Detail of Black Orchid by Kako Ueda
Detail of Black Orchid, 2018. Collage of cut paper and felt on foam core with acrylic paint, 17.25 × 17.25 × 0.25 in. Photo courtesy of Olympia.

Clare Gemima spoke with Kako Ueda about the making of “Tori Tori Tori,” her most recent show at Olympia Gallery, and the magic of symbols.

Olympia’s recent show “Tori Tori Tori,” showcased Kako Ueda’s romantic interest in birds, insects, and other wildlife that experience migration, flight, or otherwise massive transformations throughout their life cycle. Oddly shaped, and highly intricate paper-cut miniatures combined sculptural, painterly, and illustrative qualities organically, and seemed to amalgamate into hybrid creatures that took on a completely new life of their own. Ueda’s intrinsic and deeply rooted connection to symbolism in her artistic and professional life ultimately informed her explorations of tori (bird in Japanese) and their significance within the artist’s personal life and throughout other more global and historical contexts.

In this interview, Kako Ueda and I discussed the research that underpinned “Tori Tori Tori,” the negative and positive influences that have tied into her time cutting and constructing with paper, and her experience as the curator of the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS) in New York City.

Making Tori Tori Tori

Clare Gemima: Do you consider your highly intricate works in Tori Tori Tori a hybrid of sculpture and painting, or something else entirely?

Kako Ueda: Both. At the same time, I often use the term “in between.” My works are two-and-a-half-dimensional because I consider sculpture as something you can walk around, yet my work always needs a wall to support them.

I feel at this very moment that symbols, and the act of making symbols is a really unique human activity, which we do all the time in our heads, each and every single one of us.

Clare Gemima: Is the process of making them improvisational, or pre-planned?

Kako Ueda: One great thing about my small pieces is that I can be more improvisational, and there’s such beauty in that. I can just sort of go for it, if you know what I mean. The fact that I can see the idea turning into a piece of artwork at a quicker rate also helps me feel good about trying, and not being afraid to try again. If I make a mistake, it can also add a sense of mystique, and if I end up changing something, I can just go over it if it doesn’t look right to me. It’s quite a pivotal moment in paper cutting because there are certain mistakes you cannot correct, and you have to sometimes ditch something and start from scratch if you take it too far. The bigger pieces I have to pre-plan a little bit more, understandably. In the end, “mistakes” are not mistakes, though.

Usually, I make the work, and then I think about its title. I want to keep many aspects of the process intuitive—so I guess the answer is also a bit of both. 

New Green Deal by Kako Ueda
New Green Deal, 2021. Hand-cut paper, collage, with acrylic paint, 9.5 × 9.5 × 0.25 in. Right: Detail. Photo courtesy of Olympia.

Kako Ueda on paper cutting

Clare Gemima: How did paper cutting gradually become a focal technique in your practice?

Kako Ueda: My mother had suffered a brain aneurysm, and she was in a hospital for about three months at the time. I was in Japan when she almost died and came back. So you know, that really influenced me, and I think that prompted me to start cutting paper. I was merely painting and folding before that, and then suddenly, I don’t know, maybe in that big life moment, something jolted me psychically and emotionally, and I felt I had to start doing something new.

Clare Gemima: What was your thinking behind the making of One-Horn, Two-Horn, 2013?

Kako Ueda: At the time, I was constantly hearing about Palestine and Israel and started thinking about how devastating it was that our human history is a history of conflicts and war. So, as I was thinking about all of these things, I decided to use two beings—one with one horn, and one with two horns. They are actually mythical creatures called Oni in Japanese. There are some Oni with one horn, some Oni with two horns—so they’re basically the same, but different. I also started thinking about two different species trying to assess and connect to one another, and I essentially wanted to construct a scene where they’re both looking at each other and trying to assist one another. Maybe they’re about to engage in conversation. 

I was thinking about two seemingly different cultures being in pursuit of a conflict—the type of conflict that’s more like a neighborly war blind to the customs, cultures and languages that are ironically shared. The piece has an asymmetrical harmony, as well as a definite tension, so there’s a type of confrontation as opposed to a fight happening here. It’s creepy, but at the same time humorous. I like that company, because I’m drawn to dark subject matter, but at the same time I always want to inject some humor into the work—life must have some of that!

One-Horn, Two-Horn by Kako Ueda
One-Horn, Two-Horn, 2012–13. Hand-Cut paper with acrylic. 20 3/4 × 39 in. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

The use of symbols

Clare Gemima: Could you describe your relationship with the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS)?

Kako Ueda: I’ve been working at the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism for over 20 years, and I really believe in the power of symbols as Dr. Carl Jung did. He understood that a symbol could exist as anything in the world, so long as we had our minds and souls acting as the vehicle that drove its meaning. I think so far, even though it’s not proven, human beings are the only species who can think symbolically, and employ that to create literature, art, and music—let’s not talk about AI right now, okay?… I feel at this very moment that symbols, and the act of making symbols is a really unique human activity, which we do all the time in our heads, each and every single one of us.

One of my tasks as the curator of the archive is overseeing its maintenance, as well as its consistent improvement and expansion. We are constantly adding new images, for example, and because I’m from Japan originally, it is my passion to put more interesting images into ARAS’ Japanese section. Although unfortunately west-oriented for much of its time, the archive focuses on art works from prehistoric times to now, and we currently have around 18,000 images indexed. We have old-fashioned card catalogs, and for some reason the snake is one of the largest symbols collected, so it’s a good collection to track the symbology from the caveman age to now, across so many different cultures and time periods. People can use our archive to look up snakes, or whales, or certain goddesses or gods and see what comes up. For us, it’s certainly not about curating a meaning of that symbol, it’s about collecting the different understandings of its overall, archetypal meaning, while considering its positive and negative attributes. There is a beauty in discovering uniqueness and similarities at the same time in different cultures.

Clare Gemima: How do you approach the use of symbols in your art making?

Kako Ueda: When I make things, I don’t think “oh, I’ll put that symbol here, and that symbol there.” Of course not. That’s not how I work. I organically see images in my head already made, which is way more interesting, and then I basically try to recreate that in front of me. It’s almost like my brain makes this visual thing in my head and says, “Okay, you want to make this, make this.” I’m recreating what I see in my mind’s eye, and what I see in my mind’s eye I rarely question. If it just keeps bugging me, I need to recreate it with my hands to see it in front of me, and then I like to share it with people—I guess that’s one way I could put it. I don’t think about conceptualized symbolism so much, especially considering there’s an infinite amount of that in the art, and the greater world already.

Black Orchid by Kako Ueda
Black Orchid, 2018. Collage of cut paper and felt on foam core with acrylic paint, 17.25 × 17.25 × 0.25 in. Right: Detail. Photo courtesy of Olympia.

Kako Ueda is a two-time recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts grant. She has been exhibiting both nationally and internationally for 25 years, including at the Museum of Art and Design, NYC, Contemporary Art Museum Kiasma, Helsinki, Finland, DeCordova Museum, MA, John Michael Kohler Art Center, WI, and the Mint Museum, NC. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.

“Tori Tori Tori” by Kako Ueda ran from May 12 to July 1,2023 at Olympia Gallery in New York’s Lower East Side. For more information, please visit: https://olympiart.org/toritoritori