Noise of Silence: Japanese Art Now, Golden Thread Gallery Belfast, Aug 10 – Sept 28 2019

The Buddhist monks from Namgyal monastery in India engage in a ritual that involves the creation of intricate patterns of coloured sand, known as mandalas. As large as three meters across, each mandala requires a couple of weeks of painstaking work, in which several monks in orange robes bend over a flat surface and scratch metallic vials. The vials extrude sand from tiny spouts, a few grains at a time, onto areas bounded by carefully measured chalk marks. .... After the thing is completed, the monks say a prayer, pause a moment and then sweep it all up in five minutes.  ( Alan Lightman on

The concept of the curtailed duration of a painted image, the use of materials located in nature,  has thus a long history, and not just in India. It is a strategy that occupies the territory between time-based and all other image-making.

In the GTG pop-up space at the  Castle Court shopping centre, 

the IKIRO by Takahiro Suzuki included low relief od a set of squares defined in dark soil and writing of that word over and over on sheets of paper, thus combining performance with floor installation. 

This work metamorphosed during the two weeks into  this:

Courtesy of Sinead O’Donnell

The writing of a word IKIRO/Be Alive is grounded in decades of the artists’ doing this particular performance. I believe he developed it while living in New York and made it all over the world: eg Dingle!

 It is simultaneously similar and different from mandalas. The time, duration and choice of materials, as well as the aura of the original authorship, are adapted to the western art system. (see the essay on  

The naming of selected  Japanese contemporary art as Noise of Silence has triggered link to poetic tropes, to one in particular: an oxymoron. It highlights the discord of a kind and encourages thinking about paradoxes. It appears in Shakespeare when Romeo cries about loving hate, it appears in pop music: Simon and Garfunkel have a song The Sound of Silence  that includes

And in the naked light, I saw Ten thousand people, maybe more/People talking without speaking, People hearing without listening.

The oxymoron, in relation to this exhibition, signals looking without seeing,  absence of aesthetic experience while looking, while it is the fundamental aspiration of visual art to make visible the invisible thoughts, memories, and intentions.

Working in front of the audience, a strategy similar to that of  Yves Kline in mid 20th C , was applied to one of the paintings made during the vernissage by  YUSUKE ASAI. While the audience was watching and moving, and leaving and adding to the present group he painted with coloured soils on a panel, possibly,  finishing it that afternoon.

Reminding me of the legend that Giotto di Bondone made a perfect circle spontaneously,  also of Jackson Pollock’s dripping,  Yusuke Asai placed thrown wet soil by free movement of his hand  or transporting the clay on a long stick, or throwing a handful aiming at a higher up area, to the hard to reach  places . And then smudged it into various details that do not live in geometry, yet borrow from it (circle, ellipse, etc) The white marks are the masking tape, which he used also on the floor and across to another painting in an impromptu performance.  He is highly skilled in making marks by the whole hand, or just fingers, while the soil is still wet.  The wet in wet technique has been cherished by many significant western painters, enough to make it familiar. (To name but few: Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden.  Diego Velázquez and Frans Hals,  Jean-Honoré  Fragonard and many Modernists like  Soutine, Van Gogh, W. de Kooning…)

Onto the longer gallery wall (Peter Richards the director of GTG says it is 17 m long)  Yusuke Asai painted  Nobody dies forever -narrative repetition”. 

It includes diverse elements from Japanese culture, including reference to Manga.

Delicious freehand details remind me of the virtuosity of medieval scribes. This detail is tiny in size.

 Painting in front of the audience slipped into a genre of durational performance. Both links to the western idiom are not dictated by any failure of the tradition, or by servitude to the younger cultures.

As Peter Richards noted in his curatorial statement, this art reflects on similarities. Nozomu Ogawa raised the crossing over the boundaries between cultures to the highest value of this art: ” …spectacular visual impact, exhaustive research, an indirect metaphor”… became a way to protest the absurd in life and to challenge the received view of Japanese art.

MARICO AOKI presents an installation of attire with a mask on the wall and a video, in which she wears those items. 


Spirit Disco (7 min video) is a disjointed narrative mirroring our inadequate concepts of the universe, perhaps our arrogance too. I could not follow what she read while addressing the invisible audience in one of the episodes.  Her mask, her out of norm duster, the appearance of the grazing goat inject irony as a smiling reminder of our inadequacy.




  presented three art techniques:  drawings on plastic in Items for storytelling (2016), colour inject prints Who is This (2015)  and nine albumen prints Invisibles (2016).  Different techniques, different motives, yet, I sensed familiar similarities.  Perhaps it was the tonality that did it, between sharp vision and the misty one.

The headless figure, masks, ceramics, land, sea, insect, legs, appear holding important message each, an impression negated by a closer look.  Freedom to interpret is both enjoyable and off-putting, the choice while inevitable is not forced. It provokes a search for the meaning when that is very slippery.

The visibility kept between being there and ready to disappear, adds timelessness to the deliberate bleaching of details. 


 With a stronger role for irony, the story, the narrative, forge the tenor of the video The Village’s Bid for UFO (2017, 24 MINS)) by


The subtitles are often undermined by acting in order to accentuate the absence of thinking and critical judgement. The three central characters chat about UVO they claim to have seen or heard of, or not, inviting some other villagers to celebrate by dancing.  Humour and ridicule are acted by hand moves, words, facial expressions and clothing. I feel that they do not act, but live their comic story. 






