Interview with Kurumi Kotani – Themes and background of her artwork

Sign, trace, occult – where do these and other keywords, which decode Kurumi Kotani’s artwork, originate from, and how do they reoccur? We interviewed her about the thought process behind her creation.

- How has the one year been since you graduated in 2019?

  • I had two solo exhibitions, participated in group exhibitions, art fairs…and I challenged myself to try many different things. I think that it was a good balance between Tokyo and Osaka. It was full of first-time experiences, and I had a lot of work to do. It was also tough, but I did it! Even though I have this realization, when I look back time hasn’t passed at all. I feel that I have to grow a lot more, and one after another I discover so many things that I want to improve. It feels like the first step on a path, which doesn’t have a goal that can be completely achieved.

  • - How has the one year been since you graduated in 2019?

The Boy Scouts - where you are not told “no” because you are a child

- What kind of childhood did you have?

  • What had the biggest effect on me during my childhood were the experiences with the Boy Scouts. I started in elementary school and continued until entering high school. I was taught in a variety of things like camping, mountain climbing, and first aid. I was especially good at rope work, and I made cupboards with polypropylene ropes and bamboo. I practiced so that I could also do the same tying method behind my back…It was a lot of fun to put different tying methods to practical use. I like to make things. 


    At the Boy Scouts you also do some crafting with things you find around you. And they teach you how to properly use tools like a saw and hammer, which children are usually not allowed to touch. I remember that I was very excited.


    When I think of it now, I always played inside the bamboo grove, and I loved to play in the fields of my grandparents. Even though me and my sister are two girls we were allowed to play outside. Thanks to my family, who were worried but still let us play as we liked, I grew into a proper wild child (laughs).

I like the occult because I am interested in the “functioning of the brain”

- Do the experiences of that time have an impact on you today?

  • The Boy Scouts have several bases, and the place where I was located was haunted. It was a park with a very long history, but because it was located on high ground it was far away from the residential district. At night it was especially scary. Even in the middle of the night you would have to go to the toilet by yourself. Also, for some reason there was a big hole in the ceiling of the toilet. Even though you know you shouldn’t look inside that hole, you just can’t help but look . The mirror was also broken. It was really scary. From that time on I started being attracted to the occult. 


    In my first year of middle school, a friend of mine, who was quite mysterious and extremely good at drawing, lent me books. Those books were “State of Mind of Pleasure Homicide” and “St. Albans Poisoner: Life and Crimes of Graham Young”. That friend was a little bit strange, but also because of that, I liked her a lot. Nonchalantly she lent me these books about things which you would consider taboo topics. These were the first thick books that I have ever read, and they were really good ones. Later, I also bought a book about criminal psychology, because of a TV drama that I liked. And the author of that book also wrote “State of Mind of Pleasure Homicide”. I felt that things have connected there. 


    I like themes like crime psychology, horror and the occult, because I am interested in the “functioning of the brain”. Even though science has progressed this much, people always believe in things like spirits and mysticism. I think that this is some sort of bug that we are aware of just because people’s brains have developed, and that this is peculiar to humans.

  • - Do the experiences of that time have an impact on you today?

The recollection of choosing to paint

- Why did you aspire to do art?

  • I won a prize for a painting of the ocean which I painted when I was in kindergarten. For expressing the water I used only a slight hint of blue color, and the scales of the fish were all different colored and designed with an overall structure. That’s how the thoughts of a child are. I have very little memory of my childhood, but I clearly remember that I chose it with my own will and that I was very happy to have won the prize. At the same time, when I realized what painting meant to me, I started to dislike if someone made me draw something (laughs).


    I have always been a child who liked art-related things. So when I told my parents that I wanted to go to art school, they acceptingly said that they already thought so. When I was a high school student I played in the tennis club until May. I also got recommended, and if nothing would have changed I maybe might have ended up in a sports-related job. But after the farewell match, I decided that I want to do art, and so I joined the art club the next day. Even though my parents are both working and are certainly not wealthy, they never opposed me. I am very grateful to my parents.

  • - Why did you aspire to do art?

Explorations of the stratum and the earth

- Please tell us about each theme and the transitions.

  • First of all, the “perfume” series is about the traces of a smell which remain on fabric, even after the smell itself has disappeared. When I started creating this series I was thinking about many different things. For example, that because the scent is filling the room the scale of the artwork extends from its base, and the boundaries fluctuate. Thanks to this artwork I realized, that I wanted to work with these traces.


    When it comes to creating artwork it is important that you can be aware of what is inside of you. I don’t think that there a lot of people who can continue creating even during times when there is nothing inside of them. When I was a first-year master’s student I was pondering on the question if there was anything inside of me at all. So I went to the library and dismissed all the books that I would have chosen because I want to be seen “a certain way”, and only picked those I was sincerely interested in – and there were a lot of geography books among them. 


