The Conceptual Art of Akemi Maegawa Mystifies the Familiar

Conceptual art of Akemi Maegawa

UMUC Arts Program Director Eric Key hopes that when viewers walk through the exhibit Plurality: The Conceptual Art of Akemi Maegawa, they’ll do so with an open mind.

Like much conceptual art, Maegawa’s installations initially may appear to be simple. But on closer inspection, the pieces on view through April 17 at UMUC’s Arts Program gallery in the College Park Marriott Hotel & Conference Center by the Japanese-born, Maryland-based artist reveal significant depth and provocative food for thought.

“It doesn’t bother me if those people who aren’t art-goers say, ‘I can do that,’ or ‘why is that in the show?’ That’s the point—it got you to think,” Key said. “Everyday things that we are used to or we are comfortable seeing can be viewed in different ways. It depends how you look at it.”

Viewers of the Maegawa exhibit who are not intimately familiar with contemporary art might be well served by the glass-half-full-or-half-empty concept, according to Key. He cites a favorite work from the show, a stoneware, fabric, and foam installation titled Your Sunny Side Should Be Up Chair (2006).

Many who have already seen the installation, which measures 5 feet by 12 feet by 12 feet and looks like half of a yellow sphere atop a blanket of white, have told Key that it looks like an egg. They wondered what it was about, until they saw the title. “You look at things differently. And that’s the whole show,” he said.

The familiar, precisely because we are prone to take it for granted, merits further contemplation.

“You might make an egg almost every day. You never even think of it―how normal a thing it is to do,” Key said. “We cook an egg, eat it, and go about our business. But there’s more to that egg than just an egg.”

Another work, Taste (2011), features a piece of pink stoneware shaped like a human brain with a pink straw emerging from the top. In his commentary in the exhibition catalog, Key observed that viewers can only imagine what Maegawa intended by the piece, which “represents either what is being placed into the brain [or] what could be coming out.”

“The real question for me as a viewer or an interpreter of the work,” he added during a phone interview, “is [whether] the artist is trying to say we drain our brains and that something’s coming out? Or is she saying that we use the straw and something goes into the brain? There’s no right or wrong answer about it.”

The exhibit was conceived by Brian Young, who formerly served as UMUC’s senior Arts Program curator. In his catalog commentary, Young wrote that the brain represents a clear nod to Maegawa’s husband, a neurosurgeon.

“Yet I am more intrigued by—and admiring of—the idea that this work barely climbs into the realm of fine art. Without the straw, one might imagine that this piece would be awfully close to the anatomical brain models that are used in medical training,” Young added. “Isn’t it curious that the straw is a ready-made item of sorts? But it provides the springboard into making Taste a work of fine art. In the context of a gallery setting, however, the work plays with our senses and with our sensibilities.”

A work like Taste, which probes human intellectual faculties, is not only appropriate for a venue such as UMUC with its mission centering on the creation and sharing of knowledge, but the focus on a Japanese-American artist also makes sense for the university, which has an Asian division based in Japan, according to Key.

UMUC has exhibited contemporary Chinese art, and its permanent collection includes an entire gallery devoted to Chinese culture spanning centuries and comprising art and artifacts ranging from old scrolls to snuff bottles. But showing a contemporary Japanese artist is a first, said Key. He added that while researching and preparing the exhibition, he was surprised not by the countries’ divergences but by the common ground the two cultures share.

“Japan and China are more alike than they’re different when it comes to contemporary art,” he said. Key notes the major historical differences between the two cultures, but he is struck by the ways that many artists in both countries reflect on their culture in their work.

For Maegawa, some of those reflections surface in Blue Sky Cake (U.S. and Japan) (2014), an earthenware and porcelain piece that evokes two circular blue cakes, with what appears to be a white cloud on each. The blue becomes ocean, and one “cake” has a map of Japan on it, while the other contains North and South America.

“We all eat cake,” Key said of the form, which is a universal language of sorts.

In her own catalog commentary, Maegawa added that cake carries symbolism. “It is not just a sweet desert; it is a symbol of sharing happiness when people eat it together on a special occasion in life. Wherever we live in the world, there is a similar ritual to celebrate meaningful occasions together by sharing food or a cake with family or friends,” she wrote. “But such a simple celebration and sharing happiness can be a very difficult thing to do for some people because of economic, social, or family problems.”

Maegawa never had a birthday cake or party as a child. Her husband actually organized the first birthday party that she’d ever had. “I remember well how happy I was having my first birthday cake. While enjoying the cake, I thought about my younger sister who lives in Japan and wished she could join me to eat my birthday cake, which we had never eaten together,” she wrote.

Precisely because the sculpture Blue Sky Cake (U.S. and Japan) is inedible, it can be contemplated forever―”like the sky we share,” the artist added. “Even though we cannot eat the birthday cake together, Blue Sky Cake reminds me that we can always celebrate together by just looking up in the same sky, despite being in Japan or in the States.”