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Two conversations with Takahiro Iwasaki

The Hiroshima-based artist-in-residence at the Portland Japanese Garden’s Japan Institute discusses his parallel explorations of time, place, and what lies beneath.

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Takahiro Iwasaki at the Portland Japanese Garden. Photo: Nina Johnson, courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden.

On a recent afternoon at the Portland Japanese Garden, I essentially interviewed artist Takahiro Iwasaki twice, in two different languages and in two different spaces, about his pair of installations on view in Takahiro Iwasaki: Nature of Perception. Though accidental, or at least unplanned, the duality was ideal.

The Hiroshima-based artist gained international acclaim while representing Japan at the 2017 Venice Biennale with his Reflection Model series, featuring intricate wood architectural models of historic Japanese buildings suspended in air, each fused with a second, identical model, upside-down beneath it, creating the sensation of reflection without water or even any mirrored surface.

Takahiro Iwasaki, “Reflection Model (Rashomon),” 2023. Photo: Jonathan Ley, courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden.

The latest iteration in this series, created specifically for Iwasaki’s Japanese Garden show (his first West Coast solo exhibit), is called Reflection Model (Rashomon) and depicts the historic Rajōmon (or Rashōmon) Gate in Kyoto, entrance to the ancient city, which was destroyed more than a thousand years ago. Hanging in the Pavilion Gallery, the most traditional Portland Japanese Garden building with its swooping roof and rice-paper screens, the artwork and site seemed made for each other.

Reflection Model (Rashomon) both faithfully recreates the original architecture and extrapolates the Rashōmon Gate from its original, terrestrial context. Though it’s undeniably representational in its faithful re-creation, it’s also because of the upside-down twin, abstract and thus inviting of interpretation. Because the model appears ripped or unfinished at one side, for example, where the gate would have given way to the city wall, the combination of upside-down and right-side-up portions appear to form a rocket thruster and a keel.

The name Rashomon also evokes Akira Kurosawa’s landmark 1950 film of the same name; which, in turn, adds another philosophical layer to Iwasaki’s model, because that movie has come to represent an idea: that people sometimes see one event differently, and even in contradiction to each other. Memory can’t always be trusted.

From a previous Takahiro project: “Out of Disorder (Coney Island),” 2012. Photo: Takahiro Iwasaki, courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden and ANOMALY.

Because Iwasaki was said to be still working on the second installation, in the Calvin and Mayho Tanabe Gallery (the exhibit’s opening was scheduled for the next day), our sit-down interview was only about Reflection Model (Rashomon), in a conference room with a hired Japanese-English translator.

But it turns out Iwasaki does speak some English, as I learned when we viewed together his second installation, made during his Portland residency and the latest in his Out of Disorder series. The second talk, though brief, became the catalyst. For all the deserved attention we pay to Iwasaki’s completed works, maybe the true artistic act here is experiential—ours or his. (More on that later.)

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First, though, a conversation about Reflection Model (Rashomon).

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Garden Curator Hugo Torii gives visiting resident artist Takahiro Iwasaki a tour of the garden. Photo courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden

What was the initial idea or moment that inspired you to create this Reflection Model series?

Iwasaki: I first came up with this idea was when I was a student. It was during summer holiday when I visited The Izumo Taisha shrine in Shimane Prefecture. It was a very hot summer day, but all of a sudden we had a very heavy shower. And after the rain on the gravel surface, I saw puddles and they were like mirrors. And I saw the Izumo shrine reflected on the water. At that moment, I saw the architecture was released or became free from the gravity. I was very surprised to find that if the water is there, then the hidden world would surface. I am trying to keep that feeling or the experience somewhere inside me.

I thought that sense of awe, the discovery, was on my own. I thought I was the first one to discover it. But then I thought, “I have seen it somewhere.” I realized that I had seen reflection of the architecture at Byōdō-in Temple in Uji [in Kyoto Prefecture] and Kinkaku-ji Temple [in Kyoto]. I realized that reflection was not accident, but it was made intentionally. Those built architectures were made intentionally to give reflections on the water.

What was it like actually constructing this intricate cypress-wood model?

When I had this idea and decided I wanted to create this piece, the biggest hurdle that I encountered was, well, there was there is no manual, there is no teacher to teach me. I went to see the Golden Pavilion of the Kinkaku-ji Temple [in Kyoto], and I wondered, “How can I make it?” But for famous architecture, we have these books in Japan with drawings of the architecture. So I made a copy that was like 1,000% or something. But those roofs that curl out, that part was difficult to create.

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Two views of Takahiro Iwasaki’s “Reflection Model (Rashomon),” 2023. Photos: Jonathan Ley, courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden.

