Issue #03|Rei Naito|Mirror Creation

Drawing out the unobservable
Fumihiko Sumitomo: I have to say, I was stunned to see how you used the first room in this exhibition. Your artworks are always arranged with such subtlety – how do you approach the architectural space when you’re setting them up? Whether it’s the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, or the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura, do you ever try to imagine how SANAA or Junzo Sakakura went about designing the proportions of those spaces?

Rei Naito: Rather than think about the proportions, I start with the basic premise that everything I see before me is good. And if some human element – by which I mean the relationship between humans and the space – is obscuring an inherent appeal of the space, I try to bring that to the fore.

Sumitomo: Spaces designed by architects tend to make people feel a certain tension. To put it in more positive terms, they make people focus. But your art seems to have the effect of transforming such spaces, making viewers feel focused and relaxed in turn. And I think that’s what draws out the kind of things you were talking about – elements that are less conspicuous.

Naito: Like light, wind...

Sumitomo: Yes, the way your work lets people visually appreciate the wind is simple yet tremendously effective.

Rei Naito, "the spirit", 2020, ribbons, poles. Photo: Naoya Hatakeyama

Naito: Those ribbons show us the richly varied winds that flow through those courtyards. Spaces, light, wind, things – through these, my focus has now shifted toward the human beings, toward the idea of looking at the people in those spaces. When Matrix at the Teshima Art Museum was finally completed, I was moved most by how beautiful the human figures appeared to me. Without realizing it, I’d developed love and affection for all the people there that I didn’t even know.

Looking on from “outside life”
Sumitomo: It takes an incredible feat to make viewers feel that way too – feel how its creator feels. But the space you created on Teshima does just that, even with first-time viewers of your art.

Naito: With the Teshima work, the scale of the space is part of the experience. You see people from a distance, right? That’s a different experience to viewing a painting shoulder-to-shoulder. With this exhibition too, the experience is largely affected by the scale of the spaces and the artwork, and by the lighting that changes throughout the day. Natural light isn’t fixed, so the artwork’s impression constantly changes too. But even removing all that, each individual viewer has lived a different personal history, and feels different on a given day. How people feel about the artwork can also change from moment to moment, and even vary sharply within the same space depending on where they stand or how high their eyeline is. With my work, the viewers are fully exposed to the influence of such factors. Many believe that these influences should be avoided – that we should aspire to create stable things that look the same anywhere, anytime. But that’s not what my work is about. Accepting it all as is means that the works are unstable, so the way viewers perceive and feel about them is always fluid and changing too. No two people are having the same experience, because an individual experience will only ever be individual. You might be sharing the artwork with other people, but you won’t share the same experience, you can’t. Human beings are solitary like that. No-one can step into someone else’s world, and besides, I don’t want to ruin anyone’s personal experience of that moment. Anyway, that’s how I began to feel, and I had a sense that I shared these feelings with the viewers too. I found this at Teshima, and with the Kanazawa works too. I experienced a similar thing with the work I made two years before Teshima, at Nizayama Forest Art Museum in Toyama – the one with the water dripping down from above every now and then. It was around then that I started being aware of the people beyond the objects – people alive in the there and then. And by the time of the exhibition in Mito, this had developed into the idea of “compassion.” The way I see it, whenever we humans feel such a way, it’s because we’ve stepped outside life.

Sumitomo: This seems like a crucial point. Can you explain what exactly you mean by “outside life”?

Naito: The departed, the yet unborn, animals, spirits... It’s such a gaze that makes us see other people and feel: “You’re alive, right there, right now.” We’re not aware of ourselves in those moments. As I was planning and testing things out for this exhibition, I realized that this idea of “inside life” and “outside life” is not to do with a spatial division but with a shift of consciousness. The exhibits at Kanazawa are set up such that you go back and forth between seeing and being seen: seeing the human-shaped figures in human, then being seen by them; seeing other people, then being seen by them. And this pattern is repeated. Then, finally, you reach Room 14 with that small opening that looks onto the entrance lobby and the streets beyond it, and you see human beings there once again.

“Playing house” and “mirroring”

Naito: The stories that art tells – they’re an act of playing house, of mirroring.

Sumitomo: What do you mean by “playing house”?

