Tomoko Konoike
B. 1960
signed in English and dated 2011 on the reverse
acrylic, ink and gold leaf on paper mounted on wood panel
135 by 175 cm.; 53 1/8 by 68 7/8 in.
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Essay by Rieko Sakamoto

The way we see the world changed dramatically after the earthquake on March 11, 2011.

The familiar landscape was rocked and shaken, crowds of stranded people surged and flowed, and a dark, demonic tidal wave devoured whole towns in northeastern Japan.  Images of these scenes appeared over and over on television and the internet. Our reactions of surprise, sadness, and fear were shared almost simultaneously with people all over the world.

Tomoko Konoike's You who are looking – what are you looking at after the Tsunami (Lot 988)was painted in the midst of these events, when people's minds were jolted by earthquake, their hearts emptied by the tsunami, and their fears aroused by invisible rays of nuclear radiation.  This painting is honest and awkward, as if painted by a child who was surprised at the scenes she witnessed and expressed her physical and emotional reaction directly on paper.  The fragments of simple images seem somehow unreal.  People throughout the world observing video images of the earthquake had the common sensation of looking at something without being able to discern what it was.

In the visual arts, importance is ordinarily given to the formal beauty of line, colour, form, and pictorial surface, but there is very little concern shown for these elements in this painting.  The only forms that are depicted with precision are two red eyes that seem to be on fire.  Konoike's painting of the tsunami scene is not based on ordinary art theories or technique.  She treats painting as a medium that expresses the energy produced by the friction between the actual world and the eyes looking at the scene before them.

Konoike employs a variety of methods in her art to reveal the creative powers of the universe which reside in the eye, the sense organ of vision, and in the act of seeing.  A picture book entitled mimio (2001) and a drawing animation called mimio-Odyssey (2005) present narratives with a character named mimio who senses the world.  mimio seems to be an eyeball, the sense organ devoted to vision, covered with pieces of soft fur and having arms on its sides.  This creature appears in many of Konoike's works as a stand-in for the artist.  mimio-Odyssey is the first work where this unknown face appears, gazing at us like a child or an animal through the gaps between flying knives. 

One of Konoike's major works is a series of four paintings, numbered in reverse order from Chapter Four The Return – Sirius Odyssey (fig. 1) to Chapter One (fig. 2), which tell a story backwards.  The imagery in these paintings suggests the structure of an eyeball with light moving at an angle through the cornea toward a crystalline lens. In Chapter Four, we see a sphere recalling mimio that is wrapped in wolf skins and flying freely above the sea with giant dragonfly wings.  The wolves, dazzled by the light, seem to be protecting the light-emitting eyeball.  In Chapter One, the wolf skins pass through the glittering crystal, expressing the refraction of light.  When we think about the structure of the eye, − the cornea and the crystalline lens act together to project an image on the retina, the image is transformed into electrical signals, and then these electrical signals are transmitted to the brain − it is not surprising that in the first showing of this four-part series in Kurashiki, an imaginary map composed of various signs was named Chapter #0 (2006) and it was distributed to each visitor as electric light signals.

In Hidden Mountain – Fusuma Painting (fig. 3), the distance between the viewer and the painting is presented as an important part of the structure of seeing.  The intense gaze embodied in the painting, which first appeared momentarily in mimio-Odyssey, is directed at an unfamiliar scene.  The eyes are painted on fusuma, (paper-covered sliding doors), which serve to divide an interior space and can be opened and closed, rather than the immobile surface of a canvas that divides an interior realm from the outside.  They allow the viewer to imagine what might be hidden in the depths behind them, opening the barrier between the inner world of the artwork and the outer world of the human being and fusing them together.  Because the face appears to be part of a mountain, the viewer has a sense of being watched by the painting as well as watching it and it seems that the viewer's gaze is reflected in the painting.

In "Hidden Mountain Reverse," an exhibition held this year at Mizuma Art Gallery, Konoike executed paintings on both sides of a set of fusuma doors.  The show also included Hidden Mountain Shining #02-1 (Lot 989).  In the latter work, in which the mountain is covered with pieces of mirror, the eyes disappear while a grotesque tongue protrudes from an open mouth.  Light is reflected in a distorted manner by the mirrors, drawing the viewer's eye toward the center of the richly colored sphere depicted on the fusuma.  On the back, an upside-down monochrome mountain is painted like an image reflected in reverse on the retina of an eye without colour receptors (fig. 4), (fig. 5).

