Dear Leiko,
Over the past two decades we have discussed your work at your studio now and then, as well as presented our dialogue several times in public, and now you have asked me to write about your work. But speech and text are different forms, and to be honest if I had the choice I’d rather remain silent this time. That strikes me as ‘ indispensable as a first reaction to art in general, but it is especially important for me with regard to your work. In any case, being silent with art means more to me than talking about it. Because only silence creates the conditions in which we become ca­pable of saying something, allowing the right words to find us, rather than the other way around, ensuring that in the act of seeing and subsequent reflection, words come together that we didn’t know beforehand. Might remaining silent be a communicable form that speaks of an artistic work? I don’t know. But I am sure that silence can be shared as a connecting and expressive experience with your works in the same way it can be shared with a familiar person at special moments. In such moments it creates something of substance and is far more than a state of helplessness.

Claim, 2010/11 Terracotta, glazed Dimensions: 9 1/2 x 26 1/2 x 23 inches (24 x 67.5 x 58.5 cm)

There are as many ways of being silent as there are reasons to do so, and they can all be found in your work. When I think of your sculptures, that you shape out of clay with your hands like pots, then my first impulse is a silence of curiosity and inclination in which to approach them, to walk around them, to visually scan their surfaces that are full of details, full of handwritten traces that only form a whole when looked at this way. But at the same time, it is a silence touched by the un­ shielded vulnerability, the deformation of crippled limbs, and the trace of violence that are troublingly paired here with beauty. It is a bashful silence because, since your earliest drawings, the hints of erotic fantasies have been so unveiled and open; a baffled silence in the face of the fragment, the seemingly unfinished, whose rate remains beyond words. It is a silence of pain at the sight of the eyes punched into the soft material, the abrupt incisions in the finely worked bodies, and the sealed mouths that allow no words. It can be a weary silence that shares an expression of exhaustion with your sculptures while in the face of graceful plant and animal forms in the process of becoming or decaying it becomes a tense silence of expectation. Looking at the girlish figures and their exquisite colored glazes, the perception of pain connects with a silence of quiet joy, like being in the company of alien beings who act as friendly guides. But your sculptures are passive, their sole purpose is to expose themselves to our gaze. In keeping with Buddhist tradition, their actions are directed wholly inwards. With this self-focused autonomy, they embody a state of personality formation that reminds me of playing children, lost to the world. Do you remember how quickly words destroyed the space dreamed up by the imag­ination, a space taken for real? Is it not generally the case that words, more than speaking about the reality of the artwork, transport unrelated content that restricts their ability to translate the specificity of what has been perceived? Do words with their fixing not rob your works of the floating ambivalence that characterizes them?

Of course, as someone who writes about art, words are more or less my only choice, and I have long since returned to them here. But in order to say something that stands in meaningful relation to your work, they must be chosen with reference to their provisional quality. Because they are merely tools to approach a medium whose actual meaning is conveyed visually. With your haikus, you yourself have chosen a path via the open form of poetry that depends on the reader’s interpre­tative contribution. And whereas in speech, words remain malleable and fleeting, changing to follow possible ways of seeing and experiencing, always subject to being tried and tested and discarded, in writing – especially with the finality of print – they run a greater risk of being unambiguous, putting them at odds with your work. In that work, you effortlessly bring opposites together while leaving this connection as open as possible, allowing for personal impressions and evaluations. Which is why the concrete coincides with the abstract, the real with the surreal, the lasting with the temporary, the monumental with the intimate, and the conscious with the unconscious. But the alliance of beauty and pain seems to me to be the most important of all the supposed opposites you sustain in your work, in order not to end up in the realm of kitsch. I want to find different words and, with the letter, a different form. A form that now seems as anachronistic as your works, which add up to a statement making no distinction between past and present, presence and memory, dream and reality, fragility and strength, life and death.