    But one day, when I got frustrated because I couldn’t find what I was looking for, I accidentally found a magazine whose latest issue was about “Anthropocene”. The main discussion was about something different, but I was really happy to find some writings, which were exactly what I wanted to express. In the next series “rust” I challenged myself with a big theme – the layers of sediments within the geological formations, and especially the traces of humankind.


    Maybe it’s because of my experiences at the Boy Scouts, but I could relate more with the explorations of the earth rather than the sky and universe. And since I encountered the ideas of Anthropocene I am certain of that. To me it is the most ideological and natural thing. I wanted to use the paint itself as a metaphor, and use something which originated in Japanese history. So while also considering the Mono-ha and the Post-mono-ha, I decided to use rust. Because it’s a contemporary concept it’s a completely different kind of artwork, while also having the history in the back of my mind.


    Rust itself might not be considered as beautiful, but I think it resonates with the Japanese aesthetic sense. In Japan, the culture of using things for a long time roots so deeply that even the word “tsukumogami [lit. tool spirit]” exists. I think that there is a sense that aging over time is beautiful, such as copper roofs or the patina of temple bells. 


    The “21g” series is the result of integrating this concept into “myself” and into the “paintings”. Rust comparably deals with a lot of big themes, which I wanted to approach. It seems to be on the edge of the main theme, which is the traces of humankind.

  • - Please tell us about each theme and the transitions.

Painting is difficult

- What do you find difficult when creating?

  • “Painting” is difficult. Oil painting has been imported to Japan. Due to that there was a disruption in the tradition of Japanese painting, and Japanese art has historically been broken off. When you start thinking about these things, the necessity of paintings becomes questionable.


    I wanted to paint and so I enrolled in the oil painting department. When my perspective became narrowed by the process of “creating paintings”, I met Natsuo Kawaguchi at a special exercise class during summer. When we were talking about what I wanted to express and about the methods of expression, I had a sudden realization. I noticed, that I was desperately trying to impose a certain concept onto a painting, even if they weren’t a good match.


    I wanted to focus on paintings because I am clumsy, but my way of thinking towards paintings – the method of expression itself – was shallow. There is a great diversity of expression nowadays, and I think that there are also concepts that are not suitable for being expressed through paintings. What is the meaning of paintings in a time when photography is so widespread?


    After I started thinking this way, my thoughts suddenly became organized, and I could create with more ease than before. But it is still quite difficult…


    It is not like I have decided to only do paintings. I don’t want to dismiss an idea just because it is not suitable for paintings, but I want to write it down and put it into shape little by little.

  • - What do you find difficult when creating?

- Please tell us about your future goals.

  • I have let the rust artworks rest for one year now. During this time, I have thought a lot, while also receiving a lot of input.


    After being a bit overwhelmed, I could build a well organized theoretical base. So when I started again to create this year, I could focus and work well. In this way, I want to broaden my possibilities bit by bit.


    Also, I want to go abroad. I am curious about how my artworks would be received by people with different cultural and historical backgrounds. My artistic values are based on Western ones, so that’s why I want to challenge myself and see how much I can come close to them and continue creating as a Japanese person.


    *Anthropocene・・・ The argument that the Holocene is over and a new geological age is in progress, neologism, a classification of this era


  • The first time I encountered Kurumi Kotani’s artwork was at the first-year master’s exhibition. The “rust” and “21g” series, which are more than two meters in height, radiated a remarkable presence in Gallery Aube with its high ceiling. I was fascinated by both of them, but I was even more interested when I knew that they were made by the same artist. The intellectual pursuit of the functions of the brain, “understanding humans” – or so-called traces of humans – are the foundation of a strong concept. It could be said that “21g” expresses her pictorial aesthetic sense, and “rust” expresses her rich thoughts. Since her graduation in 2019 primarily the “21g” has been publicized, but in the future other artworks like the “rust” series will be further developed. I think its potential dimension will take shape from now on. Kurumi Kotani is an artist I want you to look out for in the long run.

    In 2020 DMOARTS holds a two-person exhibition “there-was” with same generation artist Ryoki Kurasaki at the “artTNZ” in September, and another exhibition in November in Osaka. (Kaneko)


  • Kurumi Kotani
  • Kurumi Kotani

    Graduated in 2019 with a master’s degree from Kyoto University of the Arts majoring in painting. Creates artwork about themes like relation and presence, and traces of existence. In her significant artwork series “21g” the whole canvas is suggested to be a “window” with traces of someone touching the surface of the condensed glass. Mrs. Kotani, who is interested in mysterious and supernatural phenomena, creates a picture that is reminiscent of a scene in a horror movie, and reveals the presence of something uncertain – of something or someone not visible.