Born in 1976, Aya Takano is the predominate woman in Japan’s Superflat movement. Surreal scenes of imagined futures paired with Manga influences have defined her style of willowy female portraits. After the Japanese earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, these scenes have begun to reflect the present in addition to the future.
Takano now uses her paintings to meditate on escape. The title of her first solo exhibition in eight years at Tokyo's Kaikai Kiki Gallery, and its central work, May All Things Dissolve in the Ocean of Bliss, represent the artist’s renewed interest in Indian philosophy and the idea that everything we see is part of a collective unconscious. In addition to drawing upon philosophy and current events, Takano is well versed in the history of Surrealism, citing artists such as Dalí alongside Japan’s science fiction greats.
Over the past few years, Takano not only reflected on Japan’s recent history but stretched the use of her medium. "May All Things Dissolve in the Ocean of Bliss" (on view until April 2, 2014 in Tokyo) contains a three-dimensional installation, Superflat paintings, and a new partnership with flower artist Makoto Azuma. The future presented in these pieces comes in the form of a forest, allowing viewers to experience Aya's vision of the world—as a place full of color and wonder.
I used to place importance on more sensory elements, like cities or the great unknown, but lately, I've begun to paint in a more prayer-like style, as if I'm making an offering to the gods.
What was your emphasis in university and how did this shape your work, stylistically?
In university, I studied art history and video production, among other subjects. Honestly, the only things that have stuck with me are the areas I have studied on my own since I was a child. University wasn't very interesting for me.
Being the predominate woman of the Superflat movement, which often depicts idealized women, how do you believe your work differs from your male counterparts?
I'm not a man, so I can only speak to my own gaze, but I think of the figures that I create as spiritual beings. The are undifferentiated, neither man nor woman, without any particular pursuits, and they are capable of becoming anything. They need not be thought of as bodies; they are more like symbolic representations of certain existences.
Since your last solo exhibition in Japan, eight years ago, how has your work developed?
Over the past eight years, I'd say that my work has really begun to evolve since the disasters that hit Japan in March 2011. I've become a vegetarian, have begun studying traditional Japanese dances and instruments, I started doing yoga and meditation, and my inner self has begun to change, which has probably resulted in changes in my work. I used to place importance on more sensory elements, like cities or the great unknown, but lately, I've begun to paint in a more prayer-like style, as if I'm making an offering to the gods.
The title 'May All Things Dissolve in the Ocean of Bliss' is inspired by one of the tenets of Indian philosophy, which says that everything we see is part of a collective unconscious.
For your upcoming exhibition with Kaikai Kiki, how have you incorporated more of your personal experiences into your figurative work? I was particularly interested in your description of "May All Things Dissolve in the Ocean of Bliss" as an analogy for the 2011 tsunami in Japan.
Cities (which are the only world I'd known until recently), the outside world, a certain trepidation toward rural culture, nature, tradition, history, and my respect for the depth these things possess—all of these things flow naturally into my work these days. The catalyst for that change was the 3/11 disasters.
The title "May All Things Dissolve in the Ocean of Bliss" is inspired by one of the tenets of Indian philosophy, which says that everything we see is part of a collective unconscious, the kind that Jung talked about, and that all things emerge from an endlessly deep ocean of bliss. The title is my prayer that everything will thus melt back into that ocean.
Do you find that incorporating these events and other biographical elements have changed the way you experience daily life?
It's the opposite. I myself have changed and that has led to a change in my work. My experience of the everyday has completely transformed as the result of changes I've made in my daily living habits.
These days, I don't use soap or acrylic paints. I've become able to smell the flowers on the roadside. I get sick eating food from convenience stores and have stopped doing so altogether.
Aya Takano, Saffron, Sesame, Almond, Clover, Manuka, Bugs, and Light (2014)
I just let my feelings flood out, and in the end, this resulted in a truly fascinating work.
You have also previously mentioned influences ranging from Gauguin to the Surrealists, science, and science fiction. How do these manifest in your works?
Visual artists (and everyone else really) have no choice but to receive influence from all the events and images they've passed through in their life.
So I can't say that the above are my only influences, but it's true that, as you said, I have always had great respect for the spirit of the truly experimental artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I believe that we must do our best to make sure their stance is not forgotten.
Science is a way of exploring the mysteries of the universe, and '50s-'70s era science fiction is a great way of achieving flexibility of mind, so these things, too, must not be forgotten. My paintings make great use of the above approaches, as well as the visionary experiences or actual visions that emerge when we come in contact with those approaches.
Was creating a three-dimensional installation therapeutic for you? How is it different than putting your experiences on a canvas?
It was more exciting than therapeutic, I'd say. The general outline of the installation was predetermined, but over the 3-4 days in which it was created, there was so much that felt new to me. I just let my feelings flood out, and in the end, this resulted in a truly fascinating work. I usually work almost exclusively on my own, but this experience has taught me that if I am working with fantastic artists, the work will be fantastic, no matter how many people are involved in putting it together.
Aya Takano, Castle at Four (2014)
I don't want to force any particular point of view on anyone, so I leave it up to them.
You describe your work as achieving feelings of “wanting to fly and go to the universe” in the documentary Towards Eternity. What, in addition to these feelings, do you hope viewers will take away from your imagery?
Personally, I hope that people will feel good after viewing my works, but I don't want to force any particular point of view on anyone, so I leave it up to them.
In the same documentary, you discuss the adverse reaction that American children and their parents have to the sexualized depictions in your paintings. How has the reaction differed in your native Japan?
I certainly understand why these people feel the way they do, so there's not much I can do to address their concerns.
I think people in Japan have a similar reaction. However, I also think that, regardless of nationality, it's up to the individual how they see the work. I also note that lately, I do not personally feel the urge to create works that are highly sexualized.
That might change again in the future, though.