It was the biggest night of the year at one of the most prominent art galleries in Asia. Hiroshi Senju’s opening of Out of Nature: Cliffs and Falling Water at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery in Central, Hong Kong has been planned for 2 years, and the gallery was naturally delighted to be selected by the renowned Senju to display his artworks. The gallery was so pleased because Hiroshi Senju is among an elite few of international artists who can have their pick of any gallery in the world to showcase their work, and it is notable that he chose Sundaram Tagore. However, more importantly, he also chose Hong Kong.
Senju’s Sundaram debut marks his first solo show in Hong Kong, which introduces the first 4 paintings in his highly anticipated Rocks and Cliffs series. Throughout the opening event, gallery staff nervously guarded Senju’s 16 signature waterfall paintings and 4 new cliff-themed works, as cheery guests sauntered dangerously close to the $200,000+ (USD) paintings while sipping glasses of champagne.
For those who don’t know, Hiroshi Senju is an important player in the art world, and would be at the top of a hypothetical who’s-who among Asian artists, or all international artists for that matter. He was thrust into art stardom in 1995 when he became the first Asian artist to receive an award at the Venice Biennale while representing Japan, and he is now among the most celebrated contemporary artists in Asia. In 2003 he became the Director of the Kyoto University of Art and Design, where he also currently teaches art. He now splits his time between Japan and New York, spending about 8 months of the year in NYC working out of his intriguing converted-power-plant art studio.
In an exclusive interview, Hiroshi Senju discusses his career and inspiration with Art Radar. Read on to discover why he chose Hong Kong for his new series debut, why he doesn’t consider himself a Japanese artist or even particularly connected to Japanese culture, and what he believes is the greater purpose of contemporary art.
Where did you grow up, and where were you educated? Were there any major influences or people in your life pushing you toward the arts?
I’ve lived in Tokyo since kindergarten, all the way to my graduate school. So, I’ve lived in Tokyo for a long time, and now I’m living in New York. I lived in a quiet suburban neighborhood, but my elementary school was far away, so I had to take trains and buses to go to school. My parents discouraged me from art. Since elementary school I went to a competitive private school, where there was no test to get into college. The university that I went to was very competitive, the children of politicians and business owners graduated from there, many who became politicians and doctors. My father was a famous economist and my grandfather was a famous medical doctor. My parents encouraged me to become a scholar or foreign diplomat. So, since elementary school I studied very hard to become that, and it was a surprise to them when I wanted to become an artist.
When did you know you were an artist?
I liked art since I was a child. My artwork was represented in my primary school every year, which was unusual, so since then I knew that I had some talent for art, but I never thought I would become an artist. When I started thinking about going to art school I was in high school, but there were so many choices, graphic arts, architect, product designer, so I had a hard time deciding what to become in the field of art. But when I was in high school one of the art teachers suggested I go to a certain exhibition. That exhibition was all done in the style of painting that I do now, which is ‘Nihonga’ style. So as a high school student I was very impressed with the pigments, and I decided I wanted to make art with these kinds of pigments.
In which countries and cities do you spend most of your time?
I probably spend the most of my time in an airplane, that means I travel a lot! But really, I spend about 2/3 of the year in New York in the studio, and 100 days in Kyoto where I am the president of the art university. Other than that I am traveling around the world looking for motifs, especially to Brazil and Argentina.
Do you have a deep connection to any other places or cultures other than Japan?
I don’t necessarily feel connected to Japan. I do not follow any certain culture, but a modern culture. We eat Indian, Chinese, and French food, we drink wines and sake. And sushi. This is what modern people are all about. I want to speak as a cosmopolitan, so therefore I do not necessarily want the audience to feel ‘oh, this is Japanese, or this is Chinese’. There may be some connections to German works of art as well. I try to keep an equal distance from all cultures. But, at the same time, I explained that I love the pigments and that’s why I started this kind of painting. I would like to connect to before the ages when all the people were divided, before the races were divided into east and west, before the culture was divided into east and west.
Which cultures and art scenes do you follow the most?
One thing I really like is 11th century Chinese art. So when I created this new series of work called The Cliff, I could have shown anywhere in the world, but I chose Hong Kong. I felt that the Hong Kong audience will be the most critical audience, since they have the traditions of the work that I love, 11th century Chinese art.
Which artists do you admire?
I admire Claude Monet, Max Ernst, Andy Warhol. All these masters created art and art history. I respect this and all the arts. If I had to choose one, which is very hard, I would choose the Italian Renaissance. Those people have left a big footprint in art history.
Which contemporary artists are you most interested in?
Since I am an artist I am most interested in myself.
What things inspire you?
The inspiration I value the most are the emotions that all humans feel. I value this not as an artist, but as a human being. Also, I like to read Haruki Murakami.
What are your favorite things to do when you are not making art?
I play with my kids, my 3 sons. They are 16, 15, and 12. They are in New York.
Why did you first start painting in the ancient style?
As I have studied oil and acrylic painting, I found this style had the most potential. The pigments themselves are extraordinary and paper is very attractive and has many possibilities. Mulberry paper is very strong, even if you tried to rip it you can’t. This paper has a long history in Japan. I didn’t choose this because it is Japanese, but having equal distance from all techniques, I chose this because it had the most potential.
How did you first begin marketing your work?
It was very difficult. Probably every artist remembers the first piece that was sold. When you think of creating a work to sell, it won’t sell. When you first creating a work that you don’t want to let go, that’s when people start buying.
Who are your major collectors?
Of course many buyers are in the Japan and U.S. Many entrepreneurs. I shouldn’t mention names.
How long does it take to produce an artwork?
