Artist in Focus: Yoshiki Okamura
ariel © Yoshiki Okamura
As art galleries are slowly reopening AES members Carolina and Piotr talked with the Tokyo-based abstract artist Yoshiki Okamura. In the interview, Okamura shares his insights into the perception of abstract painting in Japan, the ongoing commercialization and commodification of art and the impact of the coronavirus on the art world.
Yoshiki Okamura is a Japanese abstract artist. Born in Tokyo in 1996, he graduated from Musashino Art University in 2019. Strongly influenced by the New York School, he belongs to the most promising Japanese artists of his generation. Okamura spent four years living and working in the Czech Republic. In 2019, he published his first art book, titled あの夏 (That Summer) followed by another two volumes in 2020. He was also commissioned to create the cover art for one of kpop idol Jun's albums.
His favorite artists include Robert Motherwell, Jack Tworkov, and Frantz Krine
AES: In your experience, how is abstract art perceived in Japan? Do you believe this affects contemporary Japanese abstract artists ?
Okamura: In Japan artists who practice abstract art are often seen as mere illustrators or cartoonists. This affects the way artists perceive themselves too – I am really an artist? Unfortunately, art education in Japan is still developing, and the focus lies chiefly on creating art rather than learning to appreciate it. I believe that appreciation for art should form the basis for art education in general.
I am proud of my influence on young people and patrons, but feel that the latter is limited. I myself was influenced by the American abstract art of the 1950s, the so-called 'New York School', and started painting with the aim of producing art in a form suitable for Japan. New York School painting is a very niche field in Japan, so I would like to introduce it to the Japanese public. Unlike in Europe and the United States, where liberal arts education, especially religious studies, is ubiquitous, in Japan humanities are often regarded as an extravagant hobby. Therefore, I feel that it is currently difficult for Japan-based artists to reach an audience who possess the ability to comprehend art and literature.
I also feel that the Japanese word for art is ambiguous. On the one hand, there is the ‘art’ espoused by the media – pretty and sensuous, yet nonsensical. As art becomes increasingly commodified, my own perception of what I and others create changes too. I find it increasingly harder to differentiate between art in its original sense and this sort of ‘instant art’.
I believe that this ambiguity, arising largely from the media co-opting the term 'art', makes it difficult for the Japanese public to discern good art from bad. I would like to see that first meaning disappear. As a Japan-based artist, I want to reclaim the original sense of the term 'art', but paradoxically I cannot achieve that without becoming involved with the media myself.
Valencia's orange © Yoshiki Okamura
How has the pandemic affected you as a young, aspiring artist at the start of your career?
The Corona crisis has led to many lost opportunities and I have yet to recover from its effects. Many members of the middle and upper middle class are concerned with the virus and refuse to visit crowded spaces, including art galleries– the recommendations issued by schools and employers don’t help in that respect either. As a result, we have seen a roughly 30% decline in visitor numbers compared to pre-pandemic levels.
Fortunately, my private life has not been affected much, though I have not been able to go out or meet with friends over dinner as much as I used to. I have also significantly cut down on cinema visits this past year.
Do you believe that the way we interact with art has forever been changed by the pandemic? Will art itself have to change to adapt to the post-covid world?
I believe that virtual exhibitions do not do the art justice. Interacting with the pieces via consumer grade devices makes appreciating the art difficult, if not impossible. Social Media and virtual exhibitions are dependent on the resolution of the end-device and as such the experience cannot compare with the experience of visiting a real exhibition. When the audience interacts with a digital version of a painting it is perceived as a purely virtual image rather than a physical piece of art, further hindering appreciation. The value of paintings has been negatively affected by the loss of visitors. We are now in the second year of the pandemic, and it feels like the damage that many lesser known artists have suffered is irreparable. At the same time, the general public is hardly interested in art created solely to cater to speculators and wealthy collectors. I have no desire to contribute to this ‘zombie formalism’ trend that has emerged in the art world in recent decades. I am more concerned with reaching buyers who are genuinely interested in my art, rather than those who see collecting art as a financial investment.
These days, art is also more readily featured on commercial products. Wherever we turn we see art in books, on social media, even on everyday products and clothing. While I believe that these cannot replace actually interacting with art at an exhibition, it opens new avenues for sustenance for struggling artists. I would also want to further expand in the direction of e-commerce. I have already set up website offering my merchandise, including clothes, phone cases etc.: https://suzuri.jp/sashimimoyashi/2945420/t-shirt/s/white
We love your website, what was the idea behind it?
Thank you for complimenting the site, it is an honor. My aim was to recreate the art gallery experience.
You have selected four beautiful pieces for our readers. Can you tell us a bit more about your painting style?
I start with the three primary colors – red, yellow and blue – as my base and try to achieve rich hues. My goal is to create delicate and crisp colors characteristic of the Anglosphere and classicism, but without the muddiness. To accomplish that, I utilize solely easily muddied heavy metal pigments.
Which of your own paintings is yout favorite?
claire © Yoshiki Okamura
Which countries would be of special interest to you in the future? Any particular plans for exhibitions abroad?
As an Asian, I faced rampant racism and discrimination during my time in the Czech Republic. Therefore, I do not expect to do business in Europe in the near future. Still, the European art market is very strong, especially in the UK, making it attractive for Japanese artists and collectors. As for exhibitions, I believe that the risks far outweigh any potential gains. Sadly, I expect the anti-Asian sentiment to only get worse due to the coronavirus. Long-distance travel in the post-pandemic world is also something I am concerned about. On the other hand, an exhibition in Germany could potentially allow me more creative freedom compared to Japan.
I have a strong interest in China. Now that art has become inseparable from the questions of human rights and politics in the West, including Japan, I am looking for a place where I need not worry about such problems and can just focus on painting. I want my art to be judged based on its aesthetic qualities rather than the social commentary it provides. In Europe and the US the questions of human rights and justice permeate every aspect of life, including art. In China on the other hand, art is detached from such issues, which makes it a very attractive market for abstract artists. In many former Eastern Bloc countries abstract art like mine is suppressed, but in China it is accepted as long as it is not propagandist or decadent in nature. Art education in China focuses on the technical aspects of painting. As a result, the abstract scene in China is almost nonexistent. This is yet another reason why China is so attractive to Japanese abstract painters. Art needs social backing and capital to thrive. Alas, Japan, with its austerity measures and deflationary economic policies as well as its disregard for humanities, is not a place conducive to being an artist. Furthermore, I want to work in a country with an international art scene, where creators from all around the world intermingle and exchange ideas. Unfortunately, I feel like Japan’s competitiveness in that regard has been steadily declining in recent years. Even Japanese animation and illustration, long the envy of the world, have been suffering from brain drain. I feel that my survival strategy as an artist is to be active both in Japan and China.
Perhaps my interest in China also stems from the negative experiences I have had with the West. I spent almost four years living in the Czech Republic and often faced discrimination as a member of the'Yellow Race'. My parents’ house in Ueno Asakusa was destroyed in Allied air raids during the Second World War, which may have also colored my sentiment toward the West.
Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming projects?
I have some exhibitions planned in Tokyo and Shanghai next year. Once the pandemic is over, please come visit us in Tokyo! A solo exhibition of my works will take place in August at the Imperial Hotel Plaza in Tokyo. I just hope the coronavirus situation will have improved by then.
nightberry © Yoshiki Okamura