Saturday, 12 July 2014

Macoto Murayama's Talk July 2014

Introducing the extraordinary Macoto Murayama©

So I went to Macoto's talk this week and what a joy it was. Firstly, the Japan Foundation was a superb space and all of the speakers and directors made us feel so very welcome, providing us all with refreshments which is always a nice thing. Secondly, it was an awesome experience because Macoto delivered the entire lecture in Japanese (thankfully there was a translator on hand). I was really pleased that he did this as not only did it make him feel more comfortable, but also because I believe you can tell a lot about a culture and the thought processes associated with it when you listen to it's language. Even though I had no idea what he was saying, one could note the pauses and changes in rate and expression. I noticed that Japanese seemed to be more efficient as a language - less words were said than the translation - and I wondered if that sort of efficiency gets translated into other aspects of life, such as in their art work.

Photos from Frantic Gallery. Work by Macoto Murayama (on Pinterest)

The talk was a beautiful introduction to his work and the methods he uses when creating. The presentation was later followed by a conversational piece between Macoto, Lucy Smith and Nathan Cohen. I particularly enjoyed this element of the discussion and wished it lasted longer. I had several questions that I really wanted to ask, but we sadly ran out of time. The questions I had saved were rather different to eatchother - one was far more basic and certainly less philosophical than the other. Firstly, I wanted to know how Macoto chose the plants that he used in his Botech Compositions (where several plants are used to make an elaborate pattern - see picture below (a couple down)). Looking at the designs, there is no reference to taxonomy or shape, but maybe geography was the key? Or maybe the patterns represented something more journalistic, possibly depicting plants collected on a single afternoon of field work? Who knows?! However - I would like to know as I think this sort of thing is really interesting as it descirbes the thought process and influences one's interpretation.

I also wanted to ask Macoto (and Lucy) if they think it is important to include a level of emotion in their work. At the start of Macoto's talk, he mentioned that he worked in a florist shop in Japan between the academic years of study, so that he could learn more about the relationship that exists between human beings and plants/flowers. Further to this, he also highlighted the groundbreaking moment when he first saw what was inside a flower - how bold over he was and that his first impulse was to share what he saw to the masses. He wanted everyone to see the beauty hidden in plants. Lucy appeared to empathise with this feeling (as do I and probably most botanists and illustrators). There certainly is something truly remarkable about the complexity, wonder and beauty hidden at the microscopic level of an organism that so commonly goes unnoticed. 

Botech Art by Macoto Murayama©

Therefore, from what Macoto is describing, one can deduce that there is most definitely an emotional and communicative aspect in his work. However, I very quickly noticed a contradiction which was introduced at the start of this debate and it was this that I wanted to highlight and bring to the table. When discussing the artists that had influenced his work – Georgia O’Keefe, Ernst Haeckel and Karl Blossfeldt, Macoto said that it was Karl's work that he resonated with the most because he was drawn to the distance captured in each black and white photograph. He liked the clinical nature of Blossfeldt's work, the emptiness, stillness and lifelessness reflected in every piece. I feel that in the majority of work that both Macoto and Lucy produce today, this stillness is also very much present. However, why produce work that is so reserved, detached and quantifiable if what made you want to make it in the first place were the irrational feelings of excitement, ecstasy, awe and sheer wonder?

Botech Compostion by Macoto Murayama©
Lucy's scientific works are mostly black and white and drawn in pen and ink. Macoto's "Botech Art" and "Floral Diagrams" are very mathematical, logical and, like Lucy’s work, linear. There is nothing irrational about them; they are to the book accurate and motionless. I wanted to know how they felt about this and if they thought as illustrators, if it is possible to engage the populace using such heavily structured illustrative works or, if they felt that this where botanical art comes into play. 

Botanical Diagrams by Macoto Murayama
Is botanical illustration able to engage people from all backgrounds, or is botanical art, with its many applications, media and forms, better equipped at tackling this dilemma? I wanted to know if Macoto felt that his compositional work (second above), which features ideas behind symmetry and pattern (these are the ones that look like rug patterns), has been better received across the board than the more quantitative works. Or are people intrigued by the more numeral pieces and if so, why? Do people prefer less emotive works? Are less expressive works easier to observe because there is nothing beyond the shapes and lines to interpret (there is nothing overly challenging). Along this line of thought, I also really wanted to know if he was conducting evaluations of his exhibitions as this is something that I very strongly about. Personally, I feel that it is incredibly necessary to know how one's work is received - it gives purpose and direction.