Since I’m 51 years old, I can say that the work all took 51 years to create. What it means is that since I’ve lived 51 years, and it took this long for me to decide to use these pigments and find motifs to create the work. That is the most accurate. However, if you mean how long I actually spend creating a single painting, each one takes about a month.
Tell me about how you work? A typical piece?
When you start painting you should not spend too much time wondering. You have decided you are creating, and you put on your best efforts to create. I do not look at the cliff and say, oh, that is such a beautiful cliff, I want to paint now. It is different from that. I have emotions I want to express, and creating a cliff would exactly show what I want to say. That’s how I create them. First emotions, then the image comes. When I first look at the cliff there is an emotion I had, and with this cliff I can express my emotion. But that’s only 5% of the work. The other 95% of the work is communication between myself and the canvas.
There is a sculptor who sculpts from stone, and he says that all he does is get the art out of the stone. What he is going to create is sitting inside the stone, and all he does is get it out. When I create the work, the painting tells me what it wants me to do. I listen to the voice of the painting. It is nothing spiritual and isn’t an Asian concept– but most artists, I think this is how they create work.
What kind of space do you work in?
I use my studio, which previously was an electrical factory, or a power plant. It is so large there that my assistants carry the phones around so they can get to it in time when it rings. Previously I used the university’s art studio as a student. It is important to remember the humbling feeling of using the universitys art studio as a student. Students work out of pure love and joy for creation. It is important to keep that.
Where were you inspired to make this current Rock and Cliff series?
These cliff pieces are the first 4 in this series that I have created. I found these cliffs in my dreams, although I did sketch places in Argentina. I went to paint in Argentina during the summer to look for motifs like waterfalls.
What are your next projects?
I’m planning on making a national guest house, working with Mr. Tadao Ando, an architect. There are many more projects, for example an airport project, train stations, and a building in Singapore. I’m very happy and lucky that I have such exciting projects.
Is there a piece in the show especially meaningful to you?
These paintings are like my children, therefore I cannot differentiate one f’rom the other. I like each one of them, and that is my truth.
Advice for Young Artists
Was it hard starting out? What advice would you give young artists and aspiring art directors?
First is confidence, second is courage, third is talent. Being confident and able to encourage yourself is more important than talent, because everyone has a talent. As long as you believe in yourself and encourage yourself, it will come through. I encourage everyone to pursue their dreams.
What mistakes do you think artists make most in terms of developing their careers? What should they be doing?
Artists can over value their work too much or think of their work too highly. However, at the same time you cannot undervalue it either. You must become objective.
How has the contemporary art scene changed since you began working with it?
The contemporary art situation changes depending on the economic situations in the world. Luckily I have been unaffected, but it is unfortunate the economy dictates the art scene. Since I am connected to someone with great respect in the art world, I can stick to what I want to create. It is important to be connected to a good gallery.
Which Japanese institutions and galleries do you admire and recommend to art lovers?
First, Tokyo National Museum, and also the Kyoto University of Art. I am the president there, but I do not recommend it because I am the president- I took the job because I had so much respect for the institution.
How would you recommend artists approach galleries for representation and what advice would you give about having a good relationship with a gallery?
Be honest. Gallerists have known of many incoming artists to exaggerate or lie. So be honest and have good quality work. At the same time, you can’t sell rock music to an opera fan. You have to find the right dealer.
What problems do you see for young artists today? In what ways are young artists today fortunate?
The economic situation is a problem for young artists. Also, there is too much information. I think too many people are tied to the trends, and trends are created by someone else. As a young artist, you must find what you have and work with what you’ve got. But, being in the information age is an advantage, because you are able to show your work over the internet. A while ago you had to be in New York. When I was young I had to show something in New York, or else no one would see the work. Now you can create a homepage of your own, and you can submit your ideas through the internet to anywhere in the world.
Contemporary Art: Why Is It Important?
What role do you think contemporary art plays in society?
To bring back memories of things you have forgotten, problems of ecology, the earth’s environmental issues, lack of communications, peace, this is the role of contemporary art. For example, my pieces are made out of all natural ingredients, the paper and pigments are natural, the glue is also natural. By using these natural materials I want people to see the powers of nature. Looking at the painting of the waterfall, I want people to appreciate the falling water as a beauty in itself. When I created the cliff I applied the pigment with a scrunched up paper. The scrunched paper is a fault to most people. However, I do not consider the imperfection a problem, but rather I find beauty in it. It’s about recycling, and bringing back the things that might have been scarred. I believe these concepts are very important for the 21st century. Do not throw out the paper because it is scrunched, but find beauty in its shapes.
What is your philosophy as an artist? Why create art?
I find it a peace-making process. Like singers sing songs, it is a way of communication. When an artist shows work it is all about communicating. Art is all about communicating with everybody beyond religions and sexes. Therefore it is the peace-making process. I think that is the wonderful part of making art. There is a wisdom within it.
What do you think is the greater purpose of contemporary art?
It helps us understand that everyone has very different ideas, but we are all human beings. I believe that what I think is beautiful, you will think is beautiful also.
What are you trying to achieve or communicate through your art?
I want everyone to remember the concept of beauty, and it is sublime. In beauty I believe there’s a lot of power, which gives people encouragement and energy to live.
How do you want people to feel and think when viewing your works?
I want everyone to think like myself! I want everyone to think like how I feel about beauty.
Does water and the waterfall have a special significance to you?
For all human beings, the most important element is water. Deep inside, that’s why I wanted to create water.
What has been your biggest challenge in art?
My challenge is in creating and successfully showing every work. Now is the most important time for me. Every day is a challenge.
Skira, the leading Italian publisher, will release a monograph on Hiroshi Senju for worldwide distribution in fall 2009.
-contributed by Erin Wooters
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