Arts&Culture

Protagonists: Meiko Yokoyama

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An original technique that consists of using Japanese paper to create images that transform with the light: an idea of Japanese artist Meiko Yokoyama who has been living in Florence for twenty years and who wanted to merge apparently very distant worlds with her work, harmoniously mixing Western and Eastern elements.

Meiko Yokoyama is a Japanese artist, born and raised in Kochi, a city famous for Japanese papermaking. She has invented an extraordinary technique that, through a play of lighting from behind and the use of a particular Japanese paper characterised by long fibres, manages to superimpose two images on a single canvas, creating surprising optical effects of three-dimensionality. She currently continues to develop this technique and exhibit her works in Japan and Italy. We interviewed her to find out more about «washi-art».

Would you like to tell us about yourself as an artist and as a person?

«Since childhood, I have admired Italian Renaissance art, which is why I studied Western art history in the Faculty of Art Pedagogy at Kochi University. Then I moved to Florence, where I graduated from the Accademia delle Belle Arti with a specialisation in Decoration.

While studying at the Academy, I started to develop a personal concept, creating a combination of a typically Japanese material and Italian style; my creations change their image with LED light, and I later named this technique «Washi-Arte». 

I chose Japanese paper as the main material because there were many foreign students at the Accademia di Firenze, and as I was looking for an identity in my works, I wanted to use a material that had a strongly Japanese identity. This is why I chose to work with Japanese paper.

I am currently continuing to develop my «Washi-Arte» technique in Italy, and I am lucky to have rediscovered this material produced right in my hometown and to have the opportunity to continue developing my idea while carrying on a great tradition of my country of origin».

Would you like to tell us something about Washi-art?

«The “Washi-Arte” works are made exclusively from coloured and extremely thin, almost transparent fragments of Japanese paper. Thanks to its extraordinary thinness, even the most delicate details – eyes, facial lines, contours or shades – can be expressed, which are only given by overlapping the papers or by moving the paper fibres, first torn and then glued together.

In addition, I added a personal magic by making two images at the same time and superimposing them one on top of the other: with the effect of light – inserted inside the frame of the picture – the second image – initially hidden by the first one – appears, transforming the picture as a whole and telling stories of past, future, fantasy, truth».

What is the origin of Washi paper?

«Kochi Province is the most wooded – 84% forested – and the richest in nature in Japan. It is located between the Shikoku Mountain range (to the north) and the Pacific Ocean (to the south).

Kochi is one of the most important provinces for Japanese papermaking and is also the most important place for the cultivation of Kozo – the mulberry family – one of the basic raw materials for Japanese paper production.

Even today, for good quality Japanese papermaking, tradition is maintained with great effort and patience.

The Japanese papermaking process is very long and complex. It also means keeping the Kozo plantation in good condition throughout the season, growing it, harvesting it, steaming it, debarking it, laying it out, washing the bark, bleaching it in the sun, removing small dirt, beating it to separate it from the fibres etc. A sheet of washi still comes from the union of nature and man».

Let’s focus on the three-dimensional aspect of your works…

«My works, apart from the play of light, have three-dimensionality. Since the papers are only partially glued, the hair can be voluminous, and the flower petals can come out of the frame while maintaining the paper’s own softness and moving with the air.

With the paper’s own transparency, it is also possible to make overlays, resulting in delicate colour nuances.

If you take a closer look at the details of the works, you will appreciate that each line of the images is a weave of Kozo fibres.

In fact, the «Washi-Art» works look like two-dimensional images, but are instead three-dimensional images composed of Kozo fibres that describe very interesting aspects down to the$ smallest details».

Do you also collaborate with paper mills or paper manufacturers?

«Over the past few years, to deepen my personal knowledge of this material, I have started to promote cultural exchanges and professional information between people who work with paper, both Italian and Japanese.

