OHKOJIMA Maki deepens her reflection on the earth’s environment and on humans, nature, and the universe by using the expressive medium of art. Having started her career with painting, she has expanded the breadth of materials she employs—in proportion, it would seem, to the deepening of her thoughts—to include paper, fabric, wood, soil, and also ceramics. She is a rising young talent who won the 29th International TAKIFUJI Art Award in 2008.
Inspiration got from carcass of a whale
——You were invited aboard the Tara, a French environmental research expedition vessel*¹, as an artist-in-residence from January to March 2017 and sailed the Pacific Ocean for about two and a half months. Has the experience impacted you greatly?
Yes, it has. Over the past three years, I’ve continually been shaken by the Tara in a good sense. My time with the expedition was full of happenings and encounters, among which one of the most memorable was an encounter with the carcass of a whale floating on the North Pacific. The carcass was white and enormous, and numerous birds flocked around it, pecking away at the whale’s dead flesh. Not just birds but also fish, sharks, and various other creatures were gathered there as well. I think artists are beings that, when they come across a shocking event, cannot help but process the event internally and think about how they could channel the outcome of that process into artistic expression. For me, the encounter with the whale carcass was just such an event.
Life on the Tara was already filled with experiences that were different from ordinary life in the first place. Engaging in dialogue with the captain, crew, and scientists aboard the vessel and learning all about marine life and the ocean from them was in itself very exciting. Under these extraordinary circumstances, I encountered the carcass of a creature larger than anything I’d seen before. From that point on, as though possessed by the dead whale, I began thinking about and working on what would eventually evolve into my “Whale” series. To call it the responsibility of someone who witnessed the scene might be an exaggeration, but I had most certainly received something from that carcass, and I wanted to respond to it in a proper manner.
——Could you explain in detail?
After seeing the carcass, I began studying about the whale as a species, as well as about phenomena associated with whales, and my imagination expanded further in the course of that research. The ocean is the “soup of life,” if you will. All life, including ourselves, originally came from the ocean. The same can be said of whales. But when a whale dies, its gigantic body breaks down and begins to dissolve into the seawater, metamorphosing into a prodigious source of life. It can be said, then, that whales are a part of the ocean and, at the same time, the ocean is a part of the whales. I find this to be very intriguing.
Also, after the dead whale sinks to the depths of the ocean, it forms a new ecosystem that feeds on it—a whale fall*². Diverse species live symbiotically around the carcass as if it is a communal house, and it is an incredibly beautiful sight. This kind of symbiosis can be seen elsewhere as well. Take for example coral, which I love; coral reefs are like houses too. Corals are strange beings—at once animal, plant, and landform. They host large amounts of algae within themselves and draw sustenance from the energy that the algae produce by photosynthesis.
I’m glad that, in researching these things, I was able to learn about the important role played by microscopic entities like planktons. When a bloom of the phytoplankton Emiliania huxleyi occurs, for instance, the feces of organisms that feed on the phytoplankton are deposited on the ocean bed in large quantities. And when these undergo geological change, they can result in chalk formations like the White Cliffs of Dover. The earth on which life unfolds is created in such a cycle of eating and being eaten.
Alternatively, the ocean itself could be regarded as a large house in which a plethora of organisms dwell. When you look at it that way, there are many things to think about, such as how this house came to be in the first place and what its place is in the ecological cycle. So the last three years for me has been a time in which, with the whale as a totem, and while relying on its physique, I went on from there to think about the connections between various things both living and nonliving and produced works based on that.
*¹ A project launched by the fashion brand agnès b. in 2003 to research and protect Antarctica and the ocean using the schooner Tara. For each expedition, scientists and artists are selected from among the applicants to live aboard the vessel for several months, during which they engage in their respective activities.
*² A biological community that forms around a whale carcass that has sunk to the deep ocean floor.
Backing up abstract images with concrete knowledge
——The whale served as a messenger, or perhaps something like a narrator, in understanding the earth and the universe.
Yes. At the Setouchi Triennale in 2019, for instance, I collaborated with the three Vayeda brothers, who produce wall murals in the tradition of the Warli—an ethnic minority in India—and the residents of Awashima island, Kagawa Prefecture, to create a cave, cave wall murals, and a three-dimensional work representing the skeleton of a whale. What I envisioned was a “place where earth and ocean meet.” I believe that that image, too, was derived from the dead whale.
Incidentally, we made whale bones in the cave, and bones are also very interesting when you look into them. We need minerals to live. There was no need to store reserves of minerals in the ocean, where they were available all around, but in the process of transitioning to life on land, the need arose to retain minerals within the body; bones are said to have developed as a way of doing so. In other words, bones could be seen as a life support system for us to store minerals, as well as a “solid ocean” that exists within our bodies.
