Meet The Japanese Painter Depicting Disasters By Mixing Traditional and Contemporary Art

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Painter Yuta Niwa, like many young Japanese artists, incorporates traditional painting techniques and materials into his work, such as Japanese traditional paper, ink, pigments, and Nikawa glue.

Niwa deals with disasters such as earthquakes and infectious diseases using giant salamanders and catfishes as motifs.

In his graduate thesis project, he depicted the devastation of four recent earthquakes in Japan using the giant catfish, which has been regarded as the source of earthquakes since ancient times, at the center of his work. The work was inspired by the popularity of catfish paintings in the 19th century, when major earthquakes occurred in Japan.

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By exploring the resilience of human beings to overcome grief by replacing disasters with humor, Niwa uncovers the roots of the creative act that can be found in every age.

ARTnews JAPAN spoke with Niwa, who is temporarily back in Japan due to the pandemic after studying in Beijing since 2020.

On the day of the interview, Niwa appeared at Roppongi Station in Tokyo wearing a pair of glasses with a unique design frame, which he says he chose because “they look cool, like cyberpunk.” He smiled innocently and said that he bought them as a reward for winning an art competition last year.

This year, he is about to start work on 24 sliding door paintings for Tofukuji Temple, a 13th century temple of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism in Kyoto.

Niwa plans to stay at the temple and work on the paintings while living and sleeping with the monks. The range of his activities is extremely wide.

A mural of a giant catfish on the walls of a room.

Yuta Niwa, The Giant Catfish Shaking Up the Archipelago Fusuma-e, 2019. shingo mitsuno

ARTnews JAPAN: Giant salamanders and catfish appear in your work. How did you become interested in these motifs?

Yuta Niwa: I was shocked when I encountered a live giant salamander at an aquarium in Kyoto. Being from Tokyo, I had never seen such a creature before. In today’s information-oriented society, it is hard to get the impression of seeing something for the first time.

There is something uniquely interesting about the drawings of tigers and leopards that were made by medieval and early modern painters, who had never seen these creatures, but drew them with reference to imports from mainland China and other sources. For me, I thought that the giant salamander could be such a motif. Therefore, when I paint, I value the impression I had when I first encountered them more than trying to be biologically accurate.

In fact, that is how I started out, with a figurative interest, but as I researched the folklore about the giant salamander, I came to understand that its existence was passed down as a metaphor for disaster. It is well known that catfish were believed to cause earthquakes, but there are many other examples throughout Japan of stories linking giant aquatic creatures to disasters.

Yuta Niwa, Painting of exterminating a tiger-wolf-catfish, 2021

Yuta Niwa, Painting of exterminating a tiger-wolf-catfish, 2021. Courtesy of Yuta Niwa

ANJ: You could say that the culmination of your student days, which were marked by your interest in these disasters and folklore, is your 2019 graduate school project, “The Giant Catfish Shaking Up the Archipelago Fusuma-e (sliding door painting).”

In the past, many Japanese masters created sliding door paintings for politically or religiously important architectural structures. You have made 12 sliding doors independent of architecture and presented them as installation works, depicting earthquake disasters that have occurred in recent years in various parts of the Japanese archipelago. And at the center of them lies a giant catfish.

Why did you decide to specifically depict recent disasters?

YN: I was hesitant to use recent disasters as the subject matter for my work, as the survivors are still dealing with many problems and emotional trauma. However, when I saw woodblock prints depicting a giant catfish (Namazu-e) that were frequently produced in 19th century Japan, I decided to use the earthquake disaster, which I have real memories and experiences of, as the subject matter of my work. In the past, people overcame negative topics such as earthquakes with the humor of Namazu-e. Instead of simply being pessimistic, they held on to hope for signs of social change and tried to preserve the memory of the disaster in place names and folklore and pass it on to future generations.

Whether it is an earthquake or a plague, I am sure that giving a tangible form to something unknowable will convince people and make them feel better. Whether people really believed it or not, a visible threat was probably better than an invisible one.

I believe this is how various imaginary specters and monstrous beasts were created in Japan and have become paintings and stories. When cholera broke out, a chimera-like creature combining a tiger, a wolf, and a raccoon dog was blamed as the cause of the epidemic. It is interesting that, even today, when we know how earthquakes occur, illustrations of catfish are still used as icons of disasters on signs and postings in Japan.

