Kaya Hanasaki. Shared Cultural Experiences

Natural disasters, environmental issues, and social change; these are things which we all experience on a global level. Untangling the complications of these issues and attempting to understand their gravity is a difficult feat for individuals. However, inspiring artists bridge the gap and say what can’t be uttered in words. One such artist is Kaya Hanasaki.

Kaya Hanasaki, Kaya no soto, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

The young artist has an original take on her craft. “I think there are different ways to define what art is,” she explains. “Some people think that if you’re not earning a living from it, you’re not a professional. My understanding of it is slightly different.” 

After studying oil painting at Tama Art University and then undertaking a masters at Tokyo Art University, she has delved into the world of visual and live art. For the talented artist, it’s not merely about making an income. Instead, it’s a way of life and, in her own words, the way in which she understands her own existence.

“Nowadays art — conceptual art or performance art — is connected to daily life, and the time and era,” she says. “All the thoughts you have each day, many people are outputting in many ways. Like a chef or a driver; these people are expressing themselves in daily life [through their work]. I feel like I understand myself as an artist because I output these things through art form or art context.”

While Hanasaki began her career in painting, she soon became fascinated by exhibition pieces and workshops. “I can’t count how many exhibitions [I’ve done],” she admits. “I have also done other activities in public spaces and many places, not just galleries and museums.” Through these projects, she is able to express her inner-most thoughts both on a personal level and through the lens of Japanese society. 

“I get inspired by daily life,” she says. “Sometimes [I am inspired by] social issues. It’s a combination of social issues, political issues, and gender issues as well as my daily life. When I question something about society—something that makes me feel weird or angry. Whatever moves me gives me inspiration.”

Hanasaki created one such example of these projects back in 2012. In response to the fallout of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident in March 2011, which saw 100,000 residents evacuate the area, she exhibited ‘Portraits in a Mask’. The photography series was a part of an Art Action UK project which aimed to show “support for people who have been affected by natural and manmade disasters.”

Kaya Hanasaki, Row Your Boat, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

“Before I made that work, I was in Tokyo and I was watching the news each day to see what was going on,” she tells me now. “I think I read or saw that there was a separation between the people who were aware of the radioactivity [and those who were not]. Some people used the masks when they went outside to avoid breathing in poison.”

“Those who were using masks were attacked in a way,” she explains. “Not physically attacked but comments were made saying they were weak people or too scared. I thought it was really natural and it was necessary to be aware. We never know what’s happening. I thought it was important to have a different attitude in that situation. It was heartbreaking for me that people were attacking someone who were aware of the situation.”

On joining the Art Action UK project, she used the act of wearing a mask as a way in which to challenge people’s perception of the disaster. While most Britons, and those in the west, were aware of the event—through international news coverage—grasping the actualities of living in the region was near impossible. For the project, Hanasaki invited locals to have their photograph taken while wearing a mask to cover the lower part of their face.   

“This workshop was hosted in the UK, so I was thinking about things I could transform into an artwork project,” she explains. “In some countries, it’s really normal to wear a mask if you’re sick or even some girls wear it when they are not wearing makeup.” 

“In the west, though, I know it’s really different,” says Hanasaki. “I thought that allowing people to wear the mask would help them imagine what kind of reality is going on in Fukushima. Environmental issues have no borders. If we talk about global warming, it’s everyone’s issue. It’s not just about people imagining the far east, it’s about making people reflect on how we are harming the environment.” 

The underlying concept was to enable those not directly touched by the disaster to understand its greater meaning. Participants of the exhibit, gained a moment in which they could contemplate the uncertain fates of the residents affected by Fukushima. Rather than stepping into their figurative shoes, they donned their masks and envisioned their pain. 

“I feel like to have a performance together is an extraordinary thing,” says Hanasaki. “You don’t really experience this in daily life. If I can attach to someone there and have an experience together through what happens. If we experience something together, we can be moved in our hearts or maybe even our thoughts.”

Kaya Hanasaki, Portraits in Mask, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Charlotte Grainger