Nov 17th, 2020
Rena Kudoh: “Play” Without Any Set Rules or Restrictions

Hong Jisoo, art critic, Doctor of Fine Arts

Cited from Clay Art Gimhae Museum’s publication

Chimeras as weird as they are joyful

Rena Kudoh’s objects are strange. They look like specimens of some new species that cannot be identified as any particular organism, whether human or animal. Throughout the gallery space, chimeras are crouched or lying down, seemingly born of synthesis or genetic modification of human and animal. On top of a display stand rests an object composed of four cylindrical shapes bent into L-shaped forms, with the head of a young girl attached at its center. Its form suggests that a mutation is underway, but it seems reminiscent of a monster. On the floor stands some kind of animal, resembling a sort of cross between a deer and a dog. Its four long, thin legs, like those of a starving creature, hold up the weight of a bulky body, long neck, and small head, giving the appearance of precarious support. Plus, its neck is twisted backwards to the rear. The neck is also disproportionately long in relation to the head and body. Upon closer examination, you discover that its face is not that of an animal, but of a human. At least it appears human, but all it consists of is a childish drawing depicting a few lines drawn in colored pencil that might be construed as eyes, a nose, and a mouth. Such a nonchalant, imprecise, and childlike expression may not suffice to faithfully describe a real object, but is faithful enough to convey what the artist feels. 

Barely differentiated half-human, half-animal creatures, not even possessing any organs, these strange, obscure beings do not match any actual animal’s anatomy, evincing only rough approximations of body, eyes, nose, or mouth. But the images are not grotesque or bizarre. The expressions reminiscent of a childish drawing or modeling clay project, the natural physical properties and haptic elements generated from the clay that has been moulded and pressed by hand, the bright pastel-toned hues, their small sizes, their cute faces and expressions, static postures that are recumbent, crouching, or leaning on something—all those elements make us feel compassion or curiosity rather than displeasure. It is more like the friendly uncanniness we feel from the half-animal, half-human characters of Hayao Miyazaki’s animations, or Yoshitomo Nara’s girls whose facial expressions are at once equal parts childlike innocence and fiendishness. 

 

A free traveler crossing boundaries and domains of species 

Rena Kudoh’s works portray diverse ecosystems, spanning the human, plant, animal, and even mineral domains. In her world, there is no hierarchy or linearity within any species, including humans; they are freely separated from their bodies and recombined with parts from other entities. Rather than carrying a certain message or symbolism, every individual is an embodiment of what the artist saw somewhere or other, what ideas suddenly popped into her head, and what she specially liked or felt. Since those ideas do not presuppose systemized causal relationships, before-and-after sequences, or narratives, it doesn’t make much sense to divide her works according to year or production order, or to try to find some meaning or symbolism. To her, an established taxonomy able to identify every entity in the world, or the features of her objects’ forms, merely refer to some visible thing or phenomena. Underneath that shell lies a world that unceasingly transforms itself regardless of any attempts to partition or classify the oppressed objects within it. The artist only reveals the world as she wishes and feels it to be. 

The artist crosses boundaries of species or domains to talk about her transhuman imagination, her love for sci-fi films and animations, and the great influence they had on her as a child. As a member of the young generation accustomed since infancy to Internet culture, and as one well-versed in Japan’s visual culture, including Japanese anime, she seems adept at responding intelligently to the wondrous power of computers or cameras at intervening in reality, reconstructing it, or even transforming it, and utilizing that power in her own artistic language. The influence of animation, cinema, and the Internet on her fictional objects is revealed in the 2017 “Anima” series. It features American animation characters such as Mickey Mouse, Batman, Spiderman, and Snoopy as well as Japanese ones including Astro Boy, Smurfs, and Doraemon. However, the figures are somewhat awkward and clumsy, since the images she used as her reference points were not the originals, but rather images collected online that had been drawn or imagined by unknown, anonymous Internet users. By using reinterpreted works from someone else’s eyes and brains as the original reference sources, she is removing her work yet another level from something original, re-creating second-hand versions of someone else’s original work. 

