Notes on Art and Current Events 102

Speed and Eros – Rikako Kawauchi and Phaedrus


Installation view of Rikako Kawauchi’s solo exhibition “Colours in summer” at Tsutaya Books, Ginza Atrium, Tokyo, 2022.
All images: Shintaro Yamanaka (Qsyum!) ©︎Rikako Kawauchi, courtesy the artist and WAITINGROOM.


I may go on and on about seemingly unrelated matters right from the start. The reason is I turned sixty this summer. Some of you may be thinking that going on and on about unrelated matters and turning sixty are themselves unrelated, but to be perfectly frank, I have decided to make an effort to clarify my own art criticism, or more simply, the practice of criticism. After all, it seems that turning sixty is supposed to be a time when, having completed a full cycle of the Chinese zodiac, one returns to the starting point and begins afresh.

And so I would like to turn to the subject of criticism, though in fact I have already commented elsewhere on the slight change in mental attitude I have undergone upon turning sixty. However, those comments will not be published for some time, and as the medium in which they will appear does not overlap at all either with the assumed readership of this column or with art, I suspect that hardly any readers of this column will see them. There I addressed the difference between thinking and writing, and the difference between writing and speaking, which to an extent overlap with what I want to discuss here. Even so, because it was not art criticism but a more freewheeling essay, this will be my first time writing at some length about art criticism after turning sixty.

Incidentally, some time after I came to be called a critic, and after I too started calling myself a critic, I began giving lectures about art at university. And the terms that made me feel most uncomfortable, a feeling I have not been able to dispel until this day, are terms like “research” and “inquiry.” Of course, education and research are probably the two pillars of the job of a university teacher, so I have no intention of calling that onto question. But as someone who was just starting to get to grips with criticism, when I thought again about whether what I was doing was research or inquiry, I could not help feel as if it was after all somehow different, and in a fundamental way. This uncomfortable feeling has continued for some decades up until I recently turned sixty, at which point I began to feel that it was time to settle the matter in my own way (for the same reason, I also have an aversion to the term “archive,” which in recent years has come to be used increasingly commonly).

Regarding the question of what is different between the activities of research and inquiry and even archiving on the one hand, and criticism and reviewing on the other, to put it plainly, while the former require objectivity, the latter contain aspects that are extremely subjective. On this subject, as I have been mentioning for some time now, in Japan, criticism and reviewing have been performed as a field of literature, which is the product of individuality. Accordingly, when I write this column, I actually write it from top to bottom in columns of text that progress from right to left, just as I would if writing on Japanese writing paper. It is then converted so that it can be read from left to right in columns of text that progress from top to bottom in line with the basic format on the internet, which is how you are reading it now. As to why I have adopted such a laborious approach, the answer is that the former is the format used in literary magazines. Normally, the latter format is adopted when writing essays and so forth, but when I do this, I inevitably find it difficult to think and write because I am writing sentences personally. At least that is the case for me.

Lately I have been spending more time reading so-called classics. The reason I have been doing this actively is not one of the more obvious ones, such as because I suspect that something universal might dwell in books that have been read by generation after generation and stood the test of time. On the contrary, it is because having come full circle (upon reaching the start of a new sixty-year Chinese zodiac cycle), I have come to suspect that in the fields of both literature and philosophy, books that are referred to as classics are written differently to the kinds of books we think of today when we hear the words “literature” or “philosophy.” To return to the subject of research and inquiry, the feeling I get when I read classics is completely different from the feeling I get when I read so-called essays that present the results of research or inquiry. In the field of philosophy, this is equally true both of clear examples such as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, and of people like Hegel and Heidegger who are regarded as systematic, which makes me think that just like criticism and reviewing, the classics actually have a strong element of subjectivity. At the least, they are all rather different in nature from the format of the kinds of essays that are written now. And the most extreme example of this is the man who could be considered the father of philosophy, Plato.

I recently reread Plato’s Phaedrus. As is commonly known, Plato often wrote as if Socrates and someone else (in Phaedrus it is Phaedrus) were engaged in a dialogue that went on and on like idle gossip, and while the result resembles a drama and comes across to us as quite different from what we now refer to as philosophy, Plato undoubtedly thought that this is what philosophy was. I also sensed that this was rather intimately connected to what I think of as criticism or reviewing, and so with this in mind I would now like to enter into the main topic.


Installation view of Rikako Kawauchi: “Colours in summer” at Tsutaya Books, Ginza Atrium, Tokyo, 2022.


