Ash Color Mountains: An Interview with Makoto Aida

Once called a “bad boy” of the Japanese art world, his newly completed Ash Color Mountains gives another impression of the artist.

poster for

"Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art" Exhibition

at Japan Society Gallery
in the Midtown area
This event has ended - (2011-03-18 - 2011-06-12)

In Interviews by Saori Kashio 2011-05-05 print

Makoto Aida (born 1965), once called a “bad boy” of the Japanese art world(1), his newly completed Ash Color Mountains gives another impression of the artist. The work is now on view as part of “Bye Bye Kitty” exhibition currently showing at Japan Society in New York City through June 12, 2011. Mr. Aida responded to NY Art Beat via email from Lithuania, where he is preparing for his upcoming solo exhibit.
Let’s see if a Japanese “bad boy” can be a modern-day Zen priest and overcome disastrous phenomena?Makoto Aida 'Ash Color Mountains' (2009–10) Acrylic on canvas, 118 × 276 in. Courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery. Photo: Kei Miyajima. Taguchi Art Collection. Copyright © AIDA Makoto.

How long have you been in New York City this time?
I have been here for three weeks to finish Ash Color Mountains at the Japan Society. This is probably my seventh visit to New York City. The very first time I was here was a year after graduating from college. It happened to be my first trip overseas. I also stayed in New York City for nine months when I was invited by the ACC grant program in 2000.

Do you often paint outside of your studio?
Yes, I often do so. I have a couple of reasons for that. First, I do not have a huge studio in which to paint large paintings. It is expensive to keep such a space. Another reason is that I am not a speedball, I sometimes miss a shipping deadline for a painting and need to finish it at the site.

How do you work at your studio?
I do not work every day. In contrast to daily life, I think that drawing or painting is performing as “an artist”. When the show is coming, I desperately start working, urged by a real necessity. For me painting is “hare” in Japanese, “the shining moment on the stage” in theater terms as compared with “ke”, which is the everyday, bland life. After completing a work, I return to “ke,” the everyday, which is also a very important time for my creative process because my ideas often come at that time of everyday blandness.

What do you usually do at the beginning of your process?
I make sketches or take notes on my pocket-sized JMAM’s notebook or on regular copy paper. It can be both images and words.

What is a large painting for you?
I think the museum is separate from daily life. Large paintings serve people who want to experience the theatrical “hare”. Audiences pay entrance fees to have their special moments and see art. As a professional, I would like to enrich those moments. A large painting is like a long novel, but I also like to create improvisational poems, such as my Minna to Issho series started in 2002. This series is rather personal and casual. I would like to use both long and short formats in some kind of balance.

When did you start drawing Ash Color Mountains?
I started to work on it two years ago, in 2009, at the Mizuma gallery in Beijing, China. The gallery was open to the public as I was working. The original idea for this painting was to draw grey business suit clad businessmen. Ash Color Mountains complements and contrasts with a similarly grim work, Blender (2001) which features all female figures.

Detail of Ash Color MountainsMakoto Aida 'Blender' (2001) Acrylic on canvas, 114 x 82.9 in. Courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery. Takahashi Collection. Copyright © AIDA Makoto.

Do you often wear a business suit?
No, I rarely wear it as an artist. I wanted to draw it instead of wearing it. I sometimes imagine that almost all of my schoolmates work in business suits and I have complex feelings about it. For subjects of my paintings I tend to pick the ones that come from those conflicting ideas and feelings. This is my policy. Because of my complex feelings about business attire, I thought I should draw business suits.

Are they all Japanese businessmen?
Actually they are not. I just draw men with grey-colored business suits in general. The setting of this work is not limited to one country or area (this is different from most of my past works, which are largely related to Japanese culture) and features a variety of people, including politicians, public servants and even wedding guests. The period for this landscape is broadly set from the 19th century to the present.

What happened to the men in the painting? Why are they piled up like a mountain?
They are all dead. This is a very imaginary space and I do not know why and how they died, but I imagine they piled up like a mountain just falling from the sky, one by one, like the sand in an hourglass falls from the top.

At first glance, Ash Color Mountains looks like a traditional ink painting. Why did you use this format?

I often use traditional motifs in my paintings. I use the traditional genre style and images of a Japanese landscape here as a reference to Zen spirit. Also, I’m not sure if this is historically correct, but I think Japanese painting, including some of my favorite artists as Sesshū’s (1420-1506) and Hasegawa Tōhaku’s (1539-1610), has been influenced by the Zen aesthetics of negative-ness. In their paintings, I always read fatalism, a positive spirit which is able to affirm negative things. This is very different from the Chinese landscape ink painting, from which Japanese style originated. Writer Seigou Matsuoka expresses a similar idea in his book Sansui Thought – The Imaginative Power of Negative-ness.

Hasegawa Tōhaku 'Sansui-zu Fusuma' (1589) 69.9 x 37.1 in. Courtesy Kodaiji Entoku Temple, Kyoto

Applying this logic to interpreting news from Japan today, when I was watching a TV interview with people who had lost their families during the Tohoku Earthquake, I felt they expressed a very Japanese spirit. They lowered their eyes in embarrassment, spoke in soft voices and with a little smile on their faces – no one cried to the heavens. I appreciated their patience and strength followed by the silent acceptance of this unfortunate situation.

As you see, Japanese fatalistic spirit can be found in various moments, which often surfaces in my work. Traditional natural landscape paintings might not have a direct reference to that acceptance of fate, but I believe that they are connected at some deep level.

Notes:
(1) “Makoto Aida: Terminally Neurotic Delicacy” in Christopher Phillips, Noriko Fuku, Linda Nochlin. Heavy Light (New York: International Center of Photography, 2008).

Saori Kashio

Saori Kashio. Saori Kashio is an independent curator and art writer. Born in Japan in 1980, she holds two Master’s Degrees, one in Art History and Aesthetics from Kanazawa College of Art and another in East Asian Studies from New York University. Her passion for contemporary art began in her childhood when she first encountered Anish Kapoor’s sculpture, Mother as a Void. She was honored to meet him in 2004. Since then, Kapoor’s mysterious blue pigment that she has received from him and kept in a corked glass tube is one of the greatest treasures in her life. » See other writings

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