In Search of Beautiful Misunderstandings: Studio Visit with Installation Artist, Asako Shiroki.
By Ewan Waddell

In Search of Beautiful Misunderstandings: Studio Visit with Installation Artist, Asako Shiroki.

A couple of weeks ago we dropped in on Japanese-born, Berlin-based installation artist, Asako Shiroki. It was a sad and rainy afternoon in Berlin, but a warm and lovely conversation in the shelter of Asako’s Schöneberg studio — which as funny coincidence would have it, I was no stranger to, having visited it a year and a half ago to interview Asako’s husband, Sanghyeok, about his conceptually-driven furniture pieces. This day, though, was about Asako, and it was a pleasure to hear the story of her practice; from jewellery to installation art, bringing traditional Japanese wood joinery to Berlin, and the process of creating “beautiful misunderstandings”.

I was interested first to learn the origins of Asako’s practice.

“I come from Tokyo, Japan originally. I studied at the Tokyo National University of the Arts, to the doctor’s course, and then after graduation, I worked [at the university] as an assistant, and then as a lecturer. In total, I was at the university for 14 years — from student to lecturer… I wanted to find a reason to stop working [there] because my dream was not to become a lecturer.”

“Then, I luckily got an invitation from the Bethanien Künstlerhaus, which is like a pioneer artist residency program. So that’s why I came to Germany… The program was only for one year, but I wanted to get some reaction to my art after the solo exhibition, so I decided to stay here longer.”

In the grid — floor windows. 2014. Wood, textile. W351 × D234 x H94 cm. Photo by Rebecca Wilton.

That was ten years ago, and now here we are. I was curious about how Asako’s practice has evolved over those years.

“When I was an undergraduate student I made jewellery. But then I was doubting why I needed to put the object on a body. So then, I was thinking outside of the object and my interest became bigger and bigger and I was thinking about space more. I wanted to think about how space is existing — so I changed my class. But not [to] the architecture or sculpture course — to the woodworking course. It was very special. I learned traditional, Japanese wood joinery  techniques.”

“I started to work with wood, but not interested in making furniture which has a function — thinking about sculpture, or something else except functionality. My classmates all made furniture. I only made sculptures, with special wood joinery techniques. I’m still using it, but I got much more philosophies [from it] than techniques.”

From jewellery to woodworking to installation work. I wondered how Asako might identify her artworks now.

“I want to be free from categorising my work, so it’s always in between architecture, sculpture, also craft and art and many contexts… I wanted to make installation work because I wanted to be free from the display boxes for showing the artwork… Putting in the display boxes and putting light on them and suddenly the artwork will act as "artwork". I saw a lot of moments of freshness in the artwork in the process, so I wanted to show my artwork directly how I saw it in the process.”

Your window is my mirror. 2019. Wood, Mirror, Textile, Brass. W540 × D40 x H160 cm. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I wondered how Berlin has influenced her practice.

“After I came to Berlin, I started to cite fragments of furniture. Always with something missing, or something lost, so when the audience sees my artwork it seems like furniture — but it’s something different; like a misunderstanding. A beautiful misunderstanding… Every work was made by myself. I never use ready-made furniture, because I want to choose different directions of the functionality from the beginning when I have the material.”

“The physical processes and the ratio of machine work to handwork are different between the woodworking learned in Europe and the woodworking learned in Japan. When I use machines I can [do] bigger sizes of the works. The hand tools are like a part of my body, and so when I use hand tools I can see the work through my eyes — and I wanted to make a distance from the material and myself. So the machine makes the distance and I can see things from a bird’s eye perspective. I can learn many things through this process.”

What other new processes have you been exploring? I asked.

“So last summer I participated in a residency in Denmark. I made a work without woodwork. I tried a new work with drawing and video work and also some text…I tried to understand the people who lived in that area. People who live in Nordic areas want to grab the sun because there’s such a short summertime and they have a long, dark winter time. So I tried to grab the mid-summer daylight.”

“There was a square window above my head, and everyday sunlight comes on my desk. So I made the rule that when the sunlight comes on the desk, I draw it, and if the clouds come, I sharpen the pencil. So it’s quite a long video… I tried to make a very light feeling work. The action of the drawing in the video is the main artwork, and next to it maybe I make a frame for this [pointing to shadow outline sketches pinned on the wall].”

“I interviewed local people about a lot of things. People explained to me that the blue colour is important for them. I asked them why, but nobody knew… I went to the library and I found the history of dyeing in this area. The blue they refer to is indigo blue, which is an important colour that people can use to dye textiles at home."

“They explained that indigo, which comes from the earth, combined with lime from the sea shells in front of them, could fix blue to the fabric. This explanation became a beautiful poem expressing a larger concept. When the sea and the earth combined, it becomes equal.”

Asako then began telling me the sentiments behind her more recent works.

“After my pregnancy, after the pandemic, I wanted to show my motherhood. I wanted to show the inside of me to the outside… It’s too much personal work for me, but I thought I should make it.”

A twig of interweaving passages. 2021. Wood, glass, silver chain, brass, leather, bronze casting of a twig that fallen in front of me. W470 × D/H variable cm. Photo by Sanghyeok Lee.

I wondered why she felt it was “too much” personal work for her.

“Before [the pandemic], I tried to make my artwork cold — without temperature. After the pandemic, I tried to make more artwork showing my personal things. I thought I should show myself without hiding… When I made artwork before, I tried to be more strong. After the pandemic, after the pregnancy, I accepted everything more, as I am. As a woman, as a mother, as a human. [Now], it’s become more free; I can work as myself, without any lie.”

Thank you to Asako.

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Words by Ewan Waddell.

Photos by Ewan Waddell and courtesy of the artist.


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