Hiroshi Senju, known as the “waterfall artist,” is an inter- nationally acclaimed Japanese painter who, lives in New York and has devoted his talent and energy to promote traditional Japanese paintings and techniques the world over. Senju’s latest works of magnitude include the waterfall monuments at the international terminal ofTokyo’s Haneda Airport, the cultural hall at Shibuya, the Japanese style walls for the APEC conference and an exhibition with Kaii Higashiyama, a famous Japanese artist of the late 20th century. He is also busy passing on his talents to younger
generations as the Director of Kyoto University of Art and Design. In our interview, we asked him to give us his take on art and Japanese culture.
Interview with Hiroshi Senju
“Challenging is the most important element”
– First, could you tell us about your one person exhibition “HARUKA NARU AOI HIKARI” in the Chelsea district in New York?
This time, I used fluorescent paint for the first time. When we announce or release something publicly, the most important element is to present a new challenge. Also, thinking about where you came from and where you are going is really important. I guess not many people have tried to use fluorescent paint for a full-scale painting. And because I followed my instinct, I discovered the potential of fluorescent paint as a painter’s medium, which millions of painters would not realize as I did. I was sticking to painting something really sublime with an inexpensive material like fluorescent paint. This was my challenge. On reflection, I have some reservations on what I did, though I still have a sense of achievement in my work.
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–Since you were using IWAENOGU (paint with pigments derived from natural materials such as seashells, minerals and corals) as a Japanese-Painting painter, didn’t you hesitate about using fluorescent paint?
I think absolute honesty is essential to any work of art. If we come contact with everything with absolute honesty, we might be moved by something which we are not normally impressed by. And that leads to creativity. That is why I had a flash of inspiration that “Fluorescent paint can be a great paint; it will be beautiful when I draw a painting with it”. If people say these paintings are not traditional Japanese-Painting since I used fluorescent paint, that is fine by me. But Japanese-Painting is of course considered as Japanese culture and “always absorbing new things from overseas and growing bigger” is a characteristic of Japanese culture.
For example, SUIBOKUGA (a drawing in India ink) is a part of Chinese culture, which came from calligraphy. A technique of using ink was originally created for writing words and has changed into a method for drawing pictures. Later on some of our ancestors like Sesshu adopted the technique and SUIBOKUGA is even considered as Japanese-Painting nowadays. It is really interesting because if we write “ice cream” using letters of the alphabet, it is an American food. But if we write it in KATANAKA, it becomes a part of Japanese culture. To take foreign cultures in with magnanimity and crunch it and digest it and make it our own, that is the peculiarity of Japanese culture. Therefore ways of thinking like “it is not Japanese-Painting if a painter uses Acrylic paints “or” using fluorescent paints and a canvas means the painting is not Japanese-Painting” are the same as the idiom “You cannot see the forest for the trees” and we would not think like that when we think of important characteristics of Japanese culture.
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Let’s talk about the word “tradition” now. In English, the prefix “trans” means “across” or “beyond” as in the words translate, transfer, and transient. So we cannot call something a tradition (i.e. handed down) if we are just maintaining it. Some people have enlarged tradition at the edge and such accretions become a part of tradition – in other words, innovation. Therefore following our ancestors’ idea of works means that we have to enlarge upon them with an awareness of doing so and this is really important. And I think this is the true meaning of the word “tradition”.
“Incompatibles can coexist: that is a message from art”
–What characteristic of Japanese culture we can find through our ancestor’s work?
The biggest characteristic of Japanese culture is an awareness of being in nature. We are trying to express the joy of living in nature or the notion that nature lets us live. This kind of thinking is not so common in western art or culture. For geographical reasons, western countries needed town walls to protect themselves and their culture from invasion. In contrast, Japan is surrounded by the ocean so we were relatively safe from such invasion. This fact is very rare in our world history. A culture and people that grew up in this kind of environment could have the freedom of getting into nature readily, so I can say our culture is really blessed compared to others. When we look at paintings or WAKA (traditional Japanese poetry) or IKEBANA (flower arrangement), we find the fact that these are the expressions of the joy of living in nature. Peace, in other words, is the biggest characteristic of Japanese culture.
