Miyake Mai
: Breaking Bad with Japanese Traditions

by Ry Beville

No other young artist in Japan has adapted and reinterpreted the native art tradition with as much devotion, insight and creativity as Miyake Mai. Her easily recognizable body of work, many pieces of which now occupy private and institutional collections, can seem on first glance like pop-culture renditions of old themes and motifs. But, as she warns, “Look closely, or the important things will slip away.” God is in the details, they say. With Miyake’s work, shrewd commentary on life, art, tradition and society reside in those details. Not everyone will see the same things. Most, however, will see why she is attracting such well-deserved attention. Even without knowledge of the traditions from which she works, viewers can recognize a clever, restless mind with a penchant for both mischief and beauty.

Miyake is cheerful and full of effervescent energy when she talks. The typically bright colors of her work, with shadows and darker tones to pull them out, reflect her personality. Her affability and obvious consciousness of the world challenge typical notions of the eccentric artist. She’s also completely fluent in English from having lived in Australia as a child, and speaks some French from a brief tenure in Paris as an artist in residence later in life.

Her studio occupies a quiet suburb of western Tokyo and features an entire wall of books. Art-related books comprise much of her library, including a sizable collection of manga, but there are other genres indicating an interest in subjects beyond her professional element, especially literature. Miyake is actually a published novelist and poet, too. She is quite comfortable with words, eloquent whether speaking in Japanese or English, and describes her basic process with illuminating examples.

“Take the phrase shuriha (守離破, sometimes written shuhari). Shu, to protect, refers to honoring and protecting, as in the tradition. Ri, to separate, is like a child that must eventually part from his parents. Ha, is to break. I believe you have to scrap and rebuild things to make them stronger, including tradition. A lot has to do with origins, too. I think originality derives from your origins and you should work with that. I’m Japanese, so I use my contemporary world to rejuvenate our tradition.”

Japanese aesthetic tradition has bequeathed to Miyake rich materials for reworking. Hanging scrolls are a conspicuous feature of her work.

“Japanese are sensitive to the seasons, as reflected even in things like delicacies. Changing scrolls to suit seasons, your feelings or a particular guest that might be visiting was once common. Why have one framed picture on your limited wall space when it’s easier to have scrolls?”

Calligraphy sometimes adorns images on scrolls but is largely absent from Miyake’s work.

“Written scrolls are for tea ceremony, which is a very rigid tradition. I don’t believe in that. You have to breathe life into tradition, and tea ceremony doesn’t match the contemporary world.”

Miyake’s scrolls would be blasphemous to a tea master. In “God of Wisdom” (知識の神), a fairly traditional rendering of the god with his egg-plant shaped head appears in the bottom left corner, but let your eyes float upward and toward the top is the Google logo and search bar. The conceit in many of her other scrolls is often more subtle, so much so that if the scroll were to hang in some formal setting–such as a tea room–guests might not even look closely enough to realize that some story is at work, which may even be poking fun at the world.

There’s nothing cynical about her art, though. A deep sensitivity to our fragility, dreams and illusions seems to inform many pieces. Images and motifs adapted from Nihonga (“Japanese-style paintings”) take on a fairy-tale quality as if the “contemporary world” Miyake so often invokes begs for imaginative escape. Rich use of symbolism tempers some of the piercing observations of life, too, lending layers of meaning.

Layers are equally important in the physical presentation. Her work is three-dimensional and exploits materials to create pieces that you don’t simply look at, but experience. Some of her art you look through, others you walk around, and different perspectives yield new revelations. Recently, she has been working on angled pieces that require the viewer to be in exactly the right spot for the full picture to come into view.

“We’re all bees in a beehive, adding to the nest,” she says of the artistic endeavor, using a physical metaphor. And in her art, she is also always physically building. The industriousness of bees further speaks to the enormous body of work she has produced, despite her young age. But all this tangibility is an empty shell without her ideas and inspiration. That of course comes from tradition and the contemporary world. And maybe some quiet spark she carries within.













Miyake Mai Artist Profile

■ Born in Yokohama. Self-taught artist. Began writing in 2001.
■ 2005 Exhibitions at the Mito Art Museum’s modern art gallery (Ibaraki), Umi-no-mieru-mori Art Museum (Hiroshima), Kakegawa City Ninomaru Museum of Art (Shizuoka), Shanghai Duolon Museum of Modern Art (group exhibit)
■ 2007 Setagaya Art Museum’s “Hyakka 2007” Workshop
■ 2008~9 Scholarship to Paris’ Ecole Nationale superieur des Beaux-Arts
■ 2010 Winner of the De La Mer Female Artist Award
■ 2011 Mori Art Museum (Tokyo) “Tohoku Earthquake Disaster Charity Sale”
■ 2011 Publication of the short-story collection, “Good Night, My Long Dream.”

For information on upcoming exhibitions, visit: http://www.maimiyake.com/exhibition

■ 横浜生まれ。独学。2001年より作家活動を開始。
■ 2005年 水戸芸術館現代美術ギャラリー第 9 室(水戸)、海の見える杜美術館(広島)、掛川市二の丸美術館(掛川)、Shanghai
Duolun Museum of Modern Art(上海)グループ展
■ 2007年 世田谷美術館(世田谷)「世田谷芸術百華 2007」ワークショップ
■ 2008〜9年 奨学金を得てパリ国立美術大学大学院 (Ecole Nationale superieur des Beaux-Arts)に留学
■ 2010年ドゥラメール・フィメール・アーティストアワードを受賞
■ 2011年 森美術館ギャラリー1(六本木)「東日本大震災チャリティ・セール」ほか個展多数
■ 2011年 短編集「おやすみなさい。良い夢を」(講談社)を上梓


Published Works

34cmx26cm 143ページ

◆ミヤケマイ作品集Vol.2「ココではないドコか Forget me not」
価格:作品集 本体8465円+税
おまけ付き 本体16000円+税

Miyake Mai Picture Collection: “Welcome Back” (2005)
publisher: Murakoshi Gallery
price: ¥5000 (tax included)
34cm x 26cm, 143 pages

Mai Miyake Collective Works Vol.2 “Forget me not” (2008)
publisher: Geijutsu Shimbunsha
price : ¥8,465+tax
specially bound book : ¥16,000+tax
supplements: cloth (furoshiki) wrap, Japanese playing cards
(hanahuda), kaleidoscope ※500 limited sets

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