Against Gravity: Cyoko Tamai

“The major theme of my works is to capture life that is unexplained and invisible, working under the hypothesis that each “space” has a certain life to it. Gravity is a basic element in the world,  yet it still remains mysterious. I believe that this mystery in the everyday hints that there is life in things unseen, even if it is invisible yet.”

Using a fine-pointed steel pen, augmented by sumi ink, Cyoko deconstructs and rebuilds: she tears, scratches, and rips incredibly strong Japanese washi paper, made by National Living Treasure Sajio Hamada and his wife Setsuko. Breaks and incisions bleed ink, leaping beyond the paper’s surface, while choice individual fibers defy gravity, coaxed from the paper to form an ephemeral gauze. In some works, a whisper of color or the sparkle of precious metal rests beneath the shroud, so physically close, but impossibly distant. In others, these hidden elements burst through, gushing from a rip in the gossamer, revealing the vitality of color and light coursing beneath the surface.

Cyoko reflects and configures the invisible life she perceives in the paper through each fiber and line of this dynamic topography. As she combines unique techniques, a musical sensibility, and traditional Japanese materials, she captures a life that is a continuation of each moment, of fleeting minutia. In her words, such details “capture and represent the moments of being, expressing the repeated aggregations and dispersions, the dynamism of existence and extinction.” Against Gravity: Cyoko Tamai invites the viewer to engage in her quest for “the floating line,” to lovingly break down the whole into its smallest units, whether lines, pigments or fibers.

Cyoko Tamai was born in 1987 in Kōchi prefecture, graduating from Tokyo University of the Arts with a BFA in Music and an MFA in Japanese Painting. Her work has been featured in over a dozen solo and group exhibitions in Japan and she is the recipient of several grants from the Sato International Cultural Foundation, as well as the Ataka Award. Most recently, she was the 2014 Summer Artist-in-Residence at the Japan Society Gallery, joining the ranks of such influential artists as Shiko Munakata and Yayoi Kusama.



In July 2014, Cyoko arrived in New York as Japan Society Gallery’s Summer Artist-in-Residence. It was her first experience living outside Japan and an intense month for this young artist. It was also an extremely fulfilling time for me and for the gallery’s patrons. The Japan Society’s artist residency program thrived in the 1950’s and 1960’s and brought many talented creators from Japan to New York, when it was still difficult for Japanese nationals to travel abroad for an extended period of time. In those early years, the Japan Society often worked in tandem with the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation, supporting artists as the agents and interlocutors of communication. Beyond any political agenda, these organizations believed human creative imagination to be the core of global understanding.

Artists play a critical role in cultural diplomacy. Their form of communication transcends the linguistic barrier. Or at least, that is what I, the then director of Japan Society Gallery, believed the program’s legacy should be when we revived the long-dormant residency program in 2013. The first invitee was a group called three, consisting of three young artists from Fukushima city. Selected on the recommendations of Japan-based curators, art experts, and the Gallery’s Director’s Circle, Cyoko Tamai became the second invitee the following year. The inaugural served as a pilot case, but the program took its full shape with Cyoko Tamai.

By far the most amazing aspect of this residency program was the astonishing growth of the artists within such a short stay in New York. It has something to do with this magical city; it makes people—yes, crazy— but also brave. Cyoko Tamai, wholeheartedly embraced her new environment, its dynamism, its chaos, and its endless variety of sensual stimuli. I could only imagine how the cacophony of the subway, cars, and people’s laughter and screams would have sounded to the ears of this musically-sensitive artist. I tried to imagine the high-rises of Midtown through her painter’s eyes. As her works grew in size and number, it became clear to us all how intensely she was spending her time in the city. Her works began to expand literally in all directions; up, down, left, right. Her lines started to dance more vigorously than before. No prohibition and hesitation: nothing was tying down her imagination. It was Cyoko’s authentic experience in New York that evoked such a liberated and liberating mindscape and she welcomed everyone to join in her creative journey.

Cyoko Tamai took a giant step forward that year. Today, looking at her new body of work, I can tell that the previous step was just the first of many transformations she will undergo. It is truly a pleasure to have met her at such a crucial moment of her life and to be able to keep witnessing her artistic evolution. Congratulations to her for another beautiful exhibition and kudos to everyone at Ronin Gallery for being nurturing supporters and collaborators.

Dr. Miwako Tezuka
Art historian, independent curator, director of Japan Society Gallery from 2012-2015



Your work is so boldly contemporary, yet it breaks down to the most traditional of materials: Japanese washi paper and sumi ink. What draws you to these materials?

I was initially interested in the etching processes used by R. Bresdin and J. Martin. I was looking for something that would allow me to draw very thin lines with my body and eyes. However, upon discovering tosa tengu joshi I realized that the finest lines come from the action of dyeing fibers. I experienced a special connection to this paper. After trying various different mediums for my work, I found that this paper could give me the ripping and floating effect that allows me to evoke a feeling of life. I was very lucky that I met the artists of this paper, Mr. and Mrs. Hamada.

For me, the most important things are the feelings and sounds of picking the fibers. This is only possible when the fibers are long, beautiful, thin, and very strong, as those of the tosa tengu joshi. The reason why I use sumi is because it gets along with Japanese paper. My process of floating and ripping fibers is to arouse a realization of invisible life. I try to successively tie substance and feeling into a space. I choose a steel pen instead of a brush because the pen can make fibers out of Japanese paper, allowing me to create three-dimensional expressions that go against gravity.

What role does tradition play in your work, considering that you not only use Japanese washi paper, but that made by a national living treasure?

