Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Art Space Talk: Kako Ueda

Kako Ueda creates incredibly intricate and beautiful artworks from cut paper. She is interested in organic beings-- insects, animals, and human bodies. Her work reveals how these natural beings are constantly influenced and modified by culture.

PJS (portrait series 1), hand cut ph neutral paper with acrylic, h: 29 in., w: 18 in. 2006

Brian Sherwin: Kako, you studied at Tufts University and the Pratt Institute. Can you tell us about your academic background? For example, did you have any influential instructors?

Kako Ueda: I studied photography at the School of Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where I took studio courses while taking academic courses at Tufts. Initially I wanted to enroll into the Painting Department, but it was over crowded and seemed to me many of the professors had an overbearing personalities so I decided to study a new medium.

I met two memorable professors: Jim Dow and Elein O'Neil. Not only I learned the basics of photography from them but also they took care of me and other students like a family would. One of the fondest memories from my undergraduate years is the trips Jim and a bunch of us students made to Chicago and New York . We drove, went to visit galleries and museums, and heard talks by curators and photographers.
Tree of Life--detail, cut paper with acrylic, h: 49 in., w: 22 in., 2005, private collection

BS: In your work you are interested in organic beings… animals, insects, and human bodies. You explore how beings born from nature are influenced and modified by culture. Can you explain your interest in this clash between nature and culture?

KU: When I was growing up, there was some nature still left in Tokyo. The neighbor across from the street had a big house with substantial land, who moved out when I was 5-6. The space was left vacant for a while and soon enough all the weeds started growing and there were big trees there too--it looked (in my memory) like a small jungle. All the kids in the neighborhood played there. We climbed up the trees, ate some wild berries and fruits from the trees, heard different bird calls, and found insects, etc. It was wonderful to have that while it lasted---after a couple years or so, the development moved in.
Tree of Life, hand cut paper with acrylic, h: 49 in., w: 22 in., 2005, private collection

Eventually the developers chopped down the trees and started building small houses in the lot. I remember my friends and I protested (by hanging signs saying 'do not chop the trees!' and barricaded the trees with whatever we could find) but that didn't stop the development. This might have been one of the earliest experiences that I had observing the clash between nature and culture.
Tree of Life--detail, cut paper with acrylic, h: 49 in., w: 22 in., 2005, private collection

BS: Kako, paper has been your primary medium of choice for over a decade. Is there any specific meaning behind that choice as far as your personal philosophy is concerned? Would you say that paper is an example of this mixing between nature and culture-- since paper comes from nature and has long been utilized to document and shape the cultures of the world? What do you enjoy about the medium?

KU: Sometimes you don't necessary choose the material but the material chooses you. I didn't realize myself that I had been using paper all along until 5 years ago when I started cutting paper. I guess it was natural for me to pick up paper as the material since I was born in Japan, where the culture utilizes and respects this material both in everyday and ceremonial life.

I like the fact that it is easy to manipulate. It could have different faces depending on what one does with it. It is up to one's imagination and skill to make this material come alive---though a simple piece of paper itself is beautiful too. It is also a contradictory material in the sense that it is fragile (can be easily torn, cut, crushed), but at the same time under the right condition, it lasts for centuries---think about Egyptian papyrus!

I love the feel and the smell of paper. One of the joys of reading a book to me is to hold a bunch of paper and feel and smell the pages as I go deep into the content. You are right about paper being the mixture of nature and culture. It is a superb blend of the two for sure.
Bitura, hand cut black paper, h: 23 in., w: 24.5 in., 2005 -private collection

BS: Speaking of culture… it is my understanding that you were born and raised in Tokyo, Japan. You now live in Brooklyn, NY. One could say that you have experienced two major cultures in two very large cities. Has that experience influenced you as an artist?

KU: It is an important part of me having experienced two cultures. To have the feeling of not being completely at home in either cultures isn't necessarily a bad thing. This tension has helped me to strive to make work and to relate to people as much as I could. Having experienced two cultures enriched my life and art and made me a more tolerant person and artist.

Living in New York is great since you have a chance to interact with people from all over the world, with different cultures, languages and religions. It constantly reminds me that we are in this world together and I am not isolated. Tokyo, though it is a big city isn't as international as New York. I can safely say that I am a New Yorker now, not a Tokyoite so much.

I absolutely love and appreciate some parts of both cultures/societies and am critical of some parts of both of the cultures/societies. The positive aspect of being a "hybrid" is that you notice the sameness, differences and subtleties in things/people simultaneously. And it also gave me an insight that what seems is not always what is.

