. As for graffiti, it’s true that I find some inspiration in it, but I’m not using it as a detail that much.
HF: In your 2014 exhibition, “Fantastic Planet, Goodbye Man”, you depicted children who were ambiguous, as you say, “empty cups into which I can pour my emotions” but you mention that there is something more personal about these new portraits. Is there a piece that you most identify with?
HS: This is the first time that I have painted this theme, “Children on the Edge”, my most personal work. Over time, I’ve begun to see my child subjects in various ways, such as this idea of existing in a “Hazama”, or a void. I also think this is a concept that is true for humanity, not just for myself, this idea of always being present in between something in life. Although my thoughts on the subject are still a little vague, I am now thinking about the future works for this series inspired by children who stand at a boundary in life.
HF: Your characters have opened up emotionally, but at the same time, they are at odds with themselves both visually and spiritually. For instance, several pieces mix in words like “Happy” and the phrase “I wanna die”, and there is also the combination of one light and one dark-colored eye in the children’s faces. I feel that your work is suggesting the possible co-existence of good and bad, and fundamental themes of what it means to live. Do you think you would be taking this approach if you had not experienced the earthquake?
HS: This is very interesting because even though the (Great East Japan) earthquake did impact the theme of my work, it probably could have developed this way over time. I was not putting to mind key ideas like heroes, magical girls, before the earthquake, then I felt this intuition to draw the “essence of the world” after the disaster. This was a catastrophe that was unprecedented and happening in real time, whereas before, my life had relatively little trouble. Before the disaster, nuclear power plants co-existed within our society rather peacefully, but this immediately changed when people were faced with the reality of the deaths that occurred during the (Fukushima Nuclear) accident. The world as I knew it was suddenly more multi-faceted. This violent and sudden shift is something that I want to represent in my work. So, at first, the idea was more vague but what I wanted to portray became clear after the disaster.
HF: One of your paintings, “Angel of History”, borrows its title and theme from the drawings of Swiss-German painter Paul Klee. Has his art always been of a particular inspiration to you, and in what ways? How did you come to know his art?
HS: I have known his sculpture for a long time, and I like the way his drawings and soft colors overlap eachother. However, with regards to the title of this piece, I learned about critic Walter Benjamin and his interpretations of Klee’s work fairly recently, at my Tokyo exhibition in January 2015: “A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” I’m not often taking my inspiration from the work of another artist, but I do take a lot of influence from philosophy in recent years.
HF: There seems to be a heavier use of celestial themes in your exhibition as well, as if the rotation of stars were suggesting a passage of time, as in your portrait of a young girl Buddha, “Recycling Humanity”. Does this relate to your theme of being in a moment between life and death? What does this word “recycling” mean to you in the context of your work?
HS: That’s right. People say that when you wish upon a star, you can find hope. It can also mean “eternity”. In that sense, stars and heaven become a positive image of death. On the contrary, regarding “recycling”, when a bad thing happens in this world, there is a belief that it will carry over into the next world. I believe that humans are reborn to repeat their lives over and over, and this becomes a negative image of death. So, there are two sides, and the fact that both exist is a major theme in my work. Although I am using the word “recycling” for the first time here, it’s actually been a concept of mine since I first began creating art. I am just verbalizing it for the first time.
HF: Where is this place that your characters exist? Or is it some special place, where heaven, life and death cross paths?
HS: In my pieces portraying heroes and the magical girl, they are living in a world after the human race has been destroyed, or a sort of vortex going into ruin. They are entering into the future of what will soon become the real world. In my new portrait series of children, they are living in a more stable world, some are even existing in my own mind. In addition, rather than being alive, I think of them as having more of a spiritual presence- they are not living in our world.
Hikari Shimoda’s “Recycling Humanity” will open at Corey Helford Gallery’s Gallery 2 space in Los Angeles on January 16th, and will be on view through February 13th, 2016.