I was disappointed that I didn’t get to ask Macoto and Lucy their thoughts on the different  channels of visual description and communication, but then it was probably just as well as we might have been there all night debating it, and it might have blown the interpreter's mind! I might have to ask Lucy one day if I see her again - I'd be intrigued to know her thoughts. Obviously her more scientific works are of use to many people under the umbrella of environmental research, but I wonder how she feels about showing her work to those beyond this sphere of enterprise and if she feels that she would need to change her style in order for it to be more noticed by these other spheres and cultures? Basically I suppose I am asking if the work needs to become more emotional, expressive and arousing whilst also being accurate in order to be noticed and send a message?

I am glad that I have been able to highlight these thoughts online. I think this is something that we all need to consider. I myself don’t have any answers, but would be delighted to know your thoughts on how successful ‘clinical’ illustration is (as opposed to the more arty forms of botanical art) in encouraging people to become more familiar with the beauty, elegance and complexity present in plants.


  1. Hmmm very well thought out post and very thought provoking.
    I believe if something goes beyond the clinical in its static approach the emotions are stirred - this is something often beyond the ability of words to explain.
    I guess what I am trying to say - is that often an illustrator/artist can present the subject in a still form but still evoke great emotion - depending on the person viewing it perhaps.
    I am a big fan of Haeckel and Blossfeldt which now explains why I am attracted to some of Macoto's work.
    I believe that sometimes if the artist presents a subject in such a way that the viewer does not need to think - all the work has been done for them - the movement, etc - perhaps I would move on faster than when approached a piece where, to me, the stillness speaks volumes.
    If I am drawn to it - there must be an emotive response - because at first impressions often we don't immediately know what it is - but we are curious to know more, to explore.
    In the case of Blossfeldt for instance, his works are almost magnetic to me.
    It's interesting to see how some botanical artists think botanical illustration - the more scientific - is not art at all - whereas for me, as a collector and viewer - I go beyond what the subject is and see it as a work of beauty - because of the composition, detail etc.
    Yes it is technically accurate - but accuracy is beauty also.
    The old science meets art - you can't have one without the other in the botanical world.
    Hope that makes sense!

  2. Vicki - this is so well put and just what I was hoping to tease out of someone. I am in complete agreement and am intrigued that a piece of art/illustration that is anatomical and quantitative can produce such an emotional reaction in a human being. When I saw Macoto's work on the power point show on Thursday night for the very first time I almost burst into tears. What I saw was so utterly divine and beautiful. I thought I had met God on the wall. I consider this, in itself, to be rather odd. I wonder why that is. Is it the symmetry? The perfection in the drawn piece? What is it that is generating such a response? Do we all unknowingly yearn for something simpler? Deep questions indeed, and something that I hope to study next year. I am really pleased to hear what you think though Vicki as it really has opened my eyes. I guess I always considered my work to be more emotive and therefore a big step away from true scientific art, but then maybe it is all emotive and thought provoking but in different ways. Part of me now feels that some of my work is a bit shallow after feeling the effects of Macoto's work on my physical body. Quite incredible and hugely inspiring. Clever man!

  3. As said above, a very well thought out blog post. I can see why you are so drawn to this work too, it ticks your boxes on so many levels.

    I do have to say though that it is very of the moment and I don't mean specifically the computer generated side of it. Can this this subject take any more sexing up?

    I am very excited by the 3D printing that has some form the blue prints I wonder can these be further developed to create holograms?

    Fantastic Jessie, how lucky you were to have found it and visited the exhibition.

    1. I was so lucky to have spotted this event which was in the end booked out as far as I could tell. The room was brimming. Big thanks to Lucy Smith who advertised the talk on her social media sites. Luckily for me I got a seat right at the front as I left work early. Phew!

      I think the 3D printing is really interesting and what Macoto wants to do is to produce 3D holograms as an end result. This is how he envisioned his exhibition to be in Liverpool, but maybe the budget just got in the way as it didn't happen. Or maybe it was just a bit too tricky logistically. I wouldn't be surprised if his mind is ahead of current technologies! Anyway, his original exhibition design was to have one of those 'rug patterned illustrations', but in the form of a police box-shaped projection so you can see it from all angels with depth - like a stair way to heaven but coming from the floor rather than the ceiling. Making a 3D Ernst Haeckel I suppose in a way, which is super cool.

