Northern Illinois University

Northern Today

Japanese artist brings glimpse of spring to wintry DeKalb

January 22, 2008

by Mark McGowan

“I watched the cherry blossoms falling, and I thought, ‘I wonder if they’ll bloom again next year.’ ” – artist’s statement, Ayomi Yoshida

Ayomi Yoshida exhibition

Volunteers sit, stand and kneel throughout the Rotunda Gallery of NIU’s Art Museum, carefully pushing tiny squares of razor-thin paper onto sage-green walls.

Each of the 100,000 squares holds a sakura cherry blossom hand-printed with mica, a silicate mineral that makes each blossom shimmer. The paper itself, called gampi, is translucent and delicate with a silky quality.

The blossoms appear so real, and the installation itself seems so enveloping, that the gallery feels like a tranquil park or orchard.

Guiding the artists from the wall are dark branches, made of vinyl but digitally reproduced from paintings. Guiding the artists from alongside and behind is Ayomi Yoshida, whose vision and creation transports her and its visitors to that lovely Japanese spring only 10 months ago.

Yoshida’s fascinating installation, “Yedoensis,” opens Thursday, Jan. 24, and will remain in bloom through Friday, March 7. A gala reception begins at 4:30 p.m. The title is the scientific name for sakura trees, which were cultivated from wild cherry trees in the Edo period (1603-1868).

Then, as in life, the blossoms will disappear.

“She wants people to be struck by the transient beauty of the installation, in the same way as they would by cherry blossoms. When cherry blossoms flower, it’s like a sudden blizzard of soft petals,” said Helen Nagata, an assistant professor in NIU’s School of Art, translating for Yoshida. “But the blossoms have a temporal quality. They come down.”

“As the earth’s temperature rises, the blossoms that used to flower in April are now flowering in March. … We believe these flowers will always bloom every year, but could it be that sakura will suddenly stop flowering in the near future?”

Yoshida, the granddaughter, daughter and niece of accomplished and legendary Japanese artists, is most famous for her work with red circles. She designed the only permanent installation on display at Target Corp.’s Minneapolis headquarters as well as limited-edition gift wrapping the retailer sold in 2006. A second series will become available in May.

This venture represents a new direction in her art, one inspired by her surroundings and her situation.

When Jo Burke began planning last year for this spring’s exhibit – “National/International Consciousness in Japan: Self, Place, and Society during the Nineteenth, Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries” – the director of the NIU Art Museum knew she needed a contemporary component.

Nagata and Helen Merritt, a professor emeritus from the School of Art, gave Burke a list of artists that included Yoshida.

“When Jo saw my work, she said, ‘This is it.’ She knew I was the artist she wanted,” Yoshida said.

Yet even though Yoshida agreed to come, she knew she wouldn’t have time to complete one of her installations in red. Those require more than two years.

Last August, when she visited the gallery to study its spaces and measure its walls, she thought of the sakura cherry blossoms. She thought about the months her installation would appear.

“It is not possible to see sakura cherry blossoms in the Chicago area. Because the latitude of the region is so far north, it is too cold here for sakura trees to grow. There is, however, a good chance that the temperature of Chicago will also rise year by year due to rising temperatures around the world and become an environment where sakura trees might grow in the near future. By that time, Japan may be a desert.”

Yoshida and her husband, woodcarver and sculptor Bidou Yamaguchi, arrived at NIU in December to begin their work.

They brought with them a two-person crew that has assisted with four of Yoshida’s installations over the last five years and currently have a team of three students and a technical assistant working on site. Yamaguchi, who serves as a manager and supervisor of sorts, also brought his camera to document the project. The couple also are maintaining a blog at http://www.ayomi-yoshida.com/niu/.

With a steady stream of curious observers and generous helpers passing through, Yoshida has found their questions and comments stimulating.

“The installations are a process, and whenever she’s making them, that is her time and space to think of the message of the work and all its meanings, and then to reflect on that,” Nagata said. “She always anticipates they will not turn out the way she’s imagined them and that they will become something more than what she expected.”

Her work is joined by “Ukiyo-e Prints from the Richard F. Grott Family Collection,” “Revisiting Modern Japanese Prints: Selected Works from the Richard F. Grott Family Collection” co-curated by Nagata and Merritt, “Japanese Pottery from the Richard F. Grott Family Collection,” curated by Merritt.

The Tsukasa Taiko Drummers will give a traditional Japanese drumming demonstration during the reception at 5:15 p.m. and again at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 24. The Tsukasa Taiko drum ensemble will perform later that evening at 8 p.m. in the Music Building’s Boutell Memorial Concert Hall.

Selections from Grott’s donation and family collection also display the fundamental differences between Japan’s ukiyo-e tradition of the Edo period (1615-1867) and modern 20th century prints. The exhibitions will introduce technical and thematic features of the traditional multicolor woodblock prints created through publishers who brought together the expert skills of carvers, printers and designers.

The NIU Art Museum is located on the west end of the first floor of Altgeld Hall. The galleries are open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and by appointment for group tours. Exhibitions are free; donations are appreciated.

For more information, visit www.vpa.niu.edu/museum or call (815) 753-1936.