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24 Aug 17

Akio Makigawa: Spirit and Memory

Akio Makigawa was only fifty-one years of age, and at the height of his career as an artist, when he passed away in 1999. Over his twenty-five-year career in Australia, he made a significant contribution to the local art scene, and has left an enduring legacy. In addition to his achievements as an artist, Akio is remembered as a kind and gentle man who was admired and respected by all who knew him.

One of the defining characteristics of Akio’s practise was his use of a unique sculptural language inspired by the elemental forces of nature and which balanced formality with an inner tranquillity. His practice drew upon his great creative energy as well as a deep-rooted Japanese cultural tradition that combined art with life and spirituality. In addition to his studio work, Akio created many monumental public sculptures that continue to enliven the urban landscape. These works occupy prominent civic sites in cities throughout Australia, including Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

In 1974 Akio left Karatsu, the Japanese city of his birth, with the intention of sailing the world, painting as he travelled. His adventure took an unexpected turn when he met his partner-to-be, Carlier, in Perth in 1976. While a shared love of art, food and squash initially brought them together, Akio’s and Carlier’s lives were to become intricately linked over the next two decades as their individual art practises developed and they established themselves as influential figures in the contemporary art scene.

The following interview between David Hurlston and Carlier Makigawa is published to accompany Akio Makigawa: Spirit and Memory at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia. This exhibition presents a selection of major works by Akio drawn from Carlier’s collection, many of which have never been exhibited before in public.

David Hurlston: What it was like when you first met Akio?

Carlier Makigawa: I met Akio in night-school drawing classes at Claremont Tech, Perth, in 1976. It was the middle of the year, July. He had come to Perth to learn how to make sails for yachts. Akio was a keen sailor, and his friend in Tokyo had suggested he go to Tasker Sails in Perth who at that time were winning the Soling World Championships. So initially he had come to Western Australia to learn how to make sails.

Because the sail loft was located in Claremont, not far from the art school, and the staff knew that Akio painted, they told him about the painting and drawing night classes and encouraged him to enrol. So in winter, during the off-season for sailing, Akio arrived in our drawing class in his duffle coat, with his long hair and with this red leather band around his head – he was so dark! He sat down at a flat-top desk, rolled out his big piece of paper and began marking the paper with what seemed like the whole of his body. You could see the teacher was thinking, ‘Oh, this is interesting’. While everyone else was scratching away at their easels, trying to be professional, there was Akio just really expressing himself with large gestures across the paper; I think this came from his training in calligraphy. He had always wanted to be an artist, but his father would never let him study art because Akio had been awarded prestigious scholarships to study gymnastics and physical education. So, in Australia Akio was finally able to pursue his dream.

DH: Akio’s early sculptures were made from stone, but I am aware he used a range of materials and different techniques when making his art. What determined the materials and techniques he used?

CM: I think he decided in the early days to work with stone because nobody was working with this material. When he began studying at Claremont, he made sure to learn how to carve stone, how to work with wood and how to work with metal because he wanted to be technically proficient, and to be able to use any material he needed to in order to realise his ideas. He never stuck to a single material: his early work was stone, then it was sailcloth, then it was paper and sticks, then he moved into papier-mâché, then marble and then off it went into fibreglass, stainless steel and Corten steel. The material that he chose depended on the idea.

DH: While Akio had an extraordinarily active studio practise and high-profile career as an exhibiting artist, he is probably best known for his public works. How did they fit into his overall practice?

CM: Akio was awarded his first public sculpture commission in 1984. He enjoyed the process of working in the environment, and making a work which related to a site. The people of the city of Sale, Gippsland, found his first public work provocative. It was not figurative, but was in essence a gateway. The work had themes of East meeting West and people passing through the environment, and was intended to provoke curiosity.

Akio made site visits to be inspired by the environment in which the finished sculpture would be installed. His works encouraged viewers to move through and around them and to consider a more spiritual relationship to place based on the concepts of earth, water, air, fire and spirit – concepts most prominent in his Japanese background. He commented that he wanted people to contemplate the offering bowl instead of the McDonald’s symbol!

DH: How did Akio approach creating a commissioned work, as opposed to his studio work?

CM: In Akio’s lifetime, he was awarded many public commissions, often in competition with high-profile artists. He had great success in this area of sculptural practice. Akio had a natural ability for the whole process: from working with the commissioner and estimating the costs of construction to the transport and installation of the work, and he was very clear on the financial value of public sculptures. Akio used many techniques and materials, and while many of the public works are in marble it was always the concept that dictated the materials and forms of his sculptures. When working in marble, Akio often lived in Carrara, Italy, for many months of the year, where in the studio of SGF Scultura he made studio work for exhibitions while supervising his larger commissions. In Carrara he worked closely with artisans whose experience over many centuries was the making of marble sculpture. Like Michelangelo, Akio had the artisans assist in some of his large projects. It was the good work of the artisans that ensured these works were always finished on time and in budget.

DH: Akio’s art practice is quite distinctive – there is not only a tranquillity and stillness about his work but also something dynamic about many of the pieces he made. How much of this do you think is to do with his Japanese upbringing?

CM: Akio was brought up as a Zen Buddhist and he had Buddhism within him, although he never practised the religion. But I think it was part of him, his nature, his Japanese culture – he was born into Shinto, the traditional religion of Japan, where nature is worshipped and the spirit in all things is acknowledged. He was very grounded, and I think there is a spirit within his work. He often talked about the five elements – earth, air, fire and water – as well as the spirit. As time went by his work incorporated those elements more and more. While this is really a Japanese aesthetic, Akio never studied art in Japan and his art education was Western. So it was an interesting combination, I think, with Akio. He once said he felt like he was floating in the Pacific Ocean between Australia and Japan.

DH: In 2014 you published a book on Akio’s life. I heard it described at the time as the most beautiful art book to be produced in Australia. It certainly is an extraordinary book and a remarkable publishing achievement; however, it seems to me it was something more – a coming together of Akio’s friends, who contributed skills and love to celebrate an amazing life. In a way it was his final collaboration.

CM: Yes, absolutely, the book was about love and celebrating a full life. Akio’s closest friends, including the graphic designer, the photographer and the writers, came together to finish the project and respected his wishes to create a book that explained his views on sculpture and his life’s work. For Akio the book was an artwork. He was very grounded and very present and you knew exactly where you stood with him. He was positive and generous, always taking care of everybody, he loved people coming together, enjoying meals and working together and talking about art. That is maybe part of his Japanese upbringing – thinking, the group achieves most by working together rather than as individuals, although he definitely was an individual in Australia, and he loved the freedom to be so.