No 2 (94) 2013
April - June


Between Art and Life

Artists have always traveled abroad to study and refine their talent. They used to go to Italy, since there everything was beautiful, the gifts of nature and the heritage left by former generations. They used to go to Paris which was the capital of the World of Art; impressionism, postimpressionism, fauvism, cubism. After World War 2nd, New York "stole" the attributes of the capital of art. Koji Kamoji, taking an advice of his relative, in 1959 decided to continue his artistic studies in Poland. He came here looking forward to great artistic experience. His decision had no relation to the then situation. He had no idea that numerous artists were leaving Poland , among them such outstanding figures as Jan Lebenstein, Roman Opałka, Alina Szapocznikow, Wojciech Fangor.

Stefan Szydłowski

Art historian and critic, curator, University lecturer. Author of texts on contemporary art who specializes in the theory of culture.

Stefan Szydłowski

KAMOJI HAS BEEN AN ANCIENT JAPANESE FAMILY with strong ties to the Japanese culture, deeply rooted in local tradition and customs. Koji Kamoji, a student, of the Musashino Tokyo Academy of Fine Arts, as the majority of his peers and generally art lovers, was close to impressionists. He knew nothing about artists from the Vistula river country. Considering coincidental similarity of the dates of birth, he felt nearly mystically connected with van Gogh: both were born on the same day of the same month - March 30th; van Gogh in 1853, Kamoji in 1935. This fact founded the relation of Koji Kamoji, a budding artist with the work and fate of the great Dutchman.

Yukio Kudo, a paternal uncle of Koji Kamoji, had links with Polish culture. He translated works by Adam Mickiewicz, Bruno Schulz, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Issac B. Singer, Witold Gombrowicz.

The 20th century was the age of revolutionary transformations with regard to perception of the concepts of time and space. These were conducted by scientists and artists. Koji Kamoji has discovered his own way to turn these into his main artistic topic and the subject of reflection. Being an artist, he has been first of all interested in culture. He has compared various periods in the history of Japan and Europe, not regarding civilization or economic development, but cultural values. For him the key to understand culture has been the term concentration, impossible to define. This has been one of Kamoji's most favorite, and most frequently repeated words; being a specific point of reference and quality rating.

A sea trip to Poland in 1959 had a strong influence on shaping his artistic attitude. This has been a kind of founding myth of his later oeuvre. The then acquired visual experience has for ever defined his creative stand. "He noticed, slightly disappointed, that one cannot express the immeasurable and the distant on a sheet of paper or canvas. Much later he remembered that while swimming in a pool on a ship, he had a strong sense of the surrounding water, sky and clouds".1)

Space has been a basic element of his art; the main topic and content, as well as the rule and method that determined the artistic vision and its realization in individual pieces, exhibitions and locations. All later oeuvre by Koja Kamoji can be defined as in situ or site-specific; the piece immanently connected with the place, and annexed by the latter. Janina Ładnowska writes about the method applied by Koji Kamoji: "...a "real" object is transformed into the "artistic" not through "cold" media, but through an emotional sense of the site in which the object is placed, and in which one perceives its presence. Thus, one can feel stronger one's biological existence."2)

Directly after his arrival in Poland Kamoji got in touch with the heritage by Władysław Strzemiński (during an elementary Polish course for foreigners in Łódź). In Warsaw he was in the group of Henryk Stażewski's friends. As it turned out in Poland Kamoji met a number of artists who he had a lot in common with. This fruited in collective exhibitions and friendship with Henryk Stażewski, Włodzimierz Borowski, Edward Krasiński, Edward Narkiewicz, Stanisław Cichowicz, Andrzej Szewczyk. Stażewski was Kamoji's mentor, a substitute of a father, the embodiment of values that one must face and confront.

"On the Temple Wall" is a series belonging to the so called Pruszków pictures going back to the 60's when Koji Kamoji with his family lived in Pruszków. In this period he studied at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts and worked as an interpreter in the Polish office of the Mitsui. This were extremely significant and hard years for the artist. Significant, since the artist already had a Polish family - a wife and three children. Influenced by the faculty under Artur Nacht-Samborski, he revalued his artistic choices. This was the difficult period of defining his own creative path, while living with his family in a small, crowded flat on meager means.