We all know that the characters created by the original animators do not really exist. They are just fictional images or icons existing only as arrays of a few electrons or combinations of pixels in the digital world. Nevertheless, some characters in famous animations or films are more familiar than any actual existing figures. Ironically, the more famous and familiar the character is, the more stereotyped the image becomes. Therefore, if someone tries to copy such characters from their imagination, and the resulting elements turn out different from the original—awkward or exaggerated forms, or different colors, for instance—anyone can easily distinguish differences and awkwardness. The artist created second-hand derivative works by collecting the inaccurate reinterpretations deviating from the original images, and further departing again from the second original by reinterpreting them in her own way using clay. Through the distorted and transformed characters, her work shows how our perceptions, and our world made up of those perceptions, are modified and distorted. 

 

My play, your participation, and our amusement 

Regardless of whether someone sees a popular animation character and tries to copy it or draw it from imagination, the outcome reflects their unconscious mind, including their knowledge or experiences. The same thing occurs when an artist attempts a second derivative creation using such works as second ‘originals’. When the things in their unconscious minds are fully exercised and expressed in the works, chances are higher that the outcome will depart from the inertia of conventions and the familiar, and will generate a fresh transformation. To generate strange hybrids that seem not to exist in the real world, the artist needs to amplify her own will to escape from conventional real-world systems and perceptions. The more often heterogeneous elements move in and out between her own world and the external world, the more her escape accelerates and mutations appear. To this end, many artists try and enjoy meeting diverse people and expose their own identity to new and unfamiliar worlds. 

In this regard, Rena Kudoh has had an extremely favorable cultural background and experiences. Born to parents whose respective homelands were China and Japan, she naturally experienced and embraced the two different cultures, spending her childhood in many diverse regions in her homeland of Japan and overseas. Therefore, to her, staying for a few months or years in a location does not mean settling down, but represents a temporary pause before the next departure that could take place at any time. Perhaps because she moved often since childhood and was used to packing her belongings and transferring to another new territory in diverse artist-in-residency programs throughout the world, she does not seem to feel anxiety or discomfort from her frequent travels to residency programs in Japan, Indonesia, the U.S., and now Korea. Interestingly, she seems to recognize and blithely accept such sudden comings and goings as the advent of new events or changes of environment in the time of chronos, rather than something stressful or burdensome. Like French artists that embraced “other selves” and diverse different beings in their private spaces and domains, the artist seems not to feel discomfort or insecurity from communicating with diverse others. At the residency program at the Shigaraki Ceramic Culture Park in Japan, she lived in the exhibition space and shared her daily life of eating and creating work with the audience, instead of creating works in a separate space and installing the finished works at the exhibition space. It didn’t even matter to her if such visitors approached her and participated in her projects or independently did something of their own (in her interview, she did not even call this way of living a “project” or “work”). 

In a residency or art museum, the gallery space is the stage or domain that belongs to artists, existing in the real world but separated and divided from it. Within this space of their own, artists have the right to allow or say anything they wish. Nevertheless, Rena Kudoh made her exhibition space a space for everyday life. Moreover, she made it an open space where she meets her alternate selves and diverse others, allowing them to transform the place as an open playground to do whatever they want to. While “Anima” in 2017 added her own re-creations to those of other anonymous people, the 2018 “Stranger” series done in the Japanese residency program invited others into her space of play. The gallery space was shared with visitors, who were allowed to enter into her clay-based situational stage, or to wear clay masks as cosplay actors. Beyond just sharing that space, it served to expand our world by joining her own play with that of others. It was about witnessing and having fun with chance encounters that invoked the emotions of others and newly-created bonds. Here, art becomes a channel to connect with others and with everyday life through another dimension. 

