Make no mistake: despite the name, Otani Workshop does not refer to a collective of artists, but to a singular, an eminently singular sculptor who has become the leading representative of Japanese ceramics. Silent and literally bulging heads, figures with their arms raised like praying figures, monumental middle fingers extended upwards, anthropomorphic vases, children, animals, soils, bronzes: Otani Workshop’s bestiary is a world in itself, a world in which dreams and tales converge as well as fantasies and daydreams, a world in which the queenly imagination and the kingly gesture triumph, in which forces and forms meet.
Born in 1980, Otani Workshop knows tradition inside out. Because he learned the power of tradition during his artistic training. Because he travelled the Japanese archipelago for a whole year, looking for his sovereign forms and his raw materials. Because he is Japanese, and like all Japanese, he knows how much the past inoculates the present with its venom, knows how many lessons of modernity there are beneath his feet and over his shoulder.
The earth is his kingdom. Not any earth: the earth of Shigaraki, the capital of pottery, universally renowned for the quality of its clay, which is extracted locally. Otani Workshop knows the fascinating power of this soft earth from which anonymous artisans have been extracting dreams since the Middle Ages, this power that makes him work from evening until morning and makes him wake up every hour of every night to watch over the kiln from which increasingly monumental ceramics will soon emerge.
With their softened outlines, their rudimentary traits, their numb, almost automatic gestures, their unpolished, almost naive silhouettes, the figures created by the Japanese artist seem to stem from childhood. Not a sickly sweet or schmaltzy childhood, but a mute and anxious childhood, an impenetrable and poetic childhood, a childhood of art that Takashi Murakami inevitably had to claim, going so far as to defend and reveal it.
While the bronzes reveal technical virtuosity, with their fine chiselling and their delicate patina, the ceramics of Otani Workshop give shape to a world that is literally fantastic, that same fantasy which, permeating the tales, leaves those who read, look and listen as though lost among their dreams. With their mutist faces, their elementary triangulations – nose, mouth, eyes – what do these unfathomable beings wish to tell us, now weighed down by sleep and dreams, now awake like puppets? Recumbents, praying figures, automatons, Pinocchios, tanuki: are these fellows as painless as they seem? Don’t their petrified gestures, their crackle and their cracks bring to mind that death that is capable of engulfing and burying, as in Herculaneum and Pompeii? Don’t we guess that the island of Awaji is cut across by the Nojima Fault, which was responsible for the Kobe earthquake in 1995? Don’t we see that this childhood is also age-old and fragile?
It is not a coincidence if Otani Workshop incorporates into his earth salvaged materials – wood, metal, various scraps. He works after the tornado, after the tragedy. His works incorporate the dregs of the world. They are what remains when there is nothing left, or almost nothing. Nothing but earth, eternal forms, buried memories. The dawn of the world when humankind picks itself up after the tragedy. As in the work of Hokusai, when the cherry trees blossom again after the tsunami of the Wave …
As a result, the scenography of the exhibition is entirely composed of natural or reused elements – planks and boards, forgotten wood and driftwood. Reinvesting scraps of the world, whether used or old, the artist delivers a profound reflection on appropriation and recycling, giving the objects a second life, a second wind, far from any neutrality and any impersonality. This singular scenographic idiom, favouring natural forms and rudimentary materials, perfectly raises up the bronzes and the ceramics, as though engendered by a gigantic nutritive and matrical earth. To enter Otani Workshop’s exhibition is therefore to accept to enter into a world, a universe, to enter the belly of the mother or of the whale, a child’s bedroom, a primitive cave in which silence, secrecy and strangeness prevail. And so Perrotin gallery becomes a fabulous cave …
Born in 1980 in the prefecture of Shiga, Japan, Shigeru Otani cut his teeth at the Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts, where he soon got the measure of the poverty threatening a lot of young artists. As a result, the young student undertook a year-long journey across the Japanese archipelago, a way of familiarizing himself with museums, temples and cemeteries, a way of resisting the gloominess of sedentary life and, with it, the sadness of precarity. In 2008, only four years after having returned to his university, Shigeru Otani aka Otani Workshop, was the subject of a solo exhibition at Shiga. Another show held in Tokyo revealed him to Takashi Murakami, who became his unfailing champion and advocate.
In 2017, the artist, whose exhibitions irresistibly confirm his talent, left Shigaraki, the epicentre of Japanese ceramics, for a studio on the island of Awaji in the Seto Inland Sea. There, in a former tilery, where he has a monumental kiln at his disposal, Otani Workshop continues to conceive a vast body of work, populated by immemorial figures in which subtlety wrestles with strangeness.
This exhibition is the second to be put on by the Perrotin galleries, after the show presented in Seoul in the summer of 2018. This is the first exhibition outside Asia.