Unwritten Dialogues – An Interview with Adam Booth

British artist Adam Booth is one of the very few non-Japanese artists to work with traditional Japanese painting techniques.

poster for Adam Booth

Adam Booth "Eternal Spring"

at Gallery ef
in the Ueno, Yanaka area
This event has ended - (2007-03-16 - 2007-04-15)

In Interviews by Ashley Rawlings 2007-04-10

Nihonga (literally meaning “Japanese painting” but more commonly thought of as “Japanese-style painting”) was developed in the Meiji Period as Japan opened itself to Western culture and was a reaction to the increase in Japanese artists who had started to adopt Western painting techniques, making works known as Yoga (Western-style painting). Nihonga has evolved considerably since then, and it is often impossible to distinguish between Nihonga and Yoga. Adam Booth is currently holding a solo exhibition of his work at Gallery ef, where I asked him about his work.

Could you tell us a little about your background and how you came to Japan?

I studied Fine Art at university and worked in all sorts of media: oil and acrylic painting, drawing, installation work and so on. After my undergraduate degree, I studied Arts of Africa, Oceana and the Americas – a very broad subject but very fascinating. Asia Studies wasn’t part of my course but I met a lot of Japanese people on campus and I’d always been interested in Japanese art and the way the ukiyoe prints were filtered into Western culture through the Impressionists. Seeing the work of Ogata Korin, Sakai Hoitsu and Tawaraya Sotatsu on show at the British Museum made a big impression on me. My work has always had a graphic element to it and I was really attracted to the strong graphic element in their work – the simple, flat use of two or three colours and the off-centre compositions. At that point I thought I should be looking at Asian art and particularly Japanese art. I studied the language and after applying for a scholarship and ended up at Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music.

Detail: 'In Search of Eternal Spring' (2007). 170×62cm, Shell White, Ink, Mineral Pigments and Dyes on Silk

So the Nihonga techniques that you use were something you discovered since coming to Japan?

Yes. Initially it was the composition, colour and line, that two dimensional graphic feel that caught my attention, but then when I tried making Nihonga I became absorbed in the technical process. There are so many different media and materials to make use of in Japanese painting: the silk and the paper, the gold leaf, the gofun (ground oyster shell), ink and other ground mineral pigments and dyes – at first I found it very difficult but after persevering with it, I’ve found the surfaces they produce to be really rewarding.

What are the qualities that you prefer about Japanese painting techniques over Western ones?

The mineral pigments used in Nihonga are different from oil but stronger and more versatile than water colour. The colours are quite special and I love the whole process of making my own pigments. You can buy ground stone minerals in different grades – from very fine to coarse – you can heat up the mineral pigments to change the colour, and then you mix them with nikawa (animal skin glue). The technique is a long process and you have to be patient with it, but I enjoy working through it and making the image out of nothing.

Can you describe how you make the backgrounds for your work?

The paintings are all painted on silk, in the same way as when you make a kakejiku (hanging scroll). I dye the silk yellow, back it with paper and then dye it again with an orangy-red. Then I paint over it with a mix of greens and blues, which creates a subtle layering of colour. The surface of Nihonga paintings is quite different from acrylic or oil: it doesn’t shine, there’s no glass and no varnish over it; the nikawa sinks back and binds the pigment from behind rather than sitting over the top, which makes the work more fragile than oil.

So in Nihonga painting you have more control over which areas you want to shine and sparkle?

Yes, so I use gold powder for the peaches. I decided with this work that I just wanted the peaches to sparkle – there’s slight glittering in the birds, but on the whole it’s only the peaches that glitter, making them come across as more magical and powerful. The gold dust is really light and can blow around a bit, so I have to be really careful not to let it get into the rest of the painting.

View of exhibition at Gallery ef

How do you decide how you will lay out the composition?

Recently, I have been painting the last layer of the background with a looser approach. While I’m keeping that Japanese-esque feel, Hokusai or Jakuchu would never have painted a background as expressionistically as this. I then fix the composition of the painting depending on how the background works.

I used to plan everything out beforehand, but I felt the work was dying in the process. If I compare a painting with its preliminary sketch, I always feel the drawing has a more raw energy that gets lost in the finer detailing of the painting. In these works, I do the drawing on the silk after the background; I deliberately leave in the traces of the pencil lines because they keep some of the energy and movement. They also keep some of the history of the painting in the work.

You seem to have brought in other elements of Asian art, such as a more Indian kind of imagery. Is that something that the Japanese audience picks up on here?

Yes, and I’m surprised that they do, because it’s not all that obvious. I’m trying to work within the Nihonga of the Japanese art world but I’m a foreigner and I want to bring in what I know from my studies in South American and African art. I’m very interested in mixing those cultures while retaining a Japanese-esque feel to the work.

Detail: 'Eternal Spring (1-3)' (2007). 170×62cm, Shell White, Ink, Mineral Pigments and Dyes on Silk

The elephants you depict in your work are particularly unusual. Can you tell us more about them?

This elephant is quite close to the elephant that I saw painted by Tawaraya Sotatsu in Yogen-in in Kyoto. There is a 400 year old painting of an elephant, but it looks so modern for something that old. Looking at Sotatsu’s painting, in one sense it is totally ‘elephant’, but if you start thinking about it, it doesn’t bear that much actual resemblance to an elephant. So I became interested in the imaginative side of Japanese art, which doesn’t have the Western approach of trying to paint everything three dimensionally with the laws of perspective. What does accuracy matter in painting anyway, especially now that we have photography to produce a realistic image? I’m interested in how you can portray something through the imagination and how you can twist or change something but still recognize it. That was the starting point and gradually my imagery has changed, with a lot of ideas coming about through looking at traditional Japanese painting, particularly Buddhist paintings.