BS: What about other influences? Are you influenced by any specific artist or art movement from the past?

KU: Sadly, one of my favorite artists passed away very recently---Mr. Bruce Connor. I first encountered his films like A Movie and Cosmic Ray in my early 20s. Then I learned about his assemblages that mesmerized me. To me they are violent, quiet, sinister, beautiful, fact they elicit all sorts of contradicting feelings in me that I cannot quite pinpoint what I am feeling all together. His inkblot drawings and collages are also a gem.

What is great about Mr. Connor is precisely that he didn't stick to one medium, but explored and experimented with a bunch of different mediums. That tells me how free and fearless he was as an artist. Although he used different mediums there seems to be a kind of a theme or thread that is universal in his artworks- a feeling of mystery and the interconnectedness of the parts to the whole.

Dreaming of Foetus, hand cut Washi (Japanese) paper, h: 35 in., w: 26 in., 2007

BS: Can you tell us more about your process? For example, do you do any preliminary drawings before starting a piece or do you rely on intuition? Perhaps you could discuss some of your methods?

KU: For example, Dreaming of Foetus came to me when I was looking at the wall patterns in some magazines. The image literally just appeared in my head-- I saw the whole image in my mind's eye. Later I sketched out what I saw and started cutting. I could say that I come up with the images rather intuitively and I normally sketch out these images on the paper to be cut. Of course some minor adjustment/changes always happen in the process of cutting.

BS: I read that you have been working on two installation pieces this year. Can you discuss those pieces?

KU: Eros & Thanatos (Life & Death) used to be called Memento Mori (Remember Death). I first started making the part that represented death, but I knew the final piece would end up containing both life and death elements. One endlessly fascinating fact with organisms is that they are born into this life, go through growth/metamorphosis, then decay (sometimes sickness) sets in, and in the end death comes to end this particular life. It is an ingenious design since an individual ego/life has to end with the body but LIFE goes on.

I started working on Totem, which is also the title of my solo show opening in September (at George Adams Gallery in New York City) , around the same time I started Eros & Thanatos in 2006. I wanted to make a totem of my family--a somewhat (not totally) autobiographical piece. As I understand totem-- it is an emblem of a family, tribe or clan. It is not an object of worship. It is more like a visual object to show what your family represents by using symbolic images such as the images of ancestor animals. Some of the important incidents happened in the family history could also be incorporated visually.
Eros & Thanatos--detail", hand cut black paper , site specific, 75X 68 in.

BS: Kako, I understand that you are wanting to branch out in that you desire to exhibit outside of NYC. It is your desire to expose your work to a wider audience. What steps have you taken toward that path? Will you be involved with any exhibits outside of NYC in the near future?

KU: Actually my desire to branch outside of NY state is already happening this year: I will be in two group shows--one in Lincoln, Massachusetts and the other in Easton, Pennsylvania. Both will be opening around the beginning of Sept. The first one is a group show of labor intensive drawings at DeCordova Museum and the latter is at the Grossman Gallery on Lafayette College campus. And after my solo show in NYC, I will take those two installation works to Helsinki, Finland to participate in the group show at the contemporary art museum Kiasma.

I actually get invited to shows through my website a lot so there's no denying the power of internet. I hope that the invitations from different places will keep coming so I get to travel and meet & talk to people in places I've never been to before.

BS: Speaking of the internet, how have you utilized the internet in order to reach a wider audience? Do you frequent any art sites?

KU: Besides having my own website, my pieces are in the Drawing Center's online registry, as well as at the Artists Space online site, and Neoimages. I don't visit any particular site normally, but when I see any artwork which catches my attention, I try to find out if he/she has his/her own website.

Allure, hand cut black paper, h: 50 in., w: 28 in., 2004/05 ---contact George Adams Gallery

BS: You works have been exhibited at Art Chicago, and Art Miami. What did you enjoy about those experiences? Do you enjoy the atmosphere of art fairs in general, so to speak?

KU: I actually never visited Art Chicago or Miami myself though I have visited art fairs in New York. It is fun to see varieties of work all at once at the fairs, but at the same time it is very tiring and overwhelming after awhile. It is not an ideal environment to appreciate an individual artwork since so many different types of works are displayed next to each other in a confined space. In the end, it is about commerce and what is on the market.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art?

KU: Please come to my opening if you are free on the night of Thurs. 9/18 from 6-8 PM, George Adams Gallery, 525 W. 26th St., NYC. My show's title is "TOTEM" and it opens from 9/4-10/18/08. Or tell anyone who lives in the area!

You can learn more about Kako Ueda by visiting her website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

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