He wished to finish his studies with a kind of self-assessment test. He posed a task for himself to paint pictures that he could put on the wall of the 7th century Horyuji temple with clean conscience; the temple which was for him one of the most important places in the world. "On the Temple Wall" picture features the 100 x 70 cm plywood plates coated white in oil paint, with various size holes, circular in shape, cut out with a chisel. The openings were partially outlined in black paint.

From the present point of view these pieces have been emblematic for the oeuvre by Kamoji. They provide a key to interpret and analyze all his later works. The radical, original approach and touching simplicity have been expressed in the material and making. Following the rules of easel painting, these works have been poor, careless, if not clumsy. These qualities and the message they provided were of extreme importance; a risky step for the Academy student, nevertheless the one that could not be ignored. Titles have been an intrinsic elements of these works; exactly as for the next to come. The pictures were showed for the first time in 1965 in Cracow, Krzysztofory, simultaneously Koji Kamoji debuted in the Cracow Group Gallery, one of the most distinguished locations in the Polish culture.

These who follow the output by Kamoji, appreciate "The Middle Ages" series. This contains thirty two pictures, showed for the first time as one picture at the Foksal Gallery; mounted side by side, all of them on one wall. They have revalued the artist's approach to the constructivist tradition; pointed inconsistencies, if not liberty of the artist, who as though by chance, shows that adopted conventions and narrations always have an impact on one's perception of the surrounding world. Repetitive actions, like prayers, purify the zone of sensations and reflection. In "The Middle Ages" all pictures are equally important. Further, it is important that the artist showed them together in a defined arrangement, and what is more, he returned to this artistic approach. He has experimented with geometry, subversive form, introduced objects to the picture: stones, a glass and others.

When one goes through the records and recalls exhibitions from many years back, it seems that Kamoji has been extremely consistent and he has focused on one problem. This is a result of what the artist has attempted to achieve in his oeuvre. These who took part in his previews stressed that the comeback or repetition of a situation was impossible, where a surprise was an essential, coherent component. The unprecedented can happen but once.

Undoubtedly two pieces, closely connected "Haiku "Water" and "The Bottom of the Sky" (1994), have been the core of the work by Kamoji. The pivot, in a literal and metaphorical sense of the term, reaches down and up into the infinity. An element of Water has frequently appeared and played a special part in the art by Kamoji. We are somewhere in between, living by water, taking from water, defining our place in relation to water, since it is water that marks the horizon. Before the described exhibitions were put up, in 1992 Kamoji presented a display of his pictures, entitled "Insects Show", at the Library Gallery in Legionowo. He has invited an audience to join the game, undermining with the title his pictures status. The artist selected ten pictures from the 1980-1992 period, all titles indicated their relevance: "A Factory on the Canal", "A Small House", "A Mother and a Child", "An Imprisoned Horse", "Two Persons", "Crossroads", "A Flower/ Winter", "Morning", "At Night", "Road". The exhibition has been accompanied by his interpretation that indicated a relative nature of perception. The truth is not what one sees, but where one is referred to; one can open onto the truth, but one cannot grasp it: "The title of this exhi-bition is quite conceited for at least two reasons: first of all, I dare showing what I have painted, secondly, insects are living creatures. It indicates that my pictures are living, like insects. But this is merely my dream to show what is living, what is not artificial. I would love to paint living flowers, living insects, living... I would love to show them. But I have a long way to go."3)

"Haiku "Water" has been a breakthrough piece, but not because it marks the beginning or the end of something. It is a breakthrough with regard to its emphatic and radical approach. One has to "dig down" to get the truth, the truth comes as a surprise, as one's reflection in the mirror of the water at the bottom of the well. He did not pursue then yet another exhibition but a fundamental experience, exceeding all the former. As in some cases a frame belongs to the picture, in this case the sunlit area measuring 2,66 x 4,20, with the height of 2,75 m, belonged to the "Haiku "Water" exhibition. In the center there was a well made of eleven concrete rings of 0,96 m in diameter, each 0,75 m high. The 1 x 2 m aluminum metal sheet was hanged over the ring that stuck out 0,45 m over the floor level.