It was also this summer that I went to see Rikako Kawauchi’s solo exhibition “Colours in summer” at Tsutaya Books in Ginza. Soon after entering the atrium where the works were displayed, I felt a flood of sensations akin to being inundated and this immediately turned into a strong dynamic feeling that engulfed me, as if I was not so much viewing the paintings but physically experiencing them. The strength of these sensations was such that it felt not that they were coming from the individual paintings, but that I was entering a place where their individual effects were combined. Here, I would like to consider in my own way by and large where this physical experience comes from.

Animals appear frequently in Kawauchi’s paintings, and this exhibition was no exception. Though rather than their forms being depicted clearly, they are etched into the layers of thickly applied paint like deep, thin grooves that have been cut rapidly based on outlines. A tremendous variety of these “animals” can be found in Kawauchi’s paintings – parrots and parakeets, condors, jaguars, coyotes, sloths, anteaters, foxes, alligators, fishes, frogs, shellfish, snakes… I could go on and on. Incidentally, no sooner do I see an animal than what immediately comes to mind is the speed of its movement. At home I have a parakeet, a parrot and a dog, the speed and freedom of their movement being far superior to humans, I find it impossible to keep up with them. It is all I can do to follow them with my eyes. It is only because they match their speed to that of humans that we can just manage to keep up, and looking at the agility of their movements, I am made painfully aware of the fact that humans can only move slowly. And how is it that snakes, despite having no arms or legs, can move with such wave-like smoothness and agility? I am sure there are all kinds of explanations, but the key thing is that there are many animals that can achieve movement on a different level from humans, and the speed of that movement is something that cannot be freely explained or comprehended according to human thinking.

However, despite the fact that pictures depicting animals have existed as the mainstream in nihonga and other genres, hardly any of these capture their sense of their speed. Almost all of them show animals as if they are standing completely still like models in human portraits. Which is why they look not like animals but like humans. In fact, it might be more accurate to say they are represented as if they were humans. However, because the difference between the speed of movement of humans and animals is due to fundamental differences in their anatomical structure, animals that look like they are standing still have essentially turned into dead bodies. If we were to try depicting animals based on the differences in their internal structure, we humans would not for a moment be able to clearly perceive or depict them as dead bodies. Their outlines would jump about, they would lose their shape in an instant and our eyes would be unable to keep up with them as they disappeared from view in a flash. In other words, to be able to depict animals like still lifes is none other than to represent them based solely on their surface layers. These animals have no insides. If we were to depict animals, insides and all, in the same way that people hunting them do, we would have to experiment with various ways and means to close the gap between ourselves and our subjects so as to somehow match their speed—at which time, animals change into various shapes. As a first step, all we can do is capture indications of these changes.

To me, as a result of such experimentation, the animals depicted by Kawauchi seem to have been captured through a process of hunting them on her canvases in an effort to render their outward appearances not from the outside but from the inside, based on differences in their internal structure and the innate speed of movement inherent in their bodies.


Coyote (2021), oil on canvas.


IMMORTAL 2021), oil on canvas.


As Kawauchi herself has explained in interviews and elsewhere, her approach involves painting before she thinks. If she is painting animals, by no means does she paint them slowly and exactly. Using explosive power and her whole body, she carves an impression into the canvas at speed as if closing in on the form of the animal concerned. Perhaps she generates various forms on the canvas as the animal repeatedly escapes and draws near, with different animals even summoned at times. At other times, perhaps she quickly grasps the animal’s indications only to sense the presence of a different animal, giving rise to different actions as her gaze moves in its direction. At other times still, perhaps paradoxically, a jaguar that has ceased moving as a result of her hunting and become just a fur will be depicted in a completely motionless state, covering the canvas like a rug. But in none of these cases do the animals resemble humans at all. Rather, in every case it would be more accurate to call them traces. In this respect, it makes little sense to differentiate in terms of genre between Kawauchi’s oil paintings and drawings. Though the textures may be different, they both involve hunting with lines.