      It's times like this I wish I wasn't so blooming old fashioned! But alas it is the way I am. I haven't been to his exhibition yet - as it's in Liverpool. Might go before September, but the train tickets are eye wateringly expensive!

  4. Murayama's plant photograps have a different message to that of the microscopic photographs of seeds by Viktor Sýkora's which do not have the overtone of art making.

    I first saw Murayama’s work in Japan some years ago, and it immediately offered me insight into how artists will always seek to express aspects of their cultural personality in their work, in ways that are often imperceptibly subtle. This is a standard by which artists work, whether the work is highly technical or highly primitive in its material process.

    Sometimes an artist has a very traditional working technique, but their ideas are something new. Some have an amazing use of current technology, but their ideas may be classical, not actually so new.

    So what I am saying Jess, is that you may be seeing yourself as ‘old fashioned’ in comparison to Murayama, and this may be actually be a misinterpretation. Perhaps you are in process of finding something new and seeking to express it in ways that are technically classical.

    The technologies Maruyama uses are stunning and breathtakingly new, and it will clearly inspire more artists and scientists to use these techniques.

    Stillness is understood as traditional to culture in Japan, where the expression of it is deeply engrained in the traditional arts and is highly valued as a way of being. Somehow we all lost this focus on Stillness some time back in our culture, but things are now changing.

    The experience of Stillness through nature itself or as a means of self-development, or as an aspect of art making, is now becoming something to aspire to, something to take seriously as emergent in our culture. I see this as something very new, perhaps a direct link to something else that we seek, which goes beyond all of our cultural inheritances and differences.

  5. Thanks for your comment Coral - I hadn't heard of Viktor Sýkora before. I do enjoying looking at 'new' work. Some of the pieces are pretty otherworldly and ethereal aren't they?

    It's very kind of you to say that I might be in the process of finding something new - I do feel very much like that at the moment. I guess we are all on a journey and sometimes we take new roads and other time we go back in on ourselves.

    I agree with your observations on stillness as well as how artists unknowingly, or knowingly, express the characteristics of their culture in their work. On this line of thought, I would certainly love to see more Islamic and Middle Eastern botanical art. I find it odd that I haven't seen that much as their culture is so closely aligned with 'the garden'. I put my lack of being in contact with such works down to a language barrier, rather like with Japanese, Chinese, Russian and other Asian art. I regrettably only know about artists who have shown their work to European eyes, which I am sure, really skews my viewpoint and experience of botanical art as a whole. It is fascinating seeing some of the older works in the collections at Kew and seeing the old Company School Collections from different regions. I am not sure if it is because cultures were more segmented in those times, but I can really feel a cultural identity that is very strongly represented in each piece, whether it's Indian, Colombian or Chinese. Despite being taught by western Europeans, I think the local artists managed to capture something about their individual culture very clearly in each piece. I agree that such identities do still come out today, but I think in a lot of cases this process is much subtler. I feel that such subtleties are only consciously noticeable when looking at work that has been painted by artists from a very different place to the viewer if one really studies each piece very closely.

    1. I am sure that I am not alone in appreciating you making the journey to Southend, to see the Maruyama show, and sharing your experience in what is a really excellent review of his work and your experience of it.

      When I first saw Maruyama’s work I felt it was reminiscent of something I could not quite identify. Automobile design is one of his influences. I visited the NYK Maritime Museum in Yokohama, which is close by Kanagawa, where Maruyama grew up. The area is well known for the wood cut image of Hokusai’s Great Wave.

      You can probably guess that I recognised that the way the Maruyama artworks are laid out are very similar to the blue prints made for marine architecture, which he would have had access to in Kanagawa, an area famous for boat building.

      The Viktor Sýkora works caused a great wave of excitement in Brussels when they were first displayed there, and in Fenton House in Bath and London University in the UK. Not surprisingly, they offered such a series of wow moments in the revelation of what is unseen by the human eye, presented as science and in a scientific context. Perhaps they had an effect, similar but diluted, to that of the drawings of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia in the17th Century.

      Either way, art and science are edging closer together.

  6. What do I know - as a mere scientist. However as Coral finishes with the comment that 'art & science are edging closer together', I believe they are inextricably combined. I can postulate reasons well supported one way or the other but then also I can say I do not know.

    As I, step by step in the middle of the night, headed for the summit of Mnt.Kilimanjro, I paused to to take in the magnificent beauty of the night sky, inundated with stars from both the northern & southern hemispheres, I was in awe. However move the other way and examine the arrangement of atoms in a segment of DNA, also beautiful and if 1 atom is different - wow a mutation - wow some of those stars are no longer there.

