Hiraki Sawa (London 1)


I left London nearly twenty years ago. That means I missed it all: "Cool Britannia" and everything that happened with the rise of young British artists. When I knew it, in the days of Mrs Thatcher, London was anything but glamorous: it was grim, rough, and life was hard. Nowadays, when people think of the world's capital, they think of maybe New York ... or London.

Hiraki Sawa (born 1977) is one of several young Japanese artists and curators who moved to London to study, live and work when the city was still up and coming. When I visit him at his studio in the East End working class neighbourhood of Dalston, he tells me that he moved here aged 19 at the end of the 1990s because of his sister. He didn't really speak English, but his Kanazawa family were happy for him to go study in England if he could live with his sister. He wanted to be a sculptor and he studied at the University of East London. It was there that his teachers helped him start using video as a way of doing gallery installations. They told him that every frame and image had to count.

Like a number of other young Japanese artists of the same "post-bubble" generation (for example, Satoru Aoyama, who I write about here: ) Sawa essentially uses technology as an anachronistic strategy to explore what art can do with "primitive" technological forms, while the technology itself moves on new stages. Artists like Sawa and Aoyama have adopted a slowed down approach to the shocking speed of technological change; artwork as an alternate evolution, enabling aesthetic discoveries and reflections in places that would otherwise be seen as dead-ends. Sawa has thus principally used black and white single channel, stop-motion animation to explore whimsical or trippy alternate worlds that are like snapshots of his imagination slowed down and replayed. Sometime in the mid 2000s, he started adding two more channels, with music and a more painterly landscape approach to filming, on a bigger scale. Either way, using a very simply video editing technique, he has been able to explore effects of time, the aesthetics of black and white visuals and atmospherics, and the possibilities of the earliest digital technology before it became commercially widespread and technically perfected. Although sometimes evocative of old classic film directors, this is not Hollywood, but something made with modest resources out of an English art school sensibility. Sawa completed his education with an MFA at the famous Slade College of Art in 2002-3.

The studio in Dalston sits on the famous Ridley Road market street. This is a perfect vision of London today. Chaotic stalls and cardboard boxes, the smell of fish and meat, the sound and smell of ragga, and migrant shop sellers from all over the world -- lots of African, West Indian and Turkish stalls -- the whole planet in one street. In a roughed up warehouse building, Sawa has a large, open plan loft-studio space, which is big enough for him to try out projections and the use of large gallery spaces for his videos. He is talking about having to give it up soon, if he moves to do a residency in San Francisco.

Things are really happening now internationally. I first saw his work at NACT, Tokyo and at THE ECHO, Yokohama in 2008, but he had already notched up several impressive shows in the UK by then. He has now just opened a very well-reviewed show with his gallerist in New York, James Cohan, and from March 18, he will be part of a major new selection of contemporary art by David Elliott at Japan Society, Bye Bye Kitty!!! There is a catalogue coming out from the solo show, with texts by ART-iT editor Andrew Maerkle. French and German curators have also shown a lot of interest in his work, which seduces first with its slightly quirky otaku-style charm, before impressing with its cool, typically "post-bubble", technical poise and often simply beautiful visuals and soundtracks.

Despite the financial crisis, this part of London is still booming. There's a new overground metro line via Shoreditch to Dalston, and new bars, boutiques, galleries and restaurants. Everything has moved East, to the old industrial streets where once Jay Jopling and the YBAs were edgy upstart gentrifying pioneers in a no-go zone. Now you cannot move for yuppies drinking in the glitzy bars near to Hoxton Square's White Cube gallery. I am out one night drinking with Kiki Kudo and a group of her London Japanese friends: they are all musicians, fashion designers, club promotors or djs. I also meet up with another longtime local resident, Tomoko Yoneda, who will also appear in Elliott's new show. We go for a bite to eat at Terence Conran's flash new hotel/restaurant in Shoreditch, Boundary. We enjoy the up-market fish-n-chips with white wine, while laughing at the pretty but vacant serving staff. As we leave, small world...! Also getting a drink are artist Peter McDonald (brother of Tokyo curator and writer Roger McDonald) and the young Kanazawa curator, Chieko Kitade. They are planning a new show in Japan for McDonald, a well regarded painter who was born in Tokyo and won the 2008 John Moore's prize. More on my meeting with Tomoko Yoneda next time.





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