Because Kawauchi gets many of her ideas from Claude Lévi-Strauss’s theory of mythology, it is possible to read her paintings symbolically. However, though they consist of lines, in fact they bear no resemblance whatsoever to the symbols of structural anthropology. The appearance of animals as important characters in mythology originally had a lot to do with the fact that their physical ability transcends that of humans. Today, humans perceive animals as being inferior to humankind, a perception that is also imprinted on our minds, but in terms of pure physical ability and their ability to perceive the unknown, they are far superior. From ancient times, before they became “characters” in our stories, they had a presence that transcended such characterizations, and for this very reason they were strong enough to be invoked in stories. I sense something similar in Kawauchi’s paintings. In other words, analyzing animals based on Kawauchi’s paintings is a reversed reading from the point of view of humans. In terms of experience, there is first of all Kawauchi’s act of wildly painting as someone trying to close in on the unusual abilities of animals, and this adventurous leap gives rise to a mythical analysis as a post hoc interpretation. In structuralism, everything is converted into a symbol and becomes the subject of analysis, but there is no such time in Kawauchi’s paintings. The sense of speed of the animals is just barely represented as contours due to the speed at which Kawauchi paints, which the viewer then tries to catch up with once more. Those inside the venue unavoidably sense this multiplied sense of speed that enters their body through their eyes. This is something “visceral” and is completely different from a dynamic manifestation that actually moves the body on the spot. One could say it is a feeling akin to being forcibly awakened to a sense of energy from inside while one remains rooted to the spot.


making rainbow (2022), oil on canvas.


YOU CAN FLY (2020), oil on canvas.


In Kawauchi’s paintings, hearts, lungs and other human internal organs are often mixed together with animals. This is not unrelated to the above. Animals themselves are completely different from human internal organs, but as Kawauchi herself has noted, for humans, internal organs are normally invisible and their movements unknown. Humans control society and daily life using reason, but internal organs are indifferent to this. As Kawauchi explains, when we eat food, our digestive systems begin working all at once, blood is supplied to our main organs to facilitate this activity and the functioning of our brains is temporarily restrained. In other words, we become something other than our normal selves. What value is reason when it is reliant on bodies in which the self becomes something other than its normal self? In the sense that it cannot control our bodies, reason resembles the limitations on our abilities as humans to perceive the speeds of animals. Which is why it is not particularly unnatural for internal organs to be painted together with so many animals. Perhaps what is unnatural is the naturalness with which humans assume that it is possible to grasp and understand these things in accordance with the speed of reason. But when one thinks about it, the brain itself, the seat of thought, is also an internal organ. So where is reason, where is the self? Surely it is in limbo. Before agonizing over the absence of such a place, before the force of habit whereby her reason that has become empty in this way tries to drag the picture plane back into human normality catches up with her, Kawauchi makes lines using her body that is filled with these organs and tries to manifest pictures outside of this.

Accordingly, in due course humans will probably appear again in Kawauchi’s paintings in a different form. Their hands will become more like arthropods than hands, their clothes will be removed and they will become squashy and their heads anonymized. Even if they materialize as someone, it will be as if a newborn baby is suppressing a scream at the horror of being born, or as if they are losing their vitality like an old person on the point of dying. Their expressions will appear as if they are being toyed with by the speed of the world around them, which is either too fast or too slow, and losing sight of themselves.

Of course, unlike animals, internal organs do not move agilely from one place to another, but they exist amid speeds that are different from humans endowed with consciousness. This much is certain. Unlike animals, organs move far more slowly than the sense of speed at which humans draw pictures or make things. This speed is so sluggish it is difficult to sense, this too being beyond human perception. The speed of animals and the slowness of internal organs are both extremely difficult to grasp accurately within the limits of perception as normally experienced by humans. Or rather, it is impossible. The same no doubt applies to the grown plants, the flowers that are about to bloom, the speed of the ripening fruits and the movement of the heavenly bodies, by which I mean the Sun and the Moon, that Kawauchi depicts.


Sun’s trip (2021), oil on canvas.


In this way, in Kawauchi’s paintings, living creatures and internal organs with different speeds become entangled facing in different directions, though as a whole they come and go at a dizzying pace as if forming a single universe. As to the kinds of words we can use to describe such a situation, this is extremely difficult, but to digress slightly, at the least this sensation is not the subject of objective research or inquiry. Simply put, it is a sensation that stems from something lacking in humanity, for which reason science was born. And if one tries to explain it consistently within scientific language, it ends up becoming something akin to formal rhetoric.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, the rhetoric that Lysias uses to convince Phaedrus, and that Phaedrus then repeats to Socrates, is from Plato’s point of view a sophism. According to Lysias, lovers lose sight of themselves and are fickle, so it is better to believe what non-lovers say, since non-lovers are consistent towards the subject irrespective of any benefits and can maintain an objective attitude. According to Plato (though it is written as if spoken by Socrates), when discussing beauty in particular (the subtitle of Phaedrus being “A Dialogue Concerning Beauty and Love”), it is better to have faith in the ability of lovers to speak in accordance with the strength of their desire for beauty at a high level, since the persuasiveness of non-lovers results in a kind of formality, and even if their narrative is skillful it will not reach beauty. The speech of lovers may not be objective, but love is beyond the bounds of objective, human values in the first place, and in fact it is governed by the realm of the god Eros, so it is not something that can be controlled by rhetoric, in which people compete to persuade each other in the human realm.

