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International artists in Leipzig

Updated: Jan 24, 2023

What laser spirit levels have in common with Japanese ink painting and lunar landscapes

It should look light! As if in a trance, the sweating bodies in their brightly colored functional clothes made of the finest polyester jump up and down on the training equipment, they lift and support, they turn and lift, eye each other and motivate themselves, and in the process become living works of art that assume outlandish postures. To this, psychedelic techno booms from portable boxes. Before Corona, painter and printmaker Lisa Chandler commuted between L.E. and Golden Bay, New Zealand, every six months. Other artists from around the world are doing the same. With the new lakes and the Neuseenland, the former lunar landscape created by the open-cast mines now captivates with a Pacific lifestyle, on whose sandy beaches well-trained athletes complete their pull-ups, burpees and jumping jacks, smiling convulsively, as on Santa Monica Beach or in Malibu. Kleinparis, as Goethe once called the picturesque little town with its big-city flair, has for years almost magically attracted artists from all over the world: Maribel Mas came from Venezuela, with a stopover in Barcelona, to work here as an artist. Nabil El Makhloufi, born in Fez, Morocco, studied painting in Rabat and Leipzig. And stayed.

But it's not for the recreational value or RB that artists from Australia, the U.S., Korea, South Africa or Japan make the pilgrimage to Leipzig, but for the space they find here. The atmosphere. The Baumwollspinnerei, with its seemingly endless number of spacious studios, has had a waiting list for quite some time. Most of the time, the studios are passed on from artist to artist, so coveted are the spaces. Not only because of the creativity-friendly environment, which is especially inspiring for figurative painters, but also because of the comparatively affordable prices. Yes, Berlin's little sister in the east is booming. Rents are rising and every empty space is being plastered over with luxury, with underfloor heating replacing the old tiled stoves. From an international perspective, Leipzig is nevertheless highly attractive, not least because even established visual artists have an instant nervous breakdown and throw acrylics, oil paints and brushes around in rage at the thought of a studio in the former artists' quarters of Saint-Germain-des-Prés or SoHo.

LIA, the Leipzig International Art Programme at the Baumwollspinnerei, makes it easier for artists to spend time working in the city where Johann Sebastian Bach was already displaying an almost frighteningly high level of creativity, sometimes performing one cantata a week. The artist Aika Furukawa, born in 1982 in Aichi, also came to the city on the White Elster for the first time in 2010 with LIA for six months and later returned several times and longer with Japanese grants. Today she has studios in Tokyo, Brussels and the former Cotton Mill. The mother of a two-year-old son, she comes from a family with a generations-old art tradition. Her grandfather and uncle were calligraphers, her mother an art teacher. While other children were painting by numbers with markers and tamagotchis, she was trained in the proper use of brushes and ink. Together, the family visited museums in the U.S. and throughout Europe on vacation, toured close to a hundred churches and cathedrals, and absorbed Western high culture. From an early age, Furukawa grew up naturally with both worlds, the Asian and the Western: "Art is art. A painting always speaks authentically to the viewer, regardless of its roots. Both those of the viewer and the image," Furukawa says. For her, it is the most normal thing in the world to mix cultures, or rather to draw freely from different cultural pools: "First the individual impression is important, then comes the art historical background," she says. Out of admiration for Vincent van Gogh's works, she took up oil paint and canvas at the age of 12. In addition, Max Klinger, Itō Jakuchū, Bill Viola and the photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto are among her artistic role models. She was particularly influenced in young adulthood by Itō Jakuchū, a painter of the middle Edo period who lived in Kyoto from 1716 to 1800. Jakuchū painted true to life and in incredible detail - some details are even said to be visible only under a microscope. One of his concerns was to capture the living movement. He painted directly from the object and without any subsequent corrections.

From this art historical perspective, it is therefore hardly surprising that Aika Furukawa originally came to Leipzig mainly because of Max Klinger's monumental painting Christ on Olympus (1892-96), and not to get caught up in the maelstrom of the New Leipzig School, through which Leipzig attracted the attention of the international art world some twenty years ago.

While many locals consider Leipzig, if not a metropolis, then undoubtedly a city, Furukawa appreciates the space, the tranquility, and the unspoiled nature. For her, compared to the Japanese capital with its crazy mix, breathtaking pace, chaos and overflowing abundance, it's like being in the village here. Where in Tokyo it is hectic and neon-colored, in Leipzig you can walk meditatively under lime trees, oaks and hornbeams: The floodplain forest and the parks close to the forest stretch as a green belt through the city area.

She barely knew English, let alone German, when she landed here. She found the Spinnerei to be cosmopolitan, and quickly felt that she had arrived. It was easy to find contacts and artistic exchange, but all the more difficult to gain access to the art market. The art market proved to be rather closed off. You had to have studied at the Academy of Visual Arts (HGB) to be recognized and accepted, says Furukawa, which she finds questionable, at least, because the Leipzig art world sometimes stews in its own juices. Other artists from foreign countries, such as Lexander Prokogh, who studied in Moscow, or Anamaria Avram from Romania, also speak of this phenomenon - they have an even harder time than local artists getting into a gallery. They work here and sell elsewhere. When Furukawa longed for more cosmopolitanism and freedom, she found it in Brussels, but continues to keep her studio in Leipzig and is here regularly.

The artist Yuka Kashihara, who was born in Hiroshima in 1980 and grew up in Osaka and Tokyo, had a similar experience. She initially studied Japanese painting in Tokyo and moved to Leipzig in 2006, where she completed her painting studies with Prof. Annette Schröter with a master's degree. While she failed to win a Leipzig gallery despite studying at the HGB, she has been convincing in Japan with museum exhibitions, including a solo show at the Pola Annex Museum in Tokyo in 2021 and the Ohara Museum of Art in Okayama in 2016. Since 2018 Kashihara lives and works in Berlin.

No matter how cosmopolitan and liberal they pretend to be, in Leipzig's galleries the motto seems to be: "closed society"! Almost across the board, they represent local old-timers. This focus can undoubtedly be an opportunity. Gallery visitors know what they can expect and what they can get: Art from Leipzig. The chances of international artists increase if they have studied here - or live elsewhere! These seem to be the unwritten, iron laws of the Leipzig gallery scene: Tobias Naehring represents Nadira Husain. The latter lives in Berlin. The Josef Filipp Gallery is probably the most international, working with artists such as Rui Zhang from China, who lives in Braunschweig, and John Berry from the USA. The figurative painter Ian Cumberland from Northern Ireland and Carlos Sagrera, represented by Jochen Hempel, may be almost spectacular exceptions, because they not only live in the Saxon trade fair city, but have also managed to be accredited by a local gallery.

There are just a few different rules everywhere. In Japan, Furukawa says, it's extremely difficult to get accepted to art school at all. Out of fifty to sixty applications, only one would be successful. She made it. Nothing can faze her as she meditatively rubs the ink block and stirs the sumi ink with the help of the suzuri, a rectangular ink stone with a light, water-filled depression in it. Aika Furukawa is preparing a room installation of large-scale transparent canvas works hanging floor-to-ceiling in the space. These murals breathe the strict rules of sumi-e, Japanese ink painting, alongside moving baroque opulence. She virtuously combines classical Japanese painting techniques with European pictorial traditions, ornate baroque with sober, lively sumi-e, as if there were no categorical difference whatsoever. The artist works only with small sketches and then paints freely in various shades of gray and black directly on the wall, notoriously crossing the red line of the laser spirit level thrown across the entire height of the wall. The laser provides the necessary orientation in the free work without a preliminary drawing. Corrections? Impossible.

For more information on Aika Furukawa see:

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