“And she will soon step out from this case into the outer world. That will be the beginning of her life in society which will be, for her, a place to contend with her difficulties.” Ryuhow Shimizu
Last month in June during the artist reception for Ryuhow Shimizu’s solo exhibition, mother, at Gallery 30 South, as the crowd started to dwindle down toward closing, an eleven-year-old girl sat at the reception table sketching on a pad of paper. Her sketching wasn’t anything particularly profound, as one wouldn’t expect from a child playing, waiting for the adults to wrap up their business. But those standing nearby were curious and fascinated by her drawing. The girl was Koko, who is not only the daughter and muse of Ryuhow, she is also a child prodigy, whose solo art exhibition Future of Life is now on view at Gallery 30 South.
While Koko doodled, gallery owner Matt Kennedy gave a sneak preview of two Koko paintings entitled, Peripheral Nerve Network 1 & 2. The works Kennedy held aesthetically contrasted the playful renderings that Koko was currently drawing. Not only were these paintings well executed, the titles also encapsulated the entire concept, visually and intellectually. I asked if Ryuhow helped Koko title the works, and the answer was a simultaneous “no” by Kennedy’s wife Ai and Koko’s older sister. They were proud to answer in the negative, and rightly so. Ai explained that Koko reads through medical literature to understand the structure of her body and condition, and so she has familiarized herself with advanced medical terms, which she uses to title her works. These works are deep contemplations of the self, pain, love, and the struggle for existence. And yet, ten feet away, the same artist was a carefree child, immersed in a world of playful imagination.
Ryuhow was also a child prodigy, having begun painting at age ten. She’s exhibited in Tokyo, Paris, and the United States, in both galleries and museums. Portraying emotions through visual art has been a primary motif in her paintings. She wears her heart on her canvas. As most artists who envision their immortality through their art, Ryuhow is not driven by eternal fame, but rather, she sees her art as conduits of love that will channel to future generations. This spiritual foundation is what she has built the mother project upon, and it extends into Koko’s artwork.
In 2008 Koko Shimizu was born as Ryuhow’s third daughter. Unfortunately, Koko was born with a severe congenital disease of the spine, known as spina bifida. Koko is under the care of ten doctors. She has a computer device implanted in her brain and she takes medicine to regulate her intestines. She has been under multiple operations over the years and will continue doing so.
Koko’s medical attention demanded Ryuhow’s complete devotion to her daughter, and for the first several years of Koko’s life, she set aside her art career. It wasn’t until the third year when medical specialist helped stabilize Koko’s condition that Ryuhow felt relief, which was expressed artistically through sketching. Her sketching produced the original work of Koko that she would later expand upon and develop fully into the multi-media art project, mother.
mother expresses the idea that Koko’s survival is the result of the contributions of a community. The mother project fuses art and technology, reflecting the technology that is embedded in Koko’s flesh. Along with paintings, the project and exhibition includes a hologram, video and sound installations, and a cephalic machine. Rather than isolating Koko from society, sheltering her already vulnerable condition, Ryuhow has projected Koko into the world. The response has been supportive.
During the exhibition reception, Ryuhow explained that the audience who experiences Koko’s life through her art becomes part of Koko’s support system. Imagine being a child who cannot experience common childhood activities, such as sports. Art has not just become Koko’s career, it’s become her childhood. Rather than her condition limit her worldly experience, it has in many ways expanded it by connecting her with audiences worldwide.
I was introduced to Koko Shimizu through her holographic image displayed upon the surface of an i-phone as part of the mother exhibition. A few feet away a life-size image of Koko was projected on the wall. The sounds of Koko’s heartbeat played in real time from the electrocardiogram connected to a boombox on the opposite side of the room. The audience could listen to Koko’s homeostasis in real time. And just as her heart projected for the audience to hear, the resonance of love resonated through the artwork.
mother 0002 is a cephalic machine, which like the overall project, combines art and technology. A life-size clay model of younger Koko was sculpted. After the mold was created the model was dressed with a wig, which on her website Ryuhow comments, “It implies birth and joy of growth, and it is also the proof of life.” Wires were attached to the model’s head, symbolizing Koko’s message being transmitted to the world outside the child’s protective encasement. Technology integrated with flesh is also quite literally what Koko experiences in her life. A fan was then installed below the model to create the visual effect of the girl’s energy flowing from her body. Lastly, an LED light was installed to illuminate the globe held in the girl’s hands. The vulnerability of a young girl protected by a glass case is also the source of power and strength. Her messages transcend all physical barriers, despite the limits of her body and her circumstances within the case.
Ryuhow also commented that watching the model being connected to the machine was a special moment because so many people have been involved in her daughter’s life, connecting her to support systems that have kept her alive. The cephalic machine also required the contributions of a sculptor, technician, a director, and producer, along with a musician, photographer, and web designer. As Koko is under the medical care of many people, it was a team effort to manifest the mother project.