Meet Yuta Niwa, Japanese Painter Mixing

Yuta Niwa, Giant Catfish in the Waterfall, 2018. Hikari Okawara

ANJ: Now, I would like to get more into you as a painter. What kind of child were you? How did you become a painter?

YN: What influences my current work may be “Godzilla,” which I have loved since I was a child. When my mother saw one of my drawings, she said, “It looks like Godzilla.” It is true that the giant black creature born from hydrogen bomb tests and destroying cities has something in common with the giant salamander, which is a metaphor for disaster.

I like not only Godzilla, but also special effects themselves. I think I am interested in the kind of reality that is created by the pseudo-reproduction, which is more real than the real thing. I know there is a lot of CG work nowadays, but elaborate models of cityscapes that were built on the assumption that they would be destroyed from the start look more realistic than they actually are in the film’s story.

I did not want to be a painter from the beginning. As a child, I wanted to be a carpenter. Then, under the influence of my high school art teacher, I learned that there was an option to study architecture at an art college. From there, I began researching art school entrance exams, visited art museums, and enrolled in Kyoto University of the Arts.

It was not until I returned from a six-month study abroad program in Switzerland at the end of my sophomore year that I clearly decided to major in traditional Japanese pictorial expression at university. During my study abroad, I realized once again that I knew absolutely nothing about Japanese art. After returning to Japan, I began studying traditional Japanese painting materials and techniques under the guidance of Professor Yoshiaki Aoki of Painting Techniques and Materials.

I have a strong admiration for Japanese painters of the 16th to 19th century, and I like Tohaku Hasegawa. Then there are Jakuchu Ito, Soga Shohaku, and Kyosai Kawanabe, whose works are so interesting even when we look at them today, 300 to 400 years later. I want to be an artist like them someday, and that is the driving force behind my work.

Meet Yuta Niwa, Japanese Painter Mixing

Yuta Niwa, Tigers, Wolves and Raccoons in Japanese Tavern, 2021, in collaboration with Sun Xun. The work was exhibited at an elementary school in Okinawa Prefecture at Yambaru Art Festival 2021. Courtesy of Yuta Niwa

ANJ: Are you attracted to painters of the period, many of whom remain masterpieces of fusuma (sliding door) painting, because of your interest in architecture at the origin?

YN: I think it is. I am interested in the unique Japanese culture of “shitsurae (installation)”. I really enjoy the time I spend thinking about the history of the place where the artwork will be exhibited and the stories associated with that place, as well as the artwork and the way it will be displayed. The term “site-specific” has been gaining ground in the Japanese art world recently. Since I was a student, I have always felt uncomfortable exhibiting in a white cube, and I have exhibited my works at temples such as Koumyouin (the pagoda of Tofukuji Temple) and Koseiji Temple in Kyoto.

However, when an artist like myself works with traditional Japanese painting materials and techniques, he or she is often regarded as an expressionist in a different genre from contemporary art. Even though we live in the same time period and have the same awareness of the same issues in our artistic activities, our works are viewed through a filter simply because they are based on the Japanese classics.

I think it is sad that we have to fit our works into existing categories from the beginning. I feel that my works and activities are on the vague borderline between traditional Japanese pictorial expression and contemporary art. I would like more people to see my work in a flat way. Because I think art should be more diverse.

In Japan, there were originally ink-wash paintings created by literati artists who had left the secular world behind without being bound by technicalities, as well as Ukiyo-e prints, which were created against an economic background and are appreciated worldwide to this day. I believe that there should be more works created with free ideas that are not bound by the conventions of the past.

ANJ: What is your outlook for the future of your artist activities? Will you return to Beijing once the pandemic is over?

YN: I would like to eventually settle down in Japan and work as an artist based in Kyoto, because Japanese materials are of good quality and easy to handle, and I like Kyoto very much. However, I am currently attracted to the overwhelming enthusiasm of China.

In Beijing, I have a warm welcome awaiting me, including the artist Sun Xun. Just before the pandemic, I had made a very large sheet of paper using an old Chinese method, but I left the paper, materials, and everything else behind in Beijing. Anyway, now I am looking forward to returning to Beijing to work on my artwork as soon as possible.

For the past six months or so, I have been going to the studio of Mr. Aoki, my former teacher at the university in Japan, and have been working under his guidance once again. This year, I am planning an exhibition that will show not only my works but also a record of my interactions with him. It would be interesting to show not only the master-student relationship between me and him, but also the relationship between him, me and the artists of the past.

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