Interview: Naoko Tosa

The Japanese sound artist on her exhibition Sound of Ikebana

'Awaiting a Rising Sun of New Year's Day' by Naoko Tosa
Japanese sound artist Naoko Tosa updates the ancient art of flower arrangement in her Shanghai exhibition Sound of Ikebana. Time Out finds out more

Naoko Tosa first started fusing sound and images in the 1980s, before the era of computers. Yet for the renowned Japanese sound artist, the interplay between what we hear and what we see had always held a particular fascination. ‘I was,’ she explains, ‘interested in the story and the emotions of sound and images.’

More than two decades later and Tosa has utilised the latest technology to create her new exhibition Sound of Ikebana, opening this month in Shanghai. In Japanese, ikebana (literally ‘living flowers’) refers to the art of flower arrangement. Tosa has created her own take on the ancient art form through four separate works. For the pieces, vibrating sound was placed beneath pools of paint. Tosa then shot the resulting bubbles, leaps, and movements of the liquid at 2,000 frames per second with a high-speed camera. The artist says that the resulting images are not only an exploration of flowers and flower arranging, but also of the perpetually transient and evolving four seasons.

‘The effect of the vibration of sound on various forms of paint has created stunning images,’ says Tosa of her work. ‘Many of the images are evocative of the beauty of flowers. It was creative. It was beautiful.’ It is not only visually gorgeous but technically complicated. To create the pieces, Tosa first made basslines to provide the vibrations. This was followed by changing the parameters of the computer software used to generate the sounds and designing the shape and form of the paint. ‘After that,’ she says, ‘I shot with a high-speed camera. However, what I can control is only about 60 per cent. The rest are masterful works of nature.’

The colour spectrum is also crucial to the works. ‘In Asia, colours have always played a very significant role in religious and cultural expression,’ adds Tosa. ‘For example, red and white were the signature colours of kimonos during Japan’s Heian period (794 to 1185), while gold and red are the auspicious colours of the Chinese New Year.’ White, gold, and red are also symbols of Japanese wabi-sabi, an aesthetic that accepts the beauty of imperfection and impermanence. Tosa hopes to use the colours in her artworks to ‘encourage reflection of our own internal “seasons” as we progress through life.’ 

Tosa, 52, grew up in Fukuoka city on Kyushu island, where her mother was a homemaker and her father the president of a company that sold machine tools. From high school, she harboured ambitions to be an artist and has succeeded: her work has been exhibited in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the New York Metropolitan Art Museum. But this was not before she had received a PhD in engineering from the University of Tokyo. Today, she is a professor at Kyoto University.

Part of Tosa’s inspiration comes from three years of collaboration in Boston at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) where she was a fellow from 2002 to 2004. ‘I researched creative engineering,’ recalls the artist. ‘The MIT CAVS director asked me to explore Japanese media art and new technology. As such, I made The Art of Zen.’ The piece is an interactive study of Zen by computer, which juxtaposes the hesitations and delays of human consciousness with the immediacy of computer software. As Tosa points out, ‘technology has allowed us to create new forms of artwork that could never be possible before.’

In Sound of Ikebana, the traditional Japanese art form of haiku – three line poems of 17 syllables each – are also incorporated. These are sourced from masters including Yosa Buson, Matsuo Basho and Kobayashi Issa. So what is Tosa’s favourite haiku from the exhibition? The answer matches her favourite season of autumn – a time of passing and transition. ‘Looking up/A deer cries its tears/Dew of the moon.’

Sound of Ikebana is at LWH Gallery from Friday 7 February to Wednesday 5 March.