Report on the 5th Robert Sainsbury Lecture (2021) “The Presence of Absence” with Rebecca Salter, PRA

The artist Rebecca Salter, the first woman President of the Royal Academy of Arts and the first to be fluent in Japanese, started her Robert Sainsbury Lecture on 18 November 2021 with an intriguing notion: ‘Failure is an artist’s best friend’. She continued: “because it means you’re still growing; you’re still experimenting.” This insight is inspired by the Japanese saying: ‘Failure teaches success (Shippai wa seikō no moto)’ and her own experience of living in Japan for six years, first arriving there in 1979 with not enough Japanese language ability to understand anything. She was struck by an enormous sense of dislocation and unfamiliarity. This was the beginning of her artistic exploration outside Western ways of seeing the world, challenging her own, almost-subconscious European training in understanding and visualising the world. In this lecture, Salter took us along on a personal journey as an artist, giving us glimpses into the development of thoughts behind her work, which have been informed by her experiences with Japanese materials such as washi (Japanese paper) and sumi ink, and her study of architectural and pictorial space in Japan.

J1 1994 mixed media on canvas 182 x 275 cm

This large triptych (J1 1994) is one of the works Salter showed during her lecture. Staring into the painted surface, one sees movements: large currents passing through, running side by side; and small, quivering square particles jostling against each other in these currents. The viewer’s eyes hop about on the surface, spotting ‘heavier’ (darker) particles, finding an irregular rhythm. There is no centre to focus or clear path to follow. No marked starting point or definite end, either. The eyes are drawn in and out, from wherever they landed on this coloured field, and they are invited to wander and explore the space, taking as much time as they want or need. Through that process, the ‘space’ becomes a ‘place’ charged with feelings, thoughts and images which come to the viewer’s mind, and the viewer participates in the creation of the place, responding to the visual experience presented by the artist.

After listening to Salter’s lecture, we see, in this work, many of the elements she has explored in Japanese materials and spatial experience, which contrast with Western traditions. Leaving behind the idea of solid walls in the Western buildings, Salter embraces the blurred boundary between the inside and the outside, which she had first discovered in architectural depictions in the twelfth-century Tale of Genji handscrolls. The ambiguity and fluidity of the boundary invites the viewer to enter into and explore the space; while the rigid, compositional Western architecture (as well as the single-point perspective in paintings) hold the viewer at a distance. Participation of the viewer is a crucial element in Salter’s works. As in a flexible Japanese room, the meaning of the space (the work) should be defined by the occupier (the viewer) and their (emotional) activity, rather than the fixed structure confining the person.

Instead of centring and symmetrical compositions typically seen in Western architecture, Salter seeks fluid and multi-directional use of space found in Japanese buildings. One of the major inspirations for Salter was the Japanese architect Maki Fumihiko (b. 1928), whose analysis of Japanese space emphasised the importance of edges and the potential of ‘a vacant centre’. This shift of perspective regarding the relationship between the centre and periphery opened up new challenges and possibilities in Salter’s pictorial compositions. Another Japanese architect whose concepts had a significant impact was Isozaki Arata (b. 1931), in particular, his understanding of space and time as a unified idea. In traditional Japanese space, external elements such as light and shadow, and their movements and changes over time are often a part of spatial designs. In this view, ‘void’ was valued as it holds the potential for change. This also brings in ‘unpredictability’ as an important element. Changes in the course of time, reaction of materials to the artist’s action, and viewers’ participation: Salter welcomes such unpredictability as ‘animating presence’ to activate her work.

The three-panelled ‘J1 1994’ demonstrates Salter’s exploration of flexibility and unpredictability, using Western paper. She first painted the entire work as a continuous surface. The ground of the painting had been prepared in two colours: red on the left-hand side and green on the right-hand side, providing subtle textural differences. She cut it up into many one-inch squares, destroying all the original painted lines. She then reorganised them in different orientations and stuck them back together, re-composing the work using these fragmented lines. The result is a large surface rippling with hundreds of small ‘lives’ of their own. Initial lines were cut up and interrupted, but the interruption animates each segment. One can call an interruption a failure, but it also provides a chance to stop and look around, rethink and change.

The importance of experiencing another culture and seeing the world with different eyes, which Salter communicated effectively with her own stories and a number of examples of her works, is relevant even more today in a world where everything seems reachable through a computer screen without changing one’s disposition or perspective.

Koto Sadamura
Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow, Sainsbury Institute

A full video lecture by Rebecca Salter can be viewed on SISJAC Youtube channel.

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