Is there any correlation between your being from Hiroshima, famously leveled by the atomic bomb, and choosing to re-create ancient buildings with your Reflection Model series?

When I was born, the city of Hiroshima was already new. There was no history left there from the Edo period, no historical buildings: no treasures from old Japan. I grew up in a Hiroshima that had kind of plasticky buildings. So when I went to Kyoto for the first time and I saw all those old buildings in the old city, it hit me: ‘Oh, this is culture.’ In Hiroshima, everything is paved, but in Kyoto, I walked on graveled streets and I heard the sounds of my footsteps. And so I felt sort of envious of Kyoto, and admiration as well.

Even though it’s really about reflection and that temporary moment, might this series, or Reflection Model (Rashomon) in particular, given that the latter depicts a long-destroyed building, be a meditation on the Hiroshima bombing in any way?

What impressed me or struck me the most when I was a child was things like the burnt-in shadow of a person on the stone steps. So the shadow or the illusionary shape became what remained and became the vision, after the actual thing, the person, disappeared. 8:15 was when the atomic bomb was dropped; there are a lot of clocks and watches that stopped at that time, that are displayed in the [Hiroshima National] Peace Memorial Hall. So there are invisible things, like time and the concept of shadows, that are actually not the materials, but became the materials. That is the concept, the ideas, that I included in my piece, and that’s something that I hope that the audience will be able to see my works.

Takahiro Iwasaki, Tectonic Model, 2023, with book on Akira Kurosawa’s movie “Rashomon.” Photo: Jonathan Ley, courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden.

I noticed one of the smaller artworks in the Pavilion Gallery beside the model used a book about the Kurosawa movie Rashomon. What might we infer from that? More specifically, are you interested in the idea the movie represents: that different people sometimes remember or at least describe one event differently, or even in contradiction to each other?

I work from that perspective. Perception and experience are different, depending on who experiences it. So maybe Americans might come here and say, ‘Oh, this is a Japanese garden,’ but I come here and as a Japanese person experience it differently. When I came here, that’s the point that was interesting to me: that this garden gives me a sense of being in Japan when I’m in the United States—but there is no humidity in the air. It’s Japan in the United States and it could be the U.S. is in Japan, depending on who is experiencing it. That’s why I chose this.  You know the, the picture by Magritte? There’s a drawing of a pipe and says, “This is not a pipe.” So it’s a physical model but it’s called Reflection. It’s like a Zen-type way of thinking. In a Zen kōan book, it asks, “When you clap your hands, is it the right hand or the left hand that makes the sound?” We never know. It’s really two hands unified that makes the sound. So is this really a reflection? That question is repeated for the audience.

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If the audience does not read the title or think about it, at first they may think this is a spaceship, because it’s free from gravity. And then at some point he or she may think, “Oh, this is called Reflection. This is about the water.” There is a moment of realization. But that water-in-the-mind picture will disappear in a split-second. That moment, it’s very interesting to me. That sculpture, the model, is devised to create that moment. The concept is not water as substance, but as an idea that is born and disappears immediately. The concept of water comes to the mind and disappears.

Details from Takahiro Iwasaki’s “Reflection Model (Rashomon),” 2023. Photos: Jonathan Ley, courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden.

How do these two installations at the Japanese Garden and the two series they’re from reflect your interests, or different ways of working?

In my career, there are two types of works. One is like a backbone: a basic concept that I always keep returning to. It’s about that epiphany moment or surprise moment. And the second type, just like the installation down there (in the Tanabe Gallery), is site specific. Those works I create by being impacted or influenced by the site. So in my mind, it’s like Kyoto and Tokyo. Kyoto is a place where history is always preserved and protected. Tokyo is a place where things happen and keep changing. It’s just like my two types of works. One always remains the same and the other one is impacted by the sites, and it keeps changing.

Can you tell me about spending a few weeks in Portland and getting inspired?

Life here is directly connected to creation. So for example, if I go to supermarket, I look at food like pasta and think, ‘What can I do with it in my artworks? So being a tourist and my daily life here are closely connected. It’s kind of a same thing. And when I look at those [Portland] bridges, it’s fun to look at them, but at the same time, it leads to the creation of my works.

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Detail of fabrics in Takahiro Iwasaki’s “Out of Disorder (Thread Through Time),” 2023,. Photo: Jonathan Ley, courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden.

By this time, our allotted hour was up and the interview seemingly over. But when I walked downstairs to the Tanabe Gallery to see the finished Out of Disorder series installation Seeing Things Anew, Iwasaki was there as I exclaimed “Oh wow.” I couldn’t hide my delight. The installation does that.

