1991 – Hanging on the wall, in a brown wooden frame at table level, is Shuji Mizutome’s long letter. We were artists-correspondents on the double exposition of the Asakusaé Orientation 50°Nord project. I live close to this precious letter. It is part of my everyday life. Its unique and personal words reveal so much about the Japanese mind, history and culture, and about a way of thinking about natural rocks and trees which I express in my sculptures. The words of the letter covered in the entire plaster surface of the tree-sculpture which I conceived for the Hemicycle du Cinquantenaire in Brussels.
1989 – My friend Atsuko Kawashima informed me about The Ohya Underground Art exhibition.
I knew her as an art student in Brussels, and later as an artist; we shared the same views and passion for experimenting and practicing art in places marked by history and social commitments. That is how I came to discover the fascinating and engaged work by Surge Gallery in Tokyo. A trip was planned in company of Martine Monnart*, for a first meeting in Tokyo with Chieko Watanabe, Shin-ichi Sakai and the artists of the gallery. An exhibition that would bring together Japanese and Belgian artists was on our minds. We developed a future project that would give the artists an individual experience and an opportunity for close cultural exchange, including moments of intense working side by side in situ. This was the real beginning of Asakusaé Orientation 50° Nord project.
2015 – During a visit in Belgium last December, Shin-ichi Sakai asked me to write down my memories of this episode and I felt delighted to remember those intense moments.
When I think of Asakusaé Orientation 50°Nord today, the whole experience seems out of what we could imagine. It was made possible thanks to the intense implication of the organizers and artists who collaborated on every aspect of the project to give it its perfect form.
Twenty-three artists joined the event in Tokyo and in Brussels.
This was a truly hands-on adventure between two worlds that brought to our minds the inspiration of a cultural diversity. From the outset, it was agreed that works would not be sent, since the focus was on working together, in proximity of each other, close and separated from our roots.
This experience was not only about creating works in two different contexts. The exchange of letters between the artists, before and after, gave it a unique and memorable flavor. Every participating artist would also have a correspondent on the opposite side. Over time, the exchange became a genuine partnership. We were able to communicate only in English, a foreign language to both sides. However, the sense of discomfort we felt in having to use English had the unexpected result of making us more transparent.
After the letters came the real contact. For example, when we needed help to find materials, we would travel together through the city, in search for the right suppliers. Discovering the two cities in this way – by searching to meet and extract what could structure and inspire our installation’s poetic substance – was a singular experience. We found ourselves faced with exciting and unusual questions.
Through our informal exchanges during meals, we quickly discovered that conversation was not easy. And so it happened that our exchange would rely less on verbal than on visual communication.
Work, creation, laughs and mutual energy became our language.
1991 – Organizing one exhibition in two parts was a superb idea – spring in Tokyo – autumn in Brussels.
Each setting was chosen not as a neutral container, but as a cultural base for the values of each world, with its society and history. These values acted as vectors projecting our differences and similarities, and set the stage for our respective encounters.
In Tokyo, the space selected for the exhibition was the elementary school in Kinryu, a place rich of the memories of the neighborhood and the city. In Brussels, a very central space, but usually inaccessible, the monumental colonnade of the Hemicycle in the Parc du Cinquantenaire, was opened to the artists and the public.
In Kinryu, the school acted as a refuge, an empty and exceptional space in Tokyo, quite unique for this immersion. I remember that every class or corridor was an open space and private studio, a mixture of intimacy and passage, filled with the warm presence of dark wood, enigmatic signs on the blackboard, with rows of coat-hangers and sliding doors. We would work with, around and between those signs and traces.
The Hemicyle in Brussels was the complete opposite: a large walkway bound by columns and mosaics. Visible from the park as well as up close, our interventions were sharply challenging its classicism. Here again, each artist would invest his or her space, while moments of open exchange would happily interfere.
Moving along and working on both sites taught us many things about each other. It revealed our processes and attitudes. Day after day we discovered intentions and subjects generating the artworks. Actors and spectators, we were always open to questioning.
2016 – Thinking about my own installations in the exhibition I know they were altogether instinctive. In Kinryu, the idea of sculpting a rock facing a feminine sculpture was a jumping-off point for communication. These principal elements were chosen to echo part of our distinct spiritual beliefs and I came to realise the fundamental meaning of trees, wood and rocks. Also emerged from this experience in Brussels my understanding of the concept MA, the interval between things, the abstract space made visible.
The suspended sentence in theatrical dialog charges the void with energy and shapes the response. For a sculptor deeply involved with space, MA is a revelation.
In Belgium quite a few of the Belgian artists still meet today, and we always feel in the atmosphere of our meetings a kind of floating ribbon tying us together. Even if differences separate us, even if sometimes our paths no longer cross, this event created a long-lasting connection between us all.
2012 – A great surprise was the request by Shuji Mizutome for a contribution to his exhibition at Surge Gallery entitled: Haiku and the Digital camera. He asked us all to send photographs of grass, sky and shadows. His proposal was a moving tentative to reunite us all. It was important after the Fukushima drama to participate to Shuji’s intense project. At the same moment in the Netherlands, Belgium and Japan, we would think of the resurgence of nature and the eternal rebirth of things.
* Martine Monnart was the project-coordinator with Denise Delvaux, president of Ecoles en Galerie in Brussels.