Draw Near, But… Beyond Me and The World — On Nobuko Watabiki’s Work
Kazuo Amano, Art Critic
It has been some time since I last saw Nobuko Watabiki’s works gathered under one roof. I first came across her work some quarter of a century ago in the early 1990s. Both based at the time in the Tokyo area, Watabiki and I were active respectively as an exhibiting artist, and a critic and curator.
Her earlier works consisted of boxes with cutouts of her own childhood photos placed inside, along with paper, cotton and the like (1984 – 1992). Watabiki later created her own box-like structures with raised frames, exchanging the earlier contents for what had the appearance of silhouette self-portraits. Painting was beginning to emerge, albeit gradually. In both these stages, the objects depicted have a stuck-on look and lack concrete form. Using images of herself, the artist reconstructed a scene with a strong sense of narrative; by further developing this into painting, she inverted and opened up what was once a closed space, an inward-looking world, to the world outside. Then in the mid-80s, Watabiki’s work saw an abrupt turn to oil pastel – a medium the artist still uses to date. Her work underwent a significant shift in materials and, as a result, in scale. It slowly grew in size, and by her 1992 solo exhibition in Aoyama, *1 the picture planes already straddled the partitions dividing the painting; but they continued to grow to a size that completely engulfed both artist and viewer. No longer was there a frame to serve as a protective barrier; instead, the works gave off the sense that we were being confronted by something from a world beyond, a large and uninhibited creature appearing before us to show a glimpse of its face. This alien entity, despite its tough and fearsome presence, also had a comical and familiar charm to it. It may be a crude comparison, but the figure is reminiscent of the blue ogre in the Japanese fairy tale.
In her ongoing series using oil pastel on Japanese washi paper, the back-and-forth motion of the pastels ruffle the fibers of the paper, producing a rich synthesis of materials. This surface texture not only suggests the intensity of the execution but also adds a fiercely sensory and erotic quality. On her recent work, Watabiki commented, “With oil pastel, the speed at which I think and the speed at which I paint are the same. With sewing, on the other hand, the execution is faster [in relation to the thinking]… With Japanese washi paper, I cannot afford any errors, so it’s slower.” *2
From the 80s and 90s until the present day, I feel that Watabiki has always created her works in relation to the external world. This has been consistent throughout, starting from the period with the boxes, to the oil pastels, and to the works involving newspaper and used clothing, which she developed in her current home of Germany. Commonplace items like newspaper and used clothing generally inspire a sense of familiarity. However, rather than draw on this, Watabiki paints over most of the German newspaper sheets, only leaving small windows of color exposed, as an apparent attempt to illuminate some essential quality of Germany. The same goes for her works involving used clothing cut out and layered onto the canvas. Whether or not the clothes were made in Germany is glossed over; instead the work presents the colors that the Germans have chosen to wear in everyday life, perhaps as a way to gain an understanding of her own place and identity within that foreign country. This is reduction of a culture to a color scheme – what the artist refers to as “the hollow shell of a culture that one cannot quite grasp with one’s hands.” It makes me wonder whether that is perhaps how the artist herself, a lone foreigner, has been spending her time in Germany.
Here again we see the artist toying with an image of some sort: in general, these figures resemble the human-shaped figures of her previous work. Forms stand before us, mostly without contours (although her works around 2003 used them liberally) and without depth. These undefined color planes are essentially at one with the background.
By the same token, Watabiki’s works give off little impression of space. The compositions within the rectangles are clearly deliberate, and each color – be it a cluster of shapes or an independent figure – is evidently dictated by its surrounding colors. Still, three-dimensional space – a prerequisite for physical objects – is absent from the work. In lieu of this are planes overlaid with color – not abstract planes but a visceral, tangible masses closing in on the viewer. Watabiki’s paintings place an emphasis on frontality. The shapes might be stacked atop each other, with one eclipsing another, or they might intrude into the canvas from the side. There are the occasional faces in profile or figures silently stretching across the whole canvas, but for the most part, they maintain their frontal orientation and are contained within the frame. They assert their presence, confronting the artist and contending with the viewer. That is why they appear to us as ominous beings.