We all were surprised with the final result that was truly majestic in its austerity. So were viewers of various education and age level who opened up onto the experience. The library/ gallery premises gained a new depth. It seemed quite obvious that while going along rows of books, one can "dig down" to the truth.

The "The Bottom of the Sky" installation, made in the same year, has been equally important and surprising. It featured four sheets of aluminum metal stuck to the floor of the terrace/skyscraper roof. The fact that it was located close to the atelier of Henryk Stażewski and Edward Krasiński carried indirect meaning - it was a signal that one entered art territory. On an ordinary bright day the piece was "invisible", one merely saw the sheets of metal, but there are few days like that during Polish autumn. Usually there is wind, cloudy sky, rain. Only then the bottom of the sky opens in front of our eyes. From the point of view of canonic stands of constructivists, minimalists, conceptualists, land artists and abstractionists, Kamoji has been a revisionist. He has always come up with something that breaks pure convention; the material and conceptual, the tangible and illusory worlds permeate. Deep down to the water, high up to the sky. The well has been filled-in at the order of local politicians, metal sheets got crushed in the wind. In both cases everything started with the elements, and finally the elements destroyed the piece of art, only intensifying the image in our memory.

Certainly one cannot underestimate the cultural capital that Kamoji brought to Poland, since he has been constantly taking from it; nevertheless one might, since all his actions and way of thinking have been rooted in carnal experience that reflects the experience of time and space. "Composition of reality in the sense of relations is not important here. What counts is to discover a form that affects all human senses, such as: consciousness, hearing, eyesight, touch."4) These are comments by Kamoji going back to 1969.

In 1999-2001 Kamoji worked on the "Small Pains" series that mainly deals with the empathy and participation in the suffering of others. As usual, Kamoji has not observed here art genre divisions. On a plywood, occasionally covered with canvas and painted white, he placed the go game pawns, fixed bits of plywood, marked points, drew a line with a pencil, stuck pins, and provided pictures with the titles that turned into intrinsic elements of the composition. The text on one of the pieces reads: Location of S. Sasaki suicide after taking sleeping pills, thirst made him crawl to the seashore where he died. A red line, a stone, a bit of a metal bar - the story of life and tragic death of his student friend from Tokyo, who also wanted very much to become an artist.

At present Kamoji is presenting his works on the retrospective exhibition in Magdeburg (2013). Nevertheless it is hard to talk about the retrospective in case of the oeuvre by Koji Kamoji. The artist reached to the concept and matter to anchor his pieces in the new space. The least "retrospective" works offer the best opportunity to get deep down to the art by Kamoji. He took over a cloister museum to open there his "zen garden" and to tell the truth about his artistic path that leads to his works.

We dream, at least some of us do, about getting out of the world of consumption that develops false hierarchies, out of the world of artifact generated by the ever present commercial advertising. Kamoji's dream was intensified by his situation of an emigrant, a person particularly sensitive to the meaning of words and actions. Everyday reality, experience of a moment, the mundane - he encourages one to give up expectations that something extraordinary will come. It is extraordinary that we exist, that occasionally something special happens, exceptional experience of our being.

1) Wiesław Borowski, Koji Kamoji, Moments. The Studio Art Center, Warsaw 1985.
2) Janina Ładnowska, Koji Kamoji - A Wanderer [in:] Koji Kamoji, the Contemporary Art Center, Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw 1997.
3) Library Gallery, Legionowo 1992.
4) Artist's comment handed over to the author of this text.

Koji Kamoji

Born in Tokyo in 1935. He studied at the "Musashino" Tokyo Academy of Fine Arts, after his arrival in Poland in 1959 - at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. Since 1965 the artist has actively participated in artistic life, representing Polish contemporary art on numerous exhibitions at home and abroad. His works can be found in museum and private collections. The artist lives and works in Warsaw.