Death (s)Mile

I first met the artist Suzuki Hirotaka at a hanami in Tokyo’s Yoyogi park. For those unfamiliar with the custom, a hanami, or ‘cherry blossom viewing’ party, is often a picnic-type affair held in a green space that has everything to do with drinking and hanging out with your friends and almost nothing to do with looking at cherry trees. Instant bonding ensued as we talked about ourselves and our own relationships with art. As the day turned into evening and my liver went into overdrive to keep up, Hiro asked me if I would be interested in writing a piece about one of his works. His first solo show was coming up in a few months, and a publication was on the cards. High on beer and my own conversational brilliance, of course I agreed.

Soon after, some friends and I met at his studio to see the work in question, but also to spend the day drinking, talking, and eating okonomiyaki. Sitting before his major work entitled ‘Death Mile’ Hiro explained to us his motivations for creating it, the meanings behind it, and the painstaking processes involved which required almost 5 years of production time. This is partly to do with his specialized production methods, such as refining his own pigments from rare plants that only grow at certain times of the year. The thing itself is huge, a square canvas several metres across, laboriously covered in layers and layers of different coloured acrylic paints to create skin and tissue like effects, with numerous images of dissected organs applied by transfer. In the centre, there is a large smiley face with a skull for one eye and a compass for the other, the smile itself being composed of 108 tiny colourful figures. Most of which probably sounds quite morbid, but to meet Hiro, full of energy and driven to make others laugh, you know it could never be so. Personally, I love it, and each time I met Hiro over the subsequent months I came to to think about it more deeply, mostly through coming to know its creator as a person.

I wrote my piece (as did my partner in crime) and met the owner of the gallery, as well as a representative of the publisher and the translator to discuss the book project, which will appear in print this November. For now you can read our essays in English, Japanese or Chinese, depending on how ambitious you’re feeling, and link to Hiro’s own website here.

The opening date for the exhibition entitled 『僕は妖精を見た』 (“I Saw a Fairy”) was set for two days before my departure to the US. I helped out with the installation at p-house gallery in Roppongi in the final few days, eager to see the installation process from the artist’s point of view. Working as a museum assistant I have installed plenty of exhibitions, but from a technician’s perspective and under the direction of curators and designers. To watch Hiro select and arrange his pieces in order to create the story that he wanted to tell was a different matter altogether. Getting ‘Death Mile’ fixed onto the wall in the first place took eight people and most of the first day, unwieldy beast that it is. A series of 20 works that reflect the theme of ‘Death Mile’ took up most of the remaining space, the rest of which was filled with Hiro’s preoccupation over the last 6 years, progressively developing representations of 妖精 or ‘fairies’.

Like much of Hiro’s work, these figures are painted in shades of red, blue, green and yellow, a deliberate decision to use the colours that appear in bruised skin. I was especially delighted when Hiro liked my idea that he should paint one of his fairy figures directly onto the wall, high up above one of the beams in the gallery; a secretive little character only to be spotted by the observant (or the roaming eyes of the bored). I’d seen something similar at a craft exhibition a few years before at the V&A – the artist had created incredibly lifelike sculptures of weeds and small plants and secreted them about the historical masonry of the museum. There was just something slightly forbidden and playful about it that made it stick in my mind. We agreed that he should conduct a clandestine mission to accomplish the task away from the eyes of the gallery staff. I mean, they can paint it over afterwards. Jeez.

On opening night, Hiro and I presented our gallery talk together. Now, I hate public speaking – it’s a particular kind of torture, and if someone offered me extreme physical punishment in its place I would gladly take it. But by attempting to calm Hiro’s fears I achieved my own kind of catharsis. Open-mike opportunities to tell people about your passions are few and far between, and I’m determined to try to make the most of them from now on, however much I whine and squeal about it. Hiro was brilliant, I was too nervous, the audience was quite weird – next time I’ll do better. Next time, Gadjet, next time. As an act of revenge against something or other I hit the bar something furious, delighting in my own crapulence if not my academic prowess. This trend continued (with renewed enthusiasm) when I missed the last train, resulting in another accidental all-nighter. We parted in the morning with heartfelt goodbyes and promises for future endeavours.

I hope Hiro and I can work together again in the future. For something as important and memorable as my first publication, I’m glad that it took place amongst the company of friends from beginning to end.

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One Response to Death (s)Mile

  1. Simon J says:

    Nice work: Kung Fu art historian, I think this has legs.

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