Mutsumi Aoki

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gender, history
Visual Arts (sculpture)
Asia, Eastern, Europe, Western
Japan, Germany
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July 8, 2003
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Mutsumi Aoki


The immortal sheath

The paper sculptures from the Japanese artist Mutsumi Aoki, now living in Germany, are like cocoons vacated by humans. These fragile creations show only the humans´ outer layer, their clothing, but this seems to be as intimately associated with their bodies, as if still warm from the contact. These clothes without bodies bear witness to various phases of life and history, and hint at the ephemeral nature of human existence, not only in the sense of death but also in the sense of the body´s gradual metamorphoses . The artist explains: ´Out of paper I make sculptures and other works which replicate the sheath of the human body. They are sheathes which seem to come from various times and epochs. The folk themselves are absent but were present.´
The paper sculpture ´Amulet´ (1999) consists of a stiff and white shirt-collar and a pleated dress and recalls a girl´s school-uniform. Round the neck is a red band, and on a chain hangs a little box of rough translucent material, holding the amulet itself, which is meant to protect the girl on her way through life. Being only about 70 cm high, the sculpture is virtually a miniature. A special feature of Mutsumi Aoki´s works is that not only the outer sheath of a person but also his or her posture is to be seen, as if part of the personality had been transferred to the clothing.

´Petrified Homo Sapiens´ (1999) could be a sequel to ´Amulet´. By now the girl has grown up and, as a young woman or perhaps a student, has left the impression of her body in a reddish brown coat with a narrow waist which she, perhaps with a satchel over her shoulder, had gracefully worn. The sculpture´s title arouses the expectation of meeting the person petrified. Mutsumi Aoki seems in this work to have taken the German proverb ´clothes make people´ quite literally and to have equated the person with the clothing.

´Queen Pumpkin´ (1998) shows a life-size imposing dress in the style of the 18th or 19th century. The raised collar, waspish waist and immense frock suggest that it was the dress of a well-to-do lady - perhaps an American southern belle, who at harvest time was crowned as the pumpkin queen. Indeed the sculpture seems to have been based on clothes in historical museums and recalls the works of the British artist Yinka Shonibare who, like Mutsumi Aoki, recreates humans mainly in terms of their clothes, an example of Shonibare´s works being the installation ´Gallantry and Criminal Conversation´ (seen in documenta 11), showing Victorian clothing made from African cloths.

Mutsumi Aoki´s works make up a gallery of faded folk, whose vacated sheathes bring to mind impermanence and death - an impression reinforced by the fragility of the materials. At the end, nothing is left of folk but their possessions, such as their clothing as their outer layer. A second-hand dress from the 20s, 30s or 50s may be frayed or dusty but still give us a good idea of its original condition, whereas the body of the person who wore it – if still alive - has certainly changed much more.

Mutsumi Aoki speaks about her Japanese ancestry, her life in Germany and her art: ´I was born in Japan, the land of the sun-goddess Amaterasu; am living in Germany, and am at home in art. Art serves as communication between cultures, makes the internal external, and the external internal.´ This is literally true of her works. They, too, live from their playful relationship between the internal and external, between sheath and kernel.

Mutsumi Aoki thinks of her works as part of the tradition of Japanese art and philosophy: ´The aesthetic behind my works is Japanese. It´s an aesthetic of transition, whose aim is to find a contemporary form for the ´mono no aware´ (mood of the past). To this aesthetic belong attitudes like ´yugenbi´ (mysterious and unfathomable depth) and ´iki´ (refined beauty), which I try to bring up to date and make accessible to western culture.´

Mutsumi Aoki´s paper sculptures are anchored in Japanese aesthetics but are also in the tradition of western 20th century art, since Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque made their first sculptures of cardboard, and Kurt Schwitters from Hannover made many pictures and objects as collages from paper. In the 60s an increasing number of artists became interested in the material, and artists like Robert Rauschenberg were inspired, on travelling through Japan in the 1960s, to make many sculptures of paper prepared by the artists themselves.
Author: Petra Stegmann


Mutsumi Aoki was born in Japan in 1959. From 1981-84 she visited the Ochanomizu Arts College in Tokyo, whose furtherance prize she received in 1984. Since 1991 she has been living in Düsseldorf.


Group exhibitions

Exhibition / Installation,
1991 „Einblick- Ausblick“, Kunstpalast Düsseldorf 1998 Galerie Siegfried Blau, Düsseldorf 2000 „Heimat Kunst“, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin

Group exhibitions

Exhibition / Installation,
1991 „Einblick- Ausblick“, Kunstpalast Düsseldorf 1998 Galerie Siegfried Blau, Düsseldorf 2000 „Heimat Kunst“, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin

Solo exhibitions

Exhibition / Installation,
1989 „Freiräume“, Deutsches Kulturzentrum, Tokyo 1990 „View at the Ganges“, Creative House AKU-AKU, Tsukuba 1998 “Kunstpunkte”, Düsseldorf “Stille Zeugen”, CO 10 Galerie, Ulrike Behrends, Düsseldorf 1999 „mono-no-aware- Gefühl der Vergänglichkeit“, Galerie Beethovenstraße, Düsseldorf 2000 „Papierskulpturen“, Kulturforum Willich


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

Homeland Art (HeimatKunst)

Cultural Diversity in Germany

(01 April 00 - 02 July 00)
"Desert Island"