With only used clothing, towels and blankets from Portland thrift shops as materials, Iwasaki created within the Plexiglas display case a topographical map of Portland, including its bridges, the Willamette River, the surrounding hills and Mt. Hood, as well as many layers of earth beneath it all. The model’s proportions resemble a model railroad, yet the humble materials give Iwasaki’s installation a more whimsical feel, like a Wes Anderson movie without the preciousness. Maybe a better pop-cultural reference might be the TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, where a miniature trolley escorted viewers into the Neighborhood of Make Believe: diorama as portal.

Two views of Takahiro Iwasaki’s “Out of Disorder (Thread Through Time),” 2023, vistas of Portland made from thrift-store clothing, towels, and blankets. Photos: Jonathan Ley, courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden.

Iwasaki has been making these for more than a decade; the Japanese Garden brochure accompanying the exhibit includes a photograph of Iwasaki’s 2012 blanket-and-clothes installation of Coney Island in Brooklyn. Yet even if you know what’s coming, it’s hard to apply a cynical lens.

In Iwasaki’s Tanabe Gallery installation, his re-creation of Portland bridges (the only human-made objects in the piece) showed resourcefulness. How could he make models only out of thread? Luckily I could just turn around and ask him. Iwasaki said he used superglue to make individual thread-strands rigid. Yet Seeing Things Anew wasn’t about the technical feat; its secret weapon was actually imperfection.

While this installation may have taken days to make instead of months, as Reflection Model (Rashomon) and other dual-architectural models in that series have, these fast-and-slow creations both explore the malleability of time: how history can happen in a split-second bomb explosion or over a millennium of minuscule tectonic shifts. And both exhibits emphasize what we can’t see beneath the surface.

Indeed, for all the fun of seeing Portland’s topography re-created, this was only the top layer of the piece, above many layers of clothing and blankets. Iwasaki was inspired during his Portland residency by the variety of cultures here, which the differently colored textiles represent. Which, in turn, recalls Rashomon movie’s main idea, discussed in the Iwasaki Q&A: that our perspective informs how we see. Portland is actually ranked among the least racially diverse large cities in the United States, but the U.S. itself is still diverse compared to Japan, ranking among the most racially homogenous nations.

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Portland and its bridges: Takahiro Iwasaki, “Out of Disorder (Thread Through Time),” 2023. Photo: Jonathan Ley, courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden.

Yet because I was gifted the chance to this Portland installation with the artist, it felt as if Iwasaki’s true artistry is experiential. By necessity, Iwasaki is present for these Out of Disorder installation openings because they’re site-specific: He makes them there. This also gives the artist a chance to witness responses like mine.

Because the Reflection Model series is really about capturing a personal moment—when Iwasaki saw a building’s reflection in the water—maybe the parallel Out of Disorder series is complete not when the blankets and threads are fully arranged, but when Iwasaki gets to watch others encountering the discarded-clothes diorama. Maybe he’s re-creating moments of wonder: ours and his own. That I could see Iwasaki grinning from ear to ear on witnessing my “Oh wow” wasn’t just a happy accident. Maybe it was the whole point.

Our first conversation with the Japanese translator had been more extensive and focused, while this English-language exchange was just a few quick words, but the latter moment conjured a more powerful human connection. Was it the split second or the slow take that mattered most? Consider Iwasaki’s citing of two hands clapping. It’s not the right or left hand that makes the sound. It’s the music made when they collide.

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Takahiro Iwasaki: Nature of Perception

  • Where: Pavilion Gallery, Portland Japanese Garden, 611 S.W. Kingston Ave., Portland
  • Through: December 4, 2023
  • Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Mondays; member-only hours 8-10 a.m. Wednesdays-Mondays; closed Tuesdays
  • Tickets: $15.95-$21.95; members and children 5 and younger free

Japan Institute Artist-in-Residence Takahiro Iwasaki, relaxing in the garden. Photo: Nina Johnson, courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden.
Japan Institute Artist-in-Residence Takahiro Iwasaki, relaxing in the garden. Photo: Nina Johnson, courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden.

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Also see Friderike Heuer’s Oct. 4 essay, From ordinary to extraordinary: Takahiro Iwasaki’s push on perspective.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brian Libby is a Portland-based freelance journalist and critic writing about architecture and design, visual art and film. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, The Atlantic, Dwell, CityLab and The Oregonian, among others. Brian’s Portland Architecture blog has explored the city’s architecture and city planning since 2005. He is also the author of “Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline,” a history of his lifelong favorite football team. A graduate of New York University, Brian is additionally an award-winning filmmaker and photographer whose work has been exhibited at the American Institute of Architects, the Portland Art Museum’s Northwest Film Center, and venues throughout the US and Europe. For more information, visit www.brianlibby.com.

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