HONGO Yoshiya, the 27th recipient of the International TAKIFUJI Art Award, is a sculptor who works mainly in metal. He is invited artist for the 70th Traffic Culture Exhibition 2023 *¹ and will present ambitious public art work based on the history and imagery of stained glass. Throughout interview, Mr. HONGO has spoken about his thoughts behind the work and the path he has walked so far. (Interviewer: NAGATA Akiko, Date of interview: August 2023)
Challenge to the stained glass Facing material and refining thinking and feeling
——Mr. HONGO, you have been working on a public art using stained glass since March at the Creare Atami Yugawara Studio. It will be displayed in the Traffic Culture Exhibition 2023 (20th. ~25th.Oct.) Why did you choose glass as your material?
After receiving a proposal from the Japan Traffic Culture Association, I visited the studio to receive a lecture on the characteristics of materials and expression for both stained glass and ceramic reliefs. I was also attracted to working with ceramics and fired ceramic samples in the kiln, but finally I decided to use stained glass.
My grandmother and parents were Christians and I myself attended church as a child, so stained glass was familiar to me. As a child, I felt that the beautiful light falling through the stained glass windows on the other side of the altar was somehow different from the reality. Now that time has passed and I have experienced many things, my non-Christian eyes seem to see the scene from a different angle than at the time. This time, as one metaphor for ‘boundaries’, stained glass itself was seen as a ‘material’. The reason for this is that we wanted to look at the nature of the “boundaries” that exist around us by confronting stained glass as a whole, including its historicity, style, technique and cultivated image.
——Your work “Inside-Outside” consists of five window-shaped stained glass windows lined up on the wall, allowing the viewer to appreciate the work from both sides. Several real stones are fitted into the glass, and the cracks and fractures running from the stones are expressed with lead lines, making it look as if stone throwing had taken place. What is the intention behind this work?
For me, the material is a very important point, and facing the material, I continue to improve the precision of my thoughts and senses, and project them into my work. As I mentioned earlier, I considered stained glass itself as a “material” as a starting point for this project.
For example, looking back at its history, stained glass has a close relationship with Christianity, and its ideas are deeply embedded in modern society. I have read many books on this subject. For example, Japanese American artist Makoto Fujimura’s book “Silence and Beauty: Shusaku Endo, Trauma, and Tread Culture” (2017, Shobunsha) is a thought-provoking look at the history of hidden Christians and the spiritual climate of Japan. I also went to see the work “Light, Water and Life” (1982) at JR Omiya Station by Ludwig Schaffrat*², a leading contemporary stained glass artist, and was impressed by its geometric beauty integrated with the architecture.
The title of the work, ‘Inside-Outside’, can also means ‘front/back’. So far, through the productions of arts, I have wanted to ask the question: how do we live in this world? In this context, ‘boundaries’ have become an important viewpoint from which to contemplate this question. Differences in the perception and treatment of ‘boundaries’ are also deeply related to various problems faced by contemporary society. ‘Boundaries’ are something that can be viewed negatively or positively, and even their ‘inside/outside’ or ‘front/back’ are not so simple and easy to handle and judge. That is why I feel it is necessary to consider what ‘boundaries’ are and how to face and engage with what lies beyond them.
For this work, I struck and broke the transparent glass panels with stone, then connected and fixed fragmented pieces of glass with lead wire, and the penetrating stones are inserted, thereby rebirth them into stained glass. This is due to the fact that the very technique of stained glass, in which cut pieces are joined together to create a single piece, overlaps with the very important Christian concepts of ‘division’ and ‘rebirth’. This work was created by building up these various information and elements related to stained glass like layers in my mind. I am very much looking forward to seeing how you view this work.
——The stained glass structure itself was also an inspiration for you.
Right. The shape of the window-like frame in this work is based on the design of the oldest surviving stained glass windows in Augsburg Cathedral, Germany. The window shape, which contains time and historicity, plays an important role as a structure that connects broken objects and supports a single world. In the first place, stained glass not only played a decorative role, but also served to communicate Christian doctrine widely without language. I considered such history and images and variety of things as part of the structure, and developed my plan.
