05 July 2007

Interview: KAKO UEDA

As with artist Nikki McClure, Kako Ueda creates more often with an X-acto knife as opposed to a pen or brush. Her works are elaborate forms with a strong sense of her Japanese roots and nature.

Working at
ARAS and with a strong interest in her medium's history and its association with culture, she has a fascinating body of work. She has recently been the recipient of the 2007 New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) Fellowship.

Would you share your history with paper from your childhood discoveries to your current work?
I learned to make an origami crane and other animals from my friends as well as from my parents. I started drawing and painting early on (3-4 years old) and I distinctively remember that the first time I used canvas to paint oil (I was 11 or 12), I didn't like it. So I went back to painting on paper with watercolor and acrylic. I also remember that I made paper dresses for my dolls (including Barbie!!) when I was a little girl.

I studied photography in college. I initially wanted to get into the painting department but it was very competitive; you had to fight for a studio space so I was kind of fed up, thinking "I could paint on my own and I want to learn something totally new" so I chose photography as my main study. The teachers in the photo department were wonderful and I learned to really look at things in a frame. I also discovered the beauty of black and white photography. I continued to paint & draw (oil sticks) on paper on my own. I was accepted to Pratt Institute graduate program in 1996 based on the organic inspired abstract drawings I did on paper. I started folding paper while at Pratt and my thesis show was a group of wall-reliefs made of dye-cut envelops (which I cut myself). There were black and white ones and very minimal looking but suggestive of the body somehow.

Is there a particular approach you have to colour? Is there a fixed palette that you prefer? And how would you differentiate between your monochromatic silhouettes and full colour works?
Sticking to black, white and grey is very comfortable for me, that is why I sometimes have to use colors to put myself in an uncomfortable place. To me colors could be overly emotional and could give mixed messages. Black and white can be expressive and "colorful" too but always with a certain sense of restraint. When I use colors I tend to go all the way and create "very colorful" work as if I let go of something.
"Purity sounds noble and good but scares me sometimes..."
Following on, how do you feel the process of cutting adds to your work and how would you differentiate between cutting and other mediums?
Cutting creates paper to become a hybrid being. It is both 2-D and 3-D at the same time because it has a look of line drawing at a first glance but casts shadow on the wall to remind us its 3-dimensionality. I've always been attracted to things/people/animal that are mixed or hybrid. Purity sounds noble and good but scares me sometimes because some people do brutal things to others in the sake of keeping something/someone "pure".

How do you feel the impermanence and fragility of the paper add to your work? And how does its history augment the medium for you?
Traditional Japanese culture found special beauty in fragility and impermanence because people at that time seemed to be more in touch with the natural process of decay and approaching death/end.

The culture we live in (I am talking about contemporary industrialized cultures) tend to see impermanence and fragility as defect or weakness. If one wants to "succeed" in this culture, one has to look youthful (devoid of wrinkles) and stay that way. On one hand I see the attraction in it myself; on the other hand I feel that we are losing something by just stressing that part of life. We all age and die in the end no matter what.
"I picked up the medium of cut paper without any preconceived notion..."
You have never displayed your photographic work. Why is that? Is it something that you would like to get into again? And has it influenced your current work at all?
I simply haven't had a chance. I may when I feel like it. Never say never and keep one's option open. Learning photography made me aware of composition and see the world in black, different shades of grey and white.

What practical advice would you give for anyone wanted to try their hand at paper cuts? And would you recommend some sources of information on the medium and its history?
I picked up the medium of cut paper without any preconceived notion in 2003. I simply started fooling around first with scissors then X-acto knife. To tell you the truth, I was stuck and bored with what I had been doing (folding paper) and needed to change the course.

As I got into cutting, I did some research to see how the medium was presented in different cultures. I looked up Japanese stencil cutting, Chinese, Mexican, German, and so on. I am glad though that I didn't have any set idea of how I should cut or what technique I should use. I had images in my head that wanted to come out somehow and I chose this particular medium to do it.

I never read about or formally learned traditional cutting techniques so I cannot preach to people on technical issues. Some people get so hung up on the "cutting" part but if one doesn't have a compelling image (to himself or herself), cutting wouldn't add anything--I want to stress this fact. On the practical matter, what I can say is to change the blade often. 1-2 in every hour so you always are working with a sharp blade—good for your art and for your hand.

Would you tell us about your work at The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism in Manhattan, what you have learned at your time there, and its impact on your work?
It is a wonderful place to work. I feel lucky everyday. Our boss is an art-aficionado and five others--three visual artists, a musician, and a Jungian analyst/editor. We are currently working on a book of images (each symbolic entry presented by visuals and a piece of writing).

I was hired initially to do basic research that was sent to the writers. I had to read a lot and copied a lot, and since I love reading anyway I learned a lot about a lot of different things. One of the things which was useful for my pieces was learning about world mythology. And ARAS has tons of books on that subject matter.

What was the last thing to surprise you and what did you learn from the experience?
I got hit by a cab last summer. That was a surprise. I was fortunate that I didn't break anything. It surely made me think that life could end just like that. And yes, I also learned to pay very good attention to cars in New York City even if you have the right way.

Your parents were from an artistic background and you grew up in Japan. Based on your own experiences, what advice would you give parents to nurture their children’s artistic expression?
Just let your child do whatever he/she desires as long as it is not harmful to him/herself or others. And save your child's artwork. He/she will appreciate looking at them when they grow up. And it gives him/her a feeling that what he/she made was worth saving!

Would you choose a colour (it doesn’t have to be a favourite) and explain the ideas and feelings it generates for you? This doesn’t need to be a straight answer – express yourself in any way you feel is suitable.
I wear red/red lipstick when I have lots of energy and wanna get attention.

What are your thoughts on the categorization of arts between “high brow”, “low brow”, “fine art”, “outsider art”, “craft” and so on? Do you feel these labels serve any purpose?
Human beings are masters of "categorization". I guess our brain naturally has that tendency. Having categories helps to function in the society pretty well, at the same time it obstructs one to become" one" with the rest of the environment. We perpetually feel unhappy and unsatisfied because we feel separated from each other at the same time (ironically) we want to hold onto the labels of what we seem to be so we feel special, important or better than "others". Ultimately I say forget the labels.

What are you currently working on? Are there any other mediums which you would like to try in future? And in 10 years time, where would Kako Ueda ideally be?
I have been working on this medium size piece called "Conversation" and I have two installation pieces going at the same time. I am trying to stretch the definition of cut paper art. I don't know where I would be ideally in 10 years. My ideals change constantly but if you say at this moment what I feel about it, I would say, "no aches in my hand".

Thank you, Kako.

Kako Ueda
Smack Mellon gallery
George Adams gallery
Artists Space gallery
Animal-NY Q&A
White Hot magazine interview
Paper Forest (post + related info)

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