Etsu Egami: Oscillating Between the Abstract and Figurative|By Tan Siuli

January 06, 2023 - January 20, 2023

Installation view of Etsu Egami's solo exhibition at the Whitestone Gallery Singapore

Whitestone Gallery Singapore is pleased to present the opening exhibition of Etsu Egami's solo exhibition, "Incessant is the change of water where the stream glides on calmly: the spray appears over a cataract, yet vanishes without a moment's delay”. Egami's unique world, expressed in a manner analogous to the Japanese traditional literature "Hōjōki," is presented in the words by Tan Siuli, an independent curator based mainly in Southeast Asia.

By Tan Siuli

Etsu Egami belongs to what has been termed the ‘Third Generation’ of postwar Japanese artists(1). Unencumbered by the weighty issues of war and national identity that informed the art of previous generations, Egami and her peers possess a cosmopolitan, international background, and their art seeks to explore personal narratives and commonalities between cultures and humanity as a whole. As a global citizen, Egami’s art-making is informed by her experiences traveling and living in between cultures that often appear to share similarities but in reality are quite different, thus giving rise to incidents of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Egami’s time in Beijing – where she studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts under acclaimed Chinese painter Liu Xiaodong – made this apparent. China and Japan share similar characters in their writing systems (kanji); however their meanings do not always tally, and the same ideograph may be pronounced differently according to its context. For many Asian languages such as Chinese and Japanese, inflection also changes the meaning of a word. These complexities and nuances often result in ideas and expressions getting lost in translation – what Egami has referred to as a “gloomy grey area”(2) where the non-native speaker struggles to be understood.

These personal experiences find form in works that have become Egami’s ‘signature’ style: semi-abstract portraits rendered in broad, rainbow-coloured brushstrokes. The rainbow, for Egami, “contains every purified shade that shines beautifully”(3). It is a metaphor for shades of expression and meaning, clarified from the ‘greyness’ of mistranslation and misunderstanding. Bright and clear, the rainbow emerges from clouds of confusion. It is also an apt metaphor for cultural harmony, with different colours coexisting side by side, beautiful and vibrant in their individuality, but also radiant as a collective whole.

Egami’s portraits depart from the genre’s conventions, seeking not to present a faithful rendition of her subject, but rather an impression that, ironically, may capture more of the person’s essence and character. Hovering between abstraction and figuration, these portraits appear more like spirited, dashed-off sketches rather than completed works. Her subjects’ features are delineated with the most economical of strokes: in some works, these are rhythmic squiggles that retain a child-like quality (particularly when accompanied by candy-coloured backgrounds) while still deftly sketching in a visage; in others, Egami’s strokes are bolder and streak across the canvas with expressionist bravado, functioning almost like the artist’s secret shorthand. In this regard, they recall the vivid brushstrokes of Asian calligraphy, where the nuances of each mark reveal the character of the artist.

The faces painted by Egami resist being defined. The artist’s broad, horizontal strokes delineate as well as distort, creating a sort of white noise in the image, and parallels may be drawn with the horizontal lines of technical glitches. The sense of movement implied in these rushing strokes invites comparison with our contemporary culture of scrolling or swiping in order to rapidly consume images. It also suggests the immediacy of a passing glance, a fleeting engagement. Perhaps these suggestions of the transient encounter speak more honestly to our contemporary experience as compared to a static, traditional portrait.

The face, writes Jerome Sans, is “a fluctuating, unstable, infinitely varied matter, which acts as a substitute of the whole individual”(4). It is impossible to pin down somebody or their expression in a frozen moment, so the best that can be done is to render a likeness, or an impression. Egami’s faces caught in flux insist that the ‘likeness’ of an individual, or their essence, can only be suggested or sensed through a form of visualization that subverts the fixity of the portrait genre and renders them mutable and unstable. Art critic Shigeo Chiba has likened this to an immigration officer comparing a passport photograph of a person to that person’s living face, transformed and animated by subtle expressions and movements by the second(5).

