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Hiroko Saigusa, executing live painting on June 6, 2024, photo by Jake Price, courtesy of Kyoko Sato

Hiroko Saigusa: Wabi Sabi in Action at Gallery 60 NYC

By Jonathan Goodman, June 11, 2024

Tokyo-based Hiroko Saigusa is idiosyncratic in her wide choice of vocations–she is a painter, a performance artist, a collaborator with hip hop DJs and dancers, and, not least, a fortune teller on demand. On June 6th, in the slightly cramped studio space of Gallery 60 on the Upper East Side, Saigusa didn’t so much paint as perform a painting for the approximately a hundred visitors to the event. ​​

Tacking the canvas to a side wall of the gallery, the artist mostly worked while sitting on her knees, underneath which was a plastic tarp. Her paints, in white cups behind her, were spread over her hands. Using mystical, semi-erotic gestures to spread the paint over the canvas, Saigusa was very much aware of herself as she painted sensuously in public. Sometimes, even while she was on her knees, Saigusa danced to the music, full of hybrid Japanese tonalities, chosen by the DJ Kibachan standing over her turntable a few feet away. 

The artist turned her moment of art into something overtly sensual during the performance. The painting itself connected with the Zen tradition of a simple lyric gesture indicative of the direct intensity of the truth. The technical term is ensō, in which one or two swipes of the hand—originally brush, but hand with Hiroko’s case—, made with ink covering the artist’s palms and fingers, created a circle meant to represent enlightenment, freedom, peace at heart.

Thus, the ancient Zen practice of ink painting, such an important part of its philosophy, was given a poignant reiteration in Saigisa's performance. Her art, then, was an embodiment of wabi-sabi, which can be translated as the beauty of imperfection and transience. The artist also demonstrated a keen awareness of her performance's ability to elevate art beyond mere image-making.

As Saigusa worked, her body swayed to both the internal rhythm of her creativity and the public rhythm of the music, a combination of Japanese flute and black American hip hop and percussion. Even though the hearing in Saigusa’s right ear is impaired, and, additionally, her sight is damaged by retinitis pigmentosa, Saigusa was in no way thrown off by her medical conditions. Indeed, the painting appeared once Saigusa made several turns on the canvas with paint on her hands. The resulting image, a vortex created by overlapping circles of different hues, looked very contemporary– and even Western, in the sense that Saigusa’s procedure led to a form whose roughness of edge and unbridled energy linked the painting to the lyric abstraction of the New York School. 

Yet this writer is not questioning the force of Saigusa’s actions, nor the strength of the final image, a multi-colored circle, as art. Clearly, the event was one dominated by esthetic focus. Additionally, an atmosphere a bit like an urban carnival was part of the experience, which made it clear that for many younger artists, gallerists, and members of the art audience, a sense of play was just as important as the painting’s facture. In the end, Saigusa successfully brought together two genres of art: the ancient art of painting and the relatively new practice of performance art. The result, highly serious and thoroughly entertaining, indicates not only a successful art evening, but also where art might go next.

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Jonathan Goodman,  has long written about the art scene of New York. His primary area of expertise lies in East Asian art, with a notable emphasis on fostering collaborations and deep engagements with Japanese artists. His published appear in XIBT Magazine, frontera digital, Brooklyn Rail, WhiteHot Magazine, Tussle Magazine, Arte Fuse, and his interviews are featured in Sculpture Magazine.

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