What Happened Here?

Appetite is proud to presentWhat Happened Here?, a meditation on memory and land. The show brings together five artists—Ricardo Mazal, Lindy Lee, James Jack, Sim Chi Yin, and Yang Yongliangwho strive to uncover layers of memory, truth and loss from the fabric of the earth. 


Materially and conceptually, these artists reveal how our memories are structured by and within the landscapes we inhabit. What impurities, truths, and omens are imbedded in the land we see before us? How has it shaped the way we have remembered and will remember going forward? This show is open to the public from May 4, 2021 — July 26, 2021.


Ricardo Mazal

Mexican contemporary artist Ricardo Mazal (b. 1950, Mexico City) investigates the ephemera of spirituality by grounding it in the real.  Through his particular process of abstraction, Mazal fluently renders his own experiences of sacred sites in vivid color and geometry. His work resides in the private collections of institutions such as the Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City; the Americas Society, NYC, the Maeght Foundation, Saint-Paul-de- Vence, France, and the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Arizona. Mazal has also been the subject of solo exhibitions across Latin America, Europe, Asia, and North America, including Full Circle, Sundaram Tagore Gallery, NYC (2020), Violeta, Museo Estación Indianilla, Mexico City (2017), and Kailash Black Mountain, Sundaram Tagore Gallery, Hong Kong, China (2014). He currently lives and works in Santa Fe, New Mexico and New York City.



Ricardo Mazal
Praga 13
Oil on linen
91.4 x 96.5 cm

Ricardo Mazal
SP Black 3
Oil on linen
139.7 x 152.4 cm

Mazal’s body of work attests to a deep interest in the physical sites and cultural situatedness of burial rituals around the world. Most notable is his “Trilogy of Burials” project, which spans a decade and three continents. In seeking to experience and document the different ways we lay our dead to rest, he has traveled to ancient tombs inside pre-Hispanic ruins in Chiapas, Mexico; to Germany’s Odenwald mountain range where new, alternative methods of burial in the forest are growing; and to Mount Kailash, Tibetan Buddhism’s most holy mountain— the center of the universe and the axis upon which the world turns. Here he has witnessed the traditional practice of sky burials, wherein the deceased’s body is laid out on the mountainside to be consumed by scavenger birds. For Mazal, the act of pilgrimage is a personally constructive one— and an endeavor that catalyzes his particular process of abstraction.

Mazal’s rigorous process solidified during the Tomb of the Red Queen project, when he noticed a similarity between his site photographs and his previous work. Inspired by these intersections, he developed a distinct artistic routine that involves digitally manipulating and collaging his site photographs for months before creating a painting. The resultant transmuted images serve as the visual basis for his energetically rendered oil paintings, where striated swathes of color can convey the movement and energy of prayer flags just as powerfully as they do the sober timelessness of a graveyard. Mazal’s highly involved procedure is a transmedial one which seeks to merge a landscape’s reality and abstract spirituality into a greater whole. The result is a body of work where each piece is charged with distilled, concentrated experience— an image of a memory still imbued with the trappings of feeling.

Violet Red 2 and Green and Payne’s Grey 2 are from Mazal’s “Violeta + Bhutan” works, in which the artist unites two of his most prominent series to conduct an expansive study on colour. Distinct from most of his practice, “Violeta” grounds itself solely in the intangible; its conceptual basis lies with music, emotion, and the contemplative state that can be generated by pure color. Meanwhile, “Bhutan” is borne out of Mazal’s journey to the country’s mountainous landscape, and his fascination with the vitality of the region’s distinctive prayer flags. Colour is paramount to the intent of each flag; each one has its place in a canon of symbolism meant to aid in spiritual thought and action. With Violet Red 2, Mazal fluently brings together two modes of color study into a single canvas, resulting in a warm expanse of pigment, both hazy and sharply defined. Green and Payne’s Grey 2 evokes the organic shades of the natural world, with subtle striations and differing degrees of saturation materialized into an image that resembles tree rings or rock strata just as easily as it does the textures of woven fabric. Mazal’s abstract method serves to clarify seemingly diametric aspects of experience—introspective exploration and embodied encounter—and show they are not so dissimilar after all.

Ricardo Mazal
Oil on paper
83.8 x 72.4 cm

Ricardo Mazal
Black Mountain MK 10
Oil on linen
102 x 107 cm

Mazal’s devotional study of funerary sites across the globe presents space for meditation on the intersections between land, mortality, and remembrance. His abstracted landscapes draw our attention to the ways in which the earth can serve as a medium of collective memory. While practices of final disposition may vary widely across time, place, and circumstance, all serve to commemorate lives lived and anchor them in the memories of those left behind. By offering us scenes of the different ways we live alongside our dead, Mazal asks us to look for ways that the earthbound condition of these places may actually beckon us closer to the cosmic.

