Modern Japanese culture is, at times, a frenetic mash-up of international influences. Advertisements from Coca-Cola, Supreme and Mercedes illuminate Tokyo’s streets; L.A slang infects the language; all while Andy Warhol mixes with Francis Bacon as the inspiration for the cities leading contemporary artists.
Hidden within the manic expression of Western iconography, there is something uniquely Japanese; a cultural tradition behind the aesthetic framework. This ‘something’ has roots as far back as Buddhism’s influence in Nara period (8th Century), when the flowering of expression in the late Muromachi period (15th Century) brought popularity to Zen.
The spiritual influence of Zen brought presented an intersection between humanity and nature. It is the organic aesthetic that comes to our minds when we think of ‘traditional’ Japanese art. It is called wabi-sabi; It is Ikebana; It is “mono no aware”, ‘the awareness of things’. It is the Japanese tea ceremony. It is Zen. It is best described as the term ‘Shibui'.
Despite ubiquity and cultural importance, emerging Japanese artists in the 90’s and 2000’s started to view traditional Japanese aesthetics as kitsch and antiquated. They cast it aside, eager to join the global artistic narrative that swelled to dominance during the rise of the internet. Since then Shibui has fallen out of vogue, slipping into it’s current position as an invisible framework from which Japan processes western iconography.
Is there some way to modernize and revive traditional Japanese aesthetics? Could an artist, drawing on tradition, create something that will inspire Japanese artists and designers to embrace their cultural history. Is there a new era of contemporary, Japanese aesthetics on the horizon? These are the questions that artists such as Shun Kawakami hope to answer.
Shun Kawakami began to apply Shibui and Iki aesthetic to digital collage and typography. His studio was formed and based on this principle of “tradition” and now is one of Tokyo’s most highly awarded design and architecture firms, with clients ranging from the Microsoft to Issey Miyake.
Outside of his design studio, Shun’s personal work continues to experiment with new ways to present traditional Japanese aesthetics in contemporary context.