I put the whale series to rest for now, though, with the exhibit at the Setouchi Triennale. My mind will keep going round in spirals, so I feel no hesitation about shifting my focus of interest. Lately, I’ve been interested in the skin. I’m mulling over many different ideas, such as the possibility of identifying the image of the earth’s ozone layer with that of the skin on our bodies.
——You don’t just create work but also study a variety of subjects, such as marine biology and cultural anthropology, to further your awareness of and thinking about the earth and the universe.
I probably used to look at things in a more abstract way. Recently, though, I’ve also come to engage in a process of backing up abstract images with concrete knowledge, and I’m studying subjects like oceanography, biology, and anthropology little by little as I produce my work. Aside from reading books, I’ve been doing things like sitting in on anthropology meetings and attending symposiums. It’s really exciting to listen to what frontline researchers have to say, and I’m also thrilled by how the intuitive images that I had held come together with scientific and empirical knowledge.
Argument on commercial whaling with people of France
——You held a solo exhibition titled Eye of Whale at the Aquarium de Paris, also known as Cinéaqua, in Paris, France, from December 2018 to January 2019*³. What was the response like?
The French view of whales is different from how we look at them in Japan, and I was intrigued by the difference in response. For example, the topic of whaling rarely comes up when I show works involving whales in Japan, but questions about the whaling culture, such as what I think about killing whales, are among the first things I’m asked in France. This was all the more so because the exhibition coincided with Japan’s resumption of commercial whaling. I went in prepared, though, knowing that that’s what doing a show in France meant.
——You explained to the French people?
Naturally. I wanted to discuss it properly. In traditional Japanese whaling, the whales were hunted with harpoons, after which every last part was used and shared among the people, and the skull was returned to the sea. Japan’s whaling culture rested on a foundation of respect for living beings that came hand in hand with the act of taking lives. In fact, shrines and monuments dedicated to whales can be found here and there, and rituals are held for them as well. When I was in France, I explained this Japanese attitude toward whales. Explaining these things in a foreign country brought home to me the realization that Japanese whaling is a culture that could only have been possible in Japan’s climate. In the West, where whales were hunted for their oil, historical differences have led people to view whaling in a way that is at odds with Japan’s. Ignoring all that and thinking about whaling in bipolar yes-no terms, fixated on one side or the other, doesn’t seem to me like the way to go.
——Were you able to gain their understanding?
An environmental TV network came to the exhibition, and I talked about a lot of things in English. But the part where I said, “I don’t agree [with whaling] without reservation,” was conveniently paraphrased as “I’m against whaling.” [Laughs] That said, there were some people who told me, “I don’t understand, but I think I get it,” after speaking at length. Regarding the custom of eating whale meat, thanks to experiences like these, I’ve come to think it’s important for the Japanese to not simply resort to the word “tradition” as an excuse but engage in earnest dialogue with those of other cultures.
Importance to have an animistic worldview
——Differences over whaling are, in some respects, historical and cultural.
There’s still some animistic sensitivity left in Japan, which makes it easier to understand in a sort of experiential, realistic sense that humans aren’t the only protagonists of the earth or the universe. But that partly has to do with what stage we are in historically; some cultures have already moved far away from that kind of animistic thinking. It’s fine, of course, that there are a variety of different values. But personally, I also feel that an animistic worldview is hugely important in order for humans and other creatures to live together in harmony, which is why it’s constantly been on my mind how I want to express in many different ways the idea that we are made to live within a “more-than-human” web of interconnectedness.
——When we talked before, the topic of the cultural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss*³ came up. I remember thinking at the time that your work was reminiscent of Lévi-Strauss.
I was told the same thing at another interview—that the way I put together disparate elements, and how the whole is made up of individual pieces, is similar to what Lévi-Strauss referred to as “bricolage.”*⁴ It isn’t that I was influenced by Lévi-Strauss to begin with, though. Some people suggested that to me, so I reread his works to understand my own work more deeply. I found them very exciting, and there were many points I could relate to.
*³ A French cultural anthropologist who died in 2009 at the age of 101. Based on his studies of indigenous peoples in Brazil, Lévi-Strauss developed the theory of structuralism, which held that cultures could not be defined in terms of “primitive” or “civilized” and that the differences between them were only in their social organization.
*⁴ Bricolage As defined by Lévi-Strauss, bricolage refers to problem solving by making combined use of whatever materials and tools are at hand, rather than by following a coherent plan.
Putting down my thoughts through pictorial expression
——Lévi-Strauss’ relativistic ideas, such as that the world is made up of aggregations, that all beings are equal rather than humans being at the center, and that everything has its own role, seem to overlap with your work. When did you aspire to become an artist?
