LEIKO IKEMURA
Contemporary Scapes

»Despite the help I get, it is crucial that everything is done by my hand. It is not just a concept I create and then someone else makes it. The process is my spirit. The waiting time until the temperature goes down is also part of artistic patience. You have to wait to let them grow into sculptures. It is magic.« – Leiko Ikemura

»Despite the help I get, it is crucial that everything is done by my hand. It is not just a concept I create and then someone else makes it. The process is my spirit. The waiting time until the temperature goes down is also part of artistic patience. You have to wait to let them grow into sculptures. It is magic.« – Leiko Ikemura

Ahead of her first solo exhibition with KÖNIG GALERIE, Leiko Ikemura sat down in her Berlin studio for an interview to shed insight on what went into the planning and realization of her inaugural show in the South Korean capital, SOUL SCAPE SEOUL. Ikemura’s art is unique for its abilities to unite otherwise separate fields – East and West, traditional and contemporary techniques, figurative and abstract painting – in the creation of imaginary worlds that captivate and entreat viewers to enter their spaces. What continues to motivate the Japanese-born artist as she enters new contexts and spaces after decades of practice and international recognition?

Artist House Leiko Ikemura garden window atelier Ikemura: Sculptures "Vogelsäule / Bird Column", Bronze, L. Ikemura, 2011, © Leiko Ikemura & PhvM, photo: artitious.com 

KÖNIG GALERIE: In addition to the newer works in your current exhibition, you're also showing some earlier works – “Gold Scape”, “F-Scape”, both 2012 and “Mountain Lake”, 2010/11 – a triptych in which we are witness to some truly mystical landscapes. What do they refer to?

Leiko Ikemura: These paintings happened around the time of the Fukushima disaster, between 2010 and 2012. It was a time when I was thinking intensively about traditional Japanese landscapes. This interest extended to the materials and techniques I used, mixing Chinese ink with tempera and oil. The awareness of my Japanese origins while living in Europe is a complex situation and these paintings reflect that. Of course, one can see a landscape, but it is not exactly a landscape. I cannot say that it refers to any specific place. This is not really the question. The landscapes are more about the inner life, the elements are always personifications. For example, in the human-like mountains, you could see a kind of female figure on the edge. Sometimes you don't recognize individual figures, but you feel them nonetheless, their movement, the energy of living creatures. “Gold Scape”, is very special because I used gold powder-like pigment, thinking about a special space through gold like in the medieval period.

KG: Can you discuss the decision to combine such different techniques and materials, which in itself is fascinating?

LI: Yes, though I am deeply interested in these traditions, I am not trying to adjust or to copy a particular period at all. These are completely contemporary scapes. This is a very important aspect to me. It is not about using or imitating a traditional way of making. And the same applies to the Asian landscapes. It is not about mimesis – faithfully representing what one sees or could see – much rather it is about the recreation of what one feels, the inner life.

KG: All your paintings, and especially those that we have just mentioned, have a physical depth, a recession that gives the impression that you were painting inside the canvas and not just on it, as if one is somehow already plunged into the landscape when seeing it.

LI: Yes, what you say is beautiful, and this is precisely why I use jute as a ground. Many painters tend to prime their canvases, affording a smooth surface on which to paint, but jute is rough. You can see its texture and the way how it is woven together. You can also see the space behind the canvas through the structure. In a way, jute is both a very material component and also half-transparent. I covered the background with a black fabric which accentuates this depth and gives a feeling of diving into another world behind the canvas. It gives a feeling of appearing inside the world of the painting and not just in front of it.

KG: You once said that you want to go behind the canvas and not just on it. Do you want to find out what is behind it?

LI: The reason for this is because I often see contemporary painting as images or colors which remain on the surface, screaming "look at me, look at me", but they hardly invite you into the world, to be a part of it, to take part in it.

KG: Let's talk about “Pink Hair”, 2019, which feels like the most explicitly figurative painting of the group.

LI: This one is like a link between the previous decades and my newest works. It is also about the distinction between abstraction and figuration. I begin with an idea and throughout the process gradually add recognizable elements like hair, a nose, and eyes. I try to allow these elements to call attention to themselves. For me, the painting process is more ambiguous than that, but you look at the canvas throughout the process and see what is taking shape, appearing on top of what you have just made. In the case of “Pink Hair”, the hair began as a vague idea of a field through which the landscape paintings and figuration come together. In the form of the hair, you can see mountain-like shapes and a horizon, but you know the figure is looking down from the sky. This kind of situation is not completely different from that in “Mountain Lake”, and “Gold Scape”. They definitely have something to do with one another. But the palette is a different one, another kind of chromatic using this ink as well.

KG: So, how is “Pink Hair” connected to the other works, then?