Lindy Lee

Chinese-Australian artist Lindy Lee (b. 1954, Australia) draws from her lifelong journey in search of belonging and her interest in the spirituality of land. Lee was born in Brisbane, Australia, to parents who had immigrated from China, and much of her work reflects the difficulties of growing up in a country where whiteness was the expectation. Her other works address more universal questions around spirituality and humanity’s connection with the natural world, drawing from Buddhist principles such as meditation and the ephemerality of nature. Lee’s explorations of heritage, diaspora, and faith have situated her among Australia’s most acclaimed contemporary artists. Her work has been exhibited in Canada, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand. and Singapore. The artist recently showcased a major survey of her work, titled Moon in a Dew Drop, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Other solo exhibitions include Lindy Lee: The Dark of Absolute Freedom (2014) at the University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane, and The Seamless Tomb (2017) at Sullivan+Strumpf.

Lindy Lee
Reaching for the Moon in Water
Chinese ink, fire, giclee print on cold pressed paper
154.5 x 102 cm

Faced with the rise of Communism, Lindy Lee’s parents fled China during the mid-20th century. Consequently, Lee was raised during the tail end of the White Australia Policy— a set of racial laws aimed to bar people of non-white-European descent from entering the country. The policy especially targeted Asians and Pacific Islanders, and as such, Lee was taught from a young age to “act as white as possible” upon leaving the house. Pervasive racism meant that the artist never felt quite at home being Chinese in Australia. Moreover, as she was unable to speak Mandarin, Lee felt equally alienated upon visiting China. “It was actually pretty painful,” she explains. “You always want to belong, you just do.”

As a result, in Lee’s early artistic career, she sought to situate herself among the Western canons of art. She sourced well-known images from art history textbooks, photocopying portraits by Rembrandt and van Eyck. These earlier, portraiture-based works were revealing to Lee— the act of photocopying, in particular, highlighted the artist’s cultural distance from the West. “The copy is the story of me and so many others,” she explains; copying European traditions and artworks was a surface-level claim of belonging. After thorough exploration, though, Lee came to the conclusion that “if you have to declare that you belong, then you don’t belong.”

It comes as no surprise that Lee is deeply influenced by Zen Buddhist practice. One of her initial encounters with Zen was on a trip to China to learn calligraphy. Instead, she became infatuated with the practice of “flung ink,” a catharsis of sorts in which Ch’an monks throw ink onto paper after a long meditation. This directly inspired No Up, No Down, I Am the Ten Thousand Things (1995/2000), an installation for which she plastered the walls of a white room with more than a thousand of her own “flung ink” paintings. These images, according to Lee, are “the exact embodiment of that moment in time, caused by the connection of everything that subtends the universe in that moment.”

In her more recent, primarily abstract artworks, Lee has taken great inspiration from this interconnectedness of the universe. Works like Secret World of a Starlight Ember (2020), an ellipsis of polished steel that has been pierced with thousands of tiny holes, encapsulates the absolutely expansive notion of the cosmic landscape. It illustrates the “net of Indra,” a Buddhist metaphor that conceptualizes the universe as a vast net of jewels, each one an individual yet simultaneously reflecting and containing every other. In Lee’s words, the cosmos is “the length, the depth, the breadth of everything has occurred, is occurring now, and will ever occur in the future, and we can’t extricate ourselves from [its] matrix … every individual life is the sum of everything that’s ever occurred to this moment, and stars somehow come into that.”

Lindy Lee
forgetting, remembering
Chinese ink, fire and rain on paper
155 x 103 cm

In fact, one of Lee’s two pieces shown at Appetite has a celestial theme: Reaching for the Moon in Water (2018). The print showcases a watery, monochrome, gray-and-black expanse with subtle details of tree branches, ripples, and small burn holes. These— along with the title— indicate to the viewer that this is an image of a reflection at nighttime, with the jagged shapes around the edges as mountains, the holes as stars, and the two dark circles as the heads of onlookers staring into the abyss. The artwork captures nature in a way that is reminiscent of a Zen garden: without being directly realistic or representational, it encapsulates the essence of a landscape on a small scale. The influence of Zen on Lee and her art is evident. The tree branch is done in the style of Sumi-e, traditional Buddhist landscape painting, and monochrome ink is a fundamental characteristic of Zen artistic practices. The use of Chinese ink, in particular, ties in the aforementioned “flung ink” paintings of Ch’an monks, as well as the traditional Chinese practice of calligraphy.