*2 Ludwig Schaffrath（1924～2011） German plastic artist. He created stained glass works all over the world. The work for JR Omiya Station was planned by our association.
Exciting interaction with the Studio
——How did you go about creation?
I break a large transparent glass plate of 2400 × 1200 mm by hammering a stone into it and send it to the CREARE Atami Yugawara Studio to be made into stained glass. In the Studio, the glass pieces were fixed together with lead wire, and the holes of glass were not only re-fitted with stones, but were also reconstituted as stained glass. In normal stained glass creation, a pattern is created from a design and the glass sheets are cut accordingly, but in this case, the pieces is complicated because they are broken with stones, and the thickness of the lead wire that goes between the pieces has not been calculated. In order to pass the lead line through, it is necessary to reconstruct it, including the misalignment caused by it. I think I have asked the studio to do something more tedious and complicated than it looks.
——Why did you use stones to break the glass panes?
It is quite difficult to explain, but I think it was inevitably decided in the process of composing the entire work from among many options. While stone has a very simple impression, it also has multiple meanings. I felt that “stone” would play its role in the work, whether I sought some meaning or not. Furthermore, I liked the fact that I could not predict the outcome of my breaking of the glass panes. I basically don’t believe that human beings can control the world.
——Mr. NAKANO Ryushi, a leader of the Creare Atami Yugawara Studio, said, “The glass pieces we received from Mr. HONGO were really beautiful in the way they broke. I wanted to make use of the cracks running like a spider web all over the surface as it was.
I think the studio understood my intentions very well. For example, it is impossible for stained glass to have cracks in it, but this time, even the lines and minute cracks that were almost broken in the middle were utilized. I was impressed by the staff of the studio using of the word “translation” during our meeting. I understood that in the process of turning the original paintings of the artists into stained glass, it is necessary to converting the information adapted to stained glass. Although I cannot make stained glass, I was inspired by the collaborative communication with the studio and such experience was also incorporated as an element in this work.
——The Traffic Culture Exhibition 2023 in which this work will be exhibited, is going to be held inside JR Ueno Station, so many people be able to view the work.
For this work, I digested various information related to stained glass in my mind and piled it up like layers. I am very much looking forward to seeing how various people will view my work.
——It is likely to be a work that can be viewed in many different ways depending on the person.
Helping my father, Sculpture was familiar to me
——Mr. HONGO, you were born in Saitama Prefecture in 1982 and currently lives and works in Chiba Prefecture, neighboring to Tokyo. When and why did you become interested in sculpture?
I was born in Asaka City, Saitama Prefecture, and grew up there until I was in the third grade of elementary school, after which I moved to Noda City, Chiba Prefecture, where my atelier is now located. My father, HONGO Hiroshi, is a sculptor and a long-time art teacher at Tokyo University of the Arts. As an artist, he mainly creates dry lacquer*³ works. My younger brother, HONGO Shinya, is a metal forger and is participating in the exhibition “Super-technique for the Future! Meiji Crafts and Their DNA” (through November 26) at the Mitsui Memorial Museum in Tokyo.
——You are a family of artists.
Ever since I was a child, I watched my father’s creating of sculptures closely. Because I was given pocket money when I helped him to knead clay (laughs). I also remember being taken to an exhibition of the Kokuga-kai*⁴, to which my father belonged, where large works of art were lined up in the hall. My mother was also from the sculpture department of college of Arts, and during the summer vacation, she asked me to set up my easel under the blazing sun to paint pictures. At first, however, I had no intention of going into the art field and wanted to become a veterinarian or a lawyer. However, when it came time to decide where to take the entrance exam in the fall of my senior year of high school, the future plans I had been considering suddenly seemed to fade away. At that time, my father asked me to help him, and as I watched him work closely, my interest in sculpture grew, and I made up my mind. I began attending an art preparatory school, and after two years, I entered Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts, majoring in sculpture.
