The Magic of Shadow


Hsu Chu-Chun*


…But whence that mystery? In the end, it is the magic of shadow that is the key to unlocking the puzzle…. I find myself looking in wonder at this dreamlike glow, and a murky haze appears before my eyes as I feel my eyesight weakening. The light reflecting off the dim white paper lacks the power to disperse the dense blackness of the tokonoma; the darkness repels the light, creating a world of confusion with no divide between light and darkness. Have you not, upon entering such a zashiki, felt a certain meaningful gravity that comes from encountering the fragile light within, so different in character to the normal sunlight outside?


The shadow Tanizaki described passionately was a dim world constructed with darkness. The sunlight penetrated the corridor and lost its complexion under the reflection of the shoji (window or door) whitepaper. Against the light, the shadow became an inescapable presence in the room. The shimmering light seemed to be unchanged, unable to go through the shadow while becoming gravitational. Thus, shadows make it impossible to perceive the passage of time, giving the illusion of being trapped in eternity. 


When I first read Tanizaki’s depiction of the gravity of light, I did not understand what he was referring to. As he described, most people in modern times are influenced by the Western notion of light, which I thought was simply about illuminating things and determining visual experience. Following Enlightenment thinking, light illuminates to reveal things, to dispel obscurity and to clarify what is before us. This makes it inconceivable for light to also obtain “gravity” and create a shade obscuring the contours of things. 


The “magic of shadow,” as Tanizaki called it, is present in Miwa Ogasawara’s paintings. Light puts a gloss on the walls, on the surfaces of glass containers, on human skin, on the ever-waving sea. Yet the light cannot penetrate what it shines upon, nor can it subjugate it to the contours defined by itself. Instead, the light is reflected, diffusing impotently around the objects, lying dormant in the eternal shade with them. 


Gazing at Ogasawara’s paintings is like being in eternal shadows. As Tanizaki remarked, it is the sudden fear of not knowing time. However, this fear is great enough to make us put aside our arrogance of rationality, and truly see what is in front of us. If one abandons the interpretative impulse leading from painting to truth, or the metaphorical significance that one imposes on the painted objects, one can see how Ogasawara bring the gravitational light and the objects closer to the beholder. The beholder must thus acknowledge their existence, rather than trying to capture them with the eyes or to see them as methods for the path to the truth. 


The Tangible Light

With the description “tangible light,” art critic Jens Asthoff accurately describes how Ogasawara abandons the symbolic meaning of light of Western art history in her paintings. Neither does she construct space with light[,] nor trigger contemplation through light. Giorgio Morandi and Vilhelm Hammershøi inspired Ogasawara. But the light depicted in her works is less symbolic. Instead, she reshapes light as an independent vehicle where things and people can drift. Furthermore, her light dissolves boundaries and makes the world a kind of continuum. What is intriguing here is that Asthoff’s characterization of the “tangible” refers to the capability of being perceived, especially through the sense of touch. It somehow implies that light is not the mediator determining visual perception but rather a palpable presence that does not highlight things but exists as matter with things.


For instance, in the still-life painting series entitled Vessel, we cannot follow the common logic of viewing still-life paintings to distinguish the boundaries between the vessel and the table. Here, the light is no longer a quality that defines the space, but a substance that surrounds the object, as if playfully disturbing our gaze. The vessel is enclosed in light and shadow. The blurred and shifting lines are not meant to suggest the passing of time. but rather appear as if they were placed in a chamber of obscure light. The movement of light is almost imperceptible, and there is no way to tell the difference in time by its position. Without knowing how much time it took, the shadows are superimposed on the vessel, creating an ever-shifting pattern.  


Likewise, Ogasawara does not depict light transmitted through glass in the Glass Sphere series but fills the spheres with light. A cloudy quality even exists in the spheres in Glass Sphere 4 and Glass Sphere 10 and prevents the viewer from seeing through. This quality forces our gaze to stay on the light that fills and surrounds the spheres, rather than to capture the presence of the glass sphere in the space. 