Watabiki’s oeuvre is tremendous, both in the sense of their scale, and of the number of great works that she has produced. However, it is the impression of size, which surpasses the actual size, that daunts the viewer. The impression is that the works portray merely a part of something larger that we cannot see. But there is a familiar physicality to the figures, as discussed above. Although the viewers can only speculate, they have a sense that the figures in the paintings are connected to something vast and unseen. Although we are well aware that this presence has come from a far-distant place, it is also drawing ever nearer to us.
Watabiki once told me that she wanted one day to produce oil paintings in a country with a history of painting on canvas. She finally attained this chance in 2015, and is presenting two works in this exhibition. This exhibition marks the first presentation of her oil work. Does “ontogeny become phylogeny” – i.e. does the trajectory of her oil paintings echo the trajectory of the medium’s evolution? The answer is no: from a starting point that was far removed from “fine art,” the artist’s paintings have followed a unique path – a gradual progression punctuated by sudden transitions.
Watabiki’s work employs materials that have a strong sense of physicality and tactility, such as oil pastel and clothing. Watabiki once claimed, “No external sensation reaches me, it’s like I am protected inside a big stuffed toy…I had no body, I was existing only as a soul.” (from Curious Hands: Freeing Myself and becoming a Painter *3). Were Watabiki’s boxes, then, reworkings of this self-image? If so, her current output is an extension of this which releases the box’s contents into this world, into this great inverted box.
In parallel with her oil pastel pieces, the artist is currently producing works that feature used clothing and bed linen. These works consist of pieces of these materials that are cut apart then sewn onto a canvas base; yet they seem to differ in nature and origin from the straightforward collage works of the twentieth century. What is retained is the canvas base, onto which an all-over background is created and various foreground elements arranged. However, the used clothing and linen carry the presence of their former users. Furthermore, although the planes do not have a strong air of being objects, the fabric bears certain traces of their manufactured shape. As with her oil pastel works, the viewer can make out a rudimentary figure from the cut and sewn pieces arranged on top of these backgrounds. Objects stuffed with cotton is something that goes back to her early career. While those works constituted a personal world, these recent paintings exist as a composite of differing elements – a doll’s clothing attached just below a rendering of a head, multiple sleeves hanging from the canvas, and even collaborations in which Hella Zehle, whom Watabiki met at a facility for the handicapped, wrote text on top of Watabiki’s painting. These works indicate an eagerness to establish various connections with the world even at the expense of compromising their own autonomy or strength as works of formative art. Watabiki’s work opens itself up to others and the world by way of co-creation and strives toward limitless inclusion.
Watabiki’s frontal planes palpably close in on the viewers, threatening to engulf them. These works stand, at once, for presence and absence. The color planes, which represent masses of some kind, are in themselves metaphysical entities pregnant with meaning. Even the more straightforward faces go far beyond what they ostensibly depict: they are a cosmos, delicate, subtle and unfathomably deep. No longer governed by the notions of me and the world, these works accept and rise above all friction and reconciliation with the world – they are at once an interface, an entrance and an exit.
*1 The solo show took place at Sky Door Art Place Aoyama.
*2 Gallery, April 2013.
*3 Nobuko Watabiki, Curious Hands: Freeing Myself and becoming a Painter. Tokyo:
(Translated by Nobuko Aiso: Art Translators Collective)
The Collection of Whitestone Gallery
“I” in the Here and Now
Nobuko Watabiki’s paintings first capture people’s eyes with the vividness of their colors. The viewers’ gaze is drawn toward the exquisite combination of colors that arouses a sense of excited delight within them. The colors she utilizes include pink, green, blue, and charcoal gray, which may remind viewers of a type of wrapping paper that would be used at a select European confectionary shop. However, beyond the scene they have captured, viewers inevitably face an unsettling sense of apprehension, or feel as if they have thumped against something solid. This is because concealed on the other side of the nonchalant surfaces of Watabiki’s paintings, there exists a sense of incongruity, anger and outcry, feelings that derive from the life that Watabiki has led.
In her book Curious Hands: Freeing myself and becoming a painter (Shobunsha, 2008), which compiles the paintings Watabiki has created up until today along with her own writings, she stated the following: “In fact, I was so sad that I could not help but to create something.” But few pages after this comment she wrote, “In fact, I had never known real sorrow or experienced such deep regret before.”
