Ouma - Cell Artist -

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韓国の美術批評家Lee Seon-yeongによる評論文

In Korean :Ouma / 자연으로부터 배우는 공존의 기술

Skills for Coexistence Learned from Nature

Ouma, or Tomoko Omata, who debuted as an artist with her first solo exhibition in 2013, used to be a veterinarian. Even before she quit her job due to the feeling of helplessness after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, she enjoyed drawing animals, who were her patients. As treatment has both surgical and internal aspects, it includes sketches of normal or abnormal cells. Such an autobiographical background is expressed through a variety of images that recall cells, the basic units of life. After finding more freedom from art rather than veterinary medicine, she has traveled to countries around the world producing her works, and Korea is one of her stopovers. The subtitle for her solo exhibition she held as an international resident artist in the Artist Residency TEMI is ‘Research for the Border between Living or Non-living Thing.’ This seemingly grandiose theme is natural to an artist who has dealt with the boundary of the normal and abnormal between life and death. Also, the issue of border must have been important to her, as she moved her attention from science to art.

Mitochondria-san, the ceramic work visitors see first when they enter the exhibition hall, was inspired by the form of mitochondria, important organelles that produce energy in cells, and it delivers the image of life that the artist must have felt while kneading soft mud before the piece was baked and became solid. Mitochondria started out as independent entities but entered into symbiotic relationships with other entities to finally become internal organs. Fritjof Capra introduced the theory of symbiogenesis in his book The Web of Life. The theory sees the creation of new life forms through permanent symbiotic arrangements as the principal avenue of evolution for all higher animals. According to Margulis, a biologist referred to in this book, mitochondria are presumed to have been free-living bacteria at first, and to have invaded into other microorganisms and taken a permanent position in the remote past. The artist took notice of mitochondria, among numerous different organs in cells, because they raise the issue of border.

What is important about these organelles, which are both ‘I’ and ‘the other,’ is the message about symbiosis. Biology was dominated by the world views for a long time, and it can’t be seen to have overcome this problem even in the value-neutral age of science. Art is more value-oriented than science, and the artist stresses coexistence and symbiosis more than self-centered ideas including the survival of the fittest, the law of the jungle and dominant groups. Works that are independent but linked to each other are lined up in various formats. Life Continuous II, an installation work, was created using Japanese paper and Korean paper which are interconnected closely beyond distinction. Viewers can enter the scene arranged like the wilderness and tear up and connect the pieces of paper. A cell is a microscopic space, where entities made of cells enter and interact with one another. A microcosmos becomes a macrocosmos, which can become a microcosmos in another dimension. If we extend this to the ecological dimension, it brings to mind the web of life.

In The Web of Life, Capra quoted, “Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it,” and “Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” Of course, such organismic thinking continues to change through the rapid development of machines. Donna Haraway, a biologist-turned-philosopher, wrote in her book Simians, Cyborgs, and Women that Greeks conceived the citizen, the city, and the cosmos to be built according to the same principles. This led to the emergence of the idea that entities are parts of a large living cosmic organism. However, this idea needs to be expanded today, where access to machines is essential. The issue of the border between living and non-living, which is Ouma’s theme, will draw more attention. It is a leading political and artistic issue as much as science and technology. As Haraway emphasized, the issue of what counts as a 'unit', a one, is highly problematic, not a permanent given. An open border reminds of diseases or death in life.

However, this can be seen as an experiment to adapt to the ecosystem that has changed and generate a new species. The artist’s work Life Continuous summarizes the process of life through the actions of tearing up and connecting, as if a cell repeats division to become a large organism. It also shows the process of fragmenting and getting worn through the passage of time. Such a temporal process is essential for organisms. The installation work, which is similar to the set on the theater stage, stresses the process unfolding minute by minute as well as physical perception that organizes or enjoys the process. Spatial perception is also linked to temporal memory. Japanese Washi and Korean Hanji papers are produced using the same material, although they differ in thickness, and red-colored paper provides a visual point of emphasis. Red paper pieces that occasionally stand out recall blood, which passes by numerous cells, supplying nutrition, cleaning wastes and responding to external enemies. Paper, the material used by Ouma, is a product made from the trees that are living organisms, and her utilization of paper from two different countries reflects the relationship between Korea and Japan, which became an issue during her residency period.