In the Hand and Skin series, which depict the human body, Ogasawara deliberately eliminates the realistic texture of the body and envelopes the body parts in pale mist rather than clearly presenting the texture, luster, or folds of the skin. The focal points here are the body, light, and shadow surrounding it. Ogasawara takes the human body as the subject, making the tangible materiality of the light even more convincing. At the same time, the light and shadow then envelop the body, making it equivalent to a still life caressed by light and shadow. The human body can thus delineate its outline according to the subtle and ever-changing light around it.


Uncatchable Substance

As a result, the timespace of Ogasawara’s paintings is always ambiguous. This does not suggest that she intends to suspend time or to preserve fragments of life to allow one to savor it in her paintings. On the contrary, what she preserves is a complexity of time space in a flux state. Since momentary light cannot reduced it to a single moment, it is difficult to define this timespace through a fixed perspective. The long-lasting sensation of what Tanizaki called "massive shadows" and “gravitational light” comes from the cloudy and indistinct quality of her work. The manifold timespace accumulates in the darkness, much like the marks one leaves on objects that have been kneaded. Sensory experiences that have not been rationally analyzed and organized are confusingly layered on top of each other and are rightfully present to the viewer. Neither do we need to anchor them in timespace, nor to specify their symbolic meanings. None of these sensory experiences, which constitute the eternity, need to be documented by history, politics or language to prove their existence.


“My paintings”, Ogasawara explained in her statement, “are a result of this world that is constantly becoming more complicated and difficult to grasp; with all the problems and pleasures that move us as human beings. There is no end to addressing this throughout the world.” Obviously, she is aware of the rapid changes and complexities of the contemporary world. The world in her paintings is not a suspended timespace but a continuum of countless moments. 


However, through her paintings, Ogasawara stops the beholder and re-examines the objects around them, which are no longer submissive objects that can be captured by the beholder and regulated by the spatial order of the paintings, but liberal things that exist in the indescribable distance.


In the more abstract works, such as Blossom and Spring, the artist almost intends to exaggerate the halo, thereby eliminating the contours of the objects she depicts. Although she illustrates the landscape in the Above and Ocean series, she still blurs the contours and leaves an ambiguous space. When describing the clouds in Above 2, the artist says, “ Clouds don’t know borders nor nationalities. They float and move in the atmosphere without any subjective purpose. Such a freedom.” She envies the clouds but doesn’t place them in a symbolic context and keeps her interpretation of the objects she depicts minimal. Such ambiguity maintains the otherness of the objects; at the same time, it faithfully presents the difficulty of capturing objects in any method. For that, objects always stay unreachable, unconfined by borders and nationalities, and let along the language order. 


Paintings that Resist to Be Interpreted

It is too much a luxury to seize the gaze and to resist unnecessary interpretation when one is bombarded by massive information at major international biennials and art fairs. However, regarding the current ever-accelerating environment, this is perhaps the calmest, yet sharpest question Ogasawara asks: If people prefer to give opinions promptly and no longer perceive things carefully, then, why is art necessary? 


The question makes Ogasawara’s paintings rebel against the tradition of Western art history and neglect the obsession with meaning in contemporary art. In the restless art world, she finds an undefined area where all kinds of interpretations and meanings are rebounded without leading to any possibility (which has almost become a dirty word in contemporary art) that can answer the question.


The space in Space Inbetween series appears to be a canal toward another room. However, the door at the end of the hallway seems impassable in the dim light. Ultimately, our gazes remain in this in-between area. Neither can we go forwards nor turn back. In the contradictory space depicted in Room, the artist presents the suspended gaze more explicitly: Does the door lead to the landscape projected on the wall? Or is it simply reflecting the interior space behind the viewer?


The unknown makes the viewer uneasy and insecure, just like the massive and unchanging shadow in the Washitsu (Japanese-style room). This makes modern people, tamed by the rational light, feel mystified and fearful. Instead of turning on the light, Ogasawara preserves the indistinguishable light and shadow in the face of this fear of the unknown. She frankly expresses the human inability to grasp things and even manage their own situation. In her practice, painting is neither the order of things nor the path to the truth. It is simply the being of humans and things. It is the most needed space in this over-burning and anxious time. 



©Hsu Chu-Chun  All rights reserved