Kohei Nawa is one of Japan’s new generation of high-flying young artists. Over the last several years he has exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery, London, the Joan Miro Foundation, Barcelona, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, and in 2011 was the subject of a large survey show titled Syntheses at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo. For the 2013 Setouchi Triennale, spread over numerous islands in Japan’s Inland Sea, Nawa created a huge installation and sense-surround experience that fills three rooms of a renovated traditional island house and which, in a similar way to the National Gallery of Victoria’s new acquisition PixCell-Red Deer, 2012, challenges traditional perceptions and interpretations of three-dimensional objects and sculpture.
The Felton Bequest’s recent acquisition of PixCell-Red Deer brings Nawa’s most recent PixCell creation to the NGV. This visually captivating work is from the young, innovative artist’s most celebrated series, Beads, in which he covers the entire surface of an object with resin and clear glass beads, transforming it, in Nawa’s words, into a ‘shell of light’. The process fragments the object’s entire surface into countless cells, a collection of image elements, image cells or, in other words, ‘PixCells’.
To source subjects for the Beads series, Nawa searches Japanese internet auction sites for large stuffed or mounted animals. In doing so he has found that the greatest numbers of search results are for taxidermied deer. This outcome in itself demonstrates the symbolic role of deer in a Japanese cultural and historical context.
Since ancient times, deer have been believed to be the messengers and vehicles of Japan’s indigenous Shinto gods, and revered as sacred animals. In the deer park surrounding Kasuga Shrine in Nara, and at the shrine island of Itsukushima in Hiroshima Prefecture, one finds deer roaming freely and being worshipped as sacred beings. Ancient scrolls known as Kasuga Mandala, or Shika Mandala, appoint deer as central animate beings of worship, and during the Edo period painters of the Rinpa school often depicted deer as companions of ancient sages and as creatures with auspicious or poetic associations.
In the same way that Nawa discovers his subjects in the format of a matrix of digital pixels on the computer screen, his artistic process encapsulates the animal in an actual three-dimensional matrix of cells, in the form of glass beads. The large and small glass spheres covering the animal produce an effect of viewing it through many small optical prisms. This creates a visual experience with a new depth and continuity in which multiple details can be seen simultaneously and the viewer is encouraged to observe the inner object from an entirely new perspective. PixCell-Red Deer reminds us that both the real world and the fabricated world of the internet are ambiguous and uncertain places where human senses attempt to perceive the truth.
The artist’s surprising composite of a taxidermied animal and glass beads establishes a new organism that deconstructs the animal’s texture, colour and form. While the beads of different sizes seem to interfere with a precise reading of the subject, they function as lenses that not only magnify sections of the subject, but also accentuate its colour, form and sensation in a way that seduces viewers and invites them to interpret reality with a new and previously unimagined awareness. The work of art’s newly attained visual presence leads us to discover the gap between visual appearances we are confronted with on a daily basis and the reality of true and insightful investigative encounters.
Visually, Nawa’s PixCell-Red Deer enchants viewers with the natural grace and balance of its stance, the elegant, outstretching form of its antlers and its uncountable number of lenses reflecting micro-visions and translucent light. However, in a profound and subliminal way the artist’s ingenious intervention and use of new mediums also sheds light on our human desire to embrace, cherish and possess uncertainty.