Both of those comments probably came out of her honest feelings. She is the type of painter who has created paintings spurred by her own compelling need to paint, regardless of the fact that she has also tried to confine and ignore the raw pain and emotions deep within her mind. Her paintings seem to have some points in common with the works of so-called Outsider art, which are originated by painters who are self-taught and isolated from society. This comment would probably please Watabiki rather than offend her. The Outsider art that I am referring to here is not the type of painting that originates from an “innocent,” “pure” soul, but paintings that are considered to be positioned outside of social and artistic “standards.” Such a term can also refer to paintings that are not merely pure, but which possess a “poison” that causes people living within a world of standardized ideas to hold doubts toward what their common sense tells them and even to disillusion them.
In 1958, in the midst of the post-war recovery period in Japan, Watabiki was born in the heart of Tokyo. She grew up in a family of four: a displeased father who failed in his business; an independent, reliable mother who had a job of her own; and a sister who was a pretty “ideal child.” “My kimonos made of the same fabric as my mother’s, an amusement park we went to together, the yukatas (summer kimonos) we wore that were provided by the inn we stayed at a hot spring…”— one would think she should have had ordinary memories of a happy childhood based on this quote from her book. But in that book, she mentions that she could not remember how she felt during that period. She always felt like she was a spectator or a bystander in her family.
In order to recover the childhood that she had lost, Watabiki first began her artistic career by creating boxes made of photos from her childhood, beginning around 1984. Out of the black-and-white commemorative photos from her childhood, which were still costly in the 1960s, she found quite a number of them showing herself making poses as she stood beside her sister. These photos revealed to her the appearance of “an ideal child as desired by the parents” during that period. Around those photos, in which she repeatedly made the same pose, she, as an adult, painted and colored her box works packed with beautiful dreams. Watabiki’s box works share similarities with Joseph Cornell’s boxes, packed with his virtual, longed-for journeys, in that they serve as theaters for her memories, allowing her to re-experience her own past family trips and events.
But beginning in the early 1990s, her works, which were in a sense like healing sessions that were focused on her inner self, gradually underwent a transition. First, she began to use larger boxes and depict her present self, instead of herself in her childhood. She then created paintings with oil paints and oil pastels on such supports as a wooden panel and canvas. Via this process, she came to her current painting technique that utilizes oil pastels on Japanese paper. Using this style in her 1996 solo exhibition Spirits at the Table (Gallery Nikko), she showed about ten large-scale works, each 2100 × 1700mm in size. That exhibition undeniably marked her transition period whereby she was transfigured from a box-artist to a painter. This transition went beyond her artistic method, and assuredly had significance in the way in which the artist Watabiki shifted her vision from solely gazing at her inner self to opening her expressions toward the external world.
Since that exhibition, she has continued to fully demonstrate her artistic development through her solo exhibitions, such as those held at Galleria Chimera in Tokyo (2003) and the IBM Gallery in Kawasaki (2005), as well as through her participation in significant group exhibitions held at major art museums. Watabiki also participated in a group exhibition among Asian feminist artists, titled trauma, interrupted, held in Manila, Philippines in June 2007. This occasion allowed her the opportunity to develop her future painting by becoming aware of the fact that the tragic histories and haunting memories of different races have resulted in the casting of deep, dark shadows on people’s personal memories.
Finally, I would like to outline the distinctive characteristics of Watabiki’s oil pastel paintings. She creates a coarse, pilled texture on the surface of Japanese paper through applying layers of colors with oil pastel sticks that cover the entire surface. This unique method of depiction that Watabiki utilizes noticeably deviates from the ordinary use of oil pastels in painting. Nonetheless, the pilled surface of the Japanese paper brings out a unique softness and sense of warmth in the texture, while also placing softened veils over the thorn-like feeling that exists at the core of Watabiki’s round-headed figures that appear in all her paintings.
Though the depictions in Watabiki’s paintings contain round-headed characters that remind viewers of her own alter-ego, the poetic or epigrammatic titles of her works are those such as It would be enough just to give it some thoughts, Sorrow similar to not being able to see one’s own back, Naked Void, Determined Release, and Courage that lies beyond the reach of my hand. From these implications, one can surmise that she is putting her best effort into conveying her own inner sense of emptiness, anger, and sadness. But the characters in her paintings never shout or scream loudly. They simply open their eyes wide, at times baring and clenching their teeth as if they were listening to their internal, impulsive anger, as well as reexamining the meaning behind their reasons to live. I have no doubt that their (and Watabiki’s) silent anger will resonate within the heart of many present-day viewers who live within this world’s unceasing conflicts.
