In 2016, Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park2 invited Takashi Murakami and Yoshimoto Nara to participate in a discussion. As a supporter and collector of traditional and modern Japanese ceramics, Takashi Murakami introduced the three ceramic artists represented by his gallery at the time. Two of these artists focused on vessels, whereas Otani Workshop primarily produced figurative sculptures. Seated offstage, I intently examined the works presented on the artist's slides.
Otani Workshop's ceramic practice focuses on figures both human and animal. Some of his ceramic figurines are reminiscent of Haniwa dolls which are hollow inside, made with earth-coloured clay, and consist of simple shapes and few decorative lines to evoke a sense of 'cuteness.' The figures' eyes are defined by two holes, hollow sockets that evoke a mystical presence. The animals rendered by Otani's hands, many of them standing or sitting in a state of total relaxation, embody the concise and straightforward features of both anime and totem aesthetics. The figures, whether human or animal, are reticent and lacking any indications of emotion. The artist mentions in his statement that since he was a child, he loved to daydream, and he was curious about human faces, animals, and other natural objects such as stones. As he matured, his passion for making art propelled him to enroll in the art department of his high school. This early education introduced the artist to the foundations of classical painting in addition to modern figuration by artists such as Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966); both historical sources of inspiration which motivated Otani towards becoming an artist himself. Continuing his art education, Otani enrolled in the Department of Sculpture at the Okinawa University of Fine Arts and took a year off during college to travel around Japan visiting museums and temples. Raised in Japan, a country known for self-discipline and a strong sense of civic duty, the young Otani instead pursued his own path, following his inner voice toward exploration of the unknown realm of the mind. His artistic pursuit led him to Shigaraki, one of the six ancient capitals of Japan ceramics, where he acquired the complete skills of this medium. Through examining his works, it is evident that this skilful application provides the strong foundation of his ceramic practice. Transcending mere technical competency, Otani's objective is to animate the figures with a lifelike energy and spirit.
The silhouette of Otani's animals and figures are exceptionally gentle and suggest a natural symbiosis among heaven, earth, and nature. The artist's seemingly carefree and willful approach, similar to a child creating his own rules, results in a calculatedly unpolished finish. His mentor Takashi Murakami once advised on Otani's work, 'Treading the boundary of ceramics, sculpture, and craft, he may look like an ambiguous amateur, but to stake out and maintain his place on that boundary requires a certain mental preparation on his part.'3 With short limbs and an innocent expression, the packhorse carries a young boy on its back, moving forward with all its might, begging for adoration. The male figurine, right hand on his belly and left hand on his head, makes viewers wonder whether this pose is one of pondering or merely scratching. Otani's sculptures elicit smiles among viewers, an emotional exchange similar to watching anime and evocative of the innocence of childhood that silently resides in our adult bodies. In this fast-paced age of information and production, gazing at Otani's works provides tranquillity and a sense of nostalgia for the simpler days of childhood when imagination remained unbridled.
Otani left Shigaraki in 2017 and moved to Awaji, an island enriched with a long history and mythology known as 'a mysterious island inhabited by various gods and goddesses.' In his younger years, Otani stated, 'Though I may not understand art, I know there is something important in things I see, and I feel the presence of something divine there, too. Perhaps this god of some sort might come down to me when I achieve total harmony between my eyes, hands, and mind.'4 In his former large and empty warehouse, once a tile factory, Otani shapes his oneiric childhood companions with his fingers to transform them into ceramic works and paints his imaginary people, situations, and objects with his brush strokes. Perhaps the spirits that inhabit Awaji aid the artist's vision by directing his vision and guiding his hands, thereby animating his sculptures and paintings with their own mystical presence.
This solo exhibition in Shanghai will feature more than one hundred works, including ceramics, paintings, and FRP (fibre reinforced plastic); 69 pieces are the artist's most recent creations from the last two years. Otani continues to experiment with new media and materials as evidenced with the usage of coloured FRP in pink elephant, white rabbit, and green monster. The artist explains, 'I've painted bronze statues. I think the coloured statues are closer to reality than the monochromatic ones, so I want to create more such interpretations.' In addition, the artist collected and recycled many discarded materials to fabricate unique pedestals for each work. Some paintings are even created directly on driftwood or discarded factory boards. In his latest paintings, Otani experimented with different panel material to explore the expressivity of the paint on a new rough surface. In his own words, 'For the big monkey piece, I placed a linen sack on the panel and put a layer of lime on it to cover the surface before I painted it. I could handle more complex colours on a rough surface.' Otani's appreciation and application of both medium and material is the result of the artist's concerted efforts with each organic or recycled material to embody the essence of life.
'Everything has a spirit,' the artist attributes ideas and thoughts tothe most primitive materials, allowing each material to reveal its unique life force. The physical unity between the artist's hands and materials enable the work to be born, exhibiting the energy of eternal life that reaches for the viewer's heart.
1 - A talisman is an object that is believed to have magical protective properties. Otani's artworks are similar in that the artist's intent is to attribute spirits to inanimate objects and materials. Beyond religious categories, talisman represents the shared concept of having faith as the source of creativity throughout human history.
2 - Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park (SCCP), established in 1990, is a center of residency for famous international potters, located in Shigaraki Town, Shiga Prefecture, Japan.
3 - From essay of When I Was Seventeen, I Learned About Giacometti from My Art Teacher and Became Drawn to Sculpture—and So I Make Sculptures Now., 2016. Kaikai Kiki Gallery, Japan.
4 - From essay of When I Was Seventeen, I Learned About Giacometti from My Art Teacher and Became Drawn to Sculpture—and So I Make Sculptures Now., 2016. Kaikai Kiki Gallery, Japan.
Text by Ting Ju Shao, ceramic artist, featured writer on ceramic art, curator of the 2018 Taiwan International Ceramic Biennale. Courtesy Perrotin.