Speak Softly, Listen Hard brings together the work of seven Japanese artists responding to a common question: what do you seek to listen to, and how do you speak back?
On the surface, the act of listening seems simple: the ear taking in ambient and found impressions from one’s environment. Yet without processing and reflection, sounds can end up as random aural impressions, signifying nothing. The word listening is implied as being more purposive and more intentional than hearing. One can hear passively and even without intending to; on the other hand, one must strive to listen, attuning one’s senses and concentration to picking up certain sounds and signals, isolating these from the rest.
The seven artists share images in response to what they quietly listen to: impressions, ideas and sensations driven by interest and by being conscious of one’s place in the world. Their answers as individuals are diverse: one listens to formal and informal channels of information; another, to natural and synthetic materials. One tries to discern the “small voices of things happening”; another notes the voices of outsiders defining one’s identity, or objects of everyday desire. Some of these are common sounds, but many also go beyond the aural dimensions of hearing—how does one hear things that are tactile and visual, transient and mobile, for instance?
The show delves into how art is an extension of listening; a way of speaking back to the world. Painting is a way of distilling messages heard and reflected on, capturing the sensation of sound through color, texture, line and composition. The real image lies beyond what is visible, legible; art offers the possibility of seeing behind and through texts, signs, and sounds.
The artists express their individual responses through diverse trajectories of painting. Hidetaka Okubo, Marie Ikura, Mayuko Fukumoto, and Yasutaka Hayashi, for instance, express their impressions in differing degrees of figurative painting. Ikura’s Watching you or…series are portraits of both humans and animals, where the head is in conversation with the viewer. Okubo’s images in acrylic and coloured pencil listen to the outdoors, events and exterior happenings; while Fukumoto’s oil paintings center on interior scenes and everyday objects. Hayashi’s haunting portrait in oil on the other hand touches on the question of memory, dissipating and forming.
Abstraction can be equally expressive. Ai Makita’s paintings transform the purity of white canvas into complex forms. Responding to the interconnected nature of sound as information, Makita treats the abstraction of reality and language with both aggression and sensitivity. Atsuko Yamagata’s sumi ink on paper works offer an eloquent visualization of listening to the sound of ink, of observing material interactions between painting and paper.
“He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to speak softly and listen hard,” notes Nobuhiko Terasawa. His works in mixed media—a cube in urethane and a patch of butterfly wings embedded in gold leaf—finally point to how artists distill and yield new presences from keenly listening to the world beyond, picking up impressions and memorializing them as art.