Lee’s second piece at Appetite, forgetting, remembering (2020-21) also utilizes Chinese ink, but features what are perhaps even more intriguing media: fire and rain. With them, Lee creates a vortex of abstract holes and spots. In true Zen Buddhist nature, she lets the forces of nature take charge, coalescing onto this sheet of paper. Of her process, Lee explains, “A lot of the work I make now, I leave in a rainforest, and the rain has been making these most delicious works for me … there’s just something joyous about actually admitting and surrendering to something that is bigger than your control… It’s a kind of meditation and being present to something as it expresses itself.” This painting utilizes environment as a mark-maker, a process that Lee is “fascinated” by. Forgetting, remembering is a visualization of the immense forces of nature, much like Chinese scholar rocks (or “gongshi”) which also serve to inspire Lee. These hole-ridden, unusual rocks— and Lee’s painting— are shaped and sculpted by natural forces across time, eventually becoming, in form and in symbolism, microcosms of the universe. As the titular word “remembering,” indicates, this artwork is a documentation of the world in a moment; only for us to “forget” all that is washed away by rain or consumed by fire.

James Jack

James Jack (b. 1979) is a contemporary artist based in Singapore who engages with land and the communities that live within it. He has created works for the Setouchi International Art Festival, Institute of Contemporary Art Singapore, and Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, and more. Jack completed a doctoral degree at Tokyo University of the Arts and then worked to establish the Global Art Practice MFA program there. In Singapore, his works have been exhibited at the Centre for Contemporary Art, the ADM Gallery at NTU as well as the Institute for Contemporary Art. He joined the faculty at Yale-NUS College as an Assistant Professor of Practice in the Visual Arts.

James Jack
Iwaki Window: Gillman Barracks
Natural pigment on paper
21 x 15 cm

Much of Jack’s work utilizes soil samples as medium. The artist’s interest in soil stems from his own childhood experience of eating dirty vegetables from the garden, which he views as an innate desire to reconnect with the earth, the land from which we came and to which we will return.

The artist also draws from the history of landscape as a means to re-invision humanity’s relationship with the earth. Attracted to contemplative and meditative practices, James follows in an American tradition that includes Ralph Waldo Emerson, naturalist Henry David Thoreau, and the Hudson River School of landscape painting, among others. These traditions encompass different interpretations of landscape, some where nature is something to exploit, some where it is to be feared. In his own practice, Jack attempts to reconnect humanity with the land in a symbiotic relationship. His works are an homage to the land that nurtures us, the land we must remember to respect.

Another line of influence comes from Jack’s experience studying with a master calligrapher and painter in Japan. Jack deploys the gestural qualities of ink painting in his own work; for example, he created a series of landscapes and calligraphic compositions painted using hand-made pigments for his 2018 series, Œuvres à l’Encre. His method involved gathering butternuts and walnuts then separating the husks, grinding, boiling, and filtering the liquid to create handmade ink with which he then painted. The process is, as the artist describes, “meditation in action.” The works range from calligraphic compositions, to mountainscapes, to a tuft of grass on a blank page. When gathering natural materials from these specific sites in Japan, Singapore, Spain, the U.S. and other countries, Jack fostered close relationships with the people living in these lands. Besides drawing from his training in calligraphy, this series explores the social memories of place through intimate contact with people and their territories. This series also demonstrates Jack’s constant investigation of how to represent the land beyond the traditional media and subject matter of canonical landscape painting.

Interview with James Jack

James Jack
Iwaki Window: Broken Staircase, Hakozaki Campus, Fukuoka
Natural pigment on paper
21 x 15 cm

For the Iwaki Windows shown at Appetite, Jack was inspired by local oral histories and their connection to the earth. To make this series of pigment ‘rubbings,’ he utilized dirt from sites where these histories are embedded. As people shared stories about the land on which they stood, the artist borrowed samples of the soil (with permission from the community members), and rubbed them onto paper. He took samples from many regions, but perhaps most notably, from those affected by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown–mostly sites in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. He even used topsoil that had been marked “toxic” due to radioactive fallout. These soft-edged squares can be seen as windows into the complex and often difficult histories that the soil holds within it. Appetite displays Jack’s Iwaki Windows pigment rubbings in part as a way to honor the 10th anniversary of the March 2011 (called “3.11”) disasters, which was this past March. By installing them in a seismic wave, the series formally alludes to the Great Tohoku earthquake. Jack has also taken samples from West Singapore to create Natura Naturata: Light of Singapore (2017). The artist invites the viewer to look through these transparent pigment samples and reflect on humanity’s relationship with the earth.

