As I rush to be punctual amidst the frenzy of the Tokyo metro rush, waves of panic pour over me each time I check my watch for the time.
5 minutes late.
7 minutes late.
10 minutes late.
I am so late.
To make matters worse, we had arranged for a sunset stroll in Himonya park, a park that artist Akari Uragami frequents for the simple serenity it offers within a city so hectic. The colors of the sunset are a source of inspiration for her work, which is not surprising considering the magnificent colors the celestial turndown produces. Unfortunately, we’re all too familiar with how fleeting those precious few moments are.
“I’m lost, and we’re gonna miss the sunset,” I think to myself as I struggle to exit through the revolving metro doors, my travel bags smacking against my side. In simple English and a lot of hand gestures, I manage to borrow a phone from a pretty young woman who seemed to be waiting for someone as well (perhaps a lover?).
“Akari! I’m so sorry. I just got here. I got lost at Shibuya station. Where are you now?” I ask, huffing.
“Hi Julia, I’m here now, I am just outside with my bicycle.” Akari replies.
I look up, and there she is. A petite, fresh-faced little lady with hair that reminds me of wavy thick seaweed swaying during high tide. She’s carrying a small backpack, probably brimming with necessities one would need for a day of adventure, and she’s holding onto a small bicycle constructed out of a spunky array of different colored bike parts.
I walk towards her as she greets me with a gentle smile. We embrace and she assures me that I’m right on time. This is the magic hour.
As we make our way towards the park, I start snapping away, documenting the journey. She walks ahead, guiding her tiny bike, whilst turning around periodically to make sure I haven’t wandered off somewhere in my eagerness.
The park is quite empty except for a few elderly ladies walking their dogs and a younger couple out for a stroll.
I stumble alongside Akari as I take in my surroundings. She’s been so patient with me, or perhaps it just feels so due to her relaxed, regal demeanor. I have many curiosities to satiate regarding this artist I’ve been researching the work of, so I felt it just to begin as soon as possible.
Do you consider your work to be more clothing design, or sculptural art with textiles as the medium?
I think of it as sculpture using textiles; I guess it’s in the soft sculpture genre. The dresses and kimonos I previously made are wearable sculptures and I’ve also recently began creating more pieces that aren’t in the wearable form. I don’t want to create any limitations for myself so from time to time, the pieces will change in shapes and forms.
Why did you choose textiles as the predominant medium for your art?
There are two main reasons. Firstly, textiles are functionally and tactilely close items to the skin, so I chose textiles to recreate an organic and life-like feel to my work. I mostly use my own quilting technique; the cloth representing the skin and the quilt stuffing representing the outer flesh, and as I sew the materials together it creates a fleshy impression that makes me feel like I’m creating a living creature. With that, I feel as though we can feel a sense of intimacy and familiarity with textiles, and I can naturally express myself. The second reason is that when using textiles, the artwork can easily be displayed in different ways depending on the situation. They can be displayed like paintings, or used as installations for the space I’m using; the reason I chose textiles is also for its versatility.
How do you hope to influence the public with your work? Do you have a cause or a message?
Thinking back to the costumes I made, it was important for me to show the similar functionalities of skin of other animals – like how bright colours on some animals are indicators of being poisonous, or the changing of skin colour such as camouflaging is to hide themselves from predators – while also displaying and observing those as artwork.
For the new artwork from the ‘hunting’ collection, instead of the idea of waiting for your skin to shed with the hopes and desires to change, the theme is about removing your own skin at your own will; the pieces are created with images of the skin, or fur, that has been removed.
My work, like the costumes or the ‘skin’, display the surfaces of the body and are always without the actual body inside. This is to show only the surfaces, or outer-layers, of the body that are free from its inner-parts, while the skin expresses the effects of what’s within on its surfaces. These artworks are made from merging various colourful individual parts to create one whole body of ‘skin’ or ‘outer-layer’. Many people have said that my work reminds them of the vitality of cells or whatever’s inside our body and gives off a similar feeling of warmth and grotesqueness. I guess that stems from my ideas of us being made up of various parts merged together to create a whole. I visualize myself as being an organism that’s made up of flesh and body, desires, and sensations as I produce my artwork. It would be interesting to be able to share those feelings with my viewers as well.
Each artwork has certain concepts behind them but no specific messages. As the viewers observe my work, I hope it allows them to imagine a story behind it or use it as creative motivation, entwining it with their own experiences and memories.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Since I was young, I would often read books on animals and copied them out, observed and touched fish before they were to be sliced up and cooked for food, and was generally interested in the ecology of animals. Now that I think about it, I had viewed them like pieces of artwork that were made by cells, whether those animals were dead or alive. I feel that fur or taxidermy is the same; they are products made by cells that were once alive, which are now pieces of art. I get a lot of inspiration from the shapes of animals’ body parts, their soft touch, and the colour or patterns on their skin. From that, I create my work while thinking of myself as a living being, and observing my daily experiences and thoughts as if I’m a third person with an objective eye. And of course, I get inspirations from costume designs and fashion photos, recently even from illustrations.
And if I was to speak about my colour choices, my influences include several: – When I was a child, watching the pink and purple skies and the changes in their colours as the sun was setting – The colours and patterns on animals – Japanese woodblock prints – My 3 weeks in Buenos Aires, Argentina when I was a student
I’m attracted to the idea of organisms that seem to have no relationship to each other, coming together and creating something new or making something unexpected happen; things that display no context or connections to one another, but somehow merge to create an unexpected product. Overall, my biggest inspiration is still how we’re made up of a huge amount of cells. I use a lot of different colours to express the image of various elements making us a whole.
