Yoshiaki Nakamura's Sound World and Communicative Possibilities Explored by Art Critic Meiji Hijikata

Yoshiaki Nakamura “In Between-Resonance” at Whitestone Ginza New Gallery

Characterized by the vivid colors and mist-like floating letters, contemporary artist Yoshiaki Nakamura is a deaf artist who later chose to wear a cochlear implant. Using his painting medium as a canvas to express his experiences, Nakamura explores the possibilities of communication. In this article, art critic and director Meiji Hijikata of the Taro Okamoto Museum of Art in Kawasaki speaks of Nakamura's art in detail from his June 2022 solo exhibition, "In Between-Resonance" held at Whitestone Ginza New Gallery.

Regarding Yoshiaki Nakamura

Meiji Hijikata
Art Critic
Director, Taro Okamoto Museum of Art, Kawasaki

Yoshiaki Nakamura’s new works were presented in a solo exhibition at the Whitestone Ginza New Art Gallery in June 2022. Titled In Between Resonance, the exhibition included four series: A World Without Sound, Pink Sound, Timbre, and Noise. As may be noted from the titles, each work is based on the motif of ‘invisible’ sound. Nakamura is hearing impaired and through his art expresses the world as he experiences it.

A World Without Sound is based on the theme of the sound of dialogue. Nakamura has a cochlear implant. He paints colors, on top of pasted written memos he actually uses, of sounds as he senses them through the cochlear implant. The surface of the canvas is painted red, like an ignited flame that at times flickers violently and evokes complex emotions and sensations.

Partial close-up from the "A World Without Sound" series in the exhibition

Pink Sound expresses the discontinuity and disconnection at the intersection of the world with sound and the world of silence. The world with sound is expressed in pink on the left side of the canvas. Nakamura says that he used pink because of the way he felt sound when he first got the cochlear implant 10 years earlier. The right side of the canvas is in the silent world of black, done in black ink, mineral pigment, and silver foil. The technique was acquired in his studies in the Japanese painting department at the Tokyo University of the Arts. The dripping pink acrylic paint on the left against the black ink on the right is also an application of traditional Nihonga painting techniques. It implies the boundaries and border crossings between two worlds. The juxtaposition of acrylic paint, a chemical pigment, and ink, a natural pigment, is also suggestive of Nakamura’s worldview.

The "Pink sounds" in the exhibition

Timbre expresses the world of sound in dialogue and conversation. Written text on the canvas is painted over in orange tones. The combination of Expressionistic color, brushstrokes, and lettering creates a distinctive impression. White pigment splattered across the canvas intentionally makes the writing illegible, like the unclear sound heard with a cochlear implant. The task of communicating in writing is time-consuming. The frustration and irritation caused by difficult communication, as well as waves of sadness, undulate across the canvas. Written words are scribbled like flickering stars against the dark background and intense orange forms of this deep and confusing world. The canvas simultaneously reveals a deep darkness and a penetrating light.

The "Timbre" in the exhibition

Noise is considered the most important motif of Nakamura’s art. It expresses the chaotic world of sound constantly ‘heard’ in the silent world. The monochrome color scheme expresses a ray of light in the deep chaos of silence and suggests the landscape of Nakamura’s psyche. The writing on the canvas encourages viewers to try to read the words and to feel the difficulty in communication that Nakamura experiences every day. There are also various and multilayered motifs and geometric circles symbolizing the sense of infinite time in the silent world. The fragmented figures are actually dancers using sign language. The figures, the various irregular forms, and the intentionally remaining brushstrokes all combine to express a world of invisible noise.

Partial close-up from the "Noise" series in the exhibition

This exhibition presented Nakamura’s depiction of the sensations and images of sound and language felt as a mental landscape since his childhood. Nakamura hopes viewers will be able to empathize and connect with others separated from them by invisible boundaries. He is convinced that art is inherently more universal than therapy and that an individual’s expression through art holds the power of human communication. He has gone through much to reach this conclusion and the conviction that underlies his work.

