14 April to 31 July 2021
Lisa Keiko Kirton, Jonathan Meuli, Isao Miura, Nana Shiomi, Hakan Topal
Japan Water features artists who have been thinking for a long time about the effects of water in Japan. The purity of water is essential for so much of Japanese culture, from food through to paper-making. And yet water is an increasingly endangered resource. Here we have images showing its glass-like reflective qualities, its clear rippling rhythms, and its torrential, potentially dangerous power. There is much to be concerned about, much to celebrate and much we can learn from.
Four of the artists, Isao Miura, Lisa Keiko Kirton and Nana Shiomi are of Japanese origin, and are now living in London. Hakan Topal is Turkish, living in New York, and has conducted two residencies in Japan to look at the effects of the Tsunamis. Jonathan Meuli is an exception in that he is a British painter living in Glasgow. However, Japanese art has profoundly influenced him, causing him to consider the consequences of increasing water-flows around the world.
Japan-UK season of culture
The exhibition coincides with the postponed Japanese-UK season of culture. This was originally timed to culminate in the Olympic and Paralympic Games, now to be held in Tokyo in 2021.
Water under threat
Everywhere in the world, the quality of water is under threat and nowhere more so than in Japan, where the 2011 earthquake and tsunami led to Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant leaking radioactive material into the sea. Acid rain has polluted rice farms and forests on the north west coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island, since the 1970s. This got world-wide media attention. It was shocking – and it led to repercussions which are still emerging. In Japan the effects have been especially disruptive and deep-seated.
The significance of water in Japanese art and culture
Japan is a country of mountains, snow, and rivers. Waterfalls are symbols of purity, but also pose something of a test. Stand in a small cave behind a waterfall and try to meditate above the roar of the water.
Stand anywhere in our busy world and try to concentrate on what is happening to our environment, so important but often lost in the daily babble.
The artists in Japan Water take us on a journey into the significance of water in Japanese art and culture, its importance for Japan’s economy and indeed its survival. Tea, sake, rice, fish, handmade paper, hot baths: so many keystones of the Japanese way of life depend on clean water. No wonder the most famous haiku ever written is about a frog jumping into an old pond!
Furu ikeya / An old pond
kawazu tobikomu / a frog jumps in
mizu no oto / the sound of water
From woodblock prints to video to bronze
Japan Water includes traditional water-based woodblock prints re-interpreting Japanese tropes of architecture and nature. There are oil paintings exploring the scientific power and beauty of the waves which surround Japan and the rich muddy water which warms its rice paddies. Other paintings riff on Japanese calligraphy. A bronze teardrop is born out of a haiku. Some of the content is poetic, in a Japanese tradition of art which is lyrical and reflective. However the exhibition covers a range from poetic to political, as befits this complex country of contrasts.
About the artists
Nana Shiomi is a celebrated woodblock artist based in southeast London. As she writes on her website, “plate and print” are always opposite configurations. They reflect dualistic principles such as right and left, top and bottom, East and West, etc. So it is not a coincidence that she often composes her work into two opposing sides, using the “baren” to spread water-based ink and let it soak into the Japanese paper.
Purity of water in reflection
For one print (below), the beautiful Kinkakuji golden temple in Kyoto is reflected in a lake, the reflection indistinguishable from what it reflects. When water is so pure, which is the true reality?
A pair of prints: ‘The Sound of the Waterfall: Thinker’ and ‘The Sound of the waterfall: Jumper’ features two carp. One carp floats deep in thought at the bottom of a waterfall, then its twin leaps up, perhaps aiming to turn into the legendary dragon which creates the clouds and rain. Shiomi invites us to have true ambition and leap like the carp.
From Japan to London
Both Lisa Keiko Kirton and Isao Miura now live in London but they come from old rice farming families in Japan and their paintings and sculpture often explore the ecosystem of the rice paddy.
Lisa Keiko Kirton
Lisa Keiko Kirton studied photography and later went to Glassell School of Art, Museum of Fine Art in Texas. She moved to Scotland and then worked for many years in the Scottish Sculpture Workshop outside Aberdeen. There she produced abstract works in metal that represent family relationships and landmarks.
