“I became very scared. Living in Japan, we face natural disasters which we cannot stop because the country sits on many active faults that frequently cause major earthquakes. We have to live with them. I created a character called Maguma-chan, who is a natural spirit, thinking about the natural disasters, particularly the tsunami, from the nature’s point of view. The character is simply there, but she inevitably causes earthquakes from time to time, and it can’t be helped.
One of the stars of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ upcoming Japan Supernatural exhibition, Chiho arrives for our interview in a Kyoto hotel bearing gifts of beautifully wrapped sweets. She casts a tall chic figure with her two-tone designer sandals, ostrich-feather trimmed black top and on-trend jeans. It is obvious, before she admits it, that some of her “little girls” are avatars.
During the show, another character Moimoi will flutter from promotional flagpoles around the city. Chiho’s self-perceived “strangeness”, which once made her feel an outsider, has created a palpable connection around the world, particularly with women and on Instagram. “I started creating Moimoi when I was walking in a graveyard every day. Moimoi is an avatar of myself who is playing around in nature.”
As a child, Chiho believed she was “different and strange”. While she made conventional drawings in the sight of her teachers and family; privately she filled secret notebooks with intimate, unusual and even erotic imaginings that she would toss away on completion. “At the end of elementary school my parents found out and I was very embarrassed. They didn’t mind, but I thought I was different from other children. I wanted to be the same as other people. I wanted to be ordinary.”
Ashamed of their discovery, she stopped drawing through high school and then chose the most ordinary of university courses, economics. “It didn’t make any sense but, looking back, I always tried to be normal. But university was so boring and I realised it would be impossible for me to work in a bank or for a company.”
I wanted to be the same as other people. I wanted to be ordinary.
A part-time role as an assistant in an advertising agency opened her eyes. “I was very surprised that young people my age were doing designing and were responsible for their work. They were very different from the people I used to meet. It made me feel that I am not so strange; there are people who are stranger than me. I became confident that I could express myself.”
The funky young colleagues taught Chiho how to draw on an Apple Macintosh computer and she began to create her own work after hours. When renowned artist Takashi Murakami came to the agency to work on an advertisement for the US release of the movie Ghosts in the Shell, she showed him some printouts of her work, not realising how famous he was.
“He thought my work was interesting and encouraged me. It was the first time my drawing was approved.” One year later, in 1999, Murakami invited her to take part in a group show of new artists, Tokyo Girls Bravo, which was then shown in New York in 2004 and she subsequently joined his extensive production design team at the Kaikai Kiki studio, in a converted suburban factory, until “it became too difficult to work as a designer and an artist so I quit the company”.
She continues to be categorised as part of Murakami’s Superflat movement, a postmodern art movement, influenced by traditional non-three dimensional forms of Japanese art as well as the contemporary images of manga and anime.
Although rarely mentioned but not a secret, Aoshima and Murakami are now married and have two children, a son Shin no Suke, 9, and a daughter Natsuko, 6, who are coming with them to the Sydney opening, eager to see koalas and fruit bats. The reason for their privacy and the rejection of the status of celebrity art couple is clearly well considered and, arguably, it is a strategy that has allowed Aoshima’s work to gain recognition in its own right.
Having met Murakami two days earlier, it would be fair to describe the couple as chalk and cheese; he a workaholic extrovert known for sleeping in a large cardboard box at his studio, she a thoughtful introvert who revels in solitude and has deliberately lived near two graveyards in Tokyo.
“I wasn’t uncomfortable living there. I felt as though in the graveyard nature flourished, cuddling against the sadness of us humans unable to defy our death. I found something I really wanted there. It felt very calming and comfortable.”
In a video produced by Dark Motion Graphics for her exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum in 2015, Aoshima says: “I imagine when you die the pain and dying would disappear as if you are in a dream. I want to keep reminding myself that inside my body is a skeleton and we all eventually die. Or that I could die tomorrow. I really don’t want to forget this feeling.”