——How was student life at Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts?
I went to Okinawa for the first time when I took the entrance exam, and as soon as I landed at the airport, I felt the air was different. The temperature and humidity were high, and the vegetation and atmosphere of the city was different from that of mainland Japan, and I was very attracted to it. Perhaps because I was feeling more excited, I was very pleased about the achievement of my sketches for the examination (laughs). However, during my first and second years, I did not go to the university very much and devoted myself to working part-time. I was not a praiseworthy student, but the experiences I had then, not only in the university, but also in meeting various people and feeling from the city and nature of Okinawa, have become the basis of my current thinking.
*3 A technique in which hemp cloth or Japanese paper is laminated with lacquer or kneaded with lacquer and wood powder.
*4 An art organization with divisions for painting, sculpture, and crafts. The National Exhibition of Japan is one of the largest public exhibitions in Japan.
Realize the existence of border in Okinawa
——What is it like?
I mentioned earlier that I am interested in “borders,” but in the Okinawan language, people born in Okinawa are called “Uchinanchu” and people from mainland Japan are called “naitchu“. Also, if you ride a motorcycle on the national highway, you will find a place where the fence of the U.S. military base goes on and on, and on the other side of the fence, there is a beautiful green lawn like in a movie. And on this side, there is the daily life of Okinawan people. This awareness of the existence of various boundaries may have been born from spending four years in Okinawa. I was also overwhelmed by the culture and beliefs that Okinawa has cultivated, including the sacred place “Utaki“, where performing rituals, and the energy of nature. I think Okinawa is a wonderful place to think about the relationship between people and nature.
——What kind of work did you create during your college?
What was interesting was the terra cotta*⁵ training. Normally, pottery is made using an existing kiln, but in the university’s practical training, we built our own kiln around the molded clay and fired it, so we were able to make large pieces of pottery. I was strongly impressed by Okinawa’s pottery traditions, including its local characteristics. I started sculpting with metal in my third year. I think the reason I was attracted to metals was simply because I enjoyed the drama of the deformation and stretching that occurs in front of my eyes as a result of heating and electricity. From that time on, I started to gear up my creation, spending all day at the university, facing the materials and working with my hands in a frenzied way.
——You received the International TAKIFUJI Art Award in your senior year.
The teacher of the university recommended me to apply for the Award. For my award-winning work, I used iron to create a work that reflects my own interpretation of “life and death”. I used the Award scholarship to pay for the transportation of my artwork when I applied to the graduate school of Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music. The work was made of iron, about 1 meter in diameter and 3 meters high, and after the examination, it had to be sent back to Okinawa to be exhibited in the graduation exhibition, so the shipping cost was quite high, even by sea. If I had not received the scholarship at that time, I probably would not have been able to apply to graduate schools in Tokyo.
——What made you decide to go to the graduate school at Tokyo University of the Arts?
In my case, I was too comfortable in Okinawa (laughs). In fact, I could not imagine my future there and thought it would be better to go to Tokyo. By the time I graduated from college, I had made up my mind that I would continue to make sculpture for the rest of my life. At the time, I was not confident that I would be able to make a living as an artist in the future.
At the graduate school of Tokyo University of the Arts, I studied under Mr. KIDO Osamu of the sculpture department. He has been creating sculptures using stainless steel, and was one of the first to incorporate computers into his work. There was a great deal to learn from his attitude of constantly pursuing and working on new possibilities.
*5 Reddish-brown unglazed pottery.
Physical feeling is important for creation
——Which of the metal materials do you tend to use?
The materials are various. For my solo exhibition at Gallery Seiho in Ginza, Tokyo, in September, I will exhibit works made by the scrap metal which I was picking up from waste materials mills. In the “Nakanojo Biennale *⁶”, an international contemporary art festival opening at the same time, the artists have to use discarded materials for their creation. These discarded materials were from an abandoned house, and at first, artists should dismantle it with his own hands, considering the house itself as a material. Although I often use metal as a material for my works, I consider “material” as a broader concept than just a material. If you demolish an abandoned house, for example, you will encounter rotting walls, insect nests, and a lot of mold in the process. When you actually see, smell, and touch such things that you normally do not see, you feel how superficially we usually live. This physical feeling is something very important to me that I can never get from books or the Internet.