But the fact is that people in academic or artistic careers weren’t just expressing themselves in such a peaceful environment. For example a painter Eitoku Kanou, who was favored by General Hideyoshi Toyotomi and Nobunaga Oda, drew SHIKIKACHOUZU which contains all four seasons in one painting. Think about why he drew that kind of painting at that time. Because spring, summer, fall, and winter are, let’s say, completely different concepts, like the generals who were fighting all the time in the Warring States Period. In SHIKIKACHOUZU, he expressed his idea that those enemies can be together in harmony and it can be considered as an antiwar movement. Even though he was serving as a painter for some generals, he was working as a real artist so I hold him in reverence. Working on such an artistic painting in the time of hegemony could lead to his losing his life, so I call him a true artist.
Art conveys a message directly to people in their deepest being because it is not expressed in words. What Eitoku Kanou wanted to say was the importance of peace and creation. In art, completely different things can be exist close together and be in nature at the same time. That is the message from art and it is also a peace making process. I think we shouldn’t forget these important elements all the time and we have to be distant from authority. There is a truth when we develop ourselves with objectivity and distance. That’s why I need to be distant from everything. Now I live in New York because I can see Japan well from the outside. I feel it is really important to be distant from everything.
“Don’t create a hurdle by yourself”
– What is the definition of art for you?
When I think of the definition of art, I find it is a way to communicate our imagination to other people. In other words, conveying our feeling to someone who wouldn’t readily understand us, this is art. In Japanese writing, “NINGEN (people)” consists of the words “person” and “between”. What is happening between two people? It is communication. So what people create is communication and imagination. That is to say, all we create is naturally art. It is a way of trying to convey our thoughts to other people. The most important first step in starting communication is to listen to other people. Try to understand what other people are trying to say and then, think about the response. This is the communication between human beings. But in this world, there are so many one-way communications, notifications, and announcements and such communication creates misunderstanding, lack of understanding, and non-understanding. After all, these failures of communication are the reason for all disputes and wars and this is the problem for our generation today. What we need is an artistic way of thinking and that is having a mind trying to communicate our imagination somehow. Therefore if all people have an artistic way of thinking, so many troubles and wars will be lessened.
– Why are we impressed by art?
For instance, when I look at a painting of a master, I don’t think like “Wow, he or she uses great colors!” or “He or She copied the perfect shape from a real one”. But those paintings could really impress people because the person has a spirit that is trying to convey his or her mind to other people fearlessly so we are impressed by such spirits. Some artists are called master because they had the spirit and never gave up nor blurred the image: that’s why we respect them. When someone is really involved in order to speak one’s mind, that touches people. The most important thing is the effort to communicate and that makes people courageous. If someone really loves something and so forgets all other things and is completely absorbed by it, that kind of attitude attracts people and impresses people. Such desires as “I want to express my feelings to other people”, “Please listen to my music”, “Please read my poem”, or “Please watch my acting” has the true excitement of art, I think.
– So, young creators like us need to change our viewpoints.
We often think as a Japanese or a man or a woman. With that kind of viewpoint, you may think like “I don’t care about the beauty of flowers because I am a man” but that is really sad. Why can’t we think as just human beings. With a framework like that, we may miss some really important things. For example, McDonald’s hamburger has the same taste for everyone and many people enjoy SUSHI all over the world; this is the true meaning of international. There is no such a thing in Japanese culture that only Japanese people can understand. Something only Japanese people can understand is something even Japanese people don’t understand fully. Thinking outside the box seems difficult but if you realize how to do it, it is easy. The only question is whether you realize it or not.
You just have to be conscious of conveying imagination and talking to someone as a human being as we all are. If you can do it, that is already international. If you send out a message as a human being, it must be understood by human beings. There will be a wall if you think there is. If you don’t think so, you don’t have any wall to break down. Get rid of the concept of a wall from your mind. I think this kind of idea leads to our rich creation.
There is a limit when we are active in lifetime. One of my friends said “we can’t rehearse our life” and I really agree with her. We don’t have time to march in place. We only live millions of days and time is ticking. So you don’t have time thinking about whether you have a talent or not. You just have to do what you want to do and try to pass your passion on to other people. In such activities, you can find the brightest moment of your life.
1958Born in Tokyo, Japan.
1982Graduates from Tokyo National University of Fine and Music Obrained B.F.A Degree.
1984M.F.A Degree from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.
1987Completes Ph. D. (A.B.D)Program in Fine Arts at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.
1995Represents Japan for the 46th Venice Biennale Venice Biennale Honorable Mention.
1999Konju Hosho Prize
2000Kawakita Michiaki Prize
2002Okada Mokichi Award, Grand Prize
2003Director of International Research Center for the Arts. Kyoto University of Art and Design.