    A field of sheep, beautifully grazing in the field are just sheep, unless you are the shepheard, (sorry no pun intended) admiring each as an individual. The field of poppies make a beautiful sight, but for those who stop to look, the individual differences are also there. Indeed for you the differences are even more clear flower to flower, petal to petal.

    My interests in nature as a little boy, my training to understand animals, carried me to look at their associations. My ability to use & accessibility of a quality microscope, has enabled me to see the beauty & geometry of a zooplankton carapace or diatoms and much more, but why are they beautiful to me? The rock island in the sea is not in isolation. It is eroded by the sea and storms, lived on above & below the waves by plants and animals, ignored by many, admired by a few!

    Where am I going, is it the nature / nurture debate or our appreciation, down to the things we were shown, and explanations given, when we were young?
    Can you be taught to be inquisitive and will this lead to an appreciation of beauty? Does this develop through 'wiring' pathways in the brain - perhaps some might say 'miss wiring'.

    Where are we, 'clinical illustration' or 'arty art'. For me I like both, the former more, but is that due to the scientific training I have been through? Or did the wiring in my brain lead me into the scientific discipline?

    Sorry Jess no answers. We have to engage and if that engagement, encourages just 1 person to look, enquire, examine, inspire and develop all has been worthwhile.

    PS - Thanks for the opportunity to ramble. I wonder how many old S1 peers could be bothered.

    1. It's great to hear the point of view of a scientist. I often wish more botanists would comment on this blog so don't worry about any rambling. Love the pun by the way.

      I am glad your brought up the importance of hard wiring at a young age. One of the reasons behind 'plant blindness' (Wandersee and Schussler, 1998) is apparently the fact too many young children are not exposed to enough greenery or taught how to appreciate it by their parents. I think this aspect of our sociology is really important and I feel it is our responsibility to inspire and educate everyone. I think that it is easier to engage a child, but adults are harder. I find that they have a habit of judging too much and too quickly. I find many have a fear of being curious, so their experiences are filtered and can end up being rather detached. This can be harder to work with. However, one must keep trying, because as you said, even if just 1 person stops to enquire, it's completely worthwhile.

  7. Jessica, a great write up of the evening, and wonderful to hear your impressions and questions. My discussions with Macoto Murayama and Nathan Cohen before and during the event also raised many more questions and topics of conversation than those we had time to discuss on the night!

    I love that Macoto is working in the same way a scientific botanical illustrator at the outset by dissecting and drawing the flowering parts - but then hen applies that knowledge using a very different medium. He has a great appreciation of our working techniques, and I have since been showing him a few more. These complex processes are always hidden from the viewer of the final illustration. I am pleased to have some scientific illustrations in the next exhibition at the Sherwood Gallery and some working drawings and specimens to attempt to show this process. I feel that this type of work is not shown enough.

    Regarding the comments about stillness and detachment, in my work making pen and ink scientific illustrations - in many cases I do become very involved in the subject as both my curiosity and artistic instincts drive me; I wonder whether this is ever detectable in the final illustration?

    Coral Guest I really enjoyed reading your comments. There is certainly room for a lot more discussion in this area. I have tried to keep it very brief here!


    1. Hi Lucy - I am glad you liked my write up, although I feel it doesn't quite give the evening the justice it deserves because you and Macoto provided us with such a wonderful evening. It was very moving. Thank you!

      I really love the fact that you mention your own feelings when you are illustrating and how involved you become in your subject. This is something I actually forgot to consider and I am very glad you flagged this up. When mentioning the stillness and clinical nature of science illustration, I was really picking up on how Macoto described his reaction to it, but actually, since I wrote that I have come to realise (first with the help of Vicki) that I do actually get very moved by the more scientific illustrations. For example, I find that there is real intensity in the work by Sheila Ross-Craig and with your own work I feel calm. Looking at your lines makes me feel relaxed and clear - like the chaos of life makes sense. It also can taste the 'exotic' in your work, and exploration. Arthur Harry Church's work on the other hand brings out feelings of enticement, passion and curiosity.

      I think it would be fascinating to see how an audience would react to an exhibition containing only scientifically-based botanical illustrations. I find it sad that the more traditional type of depiction isn't shown more. I have always wondered if that was because people aren't as interested in it as us because they don't react towards it in the same way that you or I (or Vicki) do? I guess one won't know until we do an exhibition and evaluate it.