Your work reminds some of an underwater world, with colorful coral and sea creatures. Is this intentional? If so, why? What is it about sea creatures that draws you?
Up until about 2 years ago, it was intentional. As we, humans, are land animals, I was curious about these sea creatures so different from us. I made my artwork using sea creatures as inspiration because of their free forms and colors, my attraction to their beauty as living beings, and my interest in the mysterious and intense fish eyes. Now, although I’m still interested in the environment that the sea, a living organism, is in, I’m more conscious about living beings in a wider sense as I’m creating my artwork. Whether it’s fish or humans, we’re all made up of cells, so I make artwork that is in relation to a similar idea of aggregation.
Do you think your upbringing and the culture you grew up in has influenced your personal style of work? If so, how?
My parents are both graphic designers running an advertising design company, so I started drawing at an early stage in my life and going into art was a natural move for me. They also liked animals, games, manga, and anime, so that also influenced my use of colours and touches to my artwork. On occasion, they would take me to places surrounded by nature, but I basically grew up in the middle of Tokyo, where you’re surrounded by city life, so that could be why I became so interested in the environment that wasn’t there, like nature and animals. Also, during the ‘Harajuku Culture’ boom I spent my teenage years immersed in that culture. I’d go to Harajuku every week, wearing costumes or ‘Lolita’ outfits. I think by attracting the eyes of many different people with various opinions, I realized the power and symbolism that clothes have. From that, I decided to go to art school to make clothes, but as I was making various garments, I became more interested in textiles. Then, I decided that instead of making clothes that can be worn everyday, I wanted to use my skills to create art in the form of clothing, as something that can be used as a tool to make you think about humans as living beings.
In the context of your work being “sculptures you can wear”, what is your personal opinion on what style is, what it means to people, what it is meant to be, and how it serves us?
‘Style’ is a bit of a difficult one… But I’ve recently been thinking that it’s having that hunger for whatever you’re working toward, and being content with yourself at the same time. There aren’t really rules to it; if you’re doing whatever’s best for you, people seem to have a certain way of ‘being’ – like if you’ve tried many things and they all didn’t feel quite right, you’ll naturally fall back into your own style. However, the people who are able to really go forward with their own style are people who have worked very hard at trying many things, or people who somehow just know they cannot live any other way. I think new culture moves forward with people’s own individual response to their personal aspirations and indignations. If you run proud with your own style, some kind of reaction will also take place. I believe that’s how it serves us.
Do you wear your creations in everyday situations? If not, why? Would you like to?
The artworks in the form of costumes aren’t really meant for casual wear so I don’t wear them. There is a slight difference in my mindset between when I’m working on my art and the usual me, so I don’t especially think to wear my work. But I recently started working on a product line I’ve been wanting to do for a while – making accessories using the batik technique, and printing my drawings on T-shirts, tights, handkerchiefs, and iPhone cases. I wear/use these items quite often and I’m also wearing the earrings I made for this interview’s photo shoot. I’m fortunate to have people say they want to buy these items and some people who previously weren’t particularly interested in art are now showing interest through these items, too.
Your work is bold, colorful, and fun. Nowadays, we see a lot of neutral colors being worn. What is your opinion on this?
I think it’s good. If neutral colours are being worn a lot, that’s probably an indication that it’s best suited to that current environment. Things that we cannot understand through just the surface, say politics or economics or many other things, affect the balance of our environment and they can influence the clothing trend and represent the era we live in. To me, this is similar to how animals evolve with changes in its environment. I see trend as something created for humans to survive in a society. I think people who are ahead of the times have better abilities to read, react, and survive in their environment.
In your perfect world, what would you like to see everyone wearing? How would you like them to dress?
Same as the world we live in now. I want everyone to wear whatever he or she likes to wear. But if I had to say, the ‘salary-man’ suits are iconic and interesting but I’d like it to incorporate fun colours instead of the usual black or gray, or not have the suits forced upon people. Seeing these achromatic colours chosen to be ‘safe’ is in my personal opinion, a little depressing. What are the benefits of having to wear suits every day? I think people could be more generous in allowing others to wear what they usually wear, and if they’re not all that interested in clothing they could also wear suits, too. Suits do give off a sense of strength or being in ‘work-mode’, but I don’t think it’s something that should be forced on people. Each person should be able to alter and decide on their own, depending on the situation. I think there are too many people that choose this ‘safe’ way of dressing others, which is preventing people from thinking on their own.
What are your upcoming projects? Do you have any upcoming exhibitions?
Between the 11th and 13th of September, I’ll be at the Affordable Art Fair in Seoul, Korea. And for about 6 months from 15th December, I’ll be doing a solo exhibition at GALLERY RUEVENT in Mejiro, Tokyo. I’m planning to showcase some of my new work so please come and have a look.
After delving into greater understanding of Akari’s work, I’m flabbergasted by the wisdom of this young female artist from Japan.. Akari’s creative process seems very intimate; the kind of intimacy that requires bravery in order to face truths head on. Her current perception seems to be crafted from a lot of thoughtful reflection, and she bears a strong sense of direction in her growth. I can sense a steadfastness in her quest to express her inner world and perspective, with the intent to constantly evolve and take consistent steps in her development as a creative. The more I think about it, the more I’m delighted by how fitting it seems. I guess being a living being means that you’re constantly changing, regardless of choice. My initial impression of her work was in some ways accurate, but there’s so, so much more to this young artist, with waters running as deep as the deep blue sea.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JULIA KAO