Sim Chi Yin

Sim Chi Yin (b. 1978) is a Singaporean artist and a 2017 Nobel Peace Prize photographer whose work integrates intimate storytelling with the social politics of landscapes. Her photography acts as a palimpsest of actions on territory, giving voices to the memories that have been silenced, contested, or hidden.

Her One Day We’ll Understand series (2018-ongoing) began as research on her grandfather’s experience during the Cold War, then expanded into a broader investigation on collective memory of the Malayan Emergency and the state imposed aphasia (the inability to find a language to speak about these histories rather than having completely forgotten them) that followed. The Malayan Emergency was a twelve-year conflict between the British colonial government and the resistance led by the Malayan leftists from 1948 to 1960. Sim’s grandfather was arrested in 1948, then subsequently deported by the British Colonial forces for suspect assistance to the Communist insurgency. By traveling to China, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Malaysia to interview and photograph people from her grandfather’s generation and the landscapes they remember, Sim Chi Yin reveals the layered memories hidden in the landscape. What contested narratives, trauma, and silenced histories does the land hold?

Sim Chi Yin
Remnants #1 from the series One Day We’ll Understand
Pigment print
61 x 61 cm

Sim Chi Yin
Remnants #11 from the series One Day We’ll Understand
Pigment print
61 x 61

In Remnants #1, #11, #12, and #13 the artist intentionally photographs these landscapes out of focus, their blurred haziness symbolising the ambiguity surrounding the Malayan Emergency. By rendering the images obscure, Sim sets them apart from purely documentary photographs and instead imbues them with a kind of cerebral symbolism. Appetite includes four prints from One Day We’ll Understand . Remnants #1 shows a misty road in Betong, a town in southern Thailand where the Malayan leftists ambushed British security forces in June 1968. Remnants #11 shows Belum-Temenggor rainforest in Perak, Malaysia where the guerilla forces set up base during the Emergency. In this very rainforest, the British military constructed a massive man-made lake to flood the Communist forces out; Sim photographs this lake in Remnants #12 and #13. These images capture specific sites of conflict–places where key events of the Malayan Emergency unfolded. Infused into these lands is both violence and persistence, which Sim recovers and recounts through photography.

Sim’s dedication to social justice is rooted in her grandfather’s experience as a journalist and photographer before becoming involved in the leftist movement in Malaya. Much like him, Sim continues that same passion for political engagement in her contemporary photographic process; she gives voice to those who have been silenced.

Sim Chi Yin
Remnants #12 from the series One Day We’ll Understand
Pigment print
110.5 × 110.5 cm

Sim Chi Yin
Remnants #13 from the series One Day We’ll Understand
Pigment print
110.5 × 110.5 cm

In 2017, the Nobel Peace Prize commissioned Sim to create a solo show on nuclear landscapes using both video installation and photography. The show, “Fallout” opened in Oslo in December of that year. The artist travelled six thousand kilometers along the China-North Korea border and through six states in the United States to create this series of diptychs. The U.S. was the first country to have ever tested and used nuclear weapons, while North Korea is the only country to have tested them in the 21st century. These two countries are locked in a dangerous cycle of threats and counter-threats. Sim’s photographs of testing sites, storage silos for missiles, nuclear factories, and more reflect humanity’s relationship with these lethal weapons–both past and present.

Apart from her Nobel Peace Prize commission, Sim has exhibited in the Istanbul Biennale (2017), the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art in South Korea, among other international institutions. She has been twice nominated for the Prix Pictet, and won the Chris Hondros Award in 2018. She joined Magnum Photos as a nominee member in 2018 and is currently also a doctoral researcher on scholarship at King’s College London.

Yang Yongliang

New York- and Shanghai-based contemporary artist Yang Yongliang (b. 1980, Shanghai) fuses the iconography of the present with traditional aesthetics. Schooled from a young age in traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting and educated at the China Academy of Art, Yongliang harnesses his deep familiarity with the conventions of shan shui (‘mountains and water’) painting in order to grapple with contemporary questions of globalization and urbanization. His works are included in permanent collections at institutions such as the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Contemporary Art Center of Thessaloniki. Some of his recent solo exhibitions include Artificial Wonderland, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, New Zealand (2019), Journey to the Dark, Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney (2018), and Time Immemorial, Galerie Paris-Beijing, Paris (2017).