I’d been drawing since I was three, but I’ve never actually thought I wanted to become an artist. My parents didn’t have a lot of time to spend on their children, being busy with nursing care and work. Being a child, I naturally felt lonely, and drawing helped me. I’ve never thought about quitting drawing, or even that I wanted to become a professional; I just kept doing it, and here I am now. To put it differently, there’s a sense in me that the acts of drawing and thinking are directly linked. I feel as though I’ve been using pictorial expression as a way of putting down my thoughts on paper.
——Do you put it in writing as well?
Of course. I have a private “thought notebook” of sorts, and I write down various things in it, like stuff I thought about or learned. It has drawings alongside writing, like the notebooks of Minakata Kumagusu*⁵. I started recording my thoughts in these notebooks during college. I’m also constantly writing things down in cloud-based memos.
——What does your family think of your work?
My father almost always comes to my exhibitions, but rather than telling me something verbally, it’s more like he keeps a warm eye on me. My mother is amused by my expressions. Back in high school and college, whenever I wrote down a concept for a piece, I would show it to my mother first. She would look out for things like problems with my wording, holes in my logic, and whether what I wanted to say was being expressed properly. I owe my ability to write decently to the drilling my mother gave me. My mother was a newspaper writer, and father worked in the audiovisual industry. As an adolescent, I would ask about things like life and death or the human consciousness, or what materialism was, and my mother would lay these things out for me even at the expense of sleep. She majored in Russian literature, which she tells me was all because she’d been deeply struck by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in high school. Since then, feeling that she, too, needed to devote her life to something, she began reading many books and doing a lot of thinking. Thanks to having someone like that in my life, I got into the habit of starting with what’s considered the presupposition when thinking about something.
*⁵ A Japanese natural historian (1867–1941) whose broad expertise included folklore, biology, botany, anthropology, and ecology. Conducting research at the British Museum for many years and publishing many English-language essays on Nature magazine and elsewhere, he was widely known in the West as a Japanese intellect. In 1929 he gave a lecture to Emperor Hirohito, to whom he presented specimens of slime molds.
Beyond my thoughts and intentions make me happy
——For our Traffic Culture Exhibition, you’re creating some works as an invited artist.
Right now, I’m mainly producing ceramic pieces at CREARE Atami-Yugawara Studio for the exhibition, which will be held in the precincts of JR Ueno Station in October . Ceramics are made by kneading soil, firing with clay, and coloring with mineral-based glazes. I’ve spent the last few years creating works with the ocean as the theme, and in the process, I’ve come to realize how the ocean and soil are interconnected, both environmentally and ecologically. I find it intriguing that I’m now getting to grapple with the medium of soil, because it’s as though my creative work itself is converging with this ring of circularity.
Actually kneading soil at the studio has also made me aware of how pleasant the texture and sensation of soil are. And when I fire the pieces I’ve shaped, they undergo transformations I’d never imagined. Applying glaze causes further unexpected changes. In short, they don’t turn out as planned. To some extent, I have to entrust the pieces to the haphazardness that inheres in the materials—the elements—themselves. The addition of that chance element in my creative process can sometimes result in beautiful forms beyond my thoughts and intentions, and every day brings new surprises.
At the show in Ueno Station, I’m planning on exhibiting creatures consisting of ceramic heads and bodies made of real soil. Working with ceramics requires relying on the power of all the elements—water, fire, wood, metal, and soil—which I believe is why it has such a primitive appeal. As I create organisms using ceramics, I’m reminded of how our bodies, too, are similar to soil, and that our bodies are far from self-sufficient, relying on various other beings and existing in a web of interconnectedness with them; and I hope to express that image through my work.
——Visiting museums over the past several years, I sense an increase in works themed on minute entities within the bigger picture, such as humans or living beings within the vast universe.
I think we’re being faced with realities that force us to turn our attention in that direction. Take the problem of plastics, and also fossil fuels and global warming. Corals are being wiped out because of rising sea temperatures, and biodiversity is being lost to deforestation; these are things that have sustained us until now. Who are we? What have we been eating, and what have we been eaten by? With what have we been involved, or not, and in what way? We’re coming to an era in which we’re compelled to question each and every one of these things. I think the art world, too, is trying to face these questions and respond to them.
Born in Tokyo in 1987. Entered Joshibi University of Art and Design in 2005, won the 29th International TAKIFUJI Art Award in 2008, and received a master of arts degree from the Joshibi University of Art and Design in 2011. Participated in the Tara marine research expedition in 2017. In addition to presenting the solo exhibition Eye of Whale at the Aquarium de Paris in France, has dedicated a ceiling painting at Minamizawa Hikawa Shrine and produced the drawings of 88 constellations for the Tamarokuto Science Center Planetarium. Her numerous honors include the 2009 Tokyo Wonder Wall Award, the 2011 Ichiro Fukuzawa Prize, the 2014 Terrada Art Award, and the 2014 VOCA Encouragement Prize.