(Translated by Taeko Nanpei)
Voices from Artist to the World
Artist Nobuko Watabiki makes paintings of an individual texture inoil pastel on washi. In Germany, her work has developed into the expression using cloth.
In 2008, Nobuko Watabiki shifted her working base to Hamburg, Germany, as an overseas research fellow in art sent by Bunkacho (the Agency for Cultural Affairs). Since then, she lives and works there. Featuring a uniquely simplified figure in oil pastel on washi, her work has shown a new development in Germany. In addition to oil pastel work, Watabiki lately creates canvas work using old clothes. The change in material with her usual motif gives a subtle nuance to the expression of her work.
REIKO KOKATSU We hear that you continue to be active based in Hamburg, Germany, since 2008 when you stayed there for 1 year as an overseas research fellow in art sent by Bunkacho.
NOBUKO WATABIKI One year was over too soon. While I had to come back to Japan in spite of that I became acquainted with some people there, I got ambitious, feeling that I didn’t want to miss chances to do something meaningful.
RK So, you once came back home and soon returned to Hamburg. Are there some advantages for you in working overseas?
NW Nobody knows me in overseas, which is a new and interesting thing to me. That makes me feel that I possibly could work harder there once again. In Germany I’m as if I were all alone for life, but it’s also a good chance to think over myself again. Those days I had much time for working deep in concentration.
RK Did your work also change in the new environment?
NW Yes. I expected to take a new challenge if living in Germany at all, not making the same old work. Europe is a place of canvas culture, so I tried to use canvas as a material.
RK As a result, you made a work using cloth stitched on canvas.
NW I firstly intended to do oil painting on canvas, but as I thought that it would take much time to get a satisfactory result, I started to work using cloth in which I thought I could touch canvas while waiting for the result. Of course, I hope to create oil paintings that will make myself satisfied with in the future. I mean by work using cloth that German cloth is used in color areas of a picture. I got an idea of using old clothes that I got in Germany, and hoped that I could successfully incorporate cloth typically characteristic of Germany. The clothes is not necessarily old. Colors of T-shirt, for example, are extremely diverse. Seeing T-shirts of various colors make a line like color pencils at shop, I again got an idea that I could use those T-shirts for paints as German color. But, as T-shirts are used as a mere material, the essence of my work doesn’t change so much. Always stitching simplified shapes of human figure’s head or hand, I’d become to feel like drawing pictures in oil pastel on washi.
RK Did you bring oil pastel and washi from Japan to Germany?
NW Yes. I didn’t think that I must soon do something new in the first year of staying in Germany. As usual, not straining myself, I thought I wanted to do possible job using washi and oil pastel. So, I brought oil pastel and washi from Japan. When I showed the materials to persons around me in Germany, they took great interest in them, firstly in washi. There’s a museum of ethnology in Hamburg, and its first director is a great collector of Japanese Art. The museum takes pride in the enormous collection. So, people often have a chance to see the collection and know well about Japanese Art. But, the manner I tried of drawing in oil pastel on washi seemed to have been refreshing to their eyes. Drawing with the manner makes washi look slightly napped according to strokes. As with Japanese viewers, European people had a keen interest in that manner. In short, oil pastel is a Japanese color. Drawing with the material, I would often be told that the color has absolutely Japanese taste, which keenly interested viewers. The more I drew pictures in oil pastel in Europe, the more I realized once again that it has a taste of Japanese color. So, I consciously would try a combination of colors typically or unusually in Japanese or European taste, through which I think my work has gained in breadth.
RK I’m afraid that drawing a large work in oil pastel, not with paintbrush, is very hard.
NW It takes much time. But, using oil pastel is fine in that drawing a picture moving my hand synchronizes more or less with thinking. I can even say that the both speeds are the same. On the other hand, I can quickly do stitching, but, luckily or unluckily, with closer look of stitches, I’d often find something a little bit wrong. In that case, I can correct it by cutting cloth as I want. But, this can’t be applied to washi, so I work slow and carefully when using washi.
RK Living in Germany, you’ve technically developed into a new phase. Did that make you change in how you see things?