      Haha - thanks for keeping it brief. No worries for mini essays. As a rising Sagittarius, I like a debate as Coral can testify!


    2. I’m delighted to read Lucy T Smith's comment and also quite excited that Chris Watson has picked up on my sentence about art and science edging together.

      I see that art and technology are at one, and have been for some time.
      However, from where I am observing, art and science are not actually fully engaged.

      In many ways art and science are still fundamentally as far apart as the two sides of the brain can be. There is always the personality of the artist that is the key in art. Primarily, artists have some recognition of their unconscious and express it. Science tends to be more conscious focused and this rests sometimes uneasily with art, because an artist often sees science as limited by the clinical..

      An artwork, like an experiment, begins with an idea. There the similarity between art and science ends, because the artist (traditionally and in general) enters the unquantifiable world where they are focused upon expressing something that cannot be proven, simply because this is what they incline towards doing.

      Perhaps this is why works by Macoto Murayama and Lucy T Smith are so fascinating to behold, they both depict a level of order in nature that is measurable, and they have to use that conscious ordered level or awareness within themselves to produce their work. Any form of doubt or travelling into the unknown is not part of this work, but it reveals levels of life that we might have otherwise not ever seen had it not been for their artistic contribution.

      Above it all, it is awareness that counts. We know that the capacity of awareness varies from person to person in childhood. Now I am going off on another tangent, but in the end we cannot as yet explain fully why some children express higher levels of natural awareness than others. What we do know is that the experience of Beauty is present from an early age. This evolves with us like poetry of the soul, as an elusive, unquantifiable and ever magical wonder of appreciation that some of us cannot live without.

      Reading Chris’s comment, the flavour of his sense of personal beauty came through. Quiescent, the experience of beauty takes us up and away from the quantifiable and the unquantifiable; it frees us from our individuality, it frees us from polarities, gifting us with that momentary sense that nothing anywhere is separate.

      Thanks ever so much for facilitating such an interesting exchange Jess. I too would like to see more scientific illustration on display at Kew and other Museums in the UK and I have no doubt that it would be readily enjoyed by many, including the children.


    3. I understand that Coral's observations do not see Art & Science fully engaged and indeed by some may appear poles apart. However I do not agree that the common ground is lost on the development of an idea. Indeed there is an accepted scientific rigour, that the scientist must pursue in order to get the ideas accepted, but that need not be to the detriment of creativity which most would consider to be among the artistic realms of our brain.

      I agree with Coral that it is awareness that counts & I shall enjoy my week end with 3 grand children, rolling in the grass, sniffing flowers, brushing our heads through the leaves on the trees 7 making daisy chains.

      Coral, I echo your thanks to Jess for these exchanges.


  8. I'm here to pollute your blog again !

    The Cubist Artist, Sculptor, Weaver, Engineer, Surgeon and not least the Botanical Illustrator show passion. Without passion there would be no creativity, so of course there is an emotional connection with their work. As skills develop, new techniques are experimented with, even adopted and enhanced, some traditional, some new, which may include other disciplines.

    During any one piece of work emotions will fluctuate & change. Loud or silent, they are true and individual.

    The emotions felt by the creator will not be those of the perceiver / recipient / viewer.

  9. I agree for most it is passion that fuels creativity, and the sence of happiness and excitement and love for the work has to be there to make anything creative happen. This is separate from persuing emotion as a subject in an artwork, such as in American Expressionist Painting. So always its good to be clear what we mean. Even so, this is still not the whole story because there is inspiration and there is concentration and focus of intent, and passion has to sometimes give way to these to enable something to be achieved through long term endeavour. There are emotions and there is being 'emotional', so its probably best to get the definitions clear because in the end we can easily get our wires crossed.

    I can only speak up for the painter, who will always intend and hope for the perceiver/recipient/viewer to have a reaction that is what they intend them to have. Probably the WOW moment is the most recent and delightful of all reactions, a refined level of something in which we are lost in a time slip of appreciation, that takes us up. I would not see this as an emotional reaction, but some would say it is. So emotion to some is something else to an other. Big smiles and your weekend sounds really great. I'm sat watching the lightening in middle England and rolling in the grass and smelling the flowers seems a far away dream at this moment in time. Delighted and honoured to have this discussion with you Chris, and again thanks to Jess for allowing these comments to be and become.