The world of experience reflected in this work leads from a childhood in Japan to Europe, first for a period of study in Spain and then, before you settled in Ger­many, several years in Switzerland. Switzerland of all places, I think, as there could hardly be a greater contrast than that between your early work with its unbridled chaotic energy and any form of civic order. Your ego exploded in these years, you once told me, referring to the expressive force of your early paintings and drawings. We also spoke about how the country of your birth and that of your voluntary exile are linked by recent history. The upheavals of World War II have inscribed them­ selves into the memory of these societies. Both their attempts to mask the tragedy they had suffered with a facade of growing prosperity and their tangled dealings with collective guilt were experienced by you in all their dubiousness and abysmal falsehood. You catapulted yourself out of your own society in search of possibilities for an artistic processing of trauma, trod in the footsteps of Goya and El Greco, followed Matisse, Picasso and Kirchner, stepped into the shoes of Joseph Beuys, emancipating yourself from these models with feminist radicalism, leaving them all behind like a shed cocoon. Both fascinated and repelled, you reveled in the brutal and passionate drama of medieval Europe, not least in an attempt to overcome the insurmountable nightmare of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Reduced to black and white, your early chemigrams look like nightmares manifesting as pictures, like projections from the shadowy realm of our consciousness that connect the animal and the abstract in ways that cannot be named. To get closer to holistic thinking and feeling, you dreamed your way into creatures, sprouted wings, settled on trees and rocks, casting a furtive glance at the world from a sitting or reclining position. This has remained your viewpoint to this day.

You didn’t need Fukushima to see the brutality with which we ignore creation, behaving on this earth as if there were plenty more in reserve. On the contrary, it hit you so hard that you were unable to make art for some time. Instead, you joined forces with others and became politically active by curating a group show. One year later, you made a five-part series of large-format landscape paintings that refer to Fukushima, expressing the longing for all wounds to be healed in an Eden-like unity of humans and nature, but also the toxic whiff of ecological disaster and the apocalyptic mood it creates. It seems to me that the disaster of Fukushima, which (contrary to what waning media interest might suggest) stigmatizes your country like a bleeding open wound, brought you closer to your roots in a Japanese aesthet­ic. Your painting is characterized by the flowing lightness of gestural marks, freely wielded brushstrokes modeled on the calligrapher’s sure command of pen and ink achieved by constant repetition. In the combinations of oil and tempera that you pile up in countless layers, mixed with pure pigments, on unprimed canvas or rough jute, you have succeeded in transferring the transparency of watercolors to large formats. With multiple washes of color, you create pictorial spaces where details of landscapes or figures take shape with hints of outlines, while the task of identifying the specifics is left to the viewer. As is often the case in painting, a lack of focus is the actual quality of what is portrayed. In their composition and their many-layered depth, your most recent pictures in particular recall the landscapes of Japanese woodcut printing, as perfected by Hokusai and Hiroshige.

Zarathustra ll, 2014 Pigment on jute Dimensions: 74 3/4 x 114 1/4 x 15.24 inches (190 x 290 cm)

With detours via medieval Europe, German Romanticism and western classical Modernism, you have returned to the nature religion of your home country, a religion that manifests itself, among others, in popular worship at sacred sites and shrines. Shintoism has one of its centers in the prefecture where you were born. In fine art and in literature, there are many examples of people finding themselves by moving away and experiencing the unfamiliar. In one of our conversations, you rightly referred to yourself as “cosmopolitan,” knowing that globalization remains a purely economic factor only as long as one pretends to be able to overlook the cultural traditions of specific regions. As panoramas of mythical landscapes and as accounts of personified nature, your paintings are disconcertingly untimely. With emphatic insistence, they call for a rethinking of our purely empirical attitudes, bringing spirituality back into play in our secular age. They strike me as proposals for a new religion that combines the oldest traditions of animist thinking with the consciousness of a present that thinks only in fragments and bases everything on the individual. A religion that is aware of the loss of paradise and that wishes to rec­oncile us with maltreated nature and its creatures, not by masking the almost un­ bearable ills and the damage done, but by integrating them into art as an aesthetic of pain, presenting them as trophies of a life that is authentic, albeit far from ideal. Here, rather than being projected into some metaphysical zone beyond our world, faith focuses on an expanded experience of all worldly phenomena. Your sculpture and painting are animated by your struggle to reconcile opposites. In them, more than ever, I experience an awe of the world that leaves me speechless.