Katsura Funakoshi: Going with the Grain

In our modern, high–tech age of synthetic materials and digital information, there is something very reassuring about wood with its dull, homely ability to age beautifully and embody traditions. These qualities also make it a perfect medium for art. While stone is cold and canvas flat, wood is warm and three–dimensional. No wonder, then, that ancient cultures used to fashion their idols and totems from it. Wood is perhaps the most soulful material an artist can use if he has the necessary skills as Katsura Funakoshi undoubtedly does.

The 52–year–old sculptor's sensitively carved figures in camphor wood touched with paint, emit a very human warmth that is absent from so much contemporary art. It is this quality, found also in oil paintings by old masters, that makes Funakoshi's works seem so traditional despite the obvious modernity of their sleek lines and detached expressions. This combination of the traditional and the modern casts a spell of timelessness that suddenly makes the wood look tragically fragile. After all, even wood doesn’t last forever. It is no surprise to learn that for Funakoshi art is something that transcends the generations.

"My father was a sculptor," he explains as I visit him at his atelier to find out how he works. "He made figurative sculptures, from clay works to bronze, and even in marble."

Funakoshi followed the same path, until the path forked.

"After I came to do my masters course, I was asked by a church to make a figure of the Virgin Mary in wood. My professor said that camphor wood is ideal for first time wood carving. This was my first real wood sculpture."

Funakoshi soon became hooked and continued to use camphor wood, making a name for himself by producing life–like and life–sized human figures with no legs. Possibly the fact that they are legless strikes a deep chord with Japanese as ghosts in Japan are often depicted this way. However, this wouldn't explain his growing appeal outside Japan, in countries like Germany.

While many artists change for the sake of change, the key to Funakoshi's art is the slow, organic way it evolves. While all Funakoshi's works have beautifully carved faces, the bodies of earlier works often seem rigid and stiff compared with the more flowing way he treats the body now. The gradual rate of change in Funakoshi's work brings to mind the growth rings of tree, slow but ever expanding.

"I don't want to change suddenly," he tells me in his unassuming way. "I'm not a person who thinks and thinks and finds an answer. I always have to wait for my thoughts or ideas to mature. When I get an idea, I think about it, and sometimes it stays with me for 7 or 8 years before I realize how to use it."

Or even longer in the case of one of his most impressive works, Memory Being Supported Once, inspired by a 20-year-old memory of an injured rugby player being helped by a teammate. This work was important as it was also his first two–headed sculpture, a form that Funakoshi seems keen to explore in the run up to a major retrospective of his work, featuring about 40 sculptures, to be held at Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art next year.

"This will be one of the key points in my career," he admits, as I catch up with him later at Ginza’s Nishimura Gallery. “So I need to make some very special new pieces.”

The Nishimura Gallery which has represented him for most of his career is hosting an exhibition of some of his sketches. These give additional insight into his working methods.

"On this sketch I’ve written a note," he points to a preparatory sketch for his first two-headed work. "Next to the picture, it says, Should I make two heads?"

As this article goes to press, Funakoshi will be in his studio at work on 8 to 9 new sculptures for next year's show. But, unlike some artists who seclude themselves from the World and work feverishly, Funakoshi likes to work at a more leisurely pace.

"I like to keep my antenna open," he explains. This includes listening to music, having the TV on, or accepting visits from friends while he works.

In our modern society an artist has come to mean someone who shocks and astounds with each new work. Does he ever feel pressure to change faster than he wants to?

"Yes, there is a kind of pressure. I don’t think my father’s generation had that kind of pressure. This gallery always wants new things. Sometimes Mr. Nishimura asks me what is the next plan or the next image. I think it's good for me because I’m a very lazy man. So I need pressure – not everyday – but I need pressure."

One effect of this pressure has perhaps been to speed up his inspiration-to-production cycle. Last November he visited the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia and was inspired.

"I saw an elephant figure in an old stone temple with an incredible trunk," he recalls.

The trunk has already emerged as the arm of an extremely elegant two–headed sculpture called Shadow on the Snow, which he recently made for a museum in Hokkaido.

"This is a mother and daughter image," he explains, showing me preparatory sketches and photos of the finished work. "The face is from my mother when she was young. I wanted to give the sculpture a three dimensional arm when suddenly the Cambodian elephant trunk came to mind."

As one of Japan's top artists, Katsura Funakoshi is under constant and contradictory pressure to both maintain his artistic legacy as well as introduce new elements into his work. By remaining true to the inner grain of his artistic consciousness, he is nevertheless able to stay firmly rooted while sending his branches out in new directions.

August, 2002
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