Japan-born artist Kaori Ukaji, whose blood-red installation Serently Proliferating is now on view as part of Artists of Hawai‘i 2017, first came to Hawai‘i in 1994 while on a trip around the world. “At the time I was exhibiting in Japan,” says Ukaji. “One day I decided to pack up and take a yearlong vacation. I went everywhere from Hong Kong to Australia. Then, when I arrived in Hawai‘i, somehow I felt as if I had come home.”
Ukaji, who was trained as a graphic designer, has had solo exhibitions in Hawai‘i, New York, Australia, and Japan, and now lives on Hawai‘i Island, where she is a faculty member in the art program at Hawai‘i Community College.
We sat down with Ukaji in amid her installation last month to talk about her art and her process.
Tell us about your art.
[Laughs] OK. I’ve been working on installations for many years. I consider myself an installation artist. For a long time I’ve been working exclusively with the color black. Most of the time I did marked paper until it turned completely black. I’ve never depicted any images in my work. I just made everything black. I did that for maybe 20 years. But in the past few years I’ve become more interested in color, especially red. I’ve also begun to move from using nothing but black to expressing more warmth, humanity, and probably age. The way I feel, my body, my energy, it’s not like it was before, when everything was tight and square. Now it’s more open, lazy, and feels like it’s floating.
This installation was such a challenge for me, because there were so many new elements. I normally work with graphite on paper, but most of the materials in this installation—like thread and canvas—I’ve never worked with before. Also, I’ve never depicted any imagery in my work before, as I do here.
Normally when I set out on a project I have a goal. It can take time to achieve it, but I have a picture in my mind of what I want it to look like, so it’s easy to move forward. With this show, I felt as if I was floating, finding my way through as I was going along. I’ve never worked that way before. It was challenging, but in a good way. In the end, I feel like I’ve discovered something new about myself artistically.
Has living in Hawai‘i impacted your work?
Probably. I feel like it should have, but it’s hard to tell. When I was making black pieces people often thought I was making lava rock, but I never thought about it that way. I haven’t really begun expressing my emotion in my art until now, so Hawai‘i’s influence is not obvious, but it has probably affected my work.
This installation includes large and small-scale works. On what scale do you prefer to work?
Regardless of the scale of the art I like to work in large spaces. For me big and small works of art are kind of the same. “Big,” of course, is big. It can shock people and have a huge impact. But in the same way I think the smallness of small works can also have a huge impact. That might be why I don’t work so much with medium-sized works, my installations usually involve a large space, with small pieces here and there and an anchor piece somewhere in the space.
After years of working in black, why did you become interested in red?
I’m still not usually interested in color. I will probably never use ordinary yellows, greens, or pink. To me red is an alternative to black. It’s a strong color, similar to black. When I want to express feeling, I feel that red is a natural color. Red is associated with femininity, and it is a powerful color, so I like using it.
You used your own skin for some of your installations. Why?
In this show I’m attempting to express myself: My feelings, my body, my energy, everything about myself physically and mentally. Skin is a part of me, and at the same time it exists outside of me, so it’s the perfect material to express myself. I regularly make skin pieces, and I knew that it was something that needed to be included in this show.
How does that process work?
I peel my skin regularly, and store it in jars. Everyday I can see the skin accumulate in the jars, and after a while I know whether I can create a piece with it. I’ve collected skin for so many years. The pieces on view here probably took six or seven months worth of peeling skin.
In your statement you say that the practice of peeling skin is meditative. Do you meditate?
No. But when I’m peeling my skin I feel like I can be in a state of nothingness.
How do you hope visitors will experience your installation?
Usually I don’t create images, just solid color, so I don’t usually think about how others will react, except that I’d like to pique peoples’ curiosity—that’s more than enough for me. But this is different, because this time I’ve included lots of images, and in one case, gradation. I think that inside everybody there is something softly growing and proliferating, until it covers him or her completely. People don’t always know what that is, but it always begins with something. That’s what I hope people will feel when they see this work.
Serenely Proliferating is on view in Artists of Hawai‘i 2017 through May 28, 2017.