Yang Yongliang
Sinking from the series Time Immemorial
Film on lightbox
34 × 29 × 18.5 cm

Yang Yongliang
The Streams from the series Time Immemorial
film on lightbox
34 × 29 × 18.5 cm

Yongliang’s compositions have their origins in traditional Chinese shan shui paintings—a style characterized by idealized, harmonious depictions of natural landscapes. Rather than a focus on realistic representation of scenery, the aim of a shan shui painting is to express the mystical effect of the natural world upon the artist. This practice also involves strict guidelines which a painting must follow: each scene must contain a ‘path’, ‘threshold’, and ‘heart’, and must adhere to principles of Chinese elemental theory with regards to color choice and mixing. As a result, the style is deeply symbolic in form and structure, with ties to Taoist ideas of harmonious existence with the natural environment. Yongliang’s work, at first glance, offers a monochromatic yet seemingly tranquil natural scene— only after close inspection are the grim cityscapes revealed.

The imagery of Yongliang’s hyper-urbanized scenes find their origins in Shanghai, the artist’s hometown. As a lifelong resident, he has witnessed Shanghai’s unchecked, metastatic growth completely alter the cityscape within the artist’s lifetime; in response, he subverts the romantic forms of shan shui as a mode of nimble critique. Each piece is a composite of thousands of Yongliang’s own photographs of Shanghai, meticulously arranged so that a hill encrusted with high rise buildings and power lines morphs into a mountain blanketed with trees; meandering mountain pathways are replaced with the arrow-straight lines of highways boring their way into the mountains. For Yongliang, the photographic aspect of each work is key, with the images acting as captured moments of time that are then assembled into fantastical yet disconcertingly familiar urban scenes.

Yang’s 2017 video, Prevailing Winds, is a seven-minute long 4K film of a digital shanshui. The work depicts the free-flowing dynamism of a waterfall existing in strange disjunction with city traffic and urban decay. The scene remains still except for cars, the surrounding waters that ripple in the wind, and the waterfall pouring down the mountain. At the beginning of the film, these moving parts are quite subtle. By the 6-minute mark, however, the scene speeds up like a time-lapse, and a sense of impending doom takes over. Just as the film seems to be coming to some sort of climax, the screen fades to a white with the work’s title; the clip ends. Prevailing Winds is full of examples of discordance that unsettle the viewer and provoke one to critically engage with this urbanized reality. By creating a mountainscape from composite images of quotidian city infrastructure, Yang closes the gap between the urban and the natural, conveying the idea that the two have become inextricably linked, that the effects of environmental destruction can be felt in urban centers as well. Yang foreshadows what our world may become if urbanscapes continue their rampant growth with little to no concern for the environment that is being destroyed in the process.

The Streams (2016) and Sinking (2016) also feature the most ubiquitous elements of city life: power lines, colossal motorways, rusty sheet metal, and crumbled asphalt. Industrial debris covertly fills out shanshui outlines, creating an uncanny harmony that elicits a second glance. Alongside considerations of environmental degradation and rampant globalization, Yongliang’s contemporary landscapes draw attention to the hyper-urbanized spaces we build and inhabit—and the likeness they share with organic worlds that can often seem fantastically remote. These images prompt us to ask: why might it matter that our city spaces can be so easily mistaken for naturalistic forms? What might this similarity say about a collective longing for something like the harmony expressed in shan shui paintings?

With the generous support of:

Sullivan+Strumpf Gallery
Hanart TZ Gallery
Sundaram Tagore
National Arts Council (NAC)

Interview with James Jack

Kathryn Miyawaki, Appetite

April 7, 2021

[Zoom: New Haven & Pandan Studio, Singapore]


Kathryn Miyawaki (Appetite): Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today about your practice. We are thrilled to have your Iwaki Window preparatory drawings for our upcoming show. To start off, I’m curious where your interest in soil comes from. Was there a specific experience, artist, book, or otherwise that brought you to this practice?


James Jack: Thank you for this opportunity. I think every child, at some point, puts dirt in their mouth—it’s an instinct. If you don’t remember this, ask your parents. According to my mother, I put dirt in my mouth, and I think it might be an instinct shared by humans and more than humans… a desire to touch but also internalize soil, the histories of the land, and the connections to our bodies. The earth is where we come from, it’s also where our cells and our matter will return to.