Rei Naito, "untitled (matrix)", 2008, vinyl, thread, beads, electric stoves, paint on wood. Photo: Naoya Hatakeyama

Naito: Well, the title of this exhibition is “Mirror Creation,” but the Japanese verb for “mirror,” utsusu, can also mean to “reflect,” “copy,” “alter.” Take pairs like life and death, light and darkness, nature and humanity, artwork and artist, artwork and viewer. These seeming polar opposites are originally indivisible in nature, and so when you split them into two, it creates this in-between space, in which the divided halves are “mirrored.” They wouldn’t mirror each other if they hadn’t been divided in the first place. And this space gives birth to movement and vitality. “Playing house,” as in what children do, is a particular type of mirroring, one that is emulative and edifying.

Sumitomo: Your work always struck me as being introspective, self-reflective. So I was intrigued when I saw this exhibition’s title, which seemed to imply multiple entities. [The Japanese title translates more closely to “mutually reflecting creations.”]

Naito: I think it’s that I’m interested in human beings’ initial reactions. It gives insight into what we are, we humans born and bred of this earth.

Light, colors and life appear all at once
Naito: So first you have this primordial view with water dripping down from time to time. And as we stand in the space in front of it, that view might even “mirror” us. There’s thread there too, though you can’t see it.

Sumitomo: Yes, I read in my guide map that there was something installed there that I couldn’t see. [laughs]

Rei Naito, "untitled", 2020, thread. Photo: Naoya Hatakeyama

Naito: That’s right, you can’t see it. [laughs] There are mirrors there too. Then there are the “windows” in Rooms 9 and 10. I made a big discovery while testing the exhibit there. Unlike other rooms, those rooms don’t have natural light coming in from overhead, but the path running alongside them is brightly lit by natural light from the courtyard, so there’s a very high contrast in light levels. This meant that when I stood inside that dim space and looked at the path reflected in the glass, the people walking there appeared colorful. And when people came into the space, it was as though color had materialized. That’s all because of the lighting. People inside the space appear monotone in the glass because there’s less light.

"Rei Naito: Mirror Creation", 2020, installation view at 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. Photo: Naoya Hatakeyama

Sumitomo: I see. And you only discovered that by experiencing it firsthand.

Naito: Exactly. Maybe viewers won’t see it the way I did, especially because it depends on the weather too. But some of them may notice it.

Sumitomo: Right.

Naito: I hadn’t noticed it either until then. Light, colors and life, emerging all at once, tied together inseparably. It was a joyous discovery. And I realized that this was also what I’d been groping for with color beginning. With those paintings too, you gaze at them and slowly begin to see colors, light and life emerge as one from within. You’d have no painting without the light.

Sumitomo: color beginning beautifully creates that experience of light and color manifesting themselves.

Naito: It was through this exhibition that I rediscovered the human figure, and in a different way to the Teshima work: I saw living human figures as colors. This is something specific to the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, but the paths next to the light court are also visible in the glass, along with the people walking up and down them. In full color. Then, after that room, you go into Room 11, where you find a lot of those human figures on the ground in the distance.

Rei Naito, "matrix", 2020, water, mixed media / “human”, 2011–2020, acrylic on wood. Photo: Naoya Hatakeyama

Sumitomo: It’s a matter of scale once again. human had a very solitary feel when I first saw it in Berlin in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. But with this exhibition, the figures were standing in a larger, more open space at comfortable distances from one another, and they appeared stronger, more secure. That left a big impression on me.

Naito: Scale, perspective... I think there’s something very particular about the feeling you have when you’re watching human beings at a distance. In Room 7, the figures of human stand on the floor, on the earth. Then, when you approach the figures in Room 11, they’re closer to your own eyeline. And there’s a whole new intimacy when you see them at that height, somewhere between your hip and your chest.

Rei Naito, "matrix", 2020, water, mixed media / “human”, 2020, acrylic on wood. Photo: Naoya Hatakeyama
"Rei Naito: Mirror Creation", 2020, installation view at 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. Photo: Naoya Hatakeyama

Sumitomo: Absolutely. Both with Kanazawa and Mito, there are various spots in the galleries that have become stained or damaged over years of use. And the natural light bares those details to the viewers. I found that very comforting – it made me feel very warm inside to realize that these weren’t something to be hidden, but a “blessing,” to borrow your words. It was as though I was getting to know the building for the first time, even though I’ve been there many times.

