Above: Tintsukuroi | Golden Repair 2 (2021), documentation of land art, mending cracked glacier with emergency blankets, dye sublimation. Image courtesy of the artist.
︎ Moremen Gallery, Louisville
with Kevin Warth
Shohei Katayama is a Louisville-based artist whose work explores environmental and ecological issues through a variety of media. He is a 2019 MFA graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, has exhibited nationally and internationally, and has participated in multiple residencies abroad, including in Svalbard, Norway and Manaus, Brazil. I met with Katayama at Moremen Gallery to discuss Liminality, his first solo exhibition since returning to Louisville.
Kevin Warth: You attended high school and college in Louisville, but have been in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon for the past few years. How does it feel to be back?
Shohei Katayama: It feels great. I moved back during the pandemic, so there was not much happening publicly, especially in the art world. I managed to get a position at Kentucky College of Art + Design as an adjunct professor earlier this year and was appointed an assistant professor for the 2021-2022 year. I'm excited about that; teaching is very different. It's also nice to reconnect with the city and the artists that I was familiar with. I'm also starting a gallery too, so that's kind of exciting.
KW: That's very exciting. What will it be called?
SK: The gallery is going to be called Carbon Copy. The building that I'm occupying is a blueprint copy of the Winslow House by Frank Lloyd Wright. Mason Maury was a Louisville architect who was very inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright's work. He took the blueprint and recreated it in Old Louisville back in 1905, a decade later, for the Louisville Woman's Club. I thought that was an interesting history for the building. I want artists that work within this space to make works about the body because our bodies are carbon copies of the past.
KW: I can’t wait to see that! Has teaching given you kind of new perspectives on your work?
SK: I do a lot of things pretty intuitively and having to break things down for the students to absorb the content helps me reaffirm some of the skill sets that I have, and it does help me with confidence because I'm generally an introvert. I don't like to talk that much, I'm more like a cave dweller. But teaching forces me to openly talk about things like art historical concepts or theoretical models.
KW: Let's talk specifically about your solo exhibition, Liminality, where you're working with multiple disciplines: there are drawings, installation-based work, and sculptures. I’d love to have you talk about the work, what your inspirations were, how these distinct media come together.
SK: This exhibition is just me being very transparent about my current mental state. Liminality is almost like a psychological shift. Generally, it's a word used for limbo states of not knowing where you're going to go, exploring the unknown. For me, this is in that state of being unknown. Before coming back to Louisville, I was doing more immersive installations about the environment, specifically about radioisotopes and working with radioactive materials. Now I don't have a facility or places to conduct research. I've just been having fun and exploring formal approaches to making work, but also trying to relate it to my current life situation. For example, my dog unfortunately has lymphoma and will probably pass away soon, so in tribute to her I made I’ll Wait For You (2021) out of melamine and faux marble. Historically, you use marble to show permanence and I wanted to use that material history. When you approach the dog, you realize it's faux marble and this idea of permanence is just a facade,
KW: As you move around the sculpture, you experience it differently. At some angles, the figure starts to disappear.
SK: I use the disappearing aspect or the hollowness as a metaphor to talk about things having a presence, whether it's just for me, like the dog will always be in my memory even if she's actually not there anymore, or when you're in these dark spaces, you almost feel like you don't exist. I try to convert this trauma or negative mindset into some form of visual communication.
KW: In the first room of the exhibition, HUG (2021) is broadcasting these dancing microbes-like shapes onto the walls and the ceiling. And then we look on the wall at There Is As Much Beauty In The World As There Is Pain (2021), the individual marks are almost the same shape when you get a close look. Can you talk about the relationship between these two works?
SK: I'm always focusing on the relationship between implicit microstructures and explicit macrostructures. It’s like the swarm effect, where single units come together to create a larger grouping. I've always been fascinated by disasters, whether natural or man-made, and oftentimes you see a bit of hope when people are coming together and helping each other out. We hope to use that trauma as a way to remind us of how we can make a better future. I started looking at gold, especially after doing my golden repair process over in the Arctic, as evidence of trauma or breakage, particularly for the Arctic Circle. Tintsukuroi | Golden Repair (2021) is actually made out of emergency blankets to show the urgency of climate change. Svalbard was an appropriate place to talk about how the world is fractured as well. Since then, I started looking at gold as something with a negative connotation, but it's something that's needed to show recovery.