In Japanese, daichi 大地 means Mother Earth. The artist who taught me this was Sekine Nobuo (1942-2019). I did oral histories with him and other Mono-ha artists while living in Japan as a Crown Prince Akihito Scholar from 2008. I learned the word daichi as well as animistic views of nature as well as actions or practices of working with the Earth from these artists. Takayama Noboru, whose studio is still in Miyagi Prefecture today, influenced me a lot. Particularly around 3.11… a time of processing trauma while loving the earth but also being very afraid of it. Takayama was a passionate artist, professor and lifelong critic of human-centric consciousness. The work Iwaki Windows in this show at Appetite was made in the years right after 2011 with a hope to re-sensitize ourselves through direct contact with the earth once again, even though it is contaminated with radiation. For example, while making these drawings there were Geiger counters everywhere in Iwaki city and many areas of Tohoku—remember, this was in 2012-2013, not long after the Daiichi explosion. In Takayama’s words, “We play with nature, and nature plays with us,” my artistic consciousness is rooted in this very intimate relationship with earth. .

Kaushik and I talked about this because Appetite is a restaurant—I was working on an  organic farm for a year and a half right after finishing my undergraduate degree. Five months after I moved to the farm, 9-11 occurred. I delivered organic veggies to SoHo twice a week in a converted school bus and  some friends of mine were visiting from the city when it happened. I will never forget the safety of being on a farm, while the volatile situation was unfolding in lower Manhattan affecting our family, friends and many others. The gasoline, supplies and roads were restricted everywhere surrounding the city including the highway that led to the farm. We couldn’t deliver produce  to Soho, so we had an abundance of food, shelter and we had each other. There was a lot of uncertainty, but we had the essentials—nutrients, Earth, love, creativity, health. From that point on I always remember that cities such as Tokyo, Singapore and New York depend upon agriculture, resources and knowledge from rural areas. Now we’re in another pandemic—different from 3.11 and 9-11—but still, too many  of the problems in these circumstances are caused by humans. I hope that through repairing our connections with the earth, we as humans might be able to correct some of our bad habits and care better for each other and for the earth. Those are a few brief experiences that have shaped my artistic practice of working with the earth.


K: Yeah, absolutely. For the Iwaki Windows, many of your samples were from Japan—were they sites that were still considered “danger zones” due to radiation? What specific areas of Japan were you taking these samples from?


J: Yes the work started and ended with Iwaki city which is located in Fukushima Prefecture. I carried my sketchbook with me and wherever I went I touched the earth, then rubbed it directly onto one sheet of paper. Other sites in Japan include Yame (Fukuoka Prefecture), Jōsō (Ibaraki), Naha (Okinawa), Beppu (Oita) as well as sites in Hawai‘i, Singapore and other places. felt it directly with my fingers. When the work was first exhibited at Iwaki Alios Center and Moritakaya Art Space (2014), a separate bilingual list was provided to viewers listing the 88 sites included in this work. The series is intentionally composed of 88 sheets in homage to the number of temples along the henromichi, or pathway of pilgrims on Shōdō Island, which I had just completed walking on in late 2011.


K: You made them by rubbing the soil onto the paper with your finger? 


J: Yes, no tools… just a trace of dirt in between two fingers gently rubbed into the paper. On the backside each is labeled with the location of the soil sample. These are actually pages of my  sketchbooks, which I created as a meditation while trying to work through a difficult situation. For roughly a few years  after 3.11,  I recorded a trace of the places I was in on paper. I was teaching an open seminar on art management in Iwaki city each month while completing my PhD, which consisted of a series of talks with local community arts organizations. It was an art management seminar, so people of diverse ages and backgrounds from local organizations who  wanted to heal, recover and thrive with art and culture gathered each month to talk openly together. There was some support for post-3.11 rebuilding in Tohoku, and I continued to help them achieve their dreams: get grants, start up an artist residency program in a clothing factory, making specific proposals to hold exhibits outdoors and other cultural activities after the triple disaster.

One of the towns was Ōfunato, and others included Futaba, Namie and Onahama as well as some sites along the side of the road, where there were countless big sacks full of topsoil contaminated from radiation. The government didn’t know what to do with these bags of topsoil–some of them are still there, apparently. So, some of the Iwaki Windows samples come from there, some come from Tokyo too. This one is from Majorca, Spain, where I travelled with my partner to visit a friend of ours who was doing a residency at the Utzon home. This one is from Hakozaki in Fukuoka, which is where I ended up living later. Another is from Yame; where I advise a project called the 芸濃, or Art-Farm school. Some are from the US too. This one is from Gillman Barracks in Singapore. It was roughly 2012-2015 when I was making these, then in 2016 we showed at Iwaki.


K: When you were in Japan and speaking with people affected by 3.11, how were people reckoning with the aftermath of the catastrophes? Was it something that was talked about openly? Or were people struggling to speak about it, given that it was only a year or two after it happened?


