“I enjoy the imperfection…”
Paul Zimmerman in conversation with Aomi Kikuchi
Paul Zimmerman: How did you become interested in art?
Aomi Kikuchi: Ever since I was a child, I have loved creating things. A curiosity about materials and techniques led me to learn and practice creating as much as possible. While my initial interests were solely in the pleasure of creation, I gradually became interested in what I was making being art when opportunities to exhibit my work publicly became available. The experience of critique and the sharing of my work and ideas with others has led me to study art in tandem with my practice of making.
PZ: Nature and fabric seem to be inspirations for you. Why are they important?
AK: I honed my interests and skills in creating when I was a dressmaker. In particular, the traditional Japanese silk kimono method of fabric dying called “Yuzen” mesmerized me. Yuzen was invented and continues to be used to exhibit the beauty of nature. There are two major Japanese aesthetic principles that guide my work. They are “Wabi-sabi”, a well known philosophy that beauty is found in imperfections, and “Mono-no-aware”, the feeling of sympathy for that which changes or perishes such as the seasons and all living things. I take inspiration from the fragility and fleetingness found in natural cycles and in fabric. My work seeks to demonstrate a curiosity for and understanding of impermanence and the insubstantiality of this world including the suffering caused by desire and the infinite nature of our activities.
PZ: Your watercolors have a meditative quality. Is here a spiritual aspect to your work?
AK: I use a combination of chemical and natural dye materials which, perhaps, creates the visual look of a traditional watercolor. My work titled Moment-1 depicts a portrait of my mother’s wedding. She and her husband (not my father) appear floating like ghosts in the air. Traditional Yuzen dyeing is characterized by strong colors and contrasts. I use layers of colored silk organza and silk gauze, installed in overlapping rows, at intervals. Thus, the work is reminiscent of 3D visuals and holographic effects, further emphasized by even the slightest breeze. I do this intentionally to remind viewers of the uncertainty and undependability of this world in which we live and to demonstrate the Buddha’s philosophy of insecurity, flimsy, and anguish.
PZ: How do you find the balance between traditional and contemporary?
AK: Whenever studying materials and techniques, I make a specific and sincere effort to respect and learn the traditions that have long been cultivated and accumulated by our predecessors. It is with my growing understanding of those traditions and techniques that I challenge the modern and wasteful manufacturing that defines this time. I also try to be mindful of the world’s current situation and I contextualize the problems facing the present age with soft and sometimes found materials to make works that represent this contemporary moment.
Trash as Material, 2020, Hemp, scrap from knitted kimono, silk thread, water soluble fabric
PZ: Do you have any particular goal in mind when you start a new piece?
AK: My work is based on the teachings of the Buddha which states that nothing exists in the same state forever, that what we believe to exist is uncertain and that we can only recognize with our five senses. People feel suffering when they seek something everlasting yet while existence is not eternal, the activities of matter and life are conceptually infinite. My work is meant to depict these concepts. In a set of four works titled Dim Sum Suffering , Chinese buns are placed in a bamboo steamer. Each of the buns, made of cotton flower, depicts the four major suffering of our life that Buddha preached. One bun has the face of a baby, another has the face of an old man, the next shows a sick man, and the last, a skull. These faces show the lasting cycles of birth, aging, sickness, and death. The buns are fragile like actual buns which lose their shape when immersed in water because water soluble glue was used to shape them. The bamboo steamer and buns depict our infinite activities: Eating. When I start new projects, my inspirations and inclinations vary depending on the incidents, memories, techniques, and materials that I encounter.
PZ: Has your practice changed over time?
AK: Earlier in my practice, I focused on fabric dyes and kimonos and then gradually expanded to creating panel work, wall hanging installations, sculpture, and videos. Whenever I focus on craft making, I am conscious about what makes something “perfect;” what is it to be “finished” with no stain or flaws. Now, rather, as I am more focused on making art, I enjoy the imperfection and looseness that can occur as I work.
PZ: Which artists are you most influenced by?
AK: Itchiku Kubota is a globally acclaimed artist and craftsman of Yuzen dyeing known for his Tsujigahana kimono dye method (a revival of a medieval method) and is among the most influential artists in my practice. I have been familiar with his famous, beautiful work for some time but it wasn’t until I accidentally encountered his private dyeing school and joined one of his classes that I came to understand how deeply his creations affect me. My experience learning Yuzen dyeing from a great master made a tremendous and meaningful impact at a pivotal point in my career.
Kubota was dispatched to the battlefield during World War II and later detained in Siberia. While many comrades died, he survived, encouraged by the beauty of the Siberian sunset. His ability to sustain a strong enthusiasm and passion despite a distance from his practice inspired me. I respect his work and pursue my own, motivated by the vastness of his passion.
PZ: What is art for you?
AK: I believe that contemporary art plays an important role in society and is essential for improving the world. If one focuses only on the immediate productivity and efficiency, it may seem there is no real benefit in art. Yet, the assets and wisdom of art have been utilized in many contexts to create true benefits. Hiroyasu Wakabayashi, creative director of Dentsu (a Japanese advertising and public relation company) summarizes this by saying that artists offer potential in problem-raising, imagination, practicality, and co-creation, all of which can contribute to branding, innovation, organizational revitalization, and larger visions. Additionally art can help to solve humanity’s fundamental problems surrounding race, gender, and the environment and in unconventional ways by creating new visions and values. Artistic approaches provide the possibility to step into a new phase of the world. Living in this contemporary time, I would like to be an influential artist and intend to do so by developing myself and my insights.
PZ: What are you working on now?
AK: Currently, I am experimenting with various kinds of materials and techniques inspired by the major concepts that drive my entire working practice. I am creating new sculptures and installations using silk organza/gauze,scraps and recycled materials. I use dyeing, sewing, and knitting techniques beyond conventional practices. I am also challenging new skills such as weaving, golden joinery, and Japanese lacquer. I continue to work on an ongoing series called “Mushi,” which includes an array of embroidery work depicting insects such as dragonflies, spiders, moths, and mosquitos. While dogs and cats are loved universally, insects tend to be regarded as pests so these works are a tribute to those beings and a reflection on their role in the world. I include my own fallen hair as I embroider because, similar to insects, hair is a material that can transform dramatically from significant and beautiful to disgusting and useless depending on the context. Despite their essentiality to the entire ecosystem, insects are most often seen as disgusting.
PZ: How does the pandemic influence your work and sensibility?
AK: I have noticed how the pandemic has made us all aware of human vulnerabilities both physical and societal as well as economic. I had been exploring and creating based on themes of fragility and suffering before the pandemic, but the pandemic has motivated me to deepen this exploration further. I am also strongly inspired by the concept of infinity and the idea that humanity has survived this long despite many pandemics. Even though the world is vulnerable, intangible and painful, I believe that our activities will continue indefinitely. This is what my work is about and the pandemic has provided me with a new context with which to explore these ideas.