Since moving to London to a smaller domestic space, Lisa has continued to broaden her range of materials. They include pine needles, bread, coffee beans. She works now mainly on small cards and canvases, letting the abstract images flow through her fingers onto the surface, as if she was bending to bed the rice plants into the soil.
She uses paint, earth and salt, so the surfaces are sometimes spongy or sparkly. There is a suggestion of ancient Jomon marks, of calligraphic gestures, as if she is writing messages to the future. Inside the Japanese letter “TA”, is a simple quartered square meaning field or paddy. In 2019 Lisa exhibited in CAF Nebula, at Saitama Contemporary Museum of Art, Japan.
Isao Miura, like Shiomi, trained at the Royal College of Art in London. He also studied at Chelsea College of Art, where the late Roger Ackling was a tutor.
Explosive wax and oil paintings
Miura works in many media, from wood, paper and bronze to oils and wax. For this show, he has made a pair of explosive wax and oil paintings, exploring variations on the Japanese characters for wind and rain, earth and sky.
He is also showing a series of smaller paintings using rice grasses, oil paint and gold leaf to conjure up the mixture of earth and sacred, that is invested in the paddy in Japan. Grasses form patterns set in the ground of the canvas, irrigated by the paint and illuminated by sparks of gold, like fireflies.
In addition, we are showing two of Miura’s beautiful bronzes translating Matsuo Basho’s poems about water. Miura made these during his 2014/15 fellowship in the Bronze Foundry at Chelsea College of Art.
Jonathan Meuli originally studied art history in Cambridge, before becoming a painter in his own right. He did an MA at the University of East Anglia, followed by a research fellowship. He lives and works now in Glasgow, but maintains close links with East Anglia. For example he showed a selection of his landscape and abstract paintings at Wolfson College Cambridge in 2018.
Wave paintings influenced by Hokusai
Since the devastating Japanese tsunami of 2011, Meuli has developed a powerful series of Wave paintings and River scrolls influenced by Hokusai but also by a fascination with colour and the science of wave theory.
Like the water beneath a wave, the underlayers of these paintings are dense and still and carefully planned, while the surface layers erupt in rapid brushstrokes. He often paints while listening to music in order to help generate energy and rhythm, using colour and shape to suggest something of the gigantic forces at work in nature.
One other artist has been invited to join the exhibition to introduce a note of realism and urgency. Hakan Topal is a Turkish artist based in Brooklyn, New York, who completed two artist research residencies in Miyagi prefecture in Japan, during 2015/17. Of the five artists, he is the one most overtly responding to climate-change, both in his motivation and in the treatment of his subject matter .
While traveling through coastal communities devastated by the 2011 tsunami, he recorded videos and made photographs, exhibiting some of the outcomes in exhibitions in Tokyo and Yonkers. Topal’s project contemplates ideas of speculation, redevelopment, healing in the aftermath of catastrophe.
His videos and conceptual photographs of the remains of buildings invite the viewer to reconsider our built environment as it intersects the natural. For this exhibition at GroundWork, Topal has revisited the content of this project, re-edited the videos and prepared a grid of photographs, with accompanying text along the wall. The videos have ambient sound designed to complement the images in this specific gallery space.
Reflecting on The Purity of Water
This exhibition has caused us all to think through the subject of the purity of water. For the Japanese artists in particular it has become clear how water has formed an absolute foundation of their culture.
In reflecting on the subject with them, it brings up sharply to us as a UK audience too, how we take for granted the runs of clear healthy water through our taps. But also we are reminded of our own water disasters, through the consequences of Storm Ciara and Storm Denis which began the year 2020, and the flooding rivers in Yorkshire and the devastation that has brought to homes.
We have not yet quite suffered the destructions experienced in Japan, but for us worse is to come.
Save and protect pure water
The reasons for the storms and the responses to them are intensely complex, however, we can start by learning from artists like these, what are our values, what we treasure and why we should fight to save and protect our own pure water without it engulfing us first.