The exhibition view

Nakamura entered the Japanese Painting Department of Tokyo University of the Arts in 2005. He chose Japanese-style painting because he wanted to find his place and connection in the traditional art field. As an undergraduate, he used traditional Japanese painting techniques and traditional mineral pigments suspended in glue in a fantastical style. He was familiar with the Bible from an early age and continued thinking about the relationship between man and God in mythology and the meaning of universality. His graduation project, Daydream, depicts a fantasy scene of countless butterflies dancing at a crossroads in the night. The butterflies were a metaphor for people living in anxiety and suffering. They are also a metaphor for sound and language. The work was highly appreciated and awarded a top place among the graduation works. It was purchased by Taito City. Nakamura continued using the butterfly motif in graduate school to express the extremes of hope and despair, life and death. The motif is also a metaphor for the deep solitude of humans, and his own existence.

The "A World without Sound" in the exhibition

Nakamura got his cochlear implant in 2012, after completing his master’s degree. The implant brought about profound changes to his speech and also to his perception of sight, space, and time. He said that fragments of language and elusive color were reconstituted in tandem in his mind and that his internal communication changed dramatically. He took a year’s leave from the doctoral program to study in Manhattan the year after he received his cochlear implant. The experience in the US greatly expanded the range of his artistic expression. Discrimination against people with disabilities and the racial problems in the United States were totally different from Japan, as were the awareness and actions taken to resolve such discrimination.

The approach of contemporary art to disability, and the diversity of contemporary art deeply impressed and motivated him and brought about a major shift in his artistic consciousness and expressive technique, away from traditional Japanese painting. He was also greatly inspired by a chance encounter in Japan with the work of Joseph Grigely, an artist influenced by Nicolas Bourriaud and proponent of the theory of Relational Aesthetics, the relation between art and community art.

After his stay in the US, Nakamura distanced himself from the framework of Japanese painting and turned his attention to contemporary art. This led to a strong recognition of art as an effective universal communication tool. He became determined to direct his work to an expression of contemporary art ‘exploring boundaries between hearing and vision and the points of contact and limitations of communication. In particular, his wanted to discover how materials, sound, and language interact with visual and auditory space and contribute to elimination of perceptual boundaries.

After Nakamura completed the doctoral degree at Tokyo University of the Arts in 2015, he went back to the United States to study at Maryland College of Art and completed the master’s degree there in 2020. During this time, his work continued to be directed to overcoming and connecting the boundaries between the hearing and the hearing-impaired through art. His works are interactive art installations that combine natural materials, sound, and language. In the US, connections have been made between his work and Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics as well as with the Mono-ha artists, in terms of the encounter between the natural and the man-made (sound).

Pinocchio’s Transformation (2019) at Maryland Institute College of Art, Chair, strings, acrylic, amplifier, speaker, guitar tuner, screw, 36.5 x 38 x 90cm

When he completed his master’s program in the US, Nakamura was contracted by Wave Pool Gallery in Cincinnati and had three solo exhibitions and several performances there. All the works were made of natural materials such as wood and stone, along with musical instruments. They involved audience participation allowing visitors to touch and make sounds. Just before returning to Japan in September 2021, he was selected artist-in-residence in Minnesota where he stayed for two months, creating works at the Franconia Sculpture Park.

A Pure Sound World (installation) (2021) at Wave Pool Gallery, Tree, found objects, resin, 710 x 710 x 300cm

Through these various experimental attempts in the US, Nakamura became convinced of the potential and effectiveness of art as a communication tool. He became convinced of the possibility of overcoming barriers by directly confronting obstacles and transforming them into expression.

For his first solo exhibition since returning to Japan, Nakamura returned to painting, the starting point of his career, and created a series of mental landscapes. I would like to close with Nakamura’s own message to those who view his works:

“I hope that viewers who come in contact with these works will, despite their uncertain existence, feel a sense of living in a social environment and interacting with these landscapes. I hope their imagination will be stimulated and that they will find empathy with others who are separated from them by certain boundaries.”

Yoshiaki Nakamura

The exhibition view

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