Story VI | Embracing the Ambivalent

LKG_JapaneseArt_Maio_Motoko_650Maio Motoko. Photo by William Hung Photography

Maio Motoko: The artist has depths of creativity that distinguish her in the world of contemporary art where so many artists attain marketability and sadly simultaneous stasis.

Once upon a time, in a serendipitous event akin to the intervention of a fairy-tale-like hand of Fate, a Melbourne gallerist discovered an inspiringly great artist in a magazine in an airport lounge. The magazine entry was about Maio Motoko, contemporary artist. The image was a startlingly contemporary hanging scroll, the mounting a revolutionary asymmetrical placement of earth-toned papers and fabric reminiscent of indigenous painting. At the end of the article was an email address. As I write this, I realize that ‘ambivalence’ is much more a part of the story than I originally thought.

Being thoroughly trained in Japanese etiquette and having no personal introduction to the artist, I was ambivalent about making contact. That contact was made through the invitational email address in the article, is due to the suggestion of my then gallery manager, Trevor Fleming, not so intimidated by Japanese traditional etiquette.

My first meeting with Maio Motoko was certainly ambivalent: I was nervous, she was politely elusive. I am accustomed to having to talk animatedly and at length while Japanese addressees become used to a foreign face emitting good Japanese language, but the elusiveness, the ambivalence to my presence, continued to discomfort. Maio was asking me many questions, and I was struggling to find the responses that would breach the distance. At last I realized that my enchantment with the scroll was the stumbling block. Maio had created the mounting only, it was an enhancement to the calligraphy of the whole work, a simple striking slash – the character for ‘one’. Her mounting was an accessory to the original work- ‘actually, I am a screen artist’ she remarked, ‘would you like to see one?’

Remember in Story 1 I confessed to feelings of lust in relationship to artwork? It may well have started here. My heart, soul and mind reeled with the implications of the aesthetic of the scroll dancing across the expansive canvas of the Japanese folding screen. Maio’s studio is tiny. Sitting at a very small circular table, her manager, Kaieda Mamiko, brought out a screen, folded, and an unusual shape. She whipped it open, encircling Maio and myself in a powerfully emotive textured landscape of somewhat tumultuous reds, oranges and yellows. I was overwhelmed and speechless, barely able to manage the emotional responses to the work.

LKG_JapaneseArt_Ranbu_Maio_Motoko_650Ranbu | Unfettered Dance
Maio Motoko b. 1948   13 panel screen   180 x 2 x 513 sms   SOLD

Entitled ‘Ranbu’ (Unfettered Dance), this work is Maio’s first 13-fold screen. An original and radical transformation of the traditional form, it consists of 13 differently sized panels, each expanding by 3cms to the final ‘standard’ size. The butterfly hinge (chōtsugai) has also been reinvented, so the work is a double-sided masterpiece expressing Maio’s conceptual approach to the form, and her philosophies of the evanescence of life and the duality of yin and yang. She imagined a form that exhibited both sides of the work without an obvious front and reverse, each side as ‘important’ as the other. 13 folds was the solution, a solution which in its resting state is an ambivalent sculptural trapezoid, a form with no hint of its potent possibilities. Now in a private Melbourne collection, the work has been used for the cover of an NHK publication on screen-making, and as an illustration in a Japanese government school text book. Maio speaks of the work as ‘not created with paint materials. It is a work redolent with the sense of touch – created by the multiple layering of small pieces of red silk and cotton.

autumn, Kyoto Komeiji, afternoon
red leaves, one landscape
pathway, strewn with red leaves
armfuls of  autumn leaves
thrown to the skies
fallen autumn leaves
clear blue skies
basking in the autumn sun
lightness of being
clear, fresh autumn air
revival of the senses

First exhibited in Melbourne and then New York, Maio’s works are internationally acclaimed. In 2008, a grand 10 screen installation was commissioned for the Kennedy Center’s (Washington DC) celebration of Japanese culture. Later exhibited in the golden ponds of 101 Collins’ entrance foyer, the work was created in the tiny Tokyo studio and only first seen by the artist on installation in Washington. Created entirely in her tiny studio, the work is a tribute to her spiritual imagination and creativity.

Kyoku | Life’s Symphony
Maio Motoko b.1948   Pair of 6 Fold Screens    152.1 × 262.9 cm
Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

A major pair of screens is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and in 2013 the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York acquired a spectacular large pair using a ground-breaking new technical and visual approach by the artist. The work was promptly exhibited in the exhibition Expressive Art of Japanese Calligraphy.  The immediate appreciation and understanding of Maio’s works by the objective Other (see Story II) has provided the artist with increasing insights and creative stimulus. Each body of work transcends the one before. The artist has depths of creativity that distinguish her in the world of contemporary art where so many artists attain marketability and sadly a simultaneous stasis.

LKG_JapaneseArt_KotodamaII_Maio_Motoko_650Kotodama II |  The Soul of Language II
(Larger evolution from the work in the Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Maio Motoko b.1948
4 screen installation, pair of large, pair of small screens, each pair total of 13 panels
13 Fold Screen (tall) : 1 x  8 panel : 228 x 2 x 197 & 1 x 5 panel : 258 x 2 x 197 cms
13 Fold Screen (low) : 1 x 8 panel : 228 x 2 x 152 & 1 x 5 panel : 258 x 2 x 152 cms
Sold as pairs or entire installation
To purchase this work contact

The evocative emotional Presence of Maio’s work is visceral, immediate and engaging. Touching the human psyche with its implicit appeal to the universally shared and understood, it uses the changing form of the folding screen to express the gamut of human experiences. The traditional folding screen was used in open plan Japanese castles to create flexible spaces for special use and privacy. The privacy is transient, it depends on the particular formation of the screen or screens. The paper folding screen is in a sense impermanent, and as such the privacy it provides is ambivalent and teasingly sensual: It invites conjecture and the temptation to peep; it might hide the participants visually, but they are accessible and can be heard. It is a permeable membrane of ambivalence. The part-hidden, part-accessible nature of the screen is that which engenders its sensuality and surely brings to mind its Western Deco cousin, a silk stocking casually flung over its edge.

Maio has expanded this even further with the double-sided screen, the varying panel sizes and the multiplicity of installation formations. In the ideal triangle of interaction of artist, artwork and viewer, the work responds to the imagination of its owner. Not only does it encourage the changing perception of physical space, it also plays with our ‘emotional space’. Its engaging ambivalence is best expressed by the artist herself:

Don’t you think that the screen is the material embodiment of Japanese culture?

While a flat surface is being created, it is simultaneously three dimensional.  It freely changes shape and transforms space. Light and shadow can be created in the twinkling of an eye. It also communicates the sensitivities of beauty and in a physical form expresses the fleeting, transient nature of life.

It is a both a painting and an object – a bewitchingly ambivalent form.  You don’t completely partition a room, but rather capture the fleeting mood of a moment and enjoy the imperceptible sound of it vanishing.

“Ambivalence” – there is a tendency to think of this as a negative trait of the Japanese, when in fact, isn’t it actually something to celebrate?’ (NHK television interview 2005)

LKG_JapaneseArt_Kiri_Maio_Motoko_650Kiri | Paulownia
Maio Motoko b. 1948   6 panel screen   189 x 2 x 153 cms   POA
To purchase this work contact

Kyokusui | Meandering Stream
Maio Motoko b.1948 Pair of 2 fold Furosaki Screens 48.5 x 180 cm (each)
Sold singly or as a pair  POA
To purchase this work contact

Other works by Maio Motoko also available in varying sizes please email for more information on available works