Painting existence out of non-existence

Akira Kugimachi

25th May, 2023

I discovered Nihonga at the age of eighteen. It is an artistic movement founded in opposition to Western painting (Nihonga literally means "Japanese painting", translator's note) at the initiative of Kenshin Okakura and Ernest Fenollosa. I was particularly attracted by the works of Gyoshu Hayami. Nevertheless, my first discovery of Japanese painting goes back earlier. Having lived in Belgium for five years until I was eight, my mother took me to museums and churches all over Europe and I eventually got tired of oil paintings. I soon became bored with canvases with thick pigment that built up to form clumps. This is why, at the age of nineteen, when I was thinking about my artistic future, which I wanted to be both international and specific to my oriental origins, it seemed obvious to me to work with natural mineral paint. I had decided to dedicate myself to Japanese painting, even though the term "Japanese" made me uncomfortable.

Afterwards, while deepening my favourite subjects, I wanted to tackle the theme of light. Is it possible to represent on a fixed plane such as the canvas the diffusion of particles crossed by the waves of the spectrum? It was both a personal challenge and an attempt to respond to a problem common to many painters. It seemed to me that the artistic expression of light was an unavoidable issue.

I then decided to transpose the radiation to the process of creation itself in order to express the appearance of light in the darkness. To do this, I painted layer after layer of Indian ink and then, in the same way, white paint made from crushed oyster shells. As I did this, I was inspired more by the formless universe preceding the light brought by God than by the luminous moment. Lao-tzu conceptualised this precedent of creation, still unnamed and devoid of any binary opposition such as heaven and earth, man and nature, subject and object, as the foundations of the East.

Eight years ago, I was moved by a landscape I saw on the border between Switzerland and Italy. The cliffs, partially covered with snow, showed their harshness and seemed to evoke primitive times. It was as if I had been transported to another planet, lost in my bearings. Shapes and colours blended together in a chaos where all things were still incoherent and the process of creation was finally about to begin. In the relief of the slopes above me, I could see valleys carved out by torrents; it was a real staging of the beginning. My contemplation reminded me of the 13th century work, The Waterfall of Nachi. This vertical painting, anonymous and full of mystery, represents a waterfall sheltering a kami (deity). I immediately wanted to paint a scene representing only the rocks without the waterfall, i.e. a world without God in the sense of Nietzsche. By allowing the beginnings of a waterfall, or, on the contrary, its relic, to underlie it, I suggest a non-existence surrounded by existence. In a timeless landscape and a dimension prior to dichotomy, I question our contemporaneity and our position in civilization.

Through the natural scenes of snow-capped mountains, cliffs and rocks that I depict in detail, I would like to elicit an interpretation of non-existence, which for me is far more relevant, and glimpse the absence of man and time. The "ultimate emptiness of intrinsic realities" in Buddhism is not synonymous with "emptiness" but rather with a potential world prior to any materialisation. Perhaps it is the perspective of a newborn life beyond time and death, or the historical conception of the living.

Gauguin's approach to landscape painting reveals an existential questioning of our origins, our destiny and our identity. It is only by observing death, i.e. absence, that it becomes possible to envisage a future. In my opinion, it is in the questioning of our relationship to the world that art finds its essence. Nihonga is not only "Japanese painting" but, more truly, the expression of a temporal journey into the memories of the world and of humanity.       

Akira Kugimachi


Born in 1968 in Yokohama, Akira Kugimachi graduated from the University of Fine Arts of Tama in Tokyo, and from the University of Paris VIII. Since 1999, he has devoted himself entirely to his own creation and is regularly exhibited in Japan, Europe, the United States and England, in addition to private and public commissions, such as for the fashion designer Kenzo Takada. The artist frequently carries out commissions for numerous contemporary art collectors. He has created several pieces for the designer Kenzo Takada. Using Japanese paper and natural mineral pigments, Kugimachi works with light and time, and creates natural and timeless landscapes, which go beyond reality, and open the way to "prepare ourselves for the end of our existence, and accept the fear of death".