April 10, 2008
When its video “One Week of Artwork” received 1 million hits on YouTube in one week, art collective Rinpa Eshidan quickly learned the meaning of the word “viral.”
A “motion art” time-lapse video, “One Week” spread like an extraordinary virus after being featured on YouTube’s top page in October 2006. The sped-up six-minute film shows the Rinpa artists painting playful graffiti-inspired illustrations that are quickly covered up with new ones. When it was posted, the video-sharing Web site was just becoming known in Japan, and the five-member art crew was amazed at the phenomenal response.
At the height of its fame, the YouTube version of the video ended up on “Good Morning America,” the popular morning show by the U.S. broadcaster ABC.
“I think it was popular because it was something everyone could relate to, whether they’re an artist or not,” says Rinpa’s Daisuke Yamamoto, who recently graduated from Tama Art University (TAMABI) with a major in hanga (woodblock printing). “It’s not just graffiti art, it’s more universal.”
The group’s upcoming multimedia exhibition at The Artcomplex Center of Tokyo in Shinjuku (April 16-May 3) and the June release of its first DVD — both titled “[en]” — will cap a busy two years since the groups online appearance first catapulted it into the public eye: It has been commissioned for five commercial films; performed in 17 live events; shown in five exhibitions; and received one award; plus, to date, they’ve produced a total of eight performance art videos.
The five members are all friends from TAMABI. Founder and leader Noiz-Davi came up with the name: “Rinpa” means “to bring people together” and “Eshidan” means “art crew.” He graduated in 2007 with a degree in nihonga (Japanese-style painting). Ceramic artist Akari Sasai graduated the same year. Xola, the group’s main set-builder, graduated in March with a degree in art history, and the American D.H. Rosen, who was brought in to add a third dimension to Rinpa’s works, will finish his doctorate in ceramics in 2010.
Like most performance-art groups, Rinpa’s focus is not the final product but the creative process itself. The videos become permanent records of the art.
“Most people have never seen the painting process,” says Sasai, the only female member of the group, “so it’s fun for them to watch our art videos.”
October 2006′s “Room,” the first project to involve all five Rinpa members, marked the group’s first venture into 3-D and clay. With the addition of another dimension, the challenges grew — as did the creativity.
“I really enjoy the process of collaborating, despite the difficulties,” says Sasai. “As a group, we can do things way beyond what we can as individuals.”
“Room” took a whole month to make and is probably their best video so far. In a cubelike space, eight distinct mise-en- scene crafted out of paint or clay magically grow and recede to the accompaniment of a cool mix of Latin jazz and acoustic sounds. During the 4-minute, 50-second production, the walls, ceiling and floor are alternately covered with graffiti, flora and fauna, a face with big red lips and a papierma^che tree that sprouts multicolored leaves.
In between is remarkable clay work by Rosen and Sasai — sequentially thrown on a wheel, hand-formed to crawl across surfaces and splashed in liquefied form.
Although the recognition that Rinpa has received has brought it high-profile commercial work with companies such as KDDI, NHK, Tsutaya, Pioneer and Docomo America, the group is unsure about its future. Since four members have graduated, they’ve had to find full-time jobs, shrinking the time they have available for Rinpa’s demanding projects.
“Ideally I’d like to see us become commercially viable, but I’m worried that our work would no longer be considered art,” says Sasai. “Right now we float between commercial and art.”
“We do our best commercial work when a client says ‘Do whatever you want,’ ” says Rosen. “But probably the main reason why we’re still together is that we’re not doing this to make money. It’s more about the joy of the work.”