Return to Text List

“In Search of Balance, The Paper Landscapes of Japanese American Artist, Noriko Ambe”

Stefanie Zobel

Nicolai, No 1, April-June. 2012

Delicate waves reach, as if actually flowing, into every corner of the dimmed gallery. Japanese artist Noriko Ambe has cut imaginary water movements from hundreds of layers of paper in extremely meticulous handiwork, and yet they appear like the untouched natural element itself. The space around them, on the other hand, is obviously artificial: an“off-white cube”with grayish walls all around and a gray floor- a space that seems to invite meditative contemplation of the installation. The only light comes from a few spotlights that are aimed at the white paper works.

A projector casts stills on a screen that have been recorded in fast-motion mode, creating a cinematic flow of images. The screens are movably suspended from the ceiling and the whole gallery seems to be set in motion. The film shows a woman at the beach. Sometimes standing, sometimes walking, she looks out at the ocean. She is bathing her feet in the water and then stays put in the sand. In close-ups her body and the seascape merge into abstracting forms. Titled “Inner Water,” Ambe’s expansive sea environment is currently on view at the Warehouse Gallery in Syracuse in upstate New York. Living in New York City, the artist is now attracting insider attention in Germany as well.

There is much more to the exhibition than the aesthetic dimension of the minimalist, Asian-inspired paper landscape. For Noriko Ambe the works are linked to a serious cause that has to do with recent events in her native country: “It has been a year since the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami hit a quarter of the main Island of Japan… Since then, I have been thinking how we can contend with that terrible reality through art. Or, what exactly is the essence of the main theme that I have been working on for over ten years: “Flat Globe” or “Lands of Emptiness”trying to express that humans exist with nature and express the relationship among humans, time and nature. I realized it was necessary to rethink my theme. For Ambe it is about responding to natural disasters such as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the resulting Fukushima disaster by creating something constructive, rather than remaining inert.

The Japanese artist tries to contribute to the process of coming to terms with such tragedies, to remembering, perhaps even to healing hurting souls at home. Art as therapy? No, Ambe instead aims for her subtle art to give meaning to the world and at the same time to thoroughly explore it. The current exhibition in the U.S. was preceded by an extended stay in the Japanese town of Rikuzentakata where she visited a disaster area and gathered impressions of nature under these fraught circumstances the colors of the mountains, the sea, the wounded landscape. Visiting Long Island after her return from Japan, she sat down on the beach and downright lost herself in the contemplation of the recurrent movement of the sea waves an idyllic place to rest, a contrast to the natural and nuclear disaster. Both impressions coalesced as inspirations into the current works in Syracuse and created a balance between these disparate experiences.

Ambe’s attempt to approach the Japanese disaster artistically is not unique in international art. Consider the small-scale yet powerful exhibition titled “Breaking News Fukushima and the Consequences” at KW KunstWerke Berlin, a project curated by Leiko Ikemura who teaches at the Berlin University of the Arts. In it she included works by fellow artists and artist friends such as Curtis Anderson, Katharina Grosse, Boris Mikhailov, Shomei Tomatsu, Rosemarie Trockel and Wim Wenders. With this curatorial initiative, the renowned Berlin art center responded quite spontaneously to current events, even though the long-planned exhibition schedule did not provide for it. On top of current events and at the same time reflected isn't that what art, in the best case, should always be?

Deeply reflected is exactly what Noriko Ambe’s art is. She works on the details, yet the bigger picture is always on her mind. In general, universal themes have interested her for a long time. She cares more about processes than about the result in this regard, which actually may, to no small extent, be attributable to her Japanese background. The fragile material that she has been using for her art since decades paper has a long tradition there as well. Since 1999, cut sculptures she refers to them as“book cuttings”are part and parcel of her work. Ambe cuts through books, magazines and atlases. She pierces holes in them, as it were, introducing openings into the publications or cutting the edges of hundreds of book pages a process that yields minutely detailed, fragile paper landscapes, topographies with high points and low-lying areas. The works thrive on the aesthetic tension between destruction through the brutal cutting up of a once self-contained object and the visual result of the filigree landscape sculpture. What may look like computer simulations is, in fact, solid handiwork with paper. Another, related material that she works with is a synthetic, paper-like product from Japan called Yupo. Hailed in commerce as an innovative, recyclable, waterproof and non-fading product, it becomes an aesthetic event under the hands of the artist. It has a softly gleaming, tear-proof surface. Thus Ambe needs an X-Acto swivel knife to cut through the material. She associates the transparent surface of Yupo with the human skin, so that the body, too, becomes an implicit subject of her paper installations.

Yet even more than in bodies, Ambe is interested in creative minds. For her book projects she picks artist’s books: Cy Twombly, Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein. She cuts up reproductions of the “All-Time Male Heroes,” which could be seen as an aggressive feminist act. In Noriko Ambe’s case, however, something else is underlying it: thirst for knowledge, curiosity and creativity. Noriko Ambe explains the purpose of her “Artist Book Projects:”“By cutting artist’s catalogs, or books, as a‘filter’myself, I try to understand their concepts, find points of intersection or conflict and then collaborate with them. I am considering ‘what is art?’ from the artists.”

Noriko Ambe (b. in Saitama, Japan, in 1967) lives and works in New York City. She received her formal training as an artist from Musashino Art University in Tokyo and she has been the recipient of several fellowships and awards. Her works are included in renowned collections such as that of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Current exhibition: The Warehouse Gallery and SUArt Galleries at Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, 1 March 12 May 2012. www.norikoambe.com

(Translatin Bram Opstelten)

Return to Text List