Initially, Aoshima created her work in Adobe Illustrator, her pieces printed out as ink-jet or chromogenic prints or as wallpapers that have covered walls and ceiling of exhibition space. By 2006 she was incorporating, after much practice, freehand drawing. During a residency in San Antonio, Texas, she digitally printed a 12-metre-long wall work on traditional Japanese paper, collaged the sheets on a wall and then added detail in watercolour and coloured pencil.
Moimoi subsequently appeared in hundreds of drawings on Japanese rice paper, in dream-like landscapes, alongside cities consumed by waves and flames. The catalogue for the Seattle exhibition commented: “The drawings, like her murals before, depict utopian visions of a world where mountains and buildings come to life and exist harmoniously with fairy-like creatures.”
Talking about her work to me, Aoshima says “I am not good at describing my work. I believe people can understand me through my artwork. Most of my works express the spirit in nature. Even the buildings have a spirit. The buildings represent human beings. I like to describe the relationship between humans and nature. I imagine that we can connect with nature. Usually, I get inspiration from nature. When I think about nature, it has a soul or a spirit so it connects to the Yokai tradition too.”.
Aoshima has said that in exploring natural disasters, such as earthquakes and typhoons, she initially sought to show the smallness of human existence and how “in the great power of nature that we have no chance against nature”. But her perspective changed when she was “greatly moved by the robust power of recovery” in the four years after the great earthquake and tsunami disasters of 2011. “Everyone was shocked and beaten but both people and nature steadily recovered.” Her work pivoted to explore the regeneration that can follow destruction.
Xiojin Wu, curator of Japanese and Korean art at the Seattle Art Museum, says: “When I first saw Chiho’s work, I was so drawn into the fantastic world she created and I was so impressed by the incredible imagination she has. But it’s not just the imagination, she really thinks that world exists.”
Melanie Eastburn, senior curator of Asian art at the AGNSW, says: “Chiho Aoshima’s work has an intimacy about it that I find compelling and endearing. The characters, some of which are objects that are usually inanimate such as buildings, have distinct personalities. I believe audiences will be spellbound by the spirit-filled fairytale world she has created.”
Murakami has written that Aoshima’s work “fits into a feminine, spiritual world that is an area of calm air amidst the context-ridden testosterone-filled worldview of contemporary art”. When a tsunami hit Indonesia shortly after an exhibition of her 2004 work, Magma Spirit Explodes: Tsunami is Dreadful, some pointed to her “witch-like” prescience.
In her video works, Aoshima has collaborated with New Zealand animator Bruce Ferguson, notably on City Glow (2005), which has been shown at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, and Rebirth of the World (2015). In the fashion world, she worked with Murakami on the iconic multi-colour pastel logo pattern for Louis Vuitton and her piece The Red-eyed Tribe (2000), initially an invitation to an Issey Miyake fashion show, was later blown up to 4.5 metres by 16 metres for Superflat at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2001. In 2006, a large mural City Glow, Mountain Whisper was shown in the arches at London’s Gloucester Road Underground station and in New York’s City Transit tunnels.
In Sydney’s Japan Supernatural exhibition, 24 of Aoshima’s watercolours, some with pencil additions, will feature in a dense grouping accompanied by an interactive digital work, Little Miss Gravestone’s Absent Musing, a triptych that mirrors a traditional block print format. This work has previously been seen in the Rebirth Of the World at the Seattle Art Gallery and Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki gallery in Tokyo. Works by one of her inspirations, the acclaimed 19th-century artist Katsushika Hokusai, are shown in the same room. The French symbolist painter Odilon Redon (1849-1916) is another artistic influence.
Her latest artistic adventures are in pottery – although like many parents she now finds she does not have enough time for her art. But experimenting in a new medium is very enjoyable but it has not changed what I want to express (that is, the theme of people and nature).”
Chiho Aoshima is part of the Sydney International Art Series exhibition Japan Supernatural at the Art Gallery of NSW from November 2-March 8, supported by the NSW Government and Destination NSW. Shona Martyn travelled to Japan courtesy of the Art Gallery of NSW.
Shona Martyn is Spectrum Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald