Monday 14th March 2016

St Helens, Tokyo, Return: An Artist’s Research Trip

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Artist Joan Birkett was awarded a Prototype Project [R&D] from Round 3 to explore the possibilities of collaborative art projects between St Helens, UK and Tokyo, Japan. Japanese art and culture has greatly influenced her art practice and she had the opportunity to visit Tokyo to start new dialogues and conversations with contemporary artists and networks.

Here’s an insight into Joan’s research trip:

3rd December | Meeting with Arthur Huang | Café Park, Ebisu

Met with Arthur over food to explain more about my research project. It was a perfect place to meet and an enjoyable and interesting meeting. It was evident almost immediately that he could probably get along with anyone and was going to be a great artist contact. So willing to help and share information was really generous of him!

We were able to have a discussion about the type of art work that Arthur makes, how he manages to do this and his work as a scientist. We talked about  Japanese artists and shared a mutual interest. Have a look at Arthur’s website, his process is really interesting, his memory walks and recording of everyday existence makes for some unexpected and intriguing creative thinking and mark making.

Arthur suggested that I may be interested in joining a group meeting taking place on the following Sunday which involved some of the artists that I had already had email contact with before arriving in Tokyo, called Art Byte Critique Studio work discussion meeting. We also talked about some other networks that I could meet with during my visit such as Canvas and Pecha Kucha.

6th December | Art Byte Critique Studio Meeting | Ikebukuro


I can’t remember whether this photo of the interior of the train was one of our journeys to Ebisu or to Ikebukuro where Arthur has an apartment. It was one of the lines though that doesn’t get too busy so I was able to take a photo without invading anyone’s privacy, well apart from the young man reading his book, but he didn’t seem to notice.

I wanted to show this photo because over the years I have become used to Tokyo trains being very busy and they stay this clean! Can you spot any litter? I think we may have some work to do in the UK!

The Art Byte Critique Studio meeting was held at Arthur’s apartment block. The group hire a room on a regular basis. Not everyone involved in the group was at this meeting, but there were artists Arthur Huang, Lori Ono, Michelle Zacharias, Karin Gunnarson, Josephine and Nick West.


Arthur opened the meeting by introducing us all (including my husband). Once I had explained a bit more about why I was there, we agreed that I would just listen to the discussions and take some photographs.

Each of the artists had brought along a recent piece of work to help them discuss what they were producing or exploring at the moment, whilst receiving feedback from the group. They were also able to share any information of interest or useful in relation to working in Tokyo or further afield.

Art Byte Critique Meeting

There was a real mix of art work and a wide experience of practice within the group. I had researched the works of the artists prior to ariving in Tokyo, but it was really interesting to hear people talk about what they were doing first hand though, process, thinking and experimenting. I can’t thank the artists enough they were so accomodating to the ‘strange couple’ from the North West of England, who just dropped in!P1000125

The artists at the meeting (as far as I know) weren’t originally from Japan (originally from America, Sweden, Canada and UK), but were resident in Tokyo. Individuals within the group did mention Japanese artists with whom they collaborated and all seemed very immersed in the everyday art world of Tokyo and beyond.

Visit the artists websites here:
Karin Gunnarson | Michelle Zacharias | Lori OnoNick West | Josephine Horii |Arthur Huang

There was interest in the St Helens, Tokyo, Return project and Heart of Glass’ programme. People seemed genuinely keen in knowing more and certainly in keeping in touch with what the programme is doing.

13th December | Meeting with Atsu Harada | Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Setagaya

Today I met up with Atsu Harada, his wife Heather and little daughter Mei at the Seikado Bunko Art Museum. Atsu’s work is very much influenced by traditional Japanese painting and he thought that this would be a good exhibition to visit in order to give me some idea about where his influences come from.

My meeting with Atsu and Heather was great and with good company, we were able to see an interesting exhibition called Lineage of Gold and Silver. The works in the exhibition were traditional and the way people viewed the art was also traditional, very ordered, quiet, no photographs allowed. This was understandable as some of the works dated back to the 11 century, almost without question requiring respect just by their presence. There wasn’t a lot of information in English but fortunately Atsu and Heather were able to fill in some of the gaps for us.

There were large wall scrolls and painted screens with a huge expanse of gold or silver space between the subject matter. Although the images were very familiar to me I hadn’t realised before seeing this exhibition that the use of gold and silver was such an important tradition in Japanese art and design. I have therefore been properly introduced to the Rimpa School (or Rinpa) of the Edo period, and the artists Sotatsu, Korin and Hoitsu, and I will definitely be looking more closely at their works.

Exhibition[Scenes from Sekiya and Miotsukushi Chapters of The Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji) by Tawaraya Sotatsu]

Whilst seeing in the exhibition, we also discussed our own work. We were able to touch on difficulties faced in the regeneration of post-industrial towns and areas of decline. Heather likening the situation of towns in North West of England to similar difficulties being faced by some of the local urban and rural areas in Japan.

Atsu is busy preparing work for an exhibition with one of his colleagues. He was though very positive about the possibility of some form of collaboration and what was really good was that he was open to just exploring the possibilities.

Heather is editor of a newspaper, although originally from Western United States, she speaks fluent Japanese and offered to help with any translation if required. Heather is also working as an assistant on an English language teaching programme, which goes out on radio; and of course there was the lovely little Mei, aged three. I really appreciated their time and the experience, it was a delight and really informative!


[TOLOT/heuristic SHINONOME Gallery]

A meeting with Matsuoka-San (a colleague of Atsu) was not possible at the time because of personal commitments, she is still interested and has contacted me on my return home. At present taking part in an exhibition in Tokyo, she has offered to send me images of the exhibition which I’m really looking forward to seeing.

Written by Joan Birkett.

Joan Birkett has said “to get the opportunity to visit a new place and test out the possibilities of this project has been really important to my professional art practice. The contacts that I made and the different meetings that I attended were really benefical and essential in establishing good relationships that you can’t achieve via email or Skype. The artists were very interesting and generous with their time. Although their art practice is different to mine, I am equally interested in what they are doing and would be very happy to develop some form of collaborative project with them in the future”.

For more information about Prototype Projects click here

Prototype Projects: Round 3

Supporting artists from St Helens to develop projects

Read More