Konoike wrote a statement for this exhibition entitled, "You who are looking – what are you looking at".  The exhibition started on March 9, two days before the earthquake.  When the earthquake struck, "after the Tsunami" was added to the title.  In her statement, Konoike said, "The viewer finds what should be seen beyond the creator's intentions, discovering an underground vein of water that no one has seen before and transforming even a wasteland."  She says that seeing is equivalent to "falling and climbing" in solitary imagination, climbing a dark mountain with an invisible top, falling down, and repeating this process over and over.  This is a process that leads to creation as well as seeing. Creation of visual art is often thought to be the use of art techniques to portray something with concrete form.  However, a person who recognizes the light in the work makes a new discovery of the world through a process of negotiation with outside reality.  Participating in this world is a creative aspect of seeing.

This interaction with the viewer is always carried out through the creative activity that Konoike calls "play."  The thinker Roger Caillois has written, "Transformation is necessarily to the detriment of the secret and mysterious, which play exposes, publishes, and somehow expends" (Roger Caillois, Men, Play, and Games, translated from Les jeux et les hommes by Meyer Barash, New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1961, p. 4).  Unwittingly, the viewer unveils the secrets of the work as Konoike reveals them to the audience.  This process might be described as the "incessant invention" that emerges in play (Caillois, ibid., pp. 21-23).  Premised on the difference and otherness of the unfamiliar presence before our eyes, Konoike's creative work is made effective through the experience of personally trying to make contact with the unusual world in it.  When one says, "I can't see anything," the game is over.

Konoike uses a variety of mediums to involve viewers in her play.  An example is Book Burning – World of Wonder (fig. 6), a picture book she published in 2011.  This work is made up of simple drawings, so it depends more on the basic strength of the images and the beauty of Konoike's style than other works.  It is no exaggeration to say that it demonstrates the reason for Konoike's existence as an artist.  The story begins with eyes opening from sleep.  Through the words of a narrator who could be a child or an elderly person, the artist weaves a story from the twisted strands of life in the universe. She communicates with her audience through the medium of a picture book, which individual people can hold in their hands, opening and closing it at will.  For Konoike, mediums are like ritual implements for communing with the gods or recreational equipment that can be used in an adventure.

The knives that often appear in Konoike's work are mediating objects that create a link between the picture and the viewer.  Knives are ambiguous tools that have the power to create or to kill through the act of cutting.  Also, they are very familiar objects.  Konoike takes an image that already has a place in most people's brains to create a mysterious world through encounters with things that are already known.  Things that already exist in our surroundings hold possibilities that we are unable to discern and they are always watching us.  Konoike's knives, which can be seen as either toys or murder weapons, are ritual implements that expand our range of vision (fig. 7).

After the earthquake, the ephemeral light of radiation dances back and forth in front of our eyes like invisible knives.  These images of light, which are familiar and threatening at the same time, are constructed with gold dust in You who are looking – what are you looking at after the Tsunami.  The fine particles, which would fly away if you blew on them, emit a glittering light when brought together.  At the same time, depending on the angle, they can create a dark shadow that covers the face.  The forms of the knives no longer exist and we are left looking at something without definite form. 

The centers of the eyes open up as they stare at us like volcano craters leading to the inner core of the earth.  Viewers have continually asked the artist, "You who are creating, what are you creating?" and she responds with a similar question to them.  By repeatedly asking this question, she produces a creative situation that blurs the boundary between viewer and creator. 

Everything perceived by the sense of sight, including images of the tsunami, is intermediate rather than final.  Viewers must become aware of how they perceive the world and what they can create.  There is no one who cannot "see" anything or "create" anything. This painting is not meant to promote charitable giving or cry for help.  It is a statement from the artist to the world, encouraging everyone who looks at the paintings to stand firmly on the earth and undertake an individual exploration to find what can be seen in them.