J: I would say both of those reactions were there, plus much more. Some people were talking a lot about it, other people were struggling inside and quiet on the outside, while others near me were doing a lot of volunteer work. There was a lot of trauma and uncertainty because of the nuclear meltdown… it is like a never-ending disaster that continues today with the scheduled release of the contaminated water into the sea and thyroid cancer rates increasing now.

Earthquakes happen frequently in Japan–people still remember the earthquake in Kobe quite clearly, for example, and there are a lot of smaller ones we experience all the time. So, the earth shaking beneath us is strangely common, but the nuclear aspect was a big question mark. Information was being fudged by the government and they weren’t sending out the real time reports of Geiger counters measurements so this invisible toxicity aroused a lot of concern. A lot of professors and friends of mine got their own counters and we loaned them to each other to test our own neighborhoods for radiation. A professor in Gunma was giving out real time feeds on SNS so you could enter a code in convenience store copy machines and print out a map for that day’s radiation levels in the Kanto region.

There was so much to consider at that time, even simple things like taking a walk became disconcerting when considering we enjoyed walking near waterways, canals, rivers and these were hotspots for radiation. We were also worried about food because we didn’t know if the soil was safe and certain foods were repositories for radiation such as mushrooms. There were all these mixed messages from the government and the news: foreign and domestic sources from scientists to journalists were all saying totally different things. It was impossible to know what to believe. That was all continuing to happen in our lives in Japan while I was making this work.


K: I can’t even imagine the ambiguity and anxiety people felt during this time. How long were you in Japan? When did you end up leaving?


J: I never really left because so much of our lives remain there, but we moved to Singapore in 2018.


K: You made Light of Singapore using soil samples as well. I was wondering if you’ve noticed a difference in peoples’ relationship with the land in Singapore versus Japan. When I was thinking about the timeliness and pertinence of this show at Appetite, I began to think about Singapore’s paradoxical identity as a “Garden City.” What kind of relationship have you noticed people have with the natural environment in Singapore?


J: That’s a great question. I don’t have a clear answer just yet, but I do have some observations. To start with, a couple of the samples in Iwaki Windows are from Singapore because I came here for an exhibit in 2013 and a residency in 2015. At that time and continuing in my practice today, I have been working on repairing fractured relationships between land and sea in Singapore. Many people have been displaced from the Singapore River to right in front of my studio, which is where the Pandan River meets the sea. So, I’ve been listening to their stories and their grievances as one window into the larger trends of displacement. This was in the 1980s, so there are just a few people that remember it vividly… but there are a lot more  colonial remnants here that have been swept under the facade.

I make my large scale pieces with just pigments from one location. For my installation works, I only use samples from the place where the exhibit is occuring. Then I return the pigments after the project is over. For example, the works I make here in Singapore are all made with local dirt. For Natura Naturata: Light of Singapore (2017) work, all of the pigments are from Western Singapore—an HDB construction site on Commonwealth Ave, Fort Canning (an archaeological dig site that has revealed a lot of pre-colonial history), the Japanese cemetery (which holds a lot of war memories). The Japanese occupation of Singapore was short, but it was really violent.

Another place I took samples was the MacRitchie Reservoir, which is where much of our  water comes from. Now there are a lot of other plants that are being built for potable water from desalination, recycled water and additional catchments during the current pandemic. I gathered samples from these sites and more with students from NTU, who suggested locations that would be interesting—locations with rich social history as well.

I am interested in places that are currently in transition, such that they look like blocks of color when you see them on the window or on the paper, but there’s more to see—unwritten histories or alternative views on the past. Each of the colors come from a place with a story. From a creative perspective, I love color, but these projects are also very much about  the past today. Looking is not just looking, it’s also reconsidering, rethinking, and rewriting the past. I hope that the simple act of looking at a color—since you’re looking at traces of the actual earth—reveals these stories, the ghosts, the insects, previous ancestors that inhabited this land too.


K: Right. Being in the presence of these soils triggers sight, taste, memory, and so many other sensory experiences. 


J: Yes. The sensation of being around that much dirt illuminated with light is a bodily experience… and not always a positive one. You feel all of these complicated memories, you might think of the stench of rotting soil or organic fertilizer.


K: Yes! Now that you mention it, the smell of soil carries so many memories for me, and must  for many others. My mom loves gardening and the smell of fresh mulch reminds me of her. My dad and I golf together a lot, and the chemical smell of fertilized grass or fertilized soil is a very distinct one. 


J: Exactly. Have you been to Japan before? If so, what regions?