LI: This painting is also connected to “ABC Akt”, 2020. There is a scape there, too. For me, it was especially important to create space with color and only with color, without any recognizable figure. Tracing into the color fields evokes associations, though I don´t intend to represent anything tangible. For the exhibition, I asked to paint the wall in yellow, as a background for the series. Yellow might be the color of light. I wanted to make it lively in contrast to the main space where there are more earthy colors that contrast with the light. I also combined the paintings from the series with the glass sculptures, where light is also a central factor for the work.

KG: It looks as though the abstract paintings are communicating with the glass sculptures, because it is the similar light that is shining through the sculpture, then transferring onto the canvas. The triptych also seems to be a central element in this grouping of works. Where is it placed?

LI: In the main room, the triptych is important because it brings accents and balance to the exhibition. In these three paintings, you can see many stages of ambivalence and feel the visible and invisible in transition. There are smoother effects of light, too, where it is almost disappearing.

KG: Did you start exploring light through sculptures and then transfer it onto painting?

LI: No this happens at the same time. It was somehow interesting to go deep into these phenomena, to explore the sense of uncertainty. Beyond the political, I felt a threat coming from an invisible power. Humankind was too arrogant to be confronted by it in this way. It is a challenge to visualize this crisis into a painting. The glass sculptures happened in an unexpected way. They are very compact, you don’t see how heavy they actually are. And they are full of light as a result of its transparency. It is these dichotomies that are so interesting for me to create. The complementarity of the paintings that loses more and more of their gravity because of their immateriality, which is then returned to the glass sculptures in their form and density.

KG: Could you say something about the two paintings “dude”, 2022, especially their titles?

LI: To tell you the truth, I don’t know what I thought exactly. Sometimes I create sounds, just titles without necessarily a meaning. Maybe with DUDE I actually didn’t want to say or to give a meaning, it’s without giving a hint of significance. Every word contains significance and stands in contradiction to the painting. Because painting itself should tell something. It could be a figure, but it could also not be anything at all. This is just phenomenal.

KG: It’s funny because I was trying to guess what it was or what it could represent and through the title “dude” I immediately thought about a male figure. On one I sort of recognized a female body and on the other a male one.

Atelier Leiko in 2013: 12 Artist House Leiko Ikemura: Atelier 3ab, links / left: Painting "Berlin Horizon", tempera and oil on jute by Leiko Ikemura 2013, mitte / middle: Painting "Berlin Horizon", tempera and oil on jute by Leiko Ikemura 2012, rechts / right: Painting series "gold Scape", pigment, ink, oil on jute by Leiko Ikemura 2012, © PhvM, Photo: Anita Back

LI: Yes, I see that too! Or maybe more animal-like. I am not sure what it is, but I think there is something happening, or something is about to appear or to come out of its shell. It is the prelude to a new life, somehow, but you don’t know what it is yet. These are only the most recent examples. There is a lot of change in my creative process. It is beyond any single period. This timelessness has been the red thread through my work over the past twenty years, the connection from one period to another. Changing the color scales and changing the artistic research, or exploring different formal ways in every period, and different themes. Yet, you can feel the line that connects them.

KG: It gives the sense that we are taking a walk through your work. In the glass sculptures, there are always creatures that straddle the line between human and animal, or animal and nature. The lines between the elements seem to be blurred.

LI: The figures were created quite early on, in the 90s. The forms were designed for ceramic sculptures initially, some of them are bronze, too. Since I discovered the possibilities inherent to working with glass, the sculptures appear to be much more in the present and echo differently because of the content of the figures. They are hybrid forms, as you say. Between humans and animals. This animalistic element that is in our self and in our body is moving in different directions. Animals also have a soul. For me, it is a manifestation of our love for nature. We have a unique opportunity to understand the background and other living things.

KG: The process in your work is very important and you don’t dissociate yourself from it. How are the sculptures produced?

LI: I do that in my studio with the help of an artist assistance. It is a pretty long process and a different time perception. Despite the help I get, it is crucial that everything is done by my hand. It is not just a concept I create and then someone else makes it. The process is my spirit. The waiting time until the temperature goes down is also part of an artistic patience. You have to wait to let them grow into sculptures. It is magic. You never know before what will come out. I have the feeling a lot of artists don’t know what is actually happening as their sculptures are being made. They often disregard the material and its transformational stages. The process of creating a glass sculpture is pure alchemy. It is a magical moment. Our concept and our ideas are poorer in that respect.

KG: How long does the whole process usually take, from start to finish?

LI: It depends. Sometimes 3 months, sometimes much longer. But it depends, because if it isn't successful, you will need more time. If everything goes well, I start to question or doubt the quality.

KG: There are always traces of imperfection in your sculptures and I always understood them as something important for you, to leave them there.