To me, tradition means a connection with nature. While tosa washi has a history from the Heian period, the production of tosa tengu joshi began during the Meiji period. Exported to the United States for typewriter paper, tosa tengu joshi is the thinnest paper in the world. After the mechanization ofJapan, the tradition of making Japanese paper was nearly extinguished, but Mr. and Mrs. Hamada have found the beauty in the Japanese paper and have retained the handmade tradition. I began working with the paper after the Hamada’s gave it to me. Their paper seems to be full of life, a product of the clear stream from Niyodogawa in Kochi prefecture, and their hard work. I aim to create work that can rouse new effects or incite a new character from this already vibrant paper.

Do you feel that your musical education informs your artistic practice? If so, how?

The fact that I learned music was good for my current artwork as sound is something fleeting, it continuously emerges and disappears. I also studied the music of Japanese films. The work of great Japanese film directors, such as Hiroshi Inagaki, Mikio Naruse, Keisuke Kinoshita, and Kenji Mizoguchi, taught me composition of screen, space, and atmosphere that I did not know.

What is it about New York City that keeps drawing you back? Do you think the city has changed you? If so, do you feel this change is reflected in your latest work?

There are three reasons: First, New York City has a variety of elements, and it suits me because I want to explore the world and the arts. Second, I can create my work freely and naturally, and I can have exhibitions and can open myself without being daunted. Third, I’ve met a wonderful gallery and people.

I currently live in New Jersey, and as I work I see a view of Manhattan across the Hudson River from a window in my room. Sometimes the view appears warm and friendly, but sometimes it is cold and distant. The differences are so fresh. Lately, I’ve tried to work from new viewpoints, shifting my perspective, up and down or right and left. Meaning, when I work, I sit on a chair or the floor, but I pretend to be on a wall or ceiling, experimenting with gravity. I can think freely because I am in New York, and I am encouraged to do anything that I feel I can do.

Do you feel that your work has evolved since your residency at the Japan Society Gallery last summer? Three-dimensionality has always factored into your work, but in your new pieces we see structure not only in the delicate architecture of fibers, but also in their base. What spurred this shift?

I used to explore “thinnest lines,” but now the line itself and minuteness are not most important. Today, I mostly don’t “draw,” but make fine lines vague by scraping out or even erasing them on purpose. My aim has changed from drawing to scraping or pulling out the fibers. Even if I draw precisely, I demolish the lines. I deny a certain fixed idea and absoluteness. In my recent work, it is important for me to cut, inflate and reconnect lines. I create as I mix the energy inherent to the paper and the hypothesis, “a space is a living thing.” Before I begin a piece, I do not decide the final shape or consider an eventual beauty. My final work is a result of the accumulation of each rip. The first rip leads to the next, revealing the spectrum of possibility, and I choose one from these possibilities. I do this again and again. I hope to create an opportunity for the viewers to participate in and try to do floating-ripping.

What prompted the introduction of color into your works?

I encounter a lot of intense experiences in my daily life, and I wanted to represent those things as New York portraits. I feel that those colors stop washi’s breath, smother it, suffocate it. It was tough for me to see it, but it was also interesting to see how the fibers break out and harden.

With your new pieces, we not only see the emergence of color, but also a greater sense of light, glittering beneath gossamer, captured by gold and silver leaf. What sparked this incorporation of metallics and relationship with light? You also present several pieces devoid of ink, ruled instead by textural intricacies. What led to this exploration?

One of my principal themes is to create a work that could represent the phenomenon of conflict between “exist” and “not exist.” I use the gold, silver and black pigment to represent a metaphor of “exist.” Washi works as a substance for a space where both things (exist and non-exist) can be together. I use new materials and mixed with them because I want to represent the diversity of “existing” things. I created a work that reveals acrylic and sumi ink dominantly, a work that has only washi in order to represent something that does not exist, and a work that has both effects piling up.

Do you feel that your work, despite its sentiment of building up and defying gravity simultaneously reveals the reciprocal effect (collapse and destruction)?

I used to think that as I rip washi, I resist gravity, but now, “against gravity” means to me “beyond the gravity” or “break the gravity.” Instead of resisting it, I work with it, changing my consciousness. The act of ripping and a quality of performance are both very important for my work because both generate feelings. I think I rip in order to obtain those feelings. This is kind of meditation.

What’s next for you?

First, I would like to make a large work without a frame. In order to do that, I will need to cooperate with a paper craftsman to make a continuous, large sheet of Japanese paper. Secondly, I want to try a new method: I paste washi on my skin and draw on it as I stimulate my sense, and then I peel it off and make my work with it. I would like to create a work focusing on the sensitivity of skin and the sensation of touch. Finally, I would like to consider how I can specifically rip a space itself.



Following last year’s sold-out exhibition, Ronin Gallery is thrilled to welcome back Cyoko Tamai for Asia Contemporary Art Week (ACAW), October 28th through November 8th, 2015. There is no better time to present this visionary artist’s newest work than through this dynamic platform bridging New York and Asia through innovative projects and provocative dialogues. Thank you to Cyoko, for your unyielding innovation and inexhaustible talent, Miwako Tezuka, for your support and gracious letter, and to the Ronin Gallery team, for making this exhibition such a success. It has been such a pleasure to watch Cyoko’s shining talent come to life, to witness her vision develop, and to embrace her as part of the Ronin family. She is truly a luminous presence and a joy to know. We are so proud to present this visionary artist in Against Gravity: Cyoko Tamai.

David T. Libertson
Ronin Gallery President, 2015

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