KOHEI NAWA, exploring the artistic potential of surfaces

(Kohei Nawa, Trans-figure, Installation at Pace Gallery (Palo Alto, California, USA), 2018)

(Kohei Nawa, Trans-figure, Installation at Pace Gallery (Palo Alto, California, USA), 2018)


Kyoto-based Japanese artist Kohei Nawa has continuously explored the potentials of different surfaces with the use of various mediums and materials such as glass beads, polyurethane foam, prism sheets, glue, and plaster. Nawa received his PhD degree in Fine Arts at the Kyoto City University of art and is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of Fine Arts at Kyoto University. He is also the director of SANDWICH, a creative platform focusing on art, design and architecture.

Nawa’s widely known series, Pixcell, is made up of found objects,  such as taxidermied animals, covered by glass beads, creating a visually pixelated effect. Nawa thereby merges the biological concept of the “cell,” with the “pixel.”. This combination connects the smallest and basic units of different life forms: the biological and the digital. In Nawa’s works, both cell and pixel appear in a cultural context that manifests a particular dynamic between real and virtual, organic and inorganic, numerical and sensory, whole and part, and the material and intangible.

His latest exhibition, and first solo show in the United States, Trans-figure, opened recently in the Pace Gallery. The exhibition was on view from January 18 till February 25, 2018 and included new works from his ongoing series Direction, Ether, PixCell and Villus. The works that were included in the show invited the viewer to discover the objects from a new perspective and sensual experiences.

In the series PixCell, fascinating use of different sized glass beads on the surface with a nuanced reference to the cellular structuring of Life-Worlds creates an effect of viewing the work through many optical prisms. This optical illusion momentarily forces the viewer to rethink the laws of nature, and the image that s/he perceives as given with full of expectation and the one depicted in the work. The Villus series is also based on a similar “pixcellizing” process but with the use of polyurethane foam which looks like foamy skin expanded in volume.

Nawa’s Direction and Ether series’, on the other hand, focus on the different forms of the physical manifestation of gravity, but both still play with the visual perception of space and object. In Direction, monochromatic, parallel straight lines, created by dripping inky paint, come together to form a surface on the canvas that plays on the viewer’s senses of scale and gravity. At first glance, the illustration of gravitation on a canvas with the use of slowly dripping paint appears to cast doubt on human sensory systems: whether it is solid or fluid, falling or standing are hidden beneath the hypnotic geometric patterns. Similarly, Ether consists of works through which the artist creates new ways to visually represent the phenomenon of gravity in the seemingly weightless form of sculpture. As if by hinting at values of Japanese culture and spirituality, the droplets seem to sit in the perfect balance and harmony.

Largely inspired by the idea of distortion and transformation, Kohei Nawa manipulates the perception of the viewer by using a wide range of materials and techniques. He challenges the conventional repositories of dimension(ality) and expands the experience of the viewer at different levels.


Text by Bilge Hasdemir 


(Kohei Nawa, Particle-Toy-Rabbit#2, 2017, mixed media, 348 mm x 215 mm x 422 mm (13-11/16″ x 8-7/16″ x 16-5/8″), sculpture)

(Kohei Nawa, Particle-Rocking Horse, 2017, mixed media, 460 mm x 715 mm x 265 mm (18-1/8″ x 28-1/8″ x 10-7/16″), sculpture)


You have a PhD in Fine Art Sculpture, and your work delves deep into sensation and materiality, how and when does the interest with these come about?

I was under the influence of my father who ran workshops that made handmade children’s toys, so I always had a sense of using personal belongings or daily necessities as materials for artwork. This is the main reason why I chose sculpture as a major at university.


PixCell* is a mesmerising series, where physical objects are acquired through the internet and encapsulated in a layer of spherical cells that work as sort of magnifying glass. The process homogenises the surface texture and depth perception for each piece. The assemblage of the spherical cells seems complex. What are the most significant challenges you face during the development of these pieces?

There were two challenges, “concept challenge” and “technical challenge”, and it took a lot of time to accomplish them. I have achieved these little by little through creating many artworks over time. I have been trying to reach intuitive expression like as the consistency between concept and actual expression — connecting the viewer’s feeling directly — regardless of age, country and genre.


Many of your projects refer to and natural elements or physical phenomena (Biota, Prism, Catalyst, Ether, Liquid), but with a very prominent digital take on them. What is your relationship with the natural world that is more and more blending with the digital?

I think digital technology and computers will be destined to go along with nature, human consciousness and the laws of space. As digital technologies become more sophisticated, these relationships become closer. I feel that digital technology, machinery and computers are not far from the nature but are the beginning of us understanding the laws of nature. It can be said for my artworks too, based on the Cell concept.


For Trans-Figure, the exhibition at PACE Gallery, you have created works that draw on the physical and sensory properties of skin to question and explore the distinction between material and intangible experiences. Could you tell us more about the intellectual process behind?

When I was a university student, I use the computer and the internet for the first time, and it felt to me that the world will be in the wave of information technology in the future. The sense of handling computerized information made me feel special. To realize and keep those experiences, I created PixCell and Villus.


What do you expect from the viewer that interacts with your pieces?

I expect a connection of feeling. I think that the physical properties of materials are being explored, and that synchronizing the feeling of creators with viewers is the most important. Sharing new experiences or feelings should be the art in this age.


What is your chief enemy of creativity?

It sometimes makes me irritated that images and creativity can’t come out easily, but only a little can be realized due to restrictions like physical aspects, budget, and restricted time.


You couldn’t live without…

My iPhone and computer. I couldn’t stand it without computers, internet, and my smartphone.


* PixCell: Pixel (picture element) + Cell [“PixCell ” is a term coined by Nawa]


(All photos courtesy of PACE Gallery and copyrighted © Kohei Nawa)
Website www.kohei-nawa.net
Currently, Kohei Nawa has a solo exhibition at Galerie Vera Munro in Hamburg. The exhibition, which is on view from May 29 till September 30, 2018, includes works from his Throne, Direction and Ether series’.


11 Jun 2018