LI: It just happens. It is a kind of intuition. It is not that I make a theme out of it. My hands are quite autonomous, and I am following what is going on. And then discover moments where I feel one step before the perfection.

KG: Your sculptures always come in editions of 5, but of course technically speaking, they are always unique. How each turns out will never be exactly the same.

LI: Exactly. You know, usually, I only do one at a time, I never do them all at the same time. Each time, it requires my attention and concentration. In the details, it will always be different, and this is what I like the most about the process of making.

KG: As part of the exhibition, we also have two quite classical sculptures: “Hare Column II”, 2010-2021, and “Memento Mori”, 2022. Maybe we start with the latter one first.

LI: This is quite an “old” piece. Although that's not really the right word. The sculpture was produced in 2022, so it is recent, but the form was already realized in 2017. This one is very special because it is galvanized in silver. It is the last edition of this series and the first one in silver. I have to say that all of them are different. It is an iconic sculpture, so it was important for me to show it in Seoul, in another cultural context. It is about the specific content and message of this piece. This work is about life, and of course, death. But it does not follow the definition of the European Memento Mori which often stood as a kind of warning of death. For me, a Memento Mori represents the opportunity for a new life, a rebirth. It is both a point of departure and never-ending. The figure reminds me of mountains. It is also very floral. I see it like a flower that is ready to bloom. It is like humans, animals, flowers, landscapes, all together in one.

KG: It also reminds me of the chrysalis of a butterfly, about to wake up and unfold her wings.

LI: Sounds beautiful, this is it!

KG: And then the last one. The “Hare Column”.

LI: I try not to get caught up in too much significance. I want to leave the freedom of interpretation to the audience, but I could still offer the possibility of interpretation. The rabbit in the Christian world has of course a lot of meanings. Myths feature stories about the rabbit, which were often told in my childhood. The rabbit was such an icon in art history, but my view of the hare or rabbit is not based on direct observation or symbolic value. It is more about you feeling the sensation of the rabbit within you. It is all about our life moving into that state of ambivalence. The rabbit is in you. I am in the rabbit. This feeling gives me the motivation to create such a sculpture.

KG: Is the rabbit autobiographical?

LI: Well, in a way, yes. The stories about the rabbit told during my childhood are an influence, in Japan, we are rich in this kind of animistic mythology. After the Second World War, we lived with different kinds of thought models, but the most basic, and the most sublime in a way, is this animistic religion. So, I lived with that, in my childhood, in my emotions. It is like a column. But despite being so thin, it manages to occupy a lot of space around it. Symbolically, it is a growing form, one after the other. It is physical and commanding, a material that is constantly growing into something else. Like a Brancusi. Continuously growing into the sky. Not necessarily ever making it to the top.

Artist House Leiko Ikemura garden window atelier Ikemura: Sculpture "Vogelsäule / Bird Column", Bronze, L. Ikemura, 2011, © PhvM, photo: Anita Back

KG: At the end, you decided to add another work, one on paper. It is an older work from 1987, “Untitled”. Why was it important for you to add it to the show?

LI: I am currently doing an inventory of my works and I have made thousands of works on paper that I kept. When I started to see works from the 80s, I discovered past traces in the present. Perhaps as an antidote to the obsession with newness. It is kind of ridiculous. What is new? Even myself, I never wanted to see what I had done decades ago. Now that I opened the box and the files, suddenly I see that they are still current, still living, contemporary! I find it interesting because the idea of abstraction and figuration was already behind me in the 80ies, and I like seeing them in the context of recent works. The attention often revolves too much around painting and sculpture, and drawings tend to be left aside although it is an autonomous medium. I thought that it would be enriching to include at least one work in the group.

KG: When I first saw it, I didn’t look at the year and I thought it was maybe a study of “ABC Akt”.

LI: Yes, it goes well together. Or at least I hope so.

KG: The paper you use is also not a classical white one.

LI: The materiality is attractive to me. I dislike, this hurry of mass production and industrialization of art supplies, similar to the industrialized foods like McDonald’s. I don’t like industrially made paper that does not reflect its natural sources and unique sensuality that paper can have. It is not about being nostalgic, but I would like to appreciate the materiality that one could feel, and this is also what matters to me in this work on paper.

KG: It is very similar to the Jute. All the materials you use are earthy.

LI: It is connected to this love for natural resources. I work a lot through touching, all throughout my work. I prefer not to consume too many things like junk food. The art market is full of junk food. This is also the manifestation of my state of mind and respect for the earth and the planet. It is my life and our life. Of course, I use a computer and follow the development of a medium, but I am very much concerned about the fact that the analog shouldn’t disappear. Because we are analog, too.

EXHIBITION