Daiwa Foundation Japan House, London
16th February 2017 – 9th March 2017
A large mixed media scroll titled ‘Resistance to overwhelming force’ that portrays figures and forms in various states of defiance along with candid echoes of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ is spread out gravely across adjacent walls. A few metres across, a wooden sculpture titled ‘Victory’ rises up headless and unabashed from a plinth with its arched back capturing a moment ofecstatic release. This seamless meandering between contrasts and antonyms occurs organically in the works; both in the use of materials and the subject matter. The serious and the playful, the political and the personal, the deep and the lighthearted, the realistic and the abstract - all strike a languid equilibrium in the visual language, and that sets the pulse of Setsuko san’s very first exhibition in London.
This invisible undulating rhythm works as the undercurrent of the show. There is a delicious impression of movement that gives her concrete intentions a light,airy feel which is especially evident in her sculptures.
In her most well known sculptural works ‘Dreams’ and ‘Ocean’ (2012 and 2011; permanently installed in Shinagawa Tokyo and at the Hara Museum ARCin Shibukawa, Gunma Prefecture) which are viewed through virtual reality goggles at the show, one immediately encounters the merry spirit that bends and folds the steel into various circles and swirls from which smaller forms – human figures with outstretched limbs, deer, turtles, fishes, foxes, stars et al - emerge with a gentle finesse. They appear as if they are about to flout gravity and surge up higher into the air. In these works and in the other sculptures installed in the gallery like the ‘Harvest Moon’ (2015) which depicts multiple crescent moons twisting and turning amongst each other, the simplicity of thought and its subsequent transformation into form feels almost ordinary yet striking and personal. The work ‘Migrants’ (2016) which leans towards a political concern,lends a similar sensation; multiple human forms with their centres hollowed outportray a familiar kind of emptiness but are also burdened with a subtle sense of unease that is entirely the artist’s own emotive response.
This effect becomes more pronounced in her paintings - highly political subject matters that are decidedly unpretentious and restrained in their voice. And it is indeed in these mixed media paintings that her artistic maturity is more tangible, for she achieves a blend of her acute political awareness and herpersonal responses to it, without either overshadowing the other.
It is interesting to observe that for someone who claims ‘everything about my process happens in an unconscious manner, unfortunately’,* there is a palpable, defined intention, as if her unconscious were in complete control of its being unconscious. Her swirls, curves, and sensitive outpourings embrace our vision and our minds. In her mixed media painting ‘Gates of War Gates of Peace’(2016), repetitive collage patterns of doors, hens and red robed figures walking away or towards the viewer in the lower half contrast the monotony of silhouetted figures in restless motion on the upper half. A child on the extreme left looks at us as if he has resigned himself to whatever life is bringing for him, whereas on the extreme right a child tries to escape from his fate, wide eyed, fearful. Here, in this two dimensional space as well, we encounter a loop – of arrivals and departures and everything in between.
Her series ‘Monsters of our civilisation’, a collection of mixed media on canvas, raise her flustered pitch higher through the use of more abstract and darker shades. The figures here are vaguely comprehensible, yet more coherent in the terror and dismay that they illustrate for us.
In the aforementioned ‘Resistance to Overwhelming Force’ which showcases her concerns regarding the present day Palestine, she openly references the alarmed horse and exaggerated, overlapping elements of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (a response to the Spanish Civil War); giving free reign to mirror those who haveinspired her while demonstrating that which has agitated her. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the seemingly disconnected pauses in John Cage’s musical pieces, an art that has had an influence on her, reverberate in her use ofthe recurring elements and in the gaps she inserts between these elements; though this also stems from an unconscious process and thus dons a subduedguise in her articulations.
The fact that she began exhibiting only after her retirement has definitely veered in favour of her artistic progress. Without the strains of making art for exhibitions and sales, she has retained a calm and buoyant approach to her works. One can see she definitely has taken her art seriously but not herself (as an artist?); in turn sparing her art from becoming what most contemporary art today is deemed to be characteristic of - overstated, exaggerated vocabularies. Her resulting language is free of artsy jargon. Rather it is one of lucidity and a soft strength.
The ebb and flow of her art cradles you into a space of tranquility not devoid of worthy fodder for thought.
*Setsuko Ono in her artist talk at the daiwa foundation on 23rd February, 2018
Courtesy of the artist’s website