Close up with: Kohei Nawa

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The work of Kohei Nawa is as amorphous as the digital manipulations he uses to create his sculptures. As he prepares to create a special installation at Bonhams, Matthew Wilcox strives to keep up with all the artist’s plans and projects

“Before I came to London, I didn’t really like contemporary art,” says Kohei Nawa – an unexpected admission from a man hailed by The New York Times as “one of Japan’s most sought-after artists” and a “creative force”. The Kyoto-based sculptor, 39, is explaining his pivotal decision to spend a year studying at the Royal College of Art in London in 1998. “I had seen an Antony Gormley solo show in Shikoku, and was struck by how he extracted a sense of emotional power out of even simple materials. So I decided to come and check it out.”

Trim and polished, Nawa – unlike his swelling, sometimes sprawling organic sculpture – makes a neat figure; dressed in black, he emits a sense of cool and control. The look is something he credits to his ongoing partnership with Rei Kawakubo, the creative director of global fashion brand Comme des Garçons, whom he describes as an “inspiration”. Theirs is one of a number of cross-disciplinary collaborations that have punctuated Nawa’s career.

“I designed some headwear for the Comme des Garçons spring/summer show in 2012. After the fashion show, Rei asked me to contribute to the interiors for her New York and Tokyo stores. Actually, until working with her I had zero interest in fashion – but I thought maybe I should give her clothes a go.” He points to his shirt: “This is one of hers.”

In September, Nawa – who now also counts Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor among his ever-expanding circle of friends and contacts – will return to England as one of the emerging superstars of the Asian arts scene. In London he will present his first-ever UK installation as part of the She Inspires Art fundraising event to be held at Bonhams on behalf of the humanitarian organization Women for Women International.

When I meet Nawa, he is in full flow, pacing the floors of Bonhams’ three-storey building, taking in the corridors, windows and ceilings, admiring the light and weighing up the possibilities of the space for the installation. It is the second time he has flown to London at his own expense to measure up the space for his installation. “I’m really pleased to join Women for Women International in helping to raise vital funds to support women survivors of war and conflict,” he says.

The centerpiece of the show will be (appropriately) his 2012 figure of a woman, Trans Double Yana (Mirror), a characteristically high-tech piece that combines computer-aided design with the traditional Japanese obsession with craft. Trans is the product of the cutting-edge digital sculptural techniques that typify the artist’s way of working. “We create a 3-D scan of a person or an object, and then apply a technique called ‘texture mapping’, by which we are able to magnify or diminish elements within the 3-D data. We are trying to give the effect of something emerging from a parallel world.” He adds, “Science, and particularly biological science, rather than the arts, has always been the biggest influence on my work.”

Nawa, who was born in 1975, originally trained at Kyoto City University of Arts, where he was exposed to the vast quantities of religious art stockpiled in the former capital’s thousands of temples, which he admired for its focus on process rather than self-expression.

Discussing other influences, he says, “Of course, movements like Gutai – the radical post- Second World War group – are an influence but, in fact, Mono-ha has had a larger impact on my work.” The Mono‑ha [‘school of things’] group of 1968-73, which included Nobuo Sekine and Susumu Koshimizu (whom Nawa studied under at university) was important in Japan for its emphasis on materials and audience participation. As Nawa says, “Mono-ha taught me to look at the relationships between materials.”

Nawa first attracted critical attention in 2003 with the launch of his signature PixCell series, a series of found objects – often pieces of taxidermy ordered from the internet – that he would cover with transparent crystal glass beads of varying sizes. The self-coined title, combining pixel and cell, encapsulates the juxtaposition of organic and technological elements that continue to characterize his work; these have latterly taken the form of a series of seemingly uncontrolled agglomerations of resin, foam, water, oil and glue.

Since the launch of Pixcell, Nawa’s career has gone from strength to strength, culminating in first prize at the Asian Art Biennale in Bangladesh in 2010. While at the Aichi Triennale in Japan in 2013, his installation Foam – a shimmering cloudscape set in a pitch-black room – attracted both popular and critical acclaim. Meanwhile, his work has been snapped up by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.

This is something of a boom time for Japanese contemporary artists. In 2012, Yayoi Kusama was the subject of a major retrospective at Tate Modern, while last year Yoshitomo Nara starred at Frank Cohen’s Dairy Art Center in London. Even the Japanese government is on board, after decades pushing the genteel arts of tea ceremony and flower arrangement. Not that everybody is happy about it. Asked what he thinks of ‘Cool Japan’ – the Ministry for Cultural Affairs’ billion-dollar effort to promote the country’s contemporary artists Nawa looks at me with incredulity. “Cool Japan?” he asks, “Lame. I can’t think of anything worse.”

Nawa is perhaps the most famous example of ‘the post-Murakami generation’, whose work appears bound together by a thread of high-tech virtuosity, and whose members are increasingly visible overseas. Aiko Miyanaga exhibited her disintegrating naphthalene sculptures in June last year at the West End’s first dedicated Japanese gallery, White Rainbow, while the work of Tabaimo (Ayako Tabata) – unnerving digital riffs on traditional woodblock prints – can be found in MoMA and the National Museum of Australia. Meanwhile, Nawa’s friend, the Paris-based audio artist Ryoji Ikeda, recently completed a residency at Cern in Switzerland, home of the the Large Hadron Collider.

All but the latter are the products of Kyoto’s thriving art schools, where Nawa continues to dedicate a fair amount of his time to teaching – something which he says invigorates his work: “Kyoto is full of universities and young people, and the mix of history and youth, energy and potential, creates a powerful dynamic.” Nowhere more so than at his studio in a formerly disused sandwich factory on the Uji River in Kyoto. The factory, called Sandwich, is the hub from which Nawa’s team of around 40 artists, technicians and students coordinate his diverse projects.

Yet in spite of the apparent shared interests and themes, Nawa rejects the idea of any kind of collective regional or even national artistic identity. “To be honest I don’t really have that many friends who are artists,” he admits. “I get on much better with architects.” He rattles off a list of superstar names: “Arata Isozaki, Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima, Rem Koolhaas, Junya Ishigami…”
“My sculpture is based around interaction, about creating an experience within a space, similar to what architecture aims to do, which is why I’m currently working on 15 architecture projects as well as about 40 artworks.”

It is the freedom of this outlook, the mix of traditional craftsmanship with cutting-edge technology, that characterizes the new Japanese approach. Nawa embodies a theory of artistic and design convergence made possible by technology, as he explains with satisfaction. “Architectural design has existed as a flat or 2-D discipline, but now, like everything else, it has been thrown open by the emergence of 3-D digital technology, and with that transition, sculpture, architecture, film and game design are all converging.”

Matthew Wilcox is Deputy Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

Kohei Nawa’s installation is part of She Inspires Art, an event in aid of Women for Women International.
Open to the public on 15 & 16 September, Bonhams, New Bond Street.
womenforwomen.org.uk