Naito: That goes for one’s attitude to light and space as well – whether one can take them as they are, welcoming their influence as a positive. It’s about how we humans should engage with spaces and things without trying to recreate them, about how best to get along with them. We shouldn’t just do anything we please with them.

Sumitomo: That’s why you left what was there intact.

Rei Naito, "untitled", 2020, water, glass jar. Photo: Naoya Hatakeyama

Imperceptible realms
Naito: So let’s say you set out to welcome the weather in all its changeability. But what your head thinks and what your heart feels are different. Personally, I tend to feel quite low on days with little sunlight. That’s a biological reaction, so other people viewing the artwork might experience a similar thing on a dreary day. And when I’m in that space and natural light suddenly shines through, it takes less than a second for me to feel my heart grow brighter. But that only happens, of course, because it’s not always bright. As I said earlier, the work is unstable, it’s in flux. I’ve recently started to think that my work is largely concerned with the idea that humans can only perceive a fragment of the world. So on the one hand, you have human beings with all their limitations, and on the other, you have this totality that’s in flux. To describe it in abstract terms, it’s like there’s one overarching space which encompasses all the exhibition spaces, which alone knows everything that is happening everywhere inside it. It’s hard to say what this is exactly, because it’s not a physical entity as such. At the very least, it’s not human. But I think it’s important to be aware that this world we live in contains something that is beyond us human beings. Take for example that infinite space created by small mirrors that face each other. When people peer in, that infinity is disrupted, destroyed. Similarly, the two mirrors installed high up create an infinite space too, but the human viewers aren’t privy to it simply because the mirrors are too high.

Sumitomo: I guess that experience of being unable to see amounts to sensing beyond the world of our perception.

Naito: Yes, like with the thread and the mirrors in Room 7 – we’re incapable of perceiving them, even though they’re there. But it comforts me to have things like that.

Sumitomo: I’d personally thought you might not want to do museum exhibitions anymore after Teshima. But then I saw what you managed to achieve in Kanazawa, like with that dark room that you divided symmetrically. With pre-existing settings like that – as opposed to something like the Teshima artwork, which was designed and built from the ground up – an essential part of your job is to bring out appeal that has been overlooked.

Naito: What difference do you feel between the Teshima artwork and arrangements composed of multiple exhibition rooms, like the Kanazawa exhibition or the one at Art Tower Mito? The Teshima artwork has no arrangement as such: it is one and whole.

Sumitomo: The Teshima artwork is totally removed from time. It totally envelops you, so you end up afloat in time with the other people present. That’s a genuinely one-and-only experience. With a museum, you walk around going from artwork to artwork, and this process creates a certain narrative. In this exhibition, you gaze outside the window in the final circular room, and it feels as though your internal and external worlds have been joined together by a hole. And that’s the narrative’s conclusion. It’s a structure that can only have been conceived by someone with your experience and understanding of how museum spaces work.

Naito: As you say, there are things that can only work at a museum.

Rei Naito, "What Kind of Place was the Earth?", 2020, glass, thread. Photo: Naoya Hatakeyama

Sumitomo: Even though wind and sounds come into the Teshima artwork from the surrounding nature, you still feel removed from the outside world once you’re inside. In contrast, this exhibition gives visitors a sense of the outside, like the wind that’s been made visible in the courtyard, or the streets outside the museum that you can see from the last room. That was a particularly effective touch.

Naito: Yes, I see. Maybe the hints of nature that enter the space have a stronger presence when you’re inside architecture – inside artificial spaces with a defined purpose. But that’s something unique to that museum. It’s not in every museum that you can see the ticket office from inside the exhibition room.

Sumitomo: It’s amazing how you noticed that. [laughs]

Naito: If that had been a well-groomed garden, this work wouldn’t exist. What you see from that little opening is everyday society, the world in all its flux. There are people visible in the distance. And the question is whether or not you’re able to feel love for them, to feel a sense of compassion, to feel how you yourself are living in that world, right now. These were questions I was asking myself too. Well, when you achieve that state of mind, that’s when you emerge through that opening and are born into this world. [both laugh] While you’re alive, you can return to this world whenever you wish. There’s somewhere you can go back to – that mundane scene in color.

Sumitomo: I remember well. As for me, I looked out of that opening at the end and saw a random guy’s face. I was initially a little dismayed, but then I realized how rare that experience was in itself, to have that slice of reality. I even felt an affection of sorts.

