Report on the talk “Leiko Ikemura: Beyond Wonderland”

In a continuation of the social distancing precautions that were implemented at the end of last year, the first Third Thursday Lecture of 2022 was held online, welcoming celebrated Japanese-Swiss contemporary artist Leiko Ikemura. Hosted by the Sainsbury Institute’s Professor Simon Kaner, this month’s talk invited the artist to discuss her career, inspirations and the upcoming book, Leiko Ikemura: Usagi in Wonderland, which is being produced in conjunction with the Sainsbury Centre. This book will expand on her exhibition of the same name that was displayed at the Sainsbury Centre between July 18th and December 12th, 2021.

This month’s lecture also invited three special guests to discuss their own thoughts and reflections on Ikemura’s Usagi in Wonderland exhibition, as well as her wider career. These guests were historian, writer and art curator David Elliot, Adrian Favell, Director of Leeds University’s Bauman Institute, and the Sainsbury Centre’s Tania Moore, who was responsible for co-curating the Usagi in Wonderland Exhibition.

After opening the lecture by wishing all those watching a happy and prosperous new year, Professor Kaner began by providing a brief, visual overview of Ikemura’s exhibition for the benefit of audience members who were unable to attend it in person last year.

Born in Japan in 1951, Ikemura has worked and studied as an artist in Japan, Spain, Switzerland, and Germany. Usagi in Wonderland marks her first UK exhibition, displaying 50 different works spanning the past three decades of her career. The artist is particularly famous for her recurring exploration the theme of shoujo or ‘girls’, as well as the versatility of the mediums she works with and the striking ambiguity that characterises her paintings and sculptures.

Having taken us through a brief slideshow of key works featured in the exhibition we were also shown two short films by Felix Van Boehm, which showed Ikemura at work and discussed the significance of Usagi in Wonderland and its presence at the Sainsbury Centre. These served as an excellent visual introduction to the exhibition, especially the titular Usagi Kannon, an art instillation that arrived on the UEA campus in late 2021. Created in response to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, the Usagi Kannon blends the female form of the Buddhist Kannon or ‘Goddess of Mercy’ with that of a rabbit, intended as an expression of hope and comfort in the aftermath of the disaster.

Following this introductory segment, we were then treated to a one-on-one discussion between Ikemura and Professor Kaner. Due to connection issues, this interview would take place partly live, and partly in the form of a pre-recorded interview.

Reflecting on how this exhibition was ‘born in the pandemic’, a time when lockdowns have so restricted our movements, Professor Kaner was particularly interested to explore the significance of the concept of ‘home’ in Ikemura’s works. This discussion then branched into other topics such as Ikemura’s use of light in her work, and the current necessity to adapt the layout and composition of exhibitions to accommodate virtual tours in times of lockdown. Finally, this interview segment closed with a poignant reflection on what the pandemic means for the current generation of aspiring artists, coupled with a discussion on Ikemura’s current art projects.

The lecture’s panel of three guest speakers were then invited to share their own thoughts on Ikemura’s career and body of work, including her 2021 exhibition. This included Tania Moore’s recollection of her experience curating the Usagi in Wonderland exhibition, David Elliot’s exploration of the development of Ikemura’s career over time, and Adrian Favell’s observations on the influence of migration on her body of work. We also learned that the Sainsbury Centre is currently in the process of fundraising to purchase several works featured in the Usagi in Wonderland exhibition, meaning that some of this art may yet find a permanent home in Norwich.

Having since managed to regain connection with Ikemura before the lecture ended, she finished with some final observations on her current experience living and working as an artist in Berlin. The session was then concluded with a brief Q&A where both audience members and guest panellists got the opportunity to approach Ikemura directly with their questions.

Leiko Ikemura: Usagi in Wonderland will be published by the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures on 21 March 2022.

Alice Marks
MA Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies, UEA

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