Ryuhow writes about “the message of life and love” being the power that Koko injects into the world. In the painting Mystical Power (mother 0006), Ryuhow represents the outcome of the love doctors have provided Koko. In a sense, Koko’s body has been a sacrifice serving as a vessel in which her physical pain provides an opportunity for doctors and those who know her through her and her mother’s art to channel love. Somehow her pain transforms into love, not just in the form of art and compassion, but even advancements in technology and medicine that can help heal people in the future who have a similar medical condition. This is her mystical power.
It is hard to believe such a young child who carries the burden of an illness responds so positively. Rather than distance herself from her disease, she explores her body to understand herself. Using art as a means of expression comes naturally, having been raised in her mother’s art studio. She began at three-years-old and now at eleven she presents a solo art exhibition.
Koko’s childhood has been commanded by her medical condition. Her works can be described as visceral, in that they reveal the inner structures of flesh. But they are not gruesome, painful, or unattractive. Quite the contrary. They are vibrant, open, inviting. The spinal cord depicted in Peripheral Nerve Network divides Koko’s spinal cord in two paintings. In both paintings the spine is straight, set against a network of nerves and tissue that run horizontal to the spine. Branches of nerves reach randomly from these horizontal lines, connecting to each other. And though the horizontal nerves are spaced in registers, the empty spaces between are connected through the bridges of branches. This delicate network of colorful lines are held by the bold stack of rounded vertebrae, textured by spots of color. The spine in these two paintings give us an understanding of Koko’s physical condition. In Peripheral Nerve Network 1 the spine is composed of vertebrae of equal proportion. But in Peripheral Nerve Network 2 the spine tapers to smaller vertebrae near the lumbar section. This is where Koko’s spine has stopped growing.
The Victory of Macrophage and Glia Cells (My Infinite Possibilities) and Synapses (My Infinite Possibilities) further show this relationship Koko has with her body and medical condition. She explores her self-realization through her art that is made by intentional brushstrokes and the randomness of pigment dripping into form. In My Infinite Possibilities there is a sense of potential to transmit. The focus is not on destructive forces within the body, but the immune system developing synapses. It is communication, not silence.
Koko explores her relationship with the world outside her body in her Mother Nature series. In Newborn and Origin of Life we see a landscape of elements, although devoid of form, the bright colors and shapes inspire the potential of creation, rather than the void of existence. In Newborn, the diagonal strokes of light and dark shades of green move fast across the canvas. Green, fresh like spring, moves quickly through broad strokes of paint. The mix of dark and light in what appears to be a single stroke creates the vibrancy of new life. The lines are neither horizontal or vertical, they are diagonal. There is no static point to rest one’s attention. And with tonal changes and textured brushstrokes, the painting is a force of motion.
In Origin of Life Koko has visually meditated on the spheres of rainbow color floating within a space speckled by spots of white, like stars set against the dark backdrop of infinite space. These multicolored globes are translucent, allowing for the white speckles to integrate in their forms, creating dimension in this unknown space. There is no source of light, and yet the translucency provides dimension and reflection. There is no direction that commands these globes, they are free. There is no point perspective, and yet we see a depth in the atmosphere, providing infinite potential. There is no proportion, and yet there is a sense of vastness within the space and abundance within the clear globes. Like an Impressionist painting devoid of black brushstrokes, the spheres are outlined through the impression of light from variegated hues, causing the spheres to appear to move against each other in all directions.
Between the Mother Nature and My Infinite Possibilities, Koko has created a relationship between the microcosmic individual and the macrocosmic universe. There is a relationship between her body and the origin of life, which is nature, which is the universe, which is mother. Through her medical condition she has come to experience this relationship in a matured way that has inspired her to communicate intelligently and philosophically through visual art. She has fulfilled her mother’s aspirations by building upon the foundation in mother by visualizing the entire message of the universe: love. She shares her artistic interpretations of nature, whether it be atmospheric or corporeal, in order to be a conduit of love and healing.
This culminates in one work, Deepness. Again we see the focus on vertical lines, the spine. And as brilliant as the blue colors are in this painting, there is a tone of darkness, which only enhances the glitter of light, rather than diminish its brilliance. The painting plays with the dark and light. It was executed by careful brushstrokes that reach from the top of the canvas to the body. Yet there is also spontaneity through the drips of acrylic that Koko allowed to run their own course down the entire breath of the canvas. At first glance we see vertical lines, but if we look closely we’ll notice that not one line is the same. Each line is unique. Each has its own character, and each contributes to the whole, completing the overall creation. We each have our own spine that holds us up in this world. We are each unique, and it is that uniqueness, whether we are light or dark, straight or crooked, which completes creation. Through her mother’s interpretations and Koko’s self-reflection and expression, she has become a living work of art.
Koko Shimizu: Future of Life
Abstract, emotional paintings by
a Cybernetic Japanese Girl
July 4th through July 28th
Reception: Sunday, July 14th