Minori Aoki (Invited Artist) Interview


Years of Struggle in the graduate school

Please tell us how you became interested in becoming a painter.

I have loved to draw pictures since I was a child, and I was in the art club at junior high and high school. Then I went to Tohoku University of Art and Design because it is only art college in the Yamagata prefecture, and I thought I could paint many pictures there. It wasn’t until after I finished graduate school that I decided to become a painter in earnest. I had mixed feelings: I wanted to continue doing what I loved, and I did not want to end up this after two years of frustration.

If you don’t mind me asking, can you tell me as much as you can about your “frustrations”? Rejected from a lot of open calls?  and…

I faced many rejections from both open calls and scholarships. There was a significant contrast between my undergraduate and graduate experiences. During my undergraduate days, I focused on ‘just creating’. As a result, I entered graduate school without a clear conceptualization of my artworks. Therefore, I questioned again and again if I was on the right path when I was in graduate school. This uncertainty persisted for two years.”

What did you study at Tohoku University of Art & Design?

During my undergraduate years, my primary focus was on production. In graduate school, I delved into the so-called ‘context’ of art, honing my ability to articulate the themes and concepts behind my works. The experience was vastly different from my time as an undergraduate, prompting me to question the disparity.

In hindsight, I recognize this shift as necessary training for me as an artist. Since my undergraduate days, I have been actively involved in the tutorial ‘Is Tohoku-ga (Paintings of Northeastern Japan) Possible?’—an engagement that continues to this day.”

I see. I can see why. Especially open calls abroad with good conditions, there is a lot of writing involved. However, I think Minori’s application for the TORIGOYA project was of a high level, even when compared to applicants from other countries. What do you mean by the word “Tohoku-ga”?

It is the name of tutorial launched in 2009 by Professor Natsunosuke Mise of the Japanese Painting Course and Professor Masatake Konozaki of the Western Painting Course (currently he is faculty member of Joshibi University of Art and Design) at the Tohoku University of Art & Design. The tutorial is a unique faculty-led extracurricular activity at Tohoku University of Art & Design, which explores the situation and possibility of art in Tohoku Area. The tutorial includes personal creation and collective creation. I have participated since my second year as an undergraduate student, and I still go there occasionally.

I often do “on-site research” as a preliminary step of production, which is greatly influenced by Tohoku-ga tutorial. Even when I was a student, I would research Kitakata in Fukushima and Zao in Yamagata with the members of the group in preparation for production.

「万世障壁」 綿布にジェッソ、アクリル 1960×1580mm 2022 年

Discovering the theme in the activities of Tohoku-ga

When did you start working on your current theme? Can you tell us how you arrived at your current theme?

There were a couple of trigger…first, when I was in graduate school, there was a news report that Zao might erupt. It was around 2015, and it did not erupt after all. I began to think, “Nature is alive, and humans can be disadvantaged by it.” As I told in my artist statement, “The mountains behind my house loomed like a wall, denying communication with the world outside. In fact, the arrival of goods and information was much slower than in urban areas, and the environment had a strong sense of entrapment. In winter, snow covered the land, making it difficult to go out freely. It sounds good to say that it was rich in nature, but it was a daily life with such hardship.” I believe that this is also a kind of “disadvantage”.

Secondly, When I participated in a residency in Rikuzentakata with the members of “Tohoku-ga”.  This was actually the first time for me to visit the disaster-stricken area. It was shocking to see Rikuzentakata, where the old town had disappeared and brand new buildings lined the streets. It was around this time that I began to think, “People say Yamagata has few disasters, but is that true?” The aforementioned Zao volcano is also a disaster risk, snow is called “snow disaster,” and the Mogami River has a history of flood and its control. I saw the people of Rikuzentakata living with the sea even after the disaster, and I came to think to express “disaster” and “violence” one step beyond “disadvantage,” as well as “overcoming” and “coexisting with nature” beyond that.

This is how I came to the theme.

You were born and raised in Yamagata Prefecture. Have you ever lived in other places?

No. However, I have had some experiences of short-term stays in other places for residencies and camps. Most recently, I participated in a residency in Miyazaki Prefecture in July and spent 10 days there. The tropical plants growing everywhere, the blue sea, the heavy rain…it was full of precious experiences.

「NAMAZU Works #1」 パネル、アクリル 388×455mm 2023 年

Do you mean that you are dealing with the theme of nature in Japan? Or do you mean that you deal universally with the terror and beauty of nature? 

I think the latter is closer to my concept.

For you, is nature something that seems to have some kind of personality, like God in the Old Testament episode of Isaac’s burnt offering? Or is it something completely different from humans, like the Angels in “Evangelion”?

I think I used to view it as the former when I used to draw eyes and mouths on mountains. It was anthropomorphic of nature. These days I think it is the latter. It’s hard to put it well, but I see it as something more grandiose, something that seems anthropomorphic but isn’t…that’s how I see it.

For example, Nadine Baldaw, who will be with you this time, trained as a woodworker at the foot of the European Alps, and her theme is the relationship between nature and humans. She has been staying and working in various places around the world, including Ireland, Iceland, Slovenia, Lithuania, India, and will be in Hirono. So, if you were invited to participate in a residency at a shepherd’s hut in Lithuania, where Nadine have stayed before, would you go?

