All surfaces in Taiga Chiba’s studio are white, even the cement floor, yet the space feels warm with its array of art materials and stacks of artwork lining the room’s perimeter. A ladder in the hall leads to a compact sleeping loft. There’s an orderly worktable with plexiglass plates painted with abstract, organic shapes ready for printing. Artwork is wrapped and stored in tidy rows above a flat-file filled with works on paper. Chiba opens a drawer to reveal a series of aquatints, a form of etching that produces deep, velvety shades of black. In this series, titled Cambrian Sea, curious organic forms end in claws or spikes. The background is watery with a pattern of fluid etched marks. Chiba says of this work, “The creatures look like plant and animal combined. Are they flower or face, stem or neck, leaf or hand, root or foot, tree or bone?”
The fluid imagery of Chiba’s art draws on early life forms such as the strange creatures embedded in fossils or organisms viewed through a microscope. His art bridges the cultures of east and west as he is influenced by traditional Japanese techniques yet informed by North American aesthetics. The fragile materials and simple beauty of his work encapsulate the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi. With origins in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony and Zen Buddhism, wabi-sabi, literally meaning “humble beauty” celebrates impermanence, imperfection and the incomplete. Chiba, who immigrated from Japan 27 years ago, has embraced the philosophy’s emphasis on natural processes.
Chiba is attracted to the idea of traces—the subject is not directly visible but has left behind signs of its presence. Creatures live on the perimetre in his work, leaving evidence of their movements. “I often find beauty in overlooked areas,” explains Chiba. “Everybody notices the big flower, but beauty is often not obvious. I don’t look for beauty—it finds me and because it’s my discovery, it becomes part of myself.” Chiba feels that with our busy lifestyles, we ignore the moment—we’re too busy to see the subtleties in our everyday surroundings. “What I am interested in is disappearance. I want to make things that seem to disappear into the ocean or air but leave an element, like a clue, behind. You might not notice these traces at first.”
Faint Evidence At The Borders Of Nothingness
In his book Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, Leonard Koren explains, “Wabi-sabi, in its purest, most idealized form, is precisely about these delicate traces, this faint evidence, at the borders of nothingness. …And nothingness itself—instead of being empty space, as in the west—is alive with possibility. In metaphysical terms, wabi-sabi suggests that the universe is in constant motion toward or away from potential.”
During his 2005 artist residency in Bhopal, India, Chiba was inspired to create images based on aquatic creatures from 500 million years ago. The origin of life was a theme he had been exploring for several years. “[Human] beings are a part of nature,” states Chiba. He imagines the teeming soup of organisms all living together in a complex yet harmonious environment. “Can we return to the simple life? Humans are a family—can we live without conflict?” he wonders.
As a child in Japan, there were ancestral shrines surrounding and protecting his house. This memory led him to ponder the idea of his lineage. The evolution of ancient life became a metaphor for ancestry. Inspired by microorganisms’ freedom of shape and movement, he created spontaneous, playful drawings with sumi-e ink on rice paper.
Tomoyo Ihaya, an artist and long-time friend of Chiba’s, says, “His process of making art is a journey inside of himself which seems to lead to the origin of life. He is curious about life, where we are from and why we are here. That is why he’s fascinated by primordial creatures.”
During another residency in Bhopal, in the rainy season, Chiba was inspired to create with watery dyes. “It was very humid. My clothes would never dry. I noticed the layers of red betel-nut chewing tobacco, which had been spat upon the white building walls. This led me to experiment with squirting dyes onto the printing plate. The results were Cambrian scenes of water as the origin of plants and animals.”
Tamla Mah, the gallery administrator at Art Beatus Gallery, has represented Chiba’s work since 2000. Chiba is one of over 70 artists represented by the gallery. Mah says of the Ancient Life and Ancestors series: “You see things you think you recognize, but only in partial forms. [Taiga is] exploring the life cycle and how we’ve evolved. In the end, we’re going back to the earth. For one of his exhibits, we hung 68 little ink-paintings on a huge wall. The overall effect felt like the artwork was expanding off the edge of the walls, like a continuum. It was as if you were part of the artwork—as if we’re all in it together.”
Zen Buddhism continues to influence many artists in Japan. Its emphasis on simplicity and a connection to nature continues to be an integral part of the culture despite all the westernized modernization.
“In Asia, Buddhism is a tradition, while in the west people have a scientific approach. Science can study the brain and see the effects of meditation—it’s an investigative rather than a religious approach,” explains Chiba. He appreciates this blend of the spiritual and the analytical.
Contemplating primordial life and our place in the world order, appreciating the innate qualities of simple materials, such as rice paper and ink, attending to the stillness in the moment and sensing the transience of life—all describe Chiba’s philosophy. It’s this balance of simplicity and warmness, irregularity and beauty, fluidity and order, that’s embodied in his art and his life. Koren describes this balance. “Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry. Keep things clean and unencumbered, but don’t sterilize. Things wabi-sabi are never cold.”