What the artist stresses here is interconnection rather than division. Exposed Chair is an empty seat she offers as she is always open to collaboration with others. The chair calls to mind a human being. More strictly, it represents absence, but an existence is suggested through absence. The chair covered with red paint is wearing a distinctively human-like message that reads ‘I am stupid.’ The artist says that she thinks the definition of life is ‘affection.’ This old-style chair, which she bought in Daejeon, is not an inanimate object because it’s the target of her affection. The red color personifies the chair and, at the same time, reminds of the Japanese national flag. Phylogenetic Tree consists of small paintings on 20cm-wide paper sheets, in which the lines painted in different colors are connected between the paintings. Individual paintings are for sale, and the empty places are left the way they are. This style of work, in which individual pieces work both separately and together, originated in Finland in 2016 and made its way to China, Japan, etc. She intends to maintain the style in the future.

For the artist who is drifting between numerous countries, this style provides both partial and entire fulfillment and expandability. She takes the example of the human body made of 37 trillion cells, emphasizing that these cells together form a one-and-only individual and that these individuals again form a society. When artworks are given away or sold, they are supplemented, just like cells in the body that continue to be renewed all the time. This method is also maintained in her joint works with others. The SORA Project, a collaborative creation project participated by citizens from various countries around the world, is carried out in the method of ‘Exquisite Corpse’ used by surrealist artists. In Japanese, ‘sora’ means sky, so the works are collaborative drawings of sky. Nations set up invisible borders on the sky and sea under the concepts of territorial sky and territorial waters. However, they are human rules and not laws of nature. Collaborative creation, in which a piece works like a cell or an individual, raises the question of who the work belongs to. The project is an open effort currently in progress in 16 countries including Korea.

Specimen hanging down from the ceiling is a two-sided work reflecting the personal preference of the artist who used to be deeply interested in pathology. Bizarre shapes that belong to unrecognizable species and both front- and back-side drawings appear to be abnormal. However, in art, the border between normal and abnormal is more flexible than in life. The weird shapes suggest that “a disease is another process of life” (Georges Canguilhem). He wrote, in The Normal and the Pathological, “the norms of life are perceived better in deviant condition than in normal condition.” This is because even a disease follows the norms of life in organisms. It’s the same in relationships between individuals and countries. In 2019, as Ouma was staying in TEMI, the relationship between Korea and Japan was more sensitive than ever before. However, there are differences between countries and societies. A society can connect things that a country divides. Unlike politicians who stress nationalism for political interest, there are a lot of conscientious people in the private sector, and especially in art.

We see many Japanese people who fight against totalitarianism and stick to minority opinions. There is a significant difference between the coexistence of diversity, which is pursued by art, and sectarian benefits. The artist intended to provide healing for the relationship between the two countries, which was getting aggravated by misunderstandings caused by mass media, through artworks. Apple Project, which is based on a workshop joined by local high school students, is intended to promote mutual understanding between Korea and Japan. The artist gave them an assignment to write their opinions about North Korea and Japan freely. The result showed a lot of opinions reflecting the strained relationship between the two countries. Befitting the work’s time frame in the 21st century, the process happening in the exhibition hall is linked to social network services. The artist translated the collected opinions in Japanese and posted them on her blog. One hundred apples, which were offered for visitors to take freely, were donated to the project by Japanese individuals. It’s an act for mutual understanding on the private level, and an artistic practice focused on diversity and coexistence.

by Lee Seon-yeong (Art critic)