It was at one of the art fairs some years ago that I first saw internationally renowned artist Hiroshi Senju’s waterfall paintings. They stood out from the many art pieces on display and the moment I set eyes on them, I was mesmerised. I remember it was a big piece of work, definitely taller than me, that was just grey and white but created such a powerful presence of a waterfall. I stood before the painting for a long time. I could hear the waterfall’s thundering sound. I could feel the mist it gave off. Not even photographs with their realistic representation of the same subject could evoke such a deep feeling in their beholders.
Mesmerising Art at Work
It was very much later that I had a chance to a see a video of Senju at work on one of his black and white waterfall paintings, and I became even more fascinated with them. He first grinds an ink stick -traditionally made of soot and a binding agent made from animal bone - on an ink stone with water to produce black ink, which he applies with a brush onto mulberry paper. This reminded me of my student days in a Chinese school back in Singapore’s 1960s, when we had to go through a similar process to get the ink to do our compulsory Chinese calligraphy homework. Senju also makes white pigment by hand, a process that involves mixing some natural substance in powder form with water, kneading it, adding more water to the paste and then sieving it. He then pours the white liquid from the top of the paper, stretched like a piece of canvas on a frame, so that the liquid flows down from the top leaving intricate trails of white.
But that is not all. Senju uses a spray gun – a comparatively modern device to create the mist, and traditional brushes to do the final touching up. What is amazing is how much the one component of the subject matter - water itself - does the painting. It is falling water drawn by the sheer force of gravity that depicts the mighty waterfall, and it is misty water powered by the spray gun that creates the fine mist, albeit the water is pigmented.
Born in Tokyo in 1958, Senju was educated in Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music - from its undergraduate school all the way to its doctorate programme. He has been living in the United States since 1994, for he feels that after training in the Nihonga (traditional Japanese painting) ,school and also being influenced by Chinese art, he should distance himself from this kind of heritage, and find out where his place should be in the world.
Falling in Love with Waterfalls
Senju at first painted Tokyo with its building. But his interest shifted and after making forays into subject matters such as Tokyo’s surrounding landscape and then the sky, he discovered the waterfall. He said in an interview in 2009 with Asian Art, “As I saw it, not only did I find it beautiful, but also I felt something clicking as if I recognised some kind of DNA that I had in me, like a memory. Something similar to a natural emotion came from my heart. I find that a lot of people whether they are Europeans, Americans or Japanese have similar feelings towards waterfalls. I find that these emotions go beyond the boundaries of East/West, or old/new.”
When the grand foyer of CapitaCommercial Trust’s Six Battery Road was upgraded in 2011 as part of the overall asset enhancement initiative of this Grade A office building, the project team was looking for artworks to grace the three ground floor lift lobbies. Senju’s waterfall paintings immediately came to mind and I was very glad the suggestion was taken up. For these paintings truly enhance the nature theme of the foyer – a unique space dominated by a vertical green wall with many species of plant creating a “live” abstract mural, flanked by a back-lit wall of onyx whose natural grains hint at magnificent mountain landscapes, and flooded with natural light during the day through ample skylights, giving it an extra dimension. From this space one goes into three smaller-scale lift lobbies, and it is here that one suddenly encounters Senju’s paintings, nicely fitted into the end walls of each lobby. Ever so contemplative, ever so timeless, these captivating works of art uplift the experience of waiting for the lift into something that borders on the spiritual.
This article is contributed by CapitaLand Chief of Art Management, Francis Wong Hooe Wai