The golden boy of 2018 at the Louvre in Paris was the Japanese visual artist, Kohei Nawa. The 43-year-old installed Throne, a majestic 10.4m-tall golden structure, under the museum's iconic pyramid. It was a piece that combined the arts of gilding and 3D modelling.
It also served as a symbol that questioned the notion of absolute power of the past, by using the tools of the future. Today, it noted, it is not kings who reign. Instead, computers and artificial intelligence are increasingly being given power that could lead to them governing the world. "What do you think about that?" it seemed to ask.
Nawa, who is shifting stereotypes about Japanese art, is obsessed with experimentation. His signature PixCell series saw him covering taxidermic animals in hundreds of glass beads, producing an effect that both distorts and magnifies the details. It is a play on his personal observation of how the Internet saturates us with images that give us the impression of having total access to the real world. Since 2009, Nawa has also headed Sandwich, a creative platform uniting some 40 artists, architects, designers and dancers, through which he works on crossdisciplinary projects.
We meet the man in the flesh.
Tell me about your upbringing in Osaka and how you became interested in art.
My father was an elementary school teacher who taught crafts to children; my mother was a native Japanese language teacher. There were many picture books and artworks at home. My grandmother also made Japanese dolls, so the house was filled with abundant supplies of tools and materials. Making things from an early age was a part of playtime.
What leads to a new artwork; what are your sources of inspiration?
I draw inspiration from many trivial things, such as daily life, and I have the ability to construct the images into shapes. It is also stimulating to see the latest technologies and traditional techniques. The most time-consuming part of my creative process is “feeling, looking, thinking”.
What was the idea behind your PixCell series?
I thought about how to sculpt the phenomenon whereby people share pictures taken from various places around the world on the Internet. When I used the Internet for the first time, I realised that the point of view of the distance between objects and people was completely different than from before the birth of the Internet. That realisation was the beginning of the PixCell series.
You are the first Asian artist to exhibit under the pyramid of the Louvre Museum. Tell me about Throne, which references the festival floats and portable shrines used in Eastern rituals and festivities.
Throne is my answer to deciphering the contexts of the Louvre and its pyramid. I especially focused on the gold leaf techniques of the Louvre, which also has its own restoration workshop. I imagined the flow of this technique that originated from ancient Egypt and came back to France, after having crossed the Silk Road and reached Japan and developed independently.
In our increasingly globalised world, diversity is an essential element in the transformation and growth of society. However, the progress of computers and artificial intelligence is accelerating, and if they reach the stage where they boast absolute intelligence, society and whole nations are likely to blindly follow them. This work attempts to express that premonition as an immense "floating vacant throne".
Do you consider yourself a political artist?
I’m not particularly conscious of whether I’m a political artist or not, and I would prefer to leave such judgment to the viewers themselves.
You are part of a new generation whose work is helping to bring a more nuanced view of Japanese art and popular culture overseas. Is this important to you?
I have the impression that culture in contemporary society is spreading beyond the borders of a country. It is necessary for artists to show a new vision.... I think that if viewers appreciate my work, they will feel the spirit of Japan.
What do you feel is the role of the artist in society?
In my opinion, it is to present a new vision to society. I believe that it is my role to convey such a vision and spectacle to society because artists can approach the strict rules, constraints and perspectives of society from freer standpoint. It’s the advantage of artists to possess this freedom of vision.