Fritz W. Kramer
Conjectures on a painting by Miwa Ogasawara
One can observe the habitus, with which Miwa Ogasawara moves in her environment and with which she transcribes her perceptions into her works, equally well in several of her paintings. I have chosen – coincidentally and perhaps also due to affection – an otherwise not very conspicuous, medium-sized format from 2011 with the title Waiting. One sees a barren plain, grey with sparing additions of blue, enlivened only by traces of brushstrokes and bordered by a featureless wall or an open, empty horizon; to the right of the centre, a young woman is seated, cross-legged and facing towards the left. The silence of the space, the blurred contours and the posture of the figure suggest meditation – until one notices her keen attentiveness. The waiting woman is in fact leaning forwards, her gaze wide-awake. She is resting her hands on her knees, as if looking out for something. The unity of absorption and alertness also characterises other paintings, in which the artist constantly plays out new variations of this motif – according to a practice she also uses elsewhere. In another variation, Upright, from 2010, on the contrary everything meditative has been cancelled out by the tense, upright posture of an observer. One might say that all of the children and women painted by the artist are biding their time or rather waiting for something. However, in no place is it evident what they are looking out for with such anticipation.
While searching for the meaning of this intense yet undirected attentiveness, I am helped by a painting from 2005 called Family with which the artist reflects back on her childhood. It shows three figures staggered above one another, which apparently represent three generations: an older woman in an upright, respectable posture, engaged in handiwork; a younger one, turning to one side, but looking back indecisively; above this figure, completely turned away, a monkey; and the title of the work already attests to the fact that this is the child in the group. Following modern literary usage (James Joyce, Thomas Dylan), one could call it the “portrait of the artist as a young monkey”. Produced during her studies, back then the emerging artist used an almost pure red colour and comparatively well-defined contours in the tradition of western oil painting, yet drawing on an iconography that I was not instantly able to comprehend. Although in Africa or India one might be familiar with monkeys also as creatures with superhuman physical strength, in European art, which has always linked them to the funfair and the zoo, they are perceived as comical little animals. In this case, the trail leads to Japan, where monkeys are above all the antithesis to strictly-regulated, hierarchical forms of behaviour: free, wild and natural, so one might suppose that the symbolic self-portrayal is a rejection of the Japanese upbringing characterised by repression, convention and drill. However, the artist’s parents were and are protagonists of an anti-authoritarian pedagogy with ideals supporting naturalness and individual development through lifelong play, hence if viewed from a Japanese perspective, the monkey could by all means be their emblem. In fact Ogasawara left her home country at the age of fifteen, in order to go to California alone, and later to Germany – hence an age at which complete integration is only possible in exceptional cases.
In a familiar social milieu it is enough to confine the gaze to that which one knows from experience to be the essence. This is not the case when encountering people from another society, whose language remains foreign, even if one masters it. Even though the forms of behaviour seem as easy-going as in California, one still fosters specific expectations, standards and taboos, which are never completely predictable for foreigners; and subordinate roles are imposed on women, even if this is done less obviously than in Japan. Evidently, Ogasawara, on the threshold to adulthood, learned in such insecure situations to contain her interests and affinities, to not be fixated on something but to let everything appear to be, so to speak, without committing to a role or differentiating between the significant and insignificant from the outset. After becoming familiar with this kind of undirected, rather free-floating attention, I feel I can to some extent understand the seemingly meditative and at the same time tense posture of the woman in the painting Wating: she does not identify with what is prevalent and does not imagine she has always known how things operate. Likewise, the artist herself seems in principle to keep the mood of her paintings open and undefined.
“My paintings”, she explained “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”. Perceptions are renowned for always being determined by the way of perceiving and even in the state of floating attentiveness one does not always pay attention to what the determined majority finds important but of course also not to everything in equal measure. The artist’s urban landscapes appear, although they have been painted in European style, to have something indefinably Japanese about them, and their interiors make one think of Kijo Rokkaku’s sparse concrete architecture, which she grew up with and whose completely empty surfaces she uses for the staging of light and shadow. In these paintings, current perceptions and involuntary recollections seem to merge, and the impression that they make déjà-vu experiences visible is further strengthened by the blurriness and the penchant for grey in grey with sparing additions of colour, perhaps even due to the frequent presence of children and young girls, biding their time on the threshold to adulthood, painted like a reverberation of the past. What is left over, says the artist, from the time of her childhood “is the shadow”.
Ogasawara’s paintings may appear ambiguous and vary just as moods do, however there is always a stillness spreading out within them and the rooms are well-structured, empty or very tidy and immaculately clean – until 11th March 2011. One will recall the television broadcasts of the tsunami on the Pacific Coast of the north island and how all the protective barriers ruptured, the densely populated plain was flooded a hundred kilometres underwater, twenty thousand people drowned, ships ran aground on rooftops and all that was left was an endless landscape of ruins, radioactively contaminated indefinitely. From the shots it became clear that the persons filming could themselves be washed away at any moment, just as they would later expose themselves to the invisible danger of the radiation. The paintings named Saigai, meaning catastrophe, make Ogasawara’s shock perceptible, the nameless horror evoked by the eyewitness reports, and likewise the subsequent images of those grieving and desperate, of which some of them stare, stunned, at the ominous sea, a bleak grey-in-grey. However it is not until three years after the disaster that she found a way to draw a conclusion from the Saigai experience and at the same time continue to develop her silent art. She takes up the paintings entitled Skin once again, but this time in more depth, by allowing the corporeal element to fade to a scarcely discernable phenomenon; and she paints empty bowls, only now with more radical blurriness, so that the objects appear to dissolve and disappear. Hence the viewer becomes aware of how fragile and transient beauty is. It is a call to reject the illusion that nature can be subjugated by brutal technology. At the same time, in art it represents a decisive step towards maturity.