In the series of works Rena Kudoh has been doing, her role is not as a dominant commander in which all the play is enacted by others from the outside or by the artist. Rather, both she and the visitors exist in an open space where anyone may intervene in activities which might be conjoined or dissolved at any point. In this way, the artist’s open space is reminiscent of Kafka’s metamorphosis noted by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Rather than observing from outside or giving orders, the artist enters the world directly and brings people together, seeing and rejoicing in the free variations, deviations, and crossings they create. From 2017’s “Anima” series that made use of anonymous people’s drawings imitating popular animation characters, to the latest installation in Clayarch Gimhae Museum, the direction of her work is clearly consistent, though their appearance and representative forms may vary. She does not stick to any certain values or methods, but actively invites herself and any others to be subjects—not objects—in the creative world of experience, revealing and discovering new strangeness in the familiar strangeness. 

 

Without any set rules or restrictions 

I am especially swayed by the artist’s choice of materials and methods of reproduction towards creating inclusive opportunities for joyful and free play for one and all. The plasticity of clay and the readily accessible materials/media (such as drawing with colored pencils or markers, as well as photography) harmonize well with the artist’s essential nature and working methods that favor free projects without any set rules or boundaries. Her works are validated and appealing when they are a fun mode of play, as opposed to something existing as a specific objective or form of work. Insights and skills in using materials and techniques, something that all artists would emphasize, and profound immersion in the world of self may represent a powerful visual language. However, sometimes an intuitive playful approach and carefree expression can be more appealing and powerful. Depending on the objectives of the work, some materials are better-suited and more effective. The same is true with choice of media. Artists need to find the materials, techniques, and media best-suited to the world they want to represent, as well as their own dispositions. Even if they think they have found the right ones, they should continuously look for new ones if their choices stop being effective or reach the end of their useful life. In this regard, Rena Kudoh’s direction, her choice of materials, and her mode of representation seem very reasonable. 

The artist doesn’t consider it frustrating or stressful when her pieces break or explode while being dried or fired in the kiln. Such an attitude might have been influenced by the fact that she received no institutional training in ceramic art, being self-taught after having majored in painting; she doesn’t distinguish any separation or hierarchy between drawing and clay work. When it comes to such unexpected events—ruptures, cracks, or breakage—she does not try to cover up surface flaws with glazing or touch-ups, but rather exposes the ruptures and cracks, or even traces of glue applied to them. Even in the midst of the trend in contemporary art where ideas and concepts are valued above all, her approach of not focusing on elaborate delineation of an object or some great meaning in the pursuit of perfection, her lack of set goals, and the immaturity of her expression are not to be underestimated or lightly disregarded. She is not ignorant of them, but simply brushes them off. I don’t believe that she would not ever want to have meticulous skills, profound knowledge of materials, or a high level of perfection in the future, or that she is pleased about the frequent unexpected cracks, rupturing, or collapsing of the forms she is trying to produce. Nevertheless, to gain such skills and knowledge, an artist must, for a while at least, be bound to rigid and strict rules and training. For an artist who considers life or work to be a matter of fun and games rather than achieving something or reaching a goal, I do not think the task of acquiring such skills and knowledge is of vital significance or urgency. (I guess such issues would be naturally resolved when enough time and experience have been accumulated.) 

The artist’s work reminds me of what conventional artists usually overlook or cannot afford to venture, if they have been trained to focus on technical achievement and knowledge even before learning the joy of kneading clay and drawing on paper or reflecting on what they themselves could do with this. What a shame, and what a loss. Precarious connections, strangely balanced forms like in a circus, the free hybridization of unexpected beings—these are the key features of Rena Kudoh’s works. They represent her own unique methods and visual language to show us a new and special world. Most interesting to me is her way of creating fascinating objects by developing her own storytelling without any rules, prejudices, conventions, fears, or burdens, and taking pleasure in this process as if it were a form of play. Countless times in the future, she will face numerous moments and unexpected “encounters” in which spontaneous and natural changes force her to create new ways of thinking. Then let us watch how she will fearlessly generate new ideas and create strange variants and mutations, inviting us to join her in a world that is constantly transforming. ■