'In Search of Eternal Spring' (2007). 170×62cm, Shell White, Ink, Mineral Pigments and Dyes on Silk

This Buddhist aesthetic seems to be at the root of the ‘Auspicious/Suspicious’ atmosphere in your work (also the title of Adam’s 2006 solo exhibition at Gallery Unseal). What made you start to seek out this kind of ambiguity?

It comes from several factors. I’m trying to make work that is engaging in some way. I try to keep an ambiguity as to what the motifs might mean and what the relationships are between the figures in the paintings; it’s not about illustrating any particular story but about creating an unwritten dialogue. Often in Hokusai or Jakuchu’s work, there is an amazing tension on the faces of the birds: they look at the flowers or fruit with such an air of preoccupation and intent. Yet, there’s always this kind of ambiguous, suspicious element to their behaviour: they might be admiring the fruit’s beauty or perhaps they don’t even know what they’re looking at, and I find that fascinating.

Equally, if you go to any temple, you will find these guardian figures that are really aggressive and threatening with their rippling muscles and fire burning all around them. But they look that way because they are meant to crush all the evils – they themselves are not evil, they’re actually protecting you. Your first impression may be one thing, but the meaning is another and I’m always trying to subvert first impressions. If I paint something one way, I deliberately try to destroy it later so that my work doesn’t repeat itself; I’ll repeat the motifs but change them over time. It’s lucky in a way that Buddhism is a very open religion and not opposed to or offended by people appropriating its images.

Do you depict the peach as a symbol of longevity, as it has been in traditional painting?

That’s what it symbolized in the past in China and Korea. In Japan it is a youth-giving fruit, as in the story of Momo-Taro (Momo-Taro was actually born because his parents ate the peach – the story that he was born from the peach was developed later). The peach for me is a symbol of desire, the things we wish for, the places we want to go, and things we want to achieve in life but that remain illusive to us. Having looked at a lot of art from around the world, I’ve been interested in folk stories and myth and how the human psyche’s preoccupations with myth manifest themselves in art.

You could say any kind of fruit inevitably has fundamental associations in any culture.

Yes, like the apple in the Garden of Eden: it’s the fruit of the gods, but it’s also the forbidden fruit – something that looks tempting but is forbidden. In the Chinese story of Tougenkyo there is this peaceful other world. The character of the story lives in a place that has suffered many wars and lacks food. One day he stumbles upon Tougenkyo where all the peach trees are in bloom; it is peaceful and there is plenty of food. After spending some time in there the character goes back to his hometown and the people there ask him to take them to Tougenkyo. Unfortunatey, however, they are not able to find it. That situation fascinates me: the inability to attain the things we desire in life. Perhaps there is an overall moral behind it: that instead of always desiring something else, we should find peace within ourselves.

In that sense, while your work uses traditional techniques and motifs, do you think of the morals behind it as being relevant to the contemporary society? That we live in a materialistic world and we desire more than we should?

Yes, I do. It’s probably not easy for people to read that in my work, but yes, it is about that.

Takashi Murakami studied Nihonga before moving on into the world of Manga and Anime and his ‘Superflat’ movement has been discussed as a contemporary evolution of Nihonga. Even though stylistically your work is very different from Murakami’s, you seem to have been inspired by the same sources.

It’s true, people ask me if I’m influenced by manga and anime, but any similarity is more likely to be due to Manga and Anime also having been influenced by the sources that influence me. Nevertheless, while I think that consciously it’s coming from the same source, I’m quite sure that sitting on the train every day, seeing manga imagery everywhere is definitely having a subconscious influence. I know my brain absorbs images, so I’m sure the Manga influence is in there somewhere; I don’t think I would ever paint these pictures if I was in the UK.

View of exhibition at Gallery ef

Gallery ef’s space is very different from the majority of galleries in Tokyo, and seems very well suited to displaying your work. How have you found working in this space?

I did some installation work in the UK, and I’ve always really enjoyed it. I paint because I really like the technical process and expressing myself through painting, but I’ve never lost the enjoyment of trying to create an atmosphere and I try to use the gallery space to show the work as best as I can. In Japan, galleries are mostly very time and money oriented, so at best you will be given a day, or more usually only half a day to put on a show and quite a lot of the time you’re dealing with pretty awful spaces.

But this gallery is a very good environment for my work – you can control the lighting. I think the materials that I’m using lend themselves to slightly darker spaces. They don’t stand up so well under strong lighting, because they don’t have the strength or brightness of acrylic. I asked two musicians, Takamasa Miwa and Shunichi Kashimura, to help make music that would fit with the exhibition.

In preparing this exhibition, I was thinking about Spring and the process of renewal, how things come to flower after the winter. In Hinduism things are a cycle: everything might be eternal but things within that eternity get destroyed in order to be remade. I’m interested in these opposites: fire destroys but its act of destruction allows for recreation.

This whole area of Asakusa has gone through that process of destruction and regeneration, having been bombed flat during the Second World War.

Japan is just that: it recreates itself constantly.

Ashley Rawlings

Ashley Rawlings. Ashley Rawlings was the editor of TABlog from 2006 to 2008. More information about his work can be found at www.ashleyrawlings.com » See other writings

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