——Your physical feeling become materials for you, and you use that feeling as the starting point for your artwork, isn’t it.
That’s right. The starting point of my work is always to facing the materials. I believe that it is the accumulation of such feeling gives reality and bring into focus to my thoughts and senses.
——In recent years, you have been working with aluminum in a number of works. Hongo’s “Blank Space of Existence” series, which was exhibited in the drawing room and garden at last year’s Omuro Art Festival 2022 at Ninna-ji Temple, a World Heritage site in Kyoto, looks as if a real giant stone has appeared.
In the “The void” series, I rolled the aluminum sheet into a sphere, I enter into it and then I hit it from the inside with a hammer to stretch it out. This work pursues the formation of “existence” that appears on the boundary between inside and outside. Aluminum has a shiny image, but in this work, the surface has been corroded to produce white rust, so it looks like a stone to some viewers. At first glance, it looks very heavy, but it is actually light enough to be held by a person. The work is based on the balance between heavy and light, artificial and natural, and so on.
Potential of aluminum for sculpture
——I don’t think there are many sculptures using aluminum, but why did you choose aluminum?
Sculptor and ceramicist SHIMIZU Kyubei*⁷ created many works in aluminum, but there certainly may not be many artists who treat it as a material. Perhaps the reason why it is often avoided as a material for sculpture is because its texture appears light. However, it is certain that there are things that can only be created with this material. I think it is an interesting material. Technically speaking, aluminum, like copper, remains soft when heated to a certain temperature and returns to room temperature, and it has the property of re-hardening when tapped or subjected to friction. Because of these properties, I mainly used iron and stainless steel when I was in graduate school, but I started using them around 2014 because I wanted to work more sensitively.
——”Appearance” series of installations, in which delicate mesh patterns spread out, are also made of aluminum
“Appearance” is created by burning an aluminum sheet with a gas burner, as if to move the mass through it. The surface of aluminum is covered with an oxide film, and the melting points of the film and the metal inside differ by more than 1000°C. In this series, I use the peculiar properties that when heated, the middle side liquefies before the surface melts. When creating these works, I try to create a relationship with the space by sensing the transformation of the air, light, and metal in that place.
——You have been to many countries and regions for residency programs. Please tell me about some of the places that left a lasting impression on you.
All were interesting in their own way, but the natural environment of Iceland, where I spent about a month from the end of 2019, was particularly impressive. Although the country is volcanically active, the winter sea was filled with ice floes and the magnificent scale of the sea was very impressive. In Iceland, I picked up a piece of iron that had fallen to the seashore and polished it to create an art. At this time, I was interested in the boundary between a lump of iron that was soggy and rusted and looked like a natural stone and how far we could polish it to bring it back to the iron we usually know.
——You are currently teaching students as a part-time lecturer at Aichi University of Arts and Kanazawa College of Art. Is there anything you would like to tell young people who are interested in sculpture?
Yes, the social conditions surrounding sculpture are changing and times are tough today. The meaning and interpretation of the word “sculpture” varies widely. And although it is not a new phenomenon, it is also difficult to become financially independent as an artist after graduation. However, I believe that sculpture is becoming more and more important because we are living in an age when people tend to diverge from their raw senses.
*7 SHIMIZU Kyubei（1922～2006）. While working as a ceramic artist under the name of SHIMIZU Rokubei (7th generation), he pursued abstract sculpture in harmony with the Japanese climate.
1982 Born in Saitama Prefecture
2006 Won The 27th International TAKIFUJI Art Award
2007 B.F.A in Sculpture, Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts
2009 M.F.A. in Sculpture, Tokyo University of the Arts
He currently works as a sculptor and has exhibited his work in solo exhibitions and art festivals, as well as undertaking several commissioned works.