Ulm, Germany

Leiko Ikmura

Ulmer Museum

How can the invisible be made visible? I’m not thinking of ideas, say, which can be depicted through allegory, as European painting has done for centuries. There is another invisibility, the process of becoming: transition, the unfinished, emptiness—the space that makes an occurrence possible, emptiness as origin and potential. How can this be made visible?

Leiko Ikemura, an artist born in Japan who has lived for thirty years in Europe—first in Spain and Switzerland and today in Germany—has attempted, through her paintings and sculptures, to make visible the void and the process of becoming. As a young artist, she painted in the European tradition, capturing the merely visible; but through the years she departed ever further from this understanding of the medium and began an exhaustive and time-consuming process of examining the Western tradition on the one hand and developing her own language, under the influence of the Asian tradition on the other.

The results of that investigation could recently be seen at the Ulmer Museum, which has distinguished itself of late by mounting acclaimed exhibitions of women artists like Kiki Smith and Carol Rama. On view was Ikemura’s work of the last ten years. Her paintings depict girls—standing, lying, sitting; in profile, in full figure; mostly as solitary figures. They are neither children nor grown women; their maturation is still taking place. This impression of ambiguity and of process is furthered by Ikemura’s technique. She applies pigment to an unprepared canvas in thin layers. The color transitions are fluid, with more than one layer of color shimmering through; this lets us suspect, more than see, the contours of a face or of a raised arm.

The girls are portrayed in front of a background that generally consists of several color washes divided from one another by a horizontal line; often the figures seem to dissolve into this liminal space, which is at once shore, ocean, and sky. They stand on the threshold of a horizon that belongs neither to heaven nor earth, a threshold difficult to locate. A light surrounds them that seems to be neither day nor night and that casts no shadow, a light that finds itself at the turning point when the brightness of day has not yet prevailed against the dark of night. Neither in light nor in darkness, day nor night, the girls (who at times take on almost animal-like forms) are suspended in a state of waking, in the moment when they still belong to sleep as much as to diurnal consciousness. Everything is subordinated to this moment of transition, this unique and always fleeting moment when opposites—day and night, waking and sleeping, light and dark, human and beast—have not yet been distinguished.

Since the early ’90s, Ikemura has also been making ceramic sculptures. These too depict mostly girls, though here they are even more akin to animals than in the paintings. Clay, while not as apt to evoke flowing transitions as paint, can for its part define the void as fullness. The figures are hollow, often becoming receptacles of emptiness: bowls. Contrary to claims made in certain of the catalogue essays, Ikemura’s images are neither romantic nor allegorical; nor are the girls ghosts. These are images that depart from the usual conceptual discourse of knowledge, which cannot abide contradictions. Hardly a reason to see their inhabitants as ghosts.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.