Naito: Affection – that’s right. The way I see it, that’s art too.

Rei Naito, "matrix", 2020, soufflé beads, bell, nylon line. Photo: Naoya Hatakeyama

Interviewer: Fumihiko Sumitomo
(Director, Arts Maebashi; Associate Professor, Tokyo University of the Arts)

Interview conducted at Taka Ishii Gallery
Translator: Yasumasa Kawata (Art Translators Collective)
All images are installation views of "Rei Naito: Mirror Creation" (2020) at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa.
Special thanks to the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa


It is a process that involves moving back and forth between human beings and nature, you and I, life and death, inside and outside, and people and art as well as copying, reflecting, and altering these things. In developing a sense of unity with the anima and compassion that emerges from these mirrored images, a moment of creation arises as one attempts to face life.
———Excerpt from the press release of the exhibition, “Rei Naito: Mirror Creation,” 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa

Rei Naito creates scenes of life on earth through engaging with natural elements of light, water, wind, delicate materials such as thread, ribbons, beads, glass, and further integrating changing ephemeral entities like weather and time. The colors and sounds brought about through her subtle interventions with the exhibition space quietly convey to us that “we are living amidst a continuum with the world and nature.” Silence, the sounds of viewers’ breathing and the rustle of clothing, and the indistinguishable presences of others dissolve into the space, over time evoking within us the awareness that we too are one with this world. In creating permanent installations such as Being given (“Kinza” Art House Project, Naoshima, 2001) and Matrix (Teshima Art Museum, 2010), as well as her solo exhibition the “emotion of belief” (Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, 2014), the artist had come to confront “the subconscious movement of one (I) who is inside of life, stepping out of it so as to gaze at it from the outside.” In “Rei Naito: Mirror Creation” (21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, 2020), the artist, who has consistently endeavored to “transcend what people (I) make,” deals with “creation” for the first time. The artist herself suggests that this is an act of learning to allow ourselves to become the subject and become human.

The work color beginning, introduced in the viewing room, is a series of paintings that Naito has been creating since 2005. While taking time to come face to face with the work, colors come to emerge through developing a sense of unity with light and anima. Such conveys that perception and the nature of emotions change from moment to next depending on the state of a person’s mind, as well as the environment in which they engage with the work. These works were created during the same period as the paintings presented in her solo exhibition “Rei Naito: Mirror Creation” (21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, 2020).


Rei Naito: Mirror Creation
June 27 (Sat.) – August 23 (Sun.), 2020
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa
* Admission to the exhibition permitted with timed-entry tickets only.
official web site


Rei Naito
Rei Naito was born in 1961 in Hiroshima. Currently lives and works in Tokyo.
In 1985, she graduated the Musashino Art University, College of Art and Design, Visual Communication Design.

She first came to public recognition with “One Place on The Earth”, at Sagacho Exhibit Space, Tokyo in 1991. This led to her being invited to install the same piece within the Japanese Pavilion at the 47h Venice Biennale in 1997. Her work asks us “Is our existence on the Earth a blessing in itself?”

Notable solo exhibitions include “Migoto ni harete otozureru wo mate”, The National Museum of Art, Osaka (1995); “Being Called”, Karmeliterkloster, Frankfurt am Main (1997); “Tout animal est dans le monde comme de l’eau à l’intérieur de l’eau”, The Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura, Kanagawa (2009); “the emotion of belief”, Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, Tokyo (2014); “the emotion of belief”, The Japan Cultural Institute in Paris (2017); “Two Lives”, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Tel Aviv (2017) and “on the bright Earth I see you”, Contemporary Art Center, Art Tower Mito, Ibaraki (2018). Her solo exhibition “Rei Naito: Mirror Creation” is currently on view at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa until August 23.

Permanent installations include Being given (Kinza, Art House Project, Naoshima, Kagawa, 2001), Matrix (Teshima Art Museum, Teshima, Kagawa, 2010). Awards received include Promising Artists and Scholars of Contemporary Japanese Arts by Japan Arts Foundation, (Installation field, 1995), 1st Asahi Beer Arts Awards by Asahi Beer Arts Foundation (2003), 60th Mainichi Art Prize (2019) and 69th Minister of Education Award for Fine Arts (2019).

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