In the small separate gallery room, SHIRO MASUYAMA presented his mixed-media installation that connects a significant past event ( Great East Japan Earthquake) with a future one (Olympics 2020) hence placing the visual art as a link between them. It is accompanied by a catalogue made in relation to the  Tokyo Landscape 2020,  a mixed media installation, 2018  (in co-operation with cooperation  Tara Ichikawa) being exhibited at two venues in Japan: Contemporary Art Factory, Kyoto, and the Art Centre Ongoing, Tokyo in November/December 1918.

 Ren Fukuzumi and Hiroyuki Arai republished their reviews of the installation.   Fukuzumi thinks of it as of an ecosystem, ‘because human figures are included’, covering their eyes, ears and mouths. Those gestures he connects to statues of three monkeys that “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil”  ( 

Is this art so disappointed with mankind that it is not only without hope but already presents the figures not quite alive? In my European context, they wrestle to be associated with the mourning monks on the catafalque of some significant person, e.g. see Dijon 15th C.

Hence the installation is not a radical gesture, instead, as the light bulb climbs up or down it makes each viewpoint equal, it is reminiscing on all people being equal after death.  An aged idea. The transposition of a natural disaster and Olympic games is possibly intentionally incompatible.  Measuring peoples achievement against the power of the Earth?  Besides attacking the judgement of what is essential?

In the second re-published review, Hiroyuki Arai makes a similar point with greater precision:” In the contemporary age, it is possible to see the proliferation of art directed towards society and defined as ‘socially engaged’ as being driven by the motivation to compensate for a weak raison d’etre.” And he hails Masuyama as someone who sweeps the way clear for political art.  I accept to the extent to which polis means people. Not just the power over them, but also their own power. This idea led Masuyama to work with and about sheep farmers, knitters, weavers etc.

Kyunchome: Making  perfect donuts, 2017 -2018, video 

This is a political art laced by self-irony. It consists of two deeply significant substories: the two artists visit an older man, collector and maker, who built his own house and the protest against the presence of the USA army in Okinawa. The link is the intention of two artists to make an ideal doughnut by filling the hole in it with local bread.  Thus joining the two cultures.


Photo Sophie Daly

The young artists’ pair asks what the older man thinks about their art project of making a doughnut, whether it will work.

The camera holds his face as he stays silent as if searching in his consciousness for an answer. I adored the genuine honesty of: I don’t really know. I don’t really understand what it means”.  The artists repeat their intention: ” We want to know what people think about our art project”. He, after a pause: “I can’t say anything on it…”.  The chastity of the judging mind moves me.

The first part of the story is the clash between the self-appreciating confident artists and the earthbound man, between assured intention and an experience fashioned out of life.

Irony appears in the second part of the narrative: a perfect doughnut is made and offered to the occupation forces in Okinawa as a part of the civil protest against their presence there. The hope is they will go home.

Instead, the artist is taken away by the police, still holding the “perfect doughnut”, which as an embodiment of a perfect idea fails, about to be thrashed. The scenes are visibly arranged, with the makers leaving all pretensions that it is a document.  The freshly pressed uniforms and acted expressions betray a setup. The video is referring to the SACO agreement on making Okinawa into an American military base. Japanese settlers feel it as an occupation.

Making donut is not a problem -it is who will eat it. 

The last gallery room houses an installation saturated with green light.

Caressing and irritating in equal measure. 

The three green bulbs simply make reading details of landscapes on walls deliberately difficult.  MIDORI MITAMURA: Green on the mountain contains light, copies of photographs and old records creating an immersive installation, you walk in and out of it, and a small suspended dark wreath, slightly moving in the centre.

Photo Sophie Daly

She offers a poem that explains it on her website. ( It is calm like a just-opened Egyptian tomb. Treasures around, not easily deciphered.

More videos accompanied Takahiro Suzuki’s IKIRO

 at the Castle Court pop up gallery,   gently adding different visual experiences.  Something not belonging, yet part of the meaning of the words being repeated: Be Alive. 

   Atsushi Yamamoto: An Asian Giant goes to the Japanese restaurant, 2014


 Hikaru Suzuki: Michiko, 2018


Felt like an unnecessary addition, yet, even on quick and superfluous sampling, in the limited space and inadequate light, each confidently offered sensitive visual poetry appearance in their study of the ordinariness. Two artists were both standing on their own and still accompanying the performance, also as its first viewers. 

There is more on

I did not watch the videos but in passing. I appreciate their investigative aim at ordinary, and even personal, life.

The self-documenting work features also in Hikaru Suzuki’s videos.  More here: › Artist › Hikaru-Suzuki.

The Golden Thread Gallery scored with this exhibition high points for many obvious reasons.  One, in particular, stands out for me: the confidence of the artists that they work for mankind, not just for regional audiences with some invented social need. Their work stands against nationalism – even when it does not deny having roots in the experience of particular peoples. It that sense, this exhibition is a political statement about aesthetic experience, of its liberating force to balance differences by similarities. A duet between real and hoped for. Between order and disorder – similar to those traditional mandalas. 

Images courtesy of GTG via Shiro Masuyama and Sophie Daly.



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Slavka Sverakova

writer on art

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