Fluidity over Fixity, Tokyo and NYC-based Artist Sao Tanaka

Sao Tanaka (b.1987, Tokyo) is a visual artist living in Tokyo and New York City. She works with painting photography, video, and installation. Sao received BFA in Japanese painting from Tama Art University, MA in Sociology cultural anthropology from Hitotsubashi University and also studied studio art and digital photography from the School of Visual Arts.

Sao had her first solo exhibition “MELD GOLD” at Mizuma&Kip’s Gallery in New York in 2022. Her works have been exhibited at the SVA Gallery, ASYAAF Art Fair in Korea, Lurf MUSEUM in Tokyo, Bunkamura Gallery in Tokyo, Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art in Japan in Tokyo. She was commissioned to work on a large-scale mural painting project ”The Night Before” for BALCON TOKYO in Mitsui Garden Hotel at Roppongi, Tokyo in 2020. Sao received the Hiraizumi curator Jury Prize, SHIBUYA ART AWARDS 2019, MFA Fine Arts Scholarship School of Visual Arts, Winning Selection Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art “Open Call for Art Project Ideas 2018, Grand Prize The 5th 21 Century Asia Design Competition from the Kyoto University of Art in Kyoto Japan.

Remember? There Was Just Nothing at All, Gold paint, Sumi ink, Acrylic paint on mulberry paper, 13x21in, 2017, Photo by Yu-Yu Demi Chen 

Thank you for joining us, Sao. Can you tell us a little about yourself and how the journey has been so far?

My first contact with art was ancient Japanese art since my grandfather worked to preserve the roll screen painting made during the 8th to 12th centuries. The visual art made during the period is said when Japan started to establish its own cultural identity separate from Chinese influence.

I enrolled Japanese painting program for my BFA in Tokyo. Most of the programs in art universities in Japan are disciplined, such as “The western painting program” and “The Japanese painting program.” By enrolling in the “Japanese painting program,” I became interested in what Japanese painting actually means rather than the painting itself. I felt it was incomprehensible that an art genre is called with the name of the nation. At the same time, a contemporary art movement which was influenced Japanese art history and questioned the relationship between the western art world and the eastern world. when it was early 2000, I was a teenager. Until then, the mainstream of contemporary art was western-centric influenced. I think the movement pretty much influenced me at the time.

Thus, I changed my subject from Painting to Sociology in my MA. I researched how the concept of “Japanese painting” was invented through the social systems of modernism in Japan. After graduating, I worked on the side of art systems, galleries and museums, while I wanted to return to the making side, which is creating physical objects again. So I changed the place of art context from Tokyo to New York. I enrolled in The School of Visual Arts and studied in the Studio art program and digital photography. And then, I continue to work in New York and sometimes in Tokyo.  

Entrance, Gold paint, Sumi ink, Acrylic paint on mulberry paper, 43x18in, 2019, Photo by Yu-Yu Demi Chen 

What ideas are you exploring in your practice? Is there a specific topic or theme that you are interested in?

I often paint a landscape of genesis as my theme to question the idea of “cultural identity” or “the origin of identity”—the landscape where no life or culture exists. I paint inorganic matter such as rocks, water, and light in cave scenery. I wonder what kind of style of painting would be appropriate to depict the scene where was no culture. Thus, as paradoxical, I chose a painting style that is seen typically in east Asian art history, using black ink, and brush, on paper. People sometimes consider this black ink blush style as a Japanese painting in Japan. At the same time, this style has been crossed down from China through Korea to Japan by the Buddhism Zen culture. I like this ambiguity of the relationship between cultural identity. 

I believe in the fluidity of culture rather than framed fixity. Also, In my painting, I imitate the process of the Earth’s creation, constructed by fluid, magma-formed lands. I spilt black ink on paper; the paper absorbed the ink, creating random stain forms, becoming a topography.

The hard rock was also a transformation.

There Was Light, Gold paint, Sumi ink, Acrylic paint on mulberry paper, 18x15in, 2017, Photo by Yu-Yu Demi Chen 

During the past few years, what is the most exciting project you’ve done or accomplished so far?

The first one was my first solo exhibition at Mizuma& Kip’s gallery in New York in 2022. I thought my paintings are too much Asian art context for New York, however, I found the theme of genesis or cultural root of people is symphysis to people in New York since many people are immigrants and interested in where they came from. 

The other one was, a large-scale commission works for a hotel in Tokyo in 2020. I made a 110×140 scale painting, with one large piece of mulberry paper which is the largest size of mulberry paper and used black ink marbling. It was simply a technical challenge. And it is permanently shown in a place where a large number of people see it even if it is a commercial space. 

What does “community” mean to you? Has your local community inspired you as a creative?

Since I moved to New york city just before the pandemic started, I had few opportunities to meet people, It was not easy to be in communities in the first two years in the city. However, thanks to the recovering the city, through 2022, I could start to meet new people and I now can feel I am with people. Thanks to the first two years I could learn how it is important to interact with people. Community means not something enclosed gathering, it is something unexpected opportunity to connect to someone. It would be fluidity, not fixity. Also, it would be mutually complementary. Someone is good at painting someone is good at writing, one other is good at pottery, another is good at sailing, and the other is familiar with history, in the community they could complement each other and can exchange new information.  

Someone who is happy could encourage someone who is sad. 

There Let Be Light And There Was Light #1, Gold paint, Sumi ink, Acrylic paint on mulberry paper, 59x33in, 2022
There Let Be Light And There Was Light #2, Gold paint, Sumi ink, Acrylic paint on mulberry paper, 59x33in, 2022

Is there any advice that you would offer to others?

Recently I realize the unexpected difficulty to think I am who I am and do not need to be compared to others. It is something often said, And I thought I’m a rater not to do that. But I noticed that I had often made comparisons with them such as career development (as an artist) or family situation. No one has the same situation, I’m telling myself it is ok to be myself. In therm of that, I feel easy to live in New York City rather than in Tokyo.

There Was Sea, Gold paint, Sumi ink, Mineral pigment paint on mulberry paper, 13x20in, 2017, Photo by Yu-Yu Demi Chen 

text & photo courtesy of Sao Tanaka

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