Rui Matsunaga

A frog, stood upright on a rock, confronts a lion sat on its hind legs in front of a starry sky as dawn, or fire, breaks over the horizon.
'Journey of One Hundred Years' (2017). Image courtesy The Atkinson and the artist.

Rui Matsunaga’s small but intricately detailed paintings and etchings on display at The Atkinson perfectly draw upon tradition, popular culture and present-day global concerns. Her surreal and symbolic style of storytelling shows glimpses of an alternative apocalyptic vision in which the heavens above have only anthropomorphic animals to watch over and interact with, and the only visible trace of humanity is our waste that outlives us. The exhibition came with a stark warning and a message: that it has become urgent for us to collectively reconsider our relationship, attitude and behaviours towards the natural world. We must approach global climate issues with an ‘interconnected’ way of thinking in order to prevent our current path of destruction.    

The cast of animals we see recur in the works draw inspiration from the Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga; a 12th century Japanese emakimono (a scroll painting acting as a story-telling tradition dating back to the 10th century). Matsunaga has previously explained that emakimono is considered to be the origin of manga comics, which is another strand of global culture that she effortlessly references alongside mythology, folklore, Renaissance painting, anime and Hollywood. Such fantastical imagery is juxtaposed alongside the crumbling remains of civilisation; plastic shopping bags adorning otherwise magnificent trees, and the echoes of atomic devastation. This sense of decay is a visual reminder that with scientific and industrial progression comes over-consumption, technological dependence and the increasing annihilation of the natural world.

The exhibition plots this visual course of destruction through a curatorial gesture ordering Matsunaga’s oil paintings on plywood, drypoint etchings, and oil paintings on canvas and plywood one after another to chart a developing journey through their progression, contributing to the story-telling element of her work. Such a display is reminiscent of the visual narratives found within murals, tapestries, and Stations of the Cross. The colour of the sky serves as a tool of narration in itself; the first paintings take place under a deep blue, which slowly turns to dusk, before finally a fiery orange rises from the horizon. What could be mistaken for just a sunrise in ‘Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming’ (2019), is in fact fused with the rising flames from a burning society. Such a progression implies the passing of time and an acceleration – or exacerbation – of apocalyptic events. Following the Durer-inspired etchings, when we reunite with the sky again in the final paintings, we are greeted with burnt-out blacks, dusty greys and smoky reds. The final images we are left with are those of an empty, isolated and almost uninhabitable landscape.

A frog, sat cross-legged on a shell by the side of a lake watches on as a deer drowns and the fires of a burning civilisation rage in the background.
‘Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming’ (2019). Image courtesy The Atkinson and the artist.

The individual animals, mythical creatures, and heavenly bodies that appear in these works do so sporadically, thus encouraging multiple viewings so as to catch any hidden details. There is no singular protagonist amongst the pieces; each character has a unique relationship to one another. In ‘Journey of One Hundred Years’ (2017), we see the Frog in some form of confrontation with the Lion. ‘On the Moon’ (2019) portrays the Deer entwined with the Moon, while in ‘Chiming Stones’ (2016) we see the Rabbit mourning his own. This lack of protagonist, alongside the visual upheaval and reinterpretation of the traditional heavenly hierarchy found in Durer’s 1498 ‘Apocalypse’ woodcuts, creates an eerily realistic portrayal of any future apocalypse. There will be no protagonist or hero if we let Earth succumb to devastation.

In an interview for the exhibition, Matsunaga explains that the Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga has ‘wonderful drawings’ of little animals behaving like humans, and while the story is ambiguous it is centered in animism, the belief that all life has a ‘spirit and consciousness, so it needs to be respected’, which is a core philosophy of her work. The “little creatures” and animals within the exhibition can be interpreted as ‘spirits of nature, or projections of human existence’. Matsunaga continues to explain that animals do not need to “imagine” animism to be able to “live” it unlike us humans. They have been ‘coping with us, the most aggressive species on the planet, for so long, so we can imagine they have serious skills, and networks of communication, to survive us.’

Matsunaga’s artistic style seamlessly morphs natural landscapes with abstract realities, which lends itself to consistent world-building and a narrative flow between each piece in the exhibition. Her work successfully creates the illusion of depth and space with intriguing scenes and an effective use of impasto paint applied to the natural forms. Matsunaga is able to achieve a complimentary series of interwoven artworks while still retaining originality in each unique piece as stand-alone stories. Within her imagined world we are frequently presented with astrological and biblical imagery, inspired by Renaissance artists such as Durer, Filippino Lippi and Bellini. For instance, in ‘On the Moon’ we see a ‘sundog’ omen; a phenomenon where at least one bright spot would appear next to the sun, which was present in Durer’s work. Through her use of titles, the artist also references science-fiction films, such as ‘Gattaca’ (2018), and to satirise her religious references such as ‘Four Riders’ (2017), ‘Marking the Chosen’ (2018), and ‘Promised Land’ (2019). Matsunaga deconstructs religious tropes and mythology to reimagine them into an equally numinous vision but with a 21st-century threat. Her use of imagery and symbolism may be fantastical, but her warning is humanised — we are the threat.    

Matsunaga’s work develops inspirations from across time and tradition to create original, unusual and meaningful story-telling devices. From her admiration of film to her global climate concerns, this series is a post-modern love letter to tradition and pop-culture. One also serving as a cautionary tale for our current behaviour — particularly our troubling relationship towards nature and technology — that we must urgently reconsider. The artwork within the exhibition suggests that we should uphold animism above superiority and act with reverence for the natural world in the face of our current climate crisis. Matsunaga presents to us a relationship with the natural world to strive for, one in which ‘mythological ways of thinking of interconnectedness and inclusiveness can heal the problems that we face today.’

Katie Shirley is an artist, curator and creative writer with interests in philosophy and sociology based in Merseyside.    

Rui Matsunaga was at The Atkinson 23 January – 5 June 2021, curated by Stephen Whittle. The exhibition is available to view online. Other upcoming exhibitions at The Atkinson from June 2021 – March 2022 include Natural High, Paul Kenny: Seaworks, Courage & Devotion, and Red Rum.

This review is supported by The Atkinson.

Published 24.06.2021 by James Schofield in Reviews

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