In 2020, I made seven videos for the ‘Ponte di Carta’ project in collaboration with Beatrice Cuniberti’s Atelier degli Artigianelli – a paper restorer -, the Ino Paper Museum, some Japanese papermakers in Kochi – Hiroshi Tamura, Yuko Isozaki, Nobuyasu Ozaki – and the Pescia Paper Museum.

To date, I am collaborating with a Florentine bookbinder ‘Il Cartiglio’ owned by Francesca Taurisano to produce a series of beautiful notebooks bound with Kyoto Yuzen paper; the name of the notebook we produce is “Kizuna (bond)” because it is made with a material from Kyoto and the hand of a bookbinder from Florence – the two cities have been twinned since 1965.

Yuzen paper is famous for the variety of its patterns, which recall traditional kimono designs, beautiful and very elegant.

I also have a collaboration with a papermaker from Pescia named Alessio Giusti, with whom we are doing some experiments to make a special paper.

My trusted papermaker in Kochi, Hiroshi Tamura, is a great expert on the raw materials of Japanese paper as well as a Buddhist bonzo: from him I am learning many things about the tradition of Japanese paper, and we are trying to study and renew Japanese paper.

Next winter, I will return to Japan to do a solo exhibition in the Ino paper museum and to help him with the collection of Kozo plants».

Tell us about the work exhibited at Lucca biennale 2021 in the indoor section…

«I participated in the Lucca Biennnale Cartasia exhibition in 2021: it is the largest “paper art” exhibition in the world, for which around 35 artists were selected last year from 400 applicants from all over the world. The exhibition is divided into four categories – “Indoor”, “outdoor”, “fashion”, “performance” – and only one artist is awarded in each category.

It was my first time participating and I received the award for the “Indoor” category.

In spite of this difficult pandemic situation, many paper artists joined Lucca, crossing oceans and continents – France, Belgium, USA, England, Bulgaria, Germany, Brazil, Hungary, Turkey, Russia, Mexico, Chile, Turkey, etc.

The Biennial was in its tenth edition, and they chose Japan, the largest in terms of paper history and culture, as the star country.

Among the participating artists, I was the only one to use Japanese paper.

At the beginning of May, one of the organisers of the biennial asked me, in addition to exhibiting my works, to decorate their “Tea House” with Japanese paper.

I asked the Japanese Paper Museum in Kochi and Tokyo’s big Japanese paper exporter “Moriki paper” for cooperation.

After about a month, thanks to four papermakers – Hiroshi Tamura, Nobuyasu Ozaki, Haruhiko Tamura, Inoue Paper Shop -, three paper mills – Naigai tenguchōshi, Morisa, Kashiki Seishi – and Moriki Paper, I received about 1,500 kinds of beautiful Japanese paper.

For the Biennale’s «Tea House», I used about 1,000 types of Japanese paper to show the special beauty of Japanese paper. The «Tea House» was exhibited in the hall of the «Japan» section together with my six works «Aneris», «Dream», «Rebirth», «Tree of Life», «Mask» and «Madam Butterfly».

I would like to thank Lucca Biennale from the bottom of my heart, because the lighting in the room was perfectly moderated for my works. During the exhibition, there were also some demonstrations of the tea ceremony in the “Tea House”. It was an incredible experience».

What plans do you have?

«I am planning a solo exhibition in Japan at the Ino Paper Museum in Kochi in December this year. After the exhibition I will participate in the Kozo collection and learn the process of preparing Kozo fibres.

As for the theme of my “Washi-Art” works, until now I have often created my works by playing on the borderline between “life” and “death”, such as in the works “Rebirth”, “Tree of Life”, “Dream”, “Aneris”, “Coming out of the cocoon”, etc.

Last year (2021) was the 700th anniversary of Dante Alghieri’s death: there were many conferences and exhibitions on Dante and the Divine Comedy all over Italy, and the occasion made me think a lot about the difference in the concept of death in the Western world and in the Japanese world, which is why I started to study this topic and in the future I may create some works on this concept with my “Washi-Art” technique».