Tomoaki Suzuki has exhibited in galleries throughout the globe, but has chosen to host his first solo exhibition in County Durham – filling former seminary Ushaw College with a miniature congregation of contemporary figurative sculptures, each only around 20 inches high and made with a modern twist on traditional Japanese woodcarving techniques.
Depicting a diverse collection of urban youths in natural postures, the personal dress styles of Tomoaki’s statues are purposefully designed to be expressive of their identities. The isolation of the figures within the cavernous gallery space at Ushaw College is also an essential element of the artist’s intentions – encouraging viewers to think about loneliness and solitude.
What was your favourite part about creating the exhibition?
Being able to exhibit sculptures inside and outside this historical building and to show my reliefs on the walls. It’s been very challenging for me, as a contemporary figurative sculptor, to show my work alongside the old masters of 18th and 19th century art.
Many of your individual pieces are inspired by your local community in Hackney. Why have you chosen to exhibit in County Durham?
I’ve been living in London since 1998. Back then, I was completely stuck in the Hackney area of the East End and I didn't get many chances to travel outside of London. I am very interested in Durham, as it is known as a world heritage town – and also Durham Cathedral is known for Harry Potter’s first film!
The exhibition will feature urban portrait statuettes and wall-based work. Does your approach to work change depending on what medium you’re using?
Yes, making a sculpture usually takes between 3–12 months. A relief, on the other hand, usually takes only one month. For me, making sculpture is physically and physiologically harder than making reliefs. I need to concentrate for a longer time. When I make reliefs, it’s more enjoyable – I can finish it sooner! I can’t say which one I prefer, but reliefs are usually made after the sculptures.
The rural, traditional environment at Ushaw will be a stark contrast to the urban setting you’ve exhibited in previously. Do you think this will lend anything new to visitors’ experience of your work?
My sculptures were most recently included in a group show at a contemporary museum in Paris – they were surrounded by many other contemporary works. Now I’m showing at Ushaw. I imagine my works will appear exposed here, since I am making traditional figurative sculptures, surrounded by the work of old master sculptors. Visitors might question why my sculptures are considered contemporary art whilst they display the same skills as the old masters. I don’t think I’m better than them, but I do think my sculptures will be included in the history of figurative sculpture and also in the history of contemporary art.
How did you first get into art?
When graduating high school, I went onto a foundation course to apply to art colleges in Tokyo. I dreamed of being an industrial designer, but I gave up – I found I wasn't talented enough for the field. I changed my mind. So I studied art and figurative sculpture at Tokyo Zokei University instead.
What type of exhibitions do you like to visit in your spare time?
I like to see contemporary exhibitions, but also old art exhibitions too. When I’m back in Japan, I usually go to see Ukiyoe or Buddhist sculpture exhibitions.
Who or what do you find most inspiring?
The Rolling Stones – especially when I saw them at the Olympic Stadium back in May.
Tomoaki’s exhibition will run at Ushaw College until 15th September.
For more information, visit www.ushaw.org