Art in shadows and light

Japanese artist Kumi Yamashita's first solo exhibition challenges perceptions with work that uses intriguing materials in unlikely ways.

When a likeness is created through the most unlikely of means, the world-renowned Japanese artist Kumi Yamashita easily wows local visitors.

Her first solo exhibition “Art of Kumi Yamashita” is underway at Global Habour through October 14.

Yamashita’s work often involves shadows: Seemingly simple objects cast startling silhouettes when lit from just the right angle. She transforms simple materials, such as thread, light and shadow, or bits of cloth, into portraits that are simultaneously subtle and magical.

Born in Kao Kao, Japan, Yamashita studied art in Florence, Seattle and Scotland. She claimed that she didn’t want to settle down and fix herself in one place, as “my thoughts might change from time to time.”

Her work is mainly about installation pieces that are constructed to trace figures in the most unlikely ways. In them, Yamashita questions all our expectations, by challenging our perceptions of predictable relationships between solids and their shadows.

Ti Gong

Japanese artist Kumi Yamashita’s first solo exhibition in Shanghai is underway at Global Harbour through October 14.

For example, on the wall, illuminated by a single light source, visitors can see an arrangement of numbered 3D blocks. These appear to be scattered randomly on the wall. 

However, under the apparent chaotic assemblage, she has cleverly arranged these so that each throws a particular shadow which, when taken with all the other precisely placed objects, astonishingly adds up to the illusion of a lifelike form — sometimes a sitting young girl and other times a side face of a man.

“With my work I hope to remind people of how we preconceive what is around and inside us. It is easy to passively turn to prepared information. Knowledge, ideas, and values are too often accepted without questioning,” she says.

For example, her “Someone else’s mess” features images of a child’s head made of shoe prints on bed linens. The image reveal the discontinuity between the beautiful faces of children and the situations they have inherited. Yamashita notes that one generation leaves to the next the problems it cannot clean up, its dirty linen. She says her goal is to “create something beautiful that makes people think about what is not beautiful at the same time.”

Ti Gong

“Someone Else’s Mess,” shoe prints on bed linens

Other intriguing works are her “Constellation Mana” and “strings.” They are created from three basic materials — a wooden panel painted white, thousands of tiny nails and thread.

Seeing images from out of hundreds of tiny fragments recalls, for the artist, how the ancient Greeks looked at the stars, connecting them to evoke mythological figures.

“I have had the experience of traveling and living in various parts of the world. Religious controversies, racial discrimination, misunderstanding and pre-judgment began affecting me early in life. 

“As a teenager, when I was frustrated and puzzled by conventional viewpoints, I began to appreciate both the willingness to learn about what is familiar and the ability to see familiar things from different points,” Yamashita says.

Ti Gong

“0 to 9,” carved wood, single light source

Q: How did you embark on your art path?

A: I was born in Japan, just outside Tokyo, and lived there until I went to the States as a high school exchange student. My mother studied fashion, she designed and made clothes for me and my two sisters when we were growing up. 

My father was a sculptor and also a professor of industrial design who had a strong interest in traditional Japanese crafts. When he explained things to me and my two sisters, he would take pencil and paper and make simple but beautiful drawings. 

Perhaps they both affected me because ever since I was little I was euphoric as long as I was left alone to draw or make something. I was fortunate that my parents never once questioned the direction I chose to continue making “impractical” things. Instead, they gave me all the support a child could ask for. I never consciously made a decision to become an artist, I just continued doing what I most enjoyed.

Q: What has been the biggest influence on your work?

A: I think probably the biggest influence on my work is simply having been born and raised in Japan. Visually, the Japanese aesthetic of reducing things to their essence, as is found in Haiku poetry or Ikebana or Zen Gardens, along with the expert craftsmanship exhibited by Japanese artisans, has definitely influenced my work.

Intellectually, I’ve been shaped by living in a country where I saw the curious coexistence of two opposing ideologies — the embracing temperament of Buddhism/Shintoism spiritually versus an alienating homogenous mentality. I have always longed for a land that embraced all humanity and ideologies. 

I think this is why I was drawn to the show Sesame Street, and why I decided to go to America at a young age.

Q: You seem to work mostly with light and manipulation of it to form shadows, what attracted you to this?

A: I like looking at light in the afternoon and watching shadows move. It reminds me that everything is always changing. I like things that don’t have concrete form such as clouds, water, shadows and the kindness of people.

I remember sitting on the patio of my family home in the late autumn afternoon. The sun was setting and casting the shadow of swaying branches of our fragrant olive tree on the ground. The color of the light was gradually changing from warm orange to cool blues as the shadow of the tree stretched and faded away. 

In my young mind I questioned the permanence and ephemera of all living things as the tree stood soundly in front of me in the almost monochromatic landscape. For me, shadows came to symbolize another dimension of life, perhaps something even more real than its owner.

Q: Which areas are you going to explore in the future?

A: After spending 10 years in New York, I decided to move out to the country where I could find a nice little house with a little bit of land and build my own art studio.

So now I have found the land and have designed the studio, and will begin building it this fall. Soon I will be able to walk to my studio in the middle of the night in my pajamas if inspiration strikes. This will be a big change for me and my art making. I don’t know yet what will be created, but I am very excited about the possibilities.


Exhibition “Art of Kumi Yamashita”

Date: Through October 14, 11am-7pm
Tickets: 100 yuan
Venue: 4/F, Global Harbour
Address: 3300 Zhongshan Rd N.

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