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Leiko Ikemura , interview by Marie Maertens 

Can we still summarize your work as a link between western and oriental culture, in particular that of Japan, where you were born?   

Obviously, it is one of the important factors in my biography, since I come from another cultural universe and a different civilization. But I do refute these classifications somewhat, as I arrived in Europe when I was very young, in the 1970s, an era of utopian dreams! Whereas today that visceral desire for freedom is less present. I was in contradiction with that duality but after years of living, studying and fighting here, I began to accept the fact that I came from elsewhere and nurtured something different in my inner self.  

Exactly why did you decide to come to Europe?  

Japan seemed too narrow for a young woman and what was expected of me. I wanted to make something of my life. So, I was spurred on by a personal desire. Furthermore, Japan had lost the Second World War and its culture was shattered. From that moment on, we lacked continuity in our cultural identity.  

You evoke questions about positioning and gender…Are these subjects that you cultivate, even if they do not appear outwardly?   

When I arrived in Europe, every question people asked me was about the fact of coming from another continent and of wanting to know how I felt as a woman artist. This has always irritated me because I am an artist and I don’t want to be defined as a woman. But I had to live with these struggles and I integrated this aspect into my work. Consequently, I highlighted the figure, the feminine one in particular.   

You talk about politics but do you feel a kind of commitment? Indeed, some critics have linked your work with William Kentridge’s in particular…   

I like him a lot, but he is much more connected than I am to very specific contemporary political problems, especially to do with South Africa. Even though he’s a fantastic artist, my questions prove to be more general and I deal with more global subjects on colonization or governmental issues. The fiction of The Island goes beyond specific economic cycles and in my reflection, one point leads to another. For instance, I can talk about industrialization but I am not so involved in current affairs as I create more of a framework or a backdrop. Some critics have also made the parallel between my island and the political situation in Scotland, something that I have never thought about seriously as my ambition in that project is to create a structure where I can deal the cards which can then be read in different ways.  

How do you elaborate these works in which the relation to colour is even more important as the forms are relatively undefined?  

This is Colorfield Painting work that I develop towards something else and all the imagined forms communicate together, in order to recreate a new space. I question the metamorphoses and the communions between the various elements. I work in series and up to 10 works can join together in an almost holistic idea.   

How do you work on your different mediums? 

They all combine together. For instance, for the paintings, I devise drawings which lead me to a lithography or which influence me if I am in the middle of making a sculpture. In parallel, I devise drawings independently to paintings as this medium is separate for me. Drawing has two functions in my eyes: It functions on its own or with sketches that I don’t show in exhibitions but of which I possess innumerable examples. It’s very interesting to see them because they are without pretention, or ambition, but reveal a lot. I also like that characteristic in other people’s drawings, for example Paul Cézanne’s sketches, which show very interesting connections with his paintings. In a recent exhibition of Paul Gauguin, we were also able to admire his great freedom and the connection between all of his practices.

Some critics have made the parallel between you and Odilon Redon. Is he an artist that you look at and does your work have a symbolist side to it? 

I don’t aim for that, but I have always been interested, even influenced, by Odilon Redon, whose work is focused on the use of pigments and colours. However, I wouldn’t connect myself to symbolism, even though I work on the power specific to the image.  

Furthermore, you have said that your work was about the imagination…  

Yes, I assume the fact of being deeply anchored in a practice, while needing spiritual nourishment. Naturally, the question of the symbol can be interpreted in very different ways, as an objective to achieve, but also as a psychological aspect or a means of communicating through spirituality.  

Without stating that a motif echoes a meaning, you often employ the mountain as a subject. What does it characterize?   

I work a lot on the horizon, as it is the most elementary means of studying space. In the 1980s, I made very expressionist works, then I moved towards a more minimalistic practice. I felt the need to return to essential bases and use space in a more natural manner. I also changed scale to extend my works, always with very simple gestures. This was when colour became more important as the extension of the tonalities became essential. 

It seems to me that your landscapes developed and grew in size and cosmology seems to embrace all of your reflections…

Totally, and I am very aware of this. My intention in the 1980s was turned towards my inner self, like an archaeology of my private life. Then, I broadened this viewpoint and made connections to link up with cosmic ideas.   

Is this reflection on the human being and nature a kind of Vanity?   

Yes, and when I worked on a Memento-Mori, it was also a way of recalling the tragic event of Fukushima, that happened in Japan in 2011. I owed it to myself to mention it because we talk about it very little. Our desire for change isn’t strong enough regarding energy, ecological and political questions.

This reflection comes with a return to basic materials and a growing attention to the resources that we employ or the energies that we combine.  

Does that mean that your work is committed? 

It is very committed, even in the way I work in the studio! For the paintings, I use a rough canvas that can be seen through the pigments. I elaborate everything myself using traditional workmanship with rough, raw materials… in tribute to the natural resources surrounding us.    

This Memento-Mori also made me think about Nicolas Poussin and his famous painting, Et in Arcadia ego, questioning finitude…

This Memento-Mori also made me think about Nicolas Poussin and his famous painting, Et in Arcadia ego, questioning finitude…

I adore that artist who, furthermore, made his models in figurines, but also numerous studies and magnificent drawings. I also love Pontormo. Also when I arrived in Spain, I embraced art history and looked at Diego Velázquez or Francisco de Goya. But being too aware of art history is intimidating for a young artist, you then have to forget it. At present, my work strives towards a global attitude to life, in a philosophical sense, and what we expect of it. I reread the writing of Nietzsche a lot, but also Goethe, Virginia Woolf or the Japanese authors Teitaro Suzuki or Jun'ichirō Tanizaki. I love Japanese literature and its short sentences that say so much…   

Would you also like to guide your public towards these reflections?   

I don’t know whether art is really a language. It is more about not saying what can be expressed too clearly and I take pleasure in letting things move towards a global commitment. I am satisfied if my work can awaken consciences a little bit.    

Marie Maertens - January 2018