Because Eros originally descended to the human world from the realm of the gods, it is natural that the attitude of people who have fallen under his power will approach a kind of madness, and in fact the writing of Plato, who is using the words of Socrates to expound this, gradually becomes impassioned and takes on a greater sense of speed. And realizing this, Plato again and again calls Phaedrus’s attention to this terrible realization. Plato knows that at moments when the course of history has been decided, the world has been revealed to us again and again not through formal, or in other words methodological, divination, but through the prophecies of an emotional visitor, and that this is by no means a realm attainable through the rhetorical devices of poets. Accordingly, Plato explains to Phaedrus that in the face of beauty, Lysias’s seemingly persuasive rhetoric is too closed, and that at a higher level, far from being unrelated to the power of Eros, it is the speech of lovers alone that reveals beauty.


Installation view of Rikako Kawauchi: “Colours in summer” at Tsutaya Books, Ginza Atrium, Tokyo, 2022.


I sensed that the tendency or sentiment that filled the venue at this exhibition by Kawauchi was perhaps close to the kind of power described above. The word “beauty” is rather old-fashioned, but as good as any of its synonyms. It is something that descends from some otherworldly place and rains down mercilessly in the hearts of viewers and unavoidably makes them aware through the medium of painting, and for me at least it was not something I felt I should analyze or interpret, in fact this seemed like an impossibility. Because what I sense when I look at Kawauchi’s paintings is something like the pressure of the artist straining her body as she tries if anything to push thinking and contemplation to the rear and strives ever so hard through her canvases to catch up with the accumulation of different speeds, such as those of animals and internal organs, plants and heavenly bodies. These paintings are produced as time too fast and time too slow, time different from normal time on which acts of reason such as analysis and interpretation are premised, become entangled not at the level of thinking but at the level of the physical body, and in order to put them into words (as I have done so here up to this point), I felt the only option was to simultaneously jot down as if taking shorthand the fixation of impressions and the subjective effects and changes in my body.

Incidentally, later in Phaedrus, Plato clearly writes that ultimately it is impossible to reach the realm of beauty communicated by Eros through writing. This means that as someone writing about the impossibility of writing, Plato himself is violating a taboo, but of course he is not writing this himself but having Socrates say it. The key point is that there is a realm that can only be reached through dialogue, but in a way different from rhetoric, and that this does not lie in relationships such as that between the persuader and the persuaded. To put it another way, in the case of writing, objective value does not lie in the writing itself, but rather, as with classics, it must be read over multiple generations and have the power to give rise to equal dialogue between people with even more different values, and if not it will never be more than ephemeral in nature.

In fact this is exactly the same for painting. Paintings worth looking at are without exception possessed of the kind of quality that enables one to enter into an internal dialogic relationship with them, and in terms of this kind of openness, because paintings that are complete in themselves and controlled down to the details in fact prevent dialogue and try too hard to convince the viewer, they ultimately degenerate into material for convincing oneself. Lysias’s rhetoric in Phaedrus was skillful, but in fact it was nothing more than plain exposition of this kind. What it lacked was not the kind of horizontal relationship found in rhetoric, but none other than the intervention of the power of Eros that could have drawn it to the heavens through dialogue. In fact, myths hardly ever have social persuasiveness in the contemporary sense. If a myth does survive, then this itself is the power of Eros. And there is no doubt that this is also the source of the power that in Kawauchi’s paintings transcends the expectations and intentions of the artist, makes use of the ingenuity of a hunter trying to catch a prey and approaches their ability, extends from the painting and reaches the bodies of the viewers and begins a dialogue, and before we realize it changes our bodies like Kawauchi’s paintings so that they begin to wriggle irrespective of our wishes like internal organs.


Rikako Kawauchi: “Colours in summer” was held from July 2 through 13, 2022 at Tsutaya Books, Ginza Atrium, Tokyo.


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