Studio Visit: Kio Griffith, Between Worlds
By Gary Brewer
“At no time are we ever in such complete possession of a journey, down to its last nook and cranny, as when we are busy with preparations for it. After that, there remains only the journey itself, which is nothing but the process through which we lose our ownership of it.” ~Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask
“There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.” ~John Cage
In a state of uncertainty, unsure of one’s footing, the present becomes more tangible, time slows and one see’s one self and the world in a different light. Kio Griffith seeks to blur boundaries by obscuring the distinction between one thing and another, disentangling the mind from clean categories and awakening it into a state of unknowing. A Zen Koan attempts to shatter the ego and its attachment to rational thinking by asking an unanswerable question, forcing one to intuit a deeper unity of self and the world. In some ways Kio’s approach to making art touches upon this Buddhist practice, gently creating uncertainty through suggestion, casting oblique shadows and creating art that becomes a catalyst to free the mind from easy definitions and to initiate an epiphany, to awaken a fresh perspective on the world.
It is through the slightest touch, the subtle reference or suggestion, that Kio creates a haiku, written on the wind and launched into the world with a whisper. The layers of meaning collapse and find new content in works whose formal attributes rely on instability and ambiguity. John Cage used chance to free himself from authorship and to separate his ego from the work in an attempt to find a connection to living systems. In Kio’s work, he seeks a similar freedom to release the controlling aspect of ‘ego’ but in search of the unexpected, trusting that serendipity will play a role, that in the outcome something wholly unplanned will manifest.
As we spoke I asked him about his mixed background, of being raised in Japan and if being seen as an outsider affected his approach to making art. If this subjective state of being ‘in between’ the two cultures, Western and Eastern, may have influenced his interest and need to explore the ‘shadows’. Kio said of this, “As a young child in Kindergarten I was looked on as an outsider and asked ‘why’ and ‘how’ I existed. After some time, my parents transferred me to an international school where I first met kids like myself of mixed race as well as kids from all walks of life. With my peers, I was able to talk about our experiences of being of mixed background. I believe that this had an effect on my approach to making art, of my interest in uncertainty and of the subtle places in-between known categories.”
Kio’s father had trained to become a musician, studying to be an opera tenor at Julliard in New York. He was drafted into the military during the Korean War, when he returned to New York his interests shifted after meeting the poet and Gakushuin professor Reginald Blyth. Later he was able to negotiate his way back to Tokyo by singing Japanese folk songs on a freight ship. During meal hours, he earned enough tip money to hold out until he made connections and was hired assistant professor of literature at Aoyama Gakuin University. Through Blyth and other literary friends, he met many important artists and writers in Japan, including the author Yukio Mishima, and the founders of Butoh Dance, Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo. As a young child, his father took him to see the wildly Dionysian and the intensely sexual early performances of Butoh, coming home they would sit and discuss what they had experienced, sexuality never being hidden but a natural part of life.
When Kio was 8 years old his father began taking him to the gym to work out. He was awkward and shy and his dad wanted to help build his body and confidence. It was there that Kio met Yukio Mishima, an ardent body builder and friend of his father. Mishima could see Kio’s vulnerability and encouraged him in his weight training as well as communication, quietly opening up a wider sense of the possibilities that the world held for him. Sometime later Mishima was gone, his father never mentioning his death (by traditional seppuku, ritual suicide).
It was not until Kio was 15 years old that he first read Mishima’s “Confessions of a Mask” and realized what an important author he was. It brought back and deeply altered and affected his childhood memories of talking with Mishima. Kio explained, “This experience of memory and how it changes when it interacts with new knowledge was an important event in shaping my philosophical thinking. It was also a sense that timing was an integral part of a creative life, of being in the right place at the right time, that one could open oneself up to the world and let things unfold and trust that something interesting would emerge.”
Kio is a multi-tiered artist, his approach ranging from performance, installation, music, sculpture and 2-dimensional art. Though he does not see his curatorial projects as an extension of his ‘art’ there is a collaborative element at play that reflects an important aspect of his philosophy. “I love collaboration; to have an open approach to working with others, as a curator, I share with artists the freedom to bring something unexpected to the exhibit. These surprises open up new channels of communication, the creative action manifesting in situ, environment and collaboration becoming part of the final outcome.”
Last year Kio had a major installation in the Aichi Triennial 2016 in Nagoya. He filled a vast room with dark grey felt fabric and in the walls of felt he cut holes behind which speakers were placed. People from all parts of the world were asked to select a passage of literature or a personal narrative and read it aloud in their native languages so it was recorded. These were collected and all of the voices were played simultaneously creating an ambient soundscape. “In the darkness, one may be drawn to one of the speakers because of the sound of a person’s voice, or maybe it is a language you recognize. The piece is titled “White House” as an idealistic representation of the idea of democracy. An idea, which sadly, we have never fully realized.”
Literature plays an important role in Kio’s work. For a show at Durden and Ray a few years ago he created a sculpture “Red Wheelbarrow” after the William Carlos Williams poem. He said of this, “I felt that this was an important poem that needed to be thought about at that time. It is a simple and clear description of this red wheelbarrow it is almost a haiku. Something about the empirical experience of his description felt important to me. That in our confusing times this simple clarity was profound.”
The idea of democracy, of making art that is egalitarian in its creation is important to Kio, “I do not want to hold myself above others. I try to use available materials, to repurpose things and I try to avoid buying materials at art stores. It is a way to share the idea of art, it does not need to be expensive or cost prohibitive. If someone likes something that I made and is inspired to create something themselves I can show them how I made it.” There is humility in this approach, as well as an ethical ideal that art should be available to all. There is also a sense of wonder that from modest materials one can change the world.
As we spoke we sat in the gallery, Arena 1, where the exhibit that Kio guest curated for the Japan Foundation, “Passage to the Future: Art from a New Generation in Japan,” surrounded us. Much of the work had a subdued quality, suggestive abbreviations, deconstructed fragmentary imagery; they were visual haiku and one could feel the aesthetic sensibility of Kio at play in the way the work was selected and installed.
Kio Griffith believes in Art as an act that can redirect attention away from convenient categories of thought and perception, to see the shadows in between, where myriad colors mix to become fugitive and ineffable. We live in a world that is constantly in change, like watching the shadows of clouds move across a vast landscape. Kio seeks to draw attention to this shifting mirage, this space where memory mixes with the present and gives birth to poetry.