Leiko Ikemura celebrates female protagonists through paintings, sculptures, prints, photographs and haikus in her solo exhibition …And Suddenly the Wind Turns at Haus am Waldsee.
In Berlin it’s all too rare to be confronted with highly personal art that embodies a non-Western, non-male perspective. Enter the Japanese-born, Berlin-based Ikemura, whose emotional and spritual landscapes are so fiercely subjective that you can’t help but identify with her protagonists’ struggles – with history, memory, and tragedy. Ikemura gave us a glimpse into her own journey, imparting some wisdom from a four-decade-long career in art.
How did you start out as an artist?
One starting point for me was words, literature and philosophy. Then I studied drawing in Spain, which was very physical and immediate, and for me still the most honest way I can express myself. I wasn’t satisfied with what I knew, so I started painting. But I wasn’t always encouraged. I would hear, “You’re not talented at this.” I really hated the word talent. You don’t necessarily have to be a Raphael or Velázquez to be a good painter, as Western art history teaches us. My motivation was much stronger than just making a nice painting. But through these difficulties I learned a lot about myself, and ultimately, my first medium will always be life itself.
What drew you to art in the first place?
Art is one of the few fields where you can ask questions, and the question itself is important. It’s not even necessary to find an answer. With art, you develop your perception and consciousness while investigating the human condition. You’re challenged to create something that hasn’t been done yet.
You’ve been an active member of the Berlin art scene for decades, but this is your first institutional solo here (aside from an exhibition at the Asian Art Museum where your work was shown alongside archival pieces). Have you experienced discrimination as a woman, or an expat?
I think I did, but I refused to make a big deal out of it. I could have complained every day, but I didn’t want to be ugly with anger like others – it’s not sexy at all! [Laughs] Humankind has a lot to learn, but if you compare now to 30 years ago, something has changed, which is much better than nothing.
In the exhibition, you ask, “How can an artist assert herself in times of globalisation, wars and mass migration?” One of the series on view features an empowered woman strongly standing alone – is she your answer?
I hope it delivers that message in a pictorial way. I’ve been critical all my life about Eurocentrism and male domination, and in the 1990s I painted these girls who were suffering, lonely, and very introspective. I think over time their consciousness evolved with me. Figures that used to lie down are now standing up, and they even have swords! Here, she’s saying: if it’s necessary, I’ll fight.
Would you say that the female figures in your work are self-portraits?
I would not say it so simply. Of course every artist, even Gerhard Richter, is making self-portraits in some sense. But my interest is not only in me. I see myself as a mediator.
You also tackle the socially taboo subject of ageing, particularly with your photographs of dying flowers.
One of the beautiful truths about ageing is that nobody can take it away from you. It’s natural. With the images, I took my time, and wanted to capture every phase of their decline, because unlike animals, flowers don’t really have an exact moment of death.
You were a professor at UdK for 20 years. What makes a good art professor?
I made sure to not be the kind of professor who told students what was good or bad. I really wanted to give everyone confidence in themselves. I never thought, “Oh, I’m a professor, so I know what art is.”
Why did you decide to leave UdK last year?
The years with my students were important to me, and I’ll miss them. But I realised I could not wait one more day to give my work undivided attention. I wasn’t a success at 30, but that’s why I survived, because I had time to develop myself and my career. There were so many art stars in the 1980s who made it to the Venice Biennale or Documenta and then crashed. I could have left after a couple more years, but I’m full of energy, only just starting to get grey hairs [laughs] and I’m happy I can work.
LEIKO IKEMURA – … AND SUDDENLY THE WIND TURNS Through Apr 17 | Haus am Waldsee, Argentinische Allee 30, Zehlendorf, U-Bhf Krumme Lanke, Tue-Sun 11-18