For There Is As Much Beauty In The World As There Is Pain, I thought I'd appropriate something that looks like a universe, a galaxy, or an oil spill. It's supposed to have a multitude of references. I use these phenomena as a way to explain the human condition. I am very fascinated with physics; oftentimes, people think that physics is a very cold science, but some of the principles, like chaos and entropy, can apply to our mental constructions or societal systems. They're built off of these very fundamental, universal phenomena.
When I first came to the States in high school, I always wanted to connect with people. I couldn't speak English, so oftentimes what I would do is play the piano or draw. That was my only way of really expressing myself the first two years I was here. When I started doing art in undergrad, I was a music and psychology major. I was trying to find the one thing that unifies humanity and, at the time, the only thing that came to my head was our senses. Even Indigenous cultures or civilizations throughout history relied on technology and this very empirical approach and to understanding the reality that surrounds us.
KW: Hearing that you were using music as a connector is really interesting in the context of your work, which feels very musical as well. There are these individual moments, like notes in a song, that are coming together to make something greater. Also, the movement of the machinery in HUG creates a kind of soundtrack in the gallery space.
SK: I look at artists as taking on the role of a composer. It's not like we make everything from scratch, we don't have to reinvent the wheel because what's more important is our intent and our expression. It's a great metaphor for how we truly aren't self-reliant or independent, we're a part of this larger ecosystem, whether it is financially related or even just our presence. Even though we may feel insignificant, our actions do have consequences.
KW: With both music and art, you're connecting with those who have come before you and building upon that collective knowledge.
SK: Art is just another form of communication.
KW: I really love the way you and the gallery have chosen to light this second room. There's this quietness and sereneness when you step into the room, like that you would expect from a chapel. I’d love to hear you talk about Fracture (2020), Turbulence No. 2 (2020), and their installation.
SK: My goal is to reduce light in a space. Even before graduate school, I was looking into the properties of sacred places. In Japanese wabi-sabi architecture and aesthetics, there's a concept called kiru, which means cut. It means cutting up space so that you can reduce light and it creates a very meditative environment—tea rooms are one example. Oftentimes, what I attempt to do is create these contemplative, meditative spaces, because the world is stimulating enough to the point that we are desensitized. Humans are really afraid of boredom, but boredom is absolutely necessary to process emotions. We oversaturate our lives with entertainment, and the downfall is that you don't really know how you're feeling at any given time.
KW: Going from overstimulation and dancing lights when you first enter the space, this is such a nice reprieve and palate cleanser. All the sounds start to fade away in this room.
SK: I wanted this to be a transitional thing. We all have to take breaks every once in a while. But when I get really quiet, I'm always thinking pretty negative stuff, honestly—climate grief, anxiety, not really knowing where the future is going to go. When people feel overwhelmed, what they generally do is look up at the stars or look at things that are macro or micro to escape from the reality that they're in. That is the reason why I create these microscopic, intuitive drawings. I look at references related to fluid dynamics or gravitational pulls, and at least in this particular room, I'm trying to connect the microcosm to the macrocosm.
KW: Did you approach the creation of this work differently, knowing it was going to be in a commercial space?
SK: I don't often do two-dimensional work, but I used to do a lot of calligraphy and graffiti when I was younger. For two-dimensional work, I generally approach it as something very simple; when I say simple, I use just two pigments. I love looking at aerial photography and how things become really organic as you go further into space - it makes you see the relationship between the small things that you oftentimes overlook and how they amalgamate into something larger. I always think about how the population of wolves can drastically change creek formations: they're getting rid of deer, which changes the vegetation and the root structures that keep the stone in place. Erosion is drastically affected by living organisms within a certain environment.
KW: That’s really interesting. A small group of creatures have a larger impact than we might anticipate, kind of like a domino effect.
SK: Especially considering our current political/social environment and COVID-19, something so insignificant can have a global effect. That's why I've always been focused on smaller things causing these butterfly effects to manifest into something bigger. With Fukushima, which is the foundation of the way that I started working, a small factory continues to pour thousands of gallons of nuclear waste every single day. We can find small traces of that in California, in red wine after the distillation process.
Liminality is on display at Moremen Gallery through October 23.
Kevin Warth (he/him) is a Louisville-based artist and art historian whose research emphasizes queer identity, alternate temporalities, and hauntology.
HUG (2021), dichroic film, solar cells, motor, ABS, and LEDs
There Is As Much Beauty In The World As There Is Pain (2021), hand-drawn Sharpie and acrylic on panel
I'll Wait For You (2021), melamine and faux marble
Turbulence No. 2 (2020), hand-drawn Sharpie and acrylic on panel
Fracture (2020), hand-drawn Sharpie and acrylic on panel with gold leaf