K: Yes! I went to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima with my family when I was about eight years old. Then, after my sophomore year of high school, I studied abroad in Nagoya for the summer. I lived with a host family not knowing a lick of Japanese. I didn’t grow up speaking it all all; my dad is third-generation and all his family is in Hawai‘i. My great grandparents were originally from outside Hiroshima.  


J: Yeah, I was going to guess your family was from around Setouchi. My photographer in Takamatsu’s family name is Miyawaki. Near Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, an elderly couple helped us build the artwork Boat to Khayalan (2014-2018), and their family name was also Miyawaki. So I was thinking you might have roots in Setouchi, near Hiroshima.


K: Wow! That’s so incredible. When I was in Japan, I came to realize that Miyawaki is not a very common Japanese name… so it’s really amazing you knew two different people or families with that name. I really want to go back to Japan; it’s such a wonderful place. 


J: Absolutely. You mentioned your dad’s family is based in Hawai’i?


K: Yes, that side of my family is from Hawai‘i, and I grew up visiting there every year. I was thrilled to see how much work you’ve done on the islands. 


J: Wonderful. Which island is your family from?


K: O’ahu. They’re all in Honolulu—Mānoa and Makiki areas. I was there just this past winter; it was lovely.


J: I was there as well! It was the last trip we took before lockdown—around Chinese New Year last year. We were on O’ahu and Molokai. We have fond memories. That’ll probably be the first trip we make after the pandemic settles down too.


K: I totally understand that. Could you speak about your experience teaching and creating works there? 


J: Absolutely. The dirt samples were borrowed, exhibited and returned on from the same places—-following local protocols. I worked with lawyer, professor and community leader Malia Akutagawa. This spiral work is ongoing, and these are all community movements focused on Molokai and how the ‘āina (the land) possesses the power of rejuvenation and protection. Protect Kahoolawe Ohana (PKO) became an outstanding positive example of how to protect the land from damage when they took back Kahoʻolawe Island from the military—they became a positive example of indigenous rights, for example. I am engaged in a community art project in Kona, on Big Island, right now that will open later in May after this show at Appetite. It focuses on water inside of the ‘āina—the wetness inside the land. It is an open system for re-sensitizing humans to the powerful presence of water and our dependence upon it.


K: That’s amazing. So, you were only able to exhibit the samples that you borrowed in Hawai‘i? I imagine there are restrictions on what leaves the island, but also that it was a matter of respecting the ‘āina and the local peoples.


J: Right. There was a biennial really interested in the work I made with samples from Molokai for Honolulu Museum of Art, but the work was intransportable. The idea of taking something and touring it in an exhibition is a very colonial concept… like in a World Expo or national pavilion style of presentation. Instead we have permission to use the Molokai spiral anywhere from my co-creators Uncle Walter Ritte and curator Healoha Johnston and share with anyone who wants to learn how to care for the land today in this ongoing documentation of successful events to protect land. The focus of my artwork is on rejuvenation and community.

The lessons I learned on Molokai were about how to decolonize our practice as artists by working with community voices in the center and making decisions together from start to end. Actually, to tell the truth, Molokai won’t let you do otherwise. If you don’t follow the Molokai process, it is impossible to do anything. That conscience I learned from cultural practitioners including Malie Akutagawa, Walter Ritte and Matt Yamashita is very important for artists to practice today.


K: Wow. I had no idea that it was like that. 


J: Yeah, they are very careful who they let in and what they let out. Whenever somebody comes with a business proposal, a development plan, a camera, or something like that, Molokai will check your motives and if they are extractive or bad for the island they will just chew you up and send you back where you came from. This is not about hatred, it is really all about love! They love the ‘āina. They love people, and they will not tolerate otherwise. The community is so clear about what you need to do and how they want to be represented with their values of sharing, abundance, respect and caretaking. I was living on O‘ahu in 2007 when I first went to Molokai, and I remember distinctly the news on O‘ahu often portrays Molokai people as jobless, anti-tourism, anti-this, anti-that. What should be in the spotlight is all that they are actually pro: pro-‘āina, pro-humans, pro-sovereignty, pro-future and much more. They are working hard to protect and promote deeply Hawaiian values. That’s why they’re so strict; they won’t put up with any destructive behavior.


K: Yes. That’s how it should be. They have every right to be that strict. 


J: The love in their hearts, which drives their actions, can teach us ways to care for the land in our own neighborhoods now—let this conversation continue to spiral on in colorful shades to come!


K: Yes, absolutely. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with me. We are thrilled to have your work in our show.