As such, Egami’s subjects are shapeshifters, appearing differently depending on how the viewer encounters them. From a distance the brushstrokes coalesce into some semblance of bodies or faces, almost like a caricature. At other angles, the lines and undulations look more like landscapes, and a forehead may morph into an outcrop of rock or an expanse of land. In this way, Egami’s paintings and how one might mis-see or mis-read them are a visual parallel to her experience of mis-hearing, of something lost in translation. Her visual language mirrors the slipperiness of the spoken one.

The parade of faces in Egami’s works are based on real people and encounters the artist has had, some of which she has reconstructed in her imagination. Human faces are a familiar subject, and one most easy to forge a connection with: after all, as babies, we first learn to understand the world and human relations through observing our caregivers’ faces. Language is also learnt, and meaning received, through studying faces and expressions. The face is that part of ourselves that we present to others, and often the most visible bridge connecting us with others. And yet, Egami’s faces elude easy rapprochement, offering a sense of estrangement along with familiarity. Were we to rely on visual cues alone, we would fail; instead, much like listening to a foreign language, much hinges on inflection and expression, and in some cases, proximity and / or distance -- look too closely and Egami’s faces dissolve into a blur. While systems of signification and communication have been invented, they are far from a precise science, and Egami’s art asks that we try to ‘see’ and understand with more than one sense – to intuit – in the way that ‘hearing’ is also contingent on a fully embodied response to what is being said.

For her first solo exhibition in a post-pandemic world, Egami has chosen a long and evocative title taken from a classic work of Japanese literature, the Hōjōki. Written by a Buddhist monk in 1212 during a time of political upheaval and devastating natural disasters, the text chronicles his observations of human nature and enlightenment during his seclusion in the mountains. Likening human life to the flow of water in a river, which changes second by second and yet runs on unceasingly, the Hōjōki is a meditation on transience and impermanence.

Regarding her works in this context shifts their reading to one of mutability and movement, as well as an attempt to record and remember precious experiences and encounters that flow -- or perhaps rush -- by us in this slipstream of life.

To live is to travel, like the flow of a river. ~ Etsu Egami

All photos in the exhibition are from Etsu Egami solo show at Whitestone Gallery Singapore’s Pre-Opening

View exhibition details »

About curator: Tan Siuli

Tan Siuli

Tan Siuli is an independent curator with over a decade of experience encompassing the research, presentation and commissioning of contemporary art from Southeast Asia. Formerly Head of Collections and Senior Curator at the Singapore Art Museum, her major exhibition projects include two editions of the Singapore Biennale (2013 and 2016), inter-institutional traveling exhibitions, as well as mentoring and commissioning platforms. She is part of the Judging Panel for the 2023 Sovereign Asian Art Prize, and her recent speaking engagements include presentations on Southeast Asian contemporary art at Frieze Academy London, Bloomberg’s Brilliant Ideas series and the World Cities Summit 2022.

1: Jean-Baptiste Clais, “On the Exhibition of Etsu Egami”. Essay published on the occasion of the exhibition ”Etsu Egami: Obsession and Question, New Horizons of Modern Painting”, 1 Oct – 4 Dec 2022, Woodone Museum of Art, Hiroshima.
2: “Etsu Egami: Rainbow”, catalogue published by Whitestone Gallery, 2021. Pp. 5.
3: Ibid.
4: Jérôme Sans, “Etsu Egami: The Distance Between Us”, 2021. Essay published by Tang Contemporary Art on the occasion of the exhibition “Etsu Egami: In a Moment of Misunderstanding, All the Masks Fall”, 18 Dec 2021 – 15 Jan 2022, Tang Contemporary Art, Beijing.
5: Shigeo Chiba, “Etsu Egami’s ‘Mis-hearing Game’ – One Sensation and Another Sensation”. Essay published on the occasion of the exhibition “Dialogue Beyond 400 Years – Egami Etsu”, 24 – 25 Feb 2018, Playground London.

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