I would love to go there! But I’m worried about security and the language.

This has been flagged.

I’m sure it has been flagged!

Reading your artist statement, I feel that you are close to the concept of “the sublime” as discussed by Edmund Burke and Kant. Please tell us about the similarities and differences between the “sublime” as addressed by Western Romanticism painting and aesthetics and also the beauty of ruins, and Minori’s theme.

I think the common point with “sublime” and my concept is that we see nature as “something that cannot be resisted or defeated” and feel a sense of awe in it. It is difficult to put the difference into words, but since I am Japanese, I feel that I have an animist view in addition to the above. I also believe that while we treat nature as something “irresistible and unbeatable,” we can still overcome it by making full use of technology.

Do you mean “get over” or “overcome” in English? Or is it more like the word “negotiate”, where we manage to coexist or build a relationship to take advantage of each other between human and nature?

The image of “get over & overcome” in mind, and “negotiate” in the result. For example, I like civil engineering structures such as dams and highways, which I see as negotiate against the “irresistible and unbeatable” nature, and as a state of somehow coexisting. However, I think that the process of their construction and the thoughts of the people involved in the project are “get over” and “overcome the nature.

「いくつ崩れて」 パネル、アクリル 727×2334mm 2022 年
「動くこと⼭の如し」 ケント紙、アクリル、ラメ、メディウム 585×800mm 2022 年

Tomoko Konoike, Evangelion, Masatoshi Naito, urban legends, and other influences.

Why do you mainly paint with acrylics instead of Japanese-style paintings or oil paintings?

I prefer acrylic painting because it is a relatively new medium that allows me to concentrate on the theme of the work itself without being confined to the context of the medium. I also find it appealing to be able to broaden my range of expression by making full use of the mediums. Recently, I have been using a gloss polymer medium to create lamé collages.

Which painters have strongly influenced you so far?

I like Tomoko Konoike. When I was in high school, I remember seeing an advertisement for the “Intertraveler” exhibition on TV, even though I was not familiar with contemporary art at the time, I was drawn in by her works and world view. Then I checked her bio. I ended up not going to see the Intertraveler exhibition, but later, when I was a student, I saw his work in person for the first time at the “Primordial Violence” exhibition. I was quite influenced by her expression, her view of nature, and the way she connected her works with her “hometown.

I also like Taro Okamoto. I think his works are cool. I think Zdzisław Beksiński has influenced me in the way he expresses “fear” and “eeriness.

I see, it seems that the influence of Japanese artists is stronger than that of 20th and 21st century Western contemporary art.

I think so.

When you draw “scary” and “eerie” pictures, are there any influences from various Japanese yokai and monster paintings? Nihonga (Japanese painting) and ukiyoe in the past, or manga such as Mizuki Shigeru and “Atack on Titan” in the modern and contemporary era?

Yes, there are. As for ukiyoe with yokai and ghosts, I think I was generally influenced by them. Also, although yokai do not appear, I consider Kyuso-zu and Jigoku-e to be “scary paintings”. In terms of anime, I think I had influenced by “Princess Mononoke” and “Evangelion” heavily. And I like occult, folklore, and urban legends, including those originating on the Internet, so I think I am also influenced by them. For example, “Yamanoke” and “kunekune”.

「出⽻國⼤物忌災禍ノ話」 綿布にジェッソ、アクリル 3050×1955mm 2021 年

Also, there seems to be something feminist in your work, or not, although from looking at your portfolio, it seems to be both, such as …… “Ame-umi” (birth of rain).

I am not that conscious of feminism, but I am aware of the fact that in Japan, mountains have long been considered to be the goddess. I am conscious of that, and I dare to depict mountains and nature as “asexual”. Also, my personal philosophy is that there is no problem if men give birth to children.

That is very interesting way of thinking. So your paintings is not an ecofeminist expression?

You can have a baby even if it’s asexual…. When I talk about this with both men and women, they all are frightend (LOL).

After hearing that, when I look at Minori’s work, it is far more interesting than just looking at it as an ecofeminist painting.

Thank you very much.

Please tell us about any strong influences other than paintings.

Photographer, but I think I was influenced by Mr. Masatoshi Naito. I remember seeing an exhibition at the 7th floor gallery of Tohoku University of Art and Design when I was a freshman. My father, who is a fan of Mr. Naito, told me to go see the exhibition, so I went to the 7th floor without any prior information and was overwhelmed by what I saw.

I see. Then, Naoki Ishikawa or ……

I also like Naoki Ishikawa.

Do you do any outdoor activities such as mountain climbing?

I have been too busy to do any serious mountain climbing for the past few years, and the last time was three years ago when I climbed Mount Gassan with a senior alumni. The trail on Mt. Gassan is gentle and easy to climb, but the path is made of stones, and my knees were broken on the way down, not on the way up. Anyway, the view from the peak was great. For light trekking, I went to Bandaisan in August this year. A local guide led us up to the crater. The contrast between the reddish-brown collapsed walls and the green trees was impressive.

Thank you. Look forward to see you in Hirono!