Sisyu is the one-and-only calligrapher creating works of contemporary art by using traditional Japanese
calligraphy. She was awarded both the Gold Medal and the Guest Jury Gold Medal Award at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts Exhibition in 2014, making her the first Japanese artist to ever receive this honour. In 2017, she also had the privilege of meeting the Emperor and Empress when they visited the Sisyu exhibition. Sisyu has been highly acclaimed worldwide for how she transforms ordinary Japanese characters into paintings, sculptures, and new media art which visually represent their meanings. Her work has the ability to capture any onlooker’s heart, flaunting how versatile calligraphy can be. We were lucky enough to interview Sisyu, who told us about her art in more detail.
Shunga (The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife)
When and how did you realise you had a talent for calligraphy?
“When I was in primary school, I took all sorts of different extracurricular lessons because I wanted to find something I had natural talent for. I’m not sure why I was so fixated on that idea at such a young age, but I was determined to work really hard to become the best at something – whatever that something might be. That was when I started learning calligraphy, at six years old.”
“I wholeheartedly believe that calligraphy is my calling. Nevertheless, I find it incredibly difficult to keep myself in good shape every day for work. Even if I take care of my health and stick to a daily routine, I still can’t create work of a consistent quality. That might be why I’ve never really thought I have a natural talent for calligraphy. It’s almost impossible to conjure up the sheer concentration that this career requires, and I’m deeply affected by its more demanding aspects.”
Throughout the creative process, what gives you freedom?
“Personally, a sense of freedom is something I only ever experience while I’m actually creating. It’s hard to control the huge waves of emotion we all feel in our hearts. When I’m creating, I have more control over those feelings, and I fall into a state of calm. I believe that state of being unaffected by the heart might be true freedom.”
“In my case, it happens when I focus solely on the tip of my brush. It’s as if I become immersed in a crisp stillness, full of peace and tranquility. I think I only ever feel free within that zone of absolute concentration.”
Tell us about how inspiration leads to the breathtaking masterpieces you create.
“People often say that inspiration is something that suddenly strikes you. For me, it’s more like it comes from a combination of my own ideas, and influences from other sources. Sometimes, I listen to lectures to surround myself with unfamiliar vocabulary, then reflect on what I heard for a while after. I can get some ideas and slight inspiration from that, but only profound inspiration can guide me straight to the finished piece.”
“That was what happened when I first designed my calligraphy sculptures, to create something free from paper and traditional conventions. One time, when I was overseas, I experienced a setback so discouraging that I cried on the plane ride home. It was through the process of clambering back up from rock bottom that I came up with this piece. However, that method of creating is terribly painful.”
“After that, I embarked on my shunga (erotic woodblock prints) series, where I recreated traditional pieces of art from a new perspective. As I was making them, I just kept on going until the piece started to take shape, even if I didn’t yet understand how exactly to combine my own feelings with the new words I’d encountered. That time, I became inspired via the process itself.”
“Nowadays, I have a way of gaining a deeper insight into my work. I ruminate on things that I notice, question them, and endeavour to find an answer. For example, I created my cubist pieces by focusing on the ‘why’ of ‘why do we only use one brush stroke to write calligraphy?’, and philosophising about the intricacies I notice in our culture.”
“I want to keep on collecting my own profound inspiration that draws on all sorts of experiences, rather than letting it come from failure or suffering. There are infinite possibilities for what sources of inspiration I might find and what pieces I might create in the future.”
Feasting Crow, Feasted Crow
At live demonstrations, how do you protect your creative bubble?
“At demonstrations, I think it’s important to completely change the atmosphere of the entire venue. That way, even someone in the furthest corner will be affected by the performance, rather than the experience being limited to those nearby.”
“I actually gave live demonstrations many times when I first started my career as a calligrapher. However, for some reason, I wasn’t any good at it. I could draw well, but there was a lack of emotional response from the audience.”
“When I thought hard about what I was doing wrong, I realised that no one will be moved by a half-hearted performance, no matter how talented or how beautifully dressed you are. Meanwhile, if a newly-wed man tried his very hardest to play the piano for his bride, it wouldn’t matter how bad he was. It would touch the depths of your heart all the same. The same goes for demonstrating calligraphy. The better you get, the more you rely on your skill rather than your emotions. It might look beautiful, but it doesn’t go any deeper than that.”
“Ever since that realisation, I make an effort to fill myself with passion when I take to the stage. When I’m told it’s my time to perform, I don’t enter the stage right away. First, I make sure that I’m brimming with gratitude and emotion. Nowadays, I get the feeling that the audience is far more emotionally affected by the performance.”
Could you tell us more about how you approach live demonstrations?
“Beforehand, I try to synchronise my consciousness with the atmosphere of the room, and with the minds of every single member of the audience. I concentrate on that right up until I start painting, and then let it fade from my mind. Once I start painting, my focus is completely set on my work and the tip of my brush.”
“High levels of concentration can change the atmosphere of the entire venue. When the entirety of my concentration is focused on the thin tip of my brush – despite the size of the hall – it’s as if something compels the audience to be captivated by my brush, too. I call that something ‘the sparkle effect’. It feels as though I’m shining, and onlookers find themselves emotional or crying as they look at me and my work.”
“On top of that, while I’m painting, I do absolutely everything I can to enrich it. I pray intently to both the brush and the paper before I even touch them, hoping that I’ll be able to draw a piece that overflows with the grace of the words themselves.”
Calligraphy of “Dream”
Your work seems to outwardly convey the thoughts and emotions you experienced during the creative process to the audience, even though viewers aren’t usually present at that stage.
“That might be because I create with the intention to keep my work authentic. If the feelings the artist communicates differ from what the piece represents, the viewer won’t be able to connect to it. You have to eliminate any contradictory feelings.”
“I learnt a lot in Kyoto and Nara, two of Japan’s most traditionally beautiful cities, where I got to make art alongside some of the country’s living national treasures and traditional craftsmen. I’m sure you know the phrase ‘seeing is believing’. But, even if you saw those artists work a hundred times, you wouldn’t be able to grasp the sheer extent of their ability quite so easily as I did by working alongside them. I think that experience really shaped my way of looking at things.”
“For instance, take 夢 (‘dream’), a character I’ve drawn hundreds of times. While I paint, I imagine what sort of dream I want to express, then make the character correspond to those feelings. By doing that, the viewer will be able to get an even better understanding of the emotion contained in the piece. I think that’s why people are able to connect to my work.”
What sort of topics would you like to express in your future works?
“At the moment, my wish to introduce Japanese principles and culture to the world serves as the basis for all my works. Via my work, I aim to keep on sharing the traditional beauty of calligraphy with the entire world.”