Meet Yuta Niwa, Japanese painter mixing traditional and contemporary art –

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

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

In his graduate thesis project, he described the devastation of four recent earthquakes in Japan using the giant catfish, believed to be the source of earthquakes since ancient times, as the focus 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 disaster with humour, Niwa uncovers the roots of the creative act found in all eras.

ARTnews JAPAN spoke with Niwa, who has temporarily returned to 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 uniquely designed frame, which he says he chose because “they look cool, like cyberpunk.” . He smiled innocently and said he bought them as a reward for winning an art contest last year.

This year he is set to begin 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 its activities is extremely wide.

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

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

Shingo Mitsuno

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

Yuta Niwa: I was shocked when I encountered a live giant salamander in an aquarium in Kyoto. Being from Tokyo, I had never seen such a creature before. In today’s information society, it’s hard to feel like you’re seeing something for the first time.

There is something interesting about the drawings of tigers and leopards made by medieval and 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 the giant salamander could be such a motif. Therefore, when I paint, I give more importance to the impression I had when I first met them than to trying to be biologically accurate.

In fact, that’s how I started, with figurative interest, but researching the folklore of the giant salamander, I realized 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 across Japan of stories linking giant aquatic creatures to disasters.

Yuta Niwa, Painting of the extermination of a tiger-wolf-catfish, 2021

Yuta Niwa, Painting of the extermination of a tiger-wolf-catfish, 2021.

Courtesy of Yuta Niwa

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

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

Why did you decide to specifically represent recent disasters?

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

Whether it’s an earthquake or a plague, I’m sure giving tangible form to something unknown will convince people and make them feel better. Whether people really believed it or not, a visible threat was probably better than an invisible threat.

I believe this is how various imaginary specters and monstrous beasts were created in Japan and became paintings and stories. When cholera broke out, a chimera-like creature combining a tiger, wolf, and raccoon dog was blamed as the cause of the outbreak. Interestingly, even today, when we know how earthquakes happen, illustrations of catfish are still used as disaster icons on signs and displays in Japan.

Meet Yuta Niwa, Japanese painter mixing

Yuta Niwa, Giant Catfish in the Waterfall, 2018.

Hikari Okawara

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

YN: Perhaps what influences my current work is “Godzilla,” which I’ve loved since I was a kid. When my mom saw one of my drawings, she said, “It looks like Godzilla. It is true that the giant black creature born from the tests of the hydrogen bomb and the destruction of cities has something in common with the giant salamander, which is a metaphor for disaster.

I not only love Godzilla, but also the special effects themselves. I think I’m interested in the type of reality created by pseudo-reproduction, which is more real than reality. I know there’s a lot of CG work out there these days, 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 plot of the film.

I didn’t want to be a painter from the start. As a child, I wanted to be a carpenter. Then, under the influence of my art teacher in high school, I learned that there was an option to study architecture in an art school. From there, I started researching art school entrance exams, visited art museums, and enrolled in Kyoto University of the Arts.

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

I have a strong admiration for Japanese painters from the 16th to the 19th century, and I like Tohaku Hasegawa. Then there are Jakuchu Ito, Soga Shohaku, and Kyosai Kawanabe, whose works are so interesting even when viewed today, 300 to 400 years later. I want to be an artist like them one day, and that’s what drives my work.

Meet Yuta Niwa, Japanese painter mixing

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

Courtesy of Yuta Niwa

ANJ: Are you drawn to painters of the time, many of whom remain masterpieces of fusuma (sliding door) painting, because of your interest in architecture originally?

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

However, when an artist like me works with traditional Japanese painting materials and techniques, he is often seen as an expressionist in a different genre than contemporary art. Even though we live in the same era and have the same awareness of the same issues in our artistic endeavors, our works are seen through a filter simply because they are based on Japanese classics.

I think it’s sad that we have to fit our works into existing categories from the beginning. I feel that my works and my activities lie on the blurred boundary between traditional Japanese pictorial expression and contemporary art. I wish more people would 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 literate artists who had left the secular world unbound by technical details, as well as Ukiyo-e prints, which were created in a economic context and are appreciated all over the world to this day. I believe there should be more works created with free ideas that are not bound by the conventions of the past.

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

YN: Eventually I would like to move to 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 by the overflowing enthusiasm of China.

In Beijing, I have a warm welcome waiting for me, especially the artist Sun Xun. Just before the pandemic, I had made a very large sheet of paper using an ancient Chinese method, but left the paper, materials, and everything else in Beijing. Anyway, I now look forward to returning to Beijing to work on my works as soon as possible.

For about six months, I have been going to the studio of Mr. Aoki, my former professor at the university in Japan, and I am working under his guidance again. This year I am planning an exhibition that will show not only my works but also a recording 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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