NW Early in my stay in Germany, I’d be always conscious of difference or similarity between German and Japanese people, but as I stayed there longer, I found we are both human beings, though there’s difference between the two cultures — everyone laughs or cries. In this way, I seem to have grown to be able to overlook things. But, in overseas, I’m still apt to be conscious that I’m Japanese in every moment from day to day. And, foreigners see me firstly as a Japanese, next as an individual. The message that I’m Japanese is more important for them. Walking on the streets, I’m recognized as an Asian rather than as an individual. Through things like that, I seem to have grown to be able to overlook myself in a bigger frame — from myself based on private emotions to the other side, that is, to myself asa Japanese or an Asian or a stranger.
RK I wonder if such change is reflected on your work?
NW I don’t think it easy to overlook my work as if to see others’ work, but, when I was told by a reliable friend of mine that your work has become more observable or obvious than before, I thought that my work seems to have become observable in a bigger frame away from things private. This might mean a success for me.
RK By the way, following the great east Japanese earthquake on March 11, 2011, you started the postcard project.
NW That day, I happened to be in Takao, Tokyo. The big earthquake was greatly shocking, and the disaster was as if it were a complete destruction of Japan. Two days later, I came back to Germany, and there I saw almost everyday tsunami pictures sent from Japan on TV. The pictures only made me struck dumb with surprise. Various people in Germany were kind enough to be anxious about me. And, I was interviewed for a newspaper on the earthquake. But, I was then wondering if I could have properly talked about things representing Japanese people. I became aware of difference between people not safe in Japan and people, like me, safe in Germany. Then, I thought about what to do anyway, and found that the best thing I should do was to do something about art — a field where I’ve been long involved and where I can make the most of my ability. I couldn’t help doing something using art. Thus I organized the project for collecting Japanese artists’ direct voices for people in Germany, and one month later, I started to invite artworks in which they expressed their real emotion or thought right after the earthquake, and carried out the exhibition for people in Germany.
RK I think you made a swift reaction and did the project.
NW I had significant experiences through the project — some people asked me, “What on earth can art do?” or “Can art change society?” As an artist having been active for long time, I have a strong belief that there’s something art can do and so art is necessary for us, even at the time of the disaster. It’s true that such a statement was variously criticized and people have different ways of thinking, but I only thought that I must do the project for bringing together Japanese artists’ voices.
RK I think that you’ve done something significant.
NW Through the project, I had chances to talk with so many people in Germany, which brought me a significant understanding that there are totally different ways of thinking among people, though it took much time to complete the project.
RK By the way, I hear that you are scheduled to develop several activities, including solo exhibition at city hall, Hamburg, and the installation project of your three-dimensional work at a park.
NW In addition to them, I’ll have a joint production with the handicapped, which is one of things that I newly started in Germany. I now have a wish to work more in Germany.
RK We hope to see the new three-dimensional work.
NW I hope the work to give me a challenge.
Nobuko Watabiki was chosen as a participant in the exhibition “Women In-Between: Asian Women Artists 1984-2012,” organized to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the foundation of Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts.
The exhibition, organized by curator Reiko Kokatsu of the museum, has significance because it has captured the very contemporary situation of society. Influenced by feminism spread in Asian countries from 1980s through 1990s, women artists made appearance in art scene and vividly developed their artistic activities. In this exhibition, the works by those artists were categorized into 5 chapters and were shown according to each thematic category: “women’s body,” “women and society,” “women and history,” “technique and material’” and “women’s life.” Presented were about 110 artworks by 48 artists from 16 countries and areas, such as Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, China, and Korea. Such an exhibition as investigating feminism through artworks with a broad viewpoint must have probably never been held before. Japanese artists include Hiroko Inoue, Chiharu Shioda, Kumi Machida, and Nobuko Watabiki.
“Artist Nobuko Watabiki had already appeared in the 1980s when women artists came to the forefront of the scene, but not a few artists among them left the scene. Since women artists can never avoid marriage, childbirth, etc., it’s difficult for them to stay active as an artist with motivation. I selected Watabiki as an artist continuing to explore the forefront expression of contemporary art in 2000s. I think that the work by Watabiki, currently active in Germany, can apply to “diaspora” — those who leave their birth place and continue to work in overseas — categorized in the 2nd chapter,” says curator Kokatsu concerning the choice of exhibits. Watabiki’s works include “Expecting casually,” a canvas work using cloth made in Germany.
Reiko Kokatsu, curator of the exhibition