Over the last decade, it has become a widely accepted fact that humankind has altered the planet’s climate and geography to such a degree that we now live in the anthropocene—the epoch of the human. Anthropocentrism, which translates as human-centered-ness and describes the idea that planet earth is ours to use and abuse for our own progress/comfort, ergo ‘happiness’, has produced the anthropocene. Western wildfires, herculean hurricanes and a persistent pandemic now prompt us to question this for-grantedness: perhaps we are, or, rather, should be, more marginal than we tend to position ourselves.
Akira Ikezoe’s paintings are imaginary and at first sight playful reflections on today’s predicament: they stage or display a precarious ecosystem in which humans are absurdly ‘busy’ and they literalize the interconnectedness of all things animate and inanimate through a logic of homo- and metamorphosis. Take, for a start, Akira’s Coconut Head series, which he began in 2016 and continues painting, and the recent Not So Still Life series (2020-), where each component of the depicted narrative, whether human, animal, or inanimate object, stands in the mere service of the next link with which it shares a certain shape or physical attribute. In the chains that loop indefinitely through these paintings, there is no escaping the system nor is there a hierarchy between the parts.
These two ongoing series, as well as Akira’s prior Future Primitive (2016-2020) series in which he paints hybrid sculptures made of organic matter and found materials, consistently use a monochrome background on which he paints extremely detailed imaginary objects that are oftentimes manipulated by androgynous looking humans with coconuts in the place of faces and heads (the so-called “coconut heads”). Despite the realistic precision of his brushstroke that ingeniously conveys texture and volume even at minimal scale, perspective and figure-field relations are completely out the window. Instead, Akira offers specific trajectories, either zigzagging on the canvas from top left to bottom right (as if a text with figures instead of words) or borrowing schemas from architectural drawings.
For his Coconut Head series, Akira has been using diagrams of power plants (coal, nuclear, wind, and solar) as the architectural understructure for his narrative system. The flows borrowed from those found factory plans become the narrative vectors of his paintings—through this gesture of appropriation, he says, he turns the mysterious inside of the energy plant that feeds capitalism (and, from what we recently learned from Texas’s energy collapse, epitomizes unregulated capitalism) into a self-sufficient system. Along the nodes of the schema Akira places mini-scenes depicting specific actions, such as planting and felling, jumping and falling, watering and growing, grinding and stacking, splashing, melting, evaporating. Compare this multitude of activity to Breughel’s Children’s Games in which a large variety of popular games are being played at the same time. Yet, on Akira’s canvases all these actions link up in an extremely precise way: they are not as much simultaneous as they feed into each other, and many of them are not even human-centric (as a Breughel scene would have it). Consider, for instance, how excavated white, powdery soil dumped out of wheelbarrows gradually turns into a larger mountain chain whose highest peaks seem to have been shaved off to reveal coffee brewing inside, with the drink at a later stage poured into small cups stirred by coconut heads, or how buried whalebones become the roots for small, plantlike windmills.
The coconut-headed humans generally come into the picture when the transformation from one object into another needs an extra hand—for example, when a baby windmill needs watering, or when an excavator’s teeth need brushing with the toothpaste made from wind-disintegrated polar bears. The humans are nodes or vessels whose main function is to foreground unlikely commonalities, for example, between toothpaste and the extrusions of an excavator’s “mouth” or between a plant sprout and a monumental windmill.
Akira’s scenes do not clarify who calls the shots or for whom these chains of absurd actions keep looping. If capitalism’s motor runs on boundless consumption and accelerated growth (aka incremental profit for a small elite), the main logic underpinning these paintings is cyclicity. The coconut heads act on a level playing field—there is no distinguishable CEO or a visible working class. In fact, the humans are only one of many actors: these indistinct humans keep busy alongside the wind, aliens, and organic growth, and they appear to be mere executors of a plan that is beyond their reach. As such, Akira undermines the anthropocentric distinction and hierarchy between human and non-human: in these paintings, there is no singular acting or thinking subject nor is there a truly passive object. If anything, the parts of this chain are agents—agents of transformation.
The prime reason for all this seemingly absurd activity is indeed form: because an empty water balloon looks like the contour of a fish, it can therefore become a fish. The only history these coconut heads represent is the one of their present busy-ness: there’s not a single trace indicating how these chains originated nor is there hope for so-called progress. In fact, the coconut heads operate in a landscape that has no visible moral compass or pleasure principle. It’s unclear whether we’ve landed at a scenario where the human has been emptied out into a feeling-less cog or where other entities, ranging from plant sprouts to aliens, come instead to the fore. The Not So Still Life series, which continues the focus on transformation and connection but does so without the intervention of any coconut heads, certainly suggests the latter.
While the depicted human life may appear monotonous and hollowed-out, what is clear is that by anchoring these systems in form and the continued potential to create similar or related forms, Akira’s imagination thrives on recycling and repurposing rather than on innovation. Part of that, he says when talking about the assembled objects in his related Future Primitive series, goes back to his experience growing up in Kochi, a mainly rural area in South Japan. After the boom of the 1980s and ensuing economic crisis in the 1990s, many structures were left unattended gradually giving for landscapes in which man-made and natural objects blended into intriguing new hybrids. Yet, looking at these imaginary chains several decades later and from a different continent, it’s clear that there’s abundant potential in transformation as an alternative model to production. Deep down, the metamorphic chains Akira depicts are all about uncovering linkages; about finding ways of reordering what is already given, of avoiding waste, de-scaling to a human size, and reconnecting.
These new imaginaries depicted may present an outside of, or odd parallel to, contemporary capitalism, yet the visual character of Akira’s paintings resonates—though most likely unintentionally so—with the contemporary visual landscape of online advertisements that often use hyper-saturated monochrome seamless backgrounds. Whereas most Coconut Head stories are set against a black or nearly black background that gives for strong contrast, the other related series, Future Primitive, uses color schemes that remind of contemporary visual culture’s fascination with mid-century so-called ‘vintage’ colors—for instance, an off baby blue, a strident orange, a yellowish pistachio green. Akira’s recurring usage of bookcases without books set against similarly monochrome backgrounds in the Not So Still Life series echoes contemporary approaches to interior decoration. Here, the shelves support and organize the separate items—a domesticated tropical plant in a crafty pot may, for example, stand adjacent to a sculpture of a miniature volcano whose rugged surface echoes the planter’s ceramics. In these zig-zagged “curated” juxtapositions, Akira feeds us back the kind of context-less domestic decorating seen in subway ads or Instagram campaigns.
Nearly 100 years ago, defamiliarization was a key method for experimental literature. Literary theorist Viktor Sklovsky had coined the term—“ostranenie” in the original Russian—in a 1917 essay titled “Art as Device.” For him,
the device of art is the “enstrangement” of things and the complication of the form, which increases the duration and complexity of perception, as the process of perception is, in art, an end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is the means to live through the making of a thing;....describing it as if seen for the first time, as if happening for the first time.
The essay is a manifesto against automatization, against language (and art in general) that makes the world become a matter of routine, a kind of brain-dead life. As allegories of contemporary human existence, Akira’s paintings strip human action of function, efficiency, and progress; they present an alien defamiliarizing gaze onto the world, where what contemporary humans do becomes irrational and where everything can become a building block for something else. Or, as Sklovsky’s “enstragement” suggests, they move us “from seeing to recognizing.” On the viewer’s end, that process of finding out is pleasurable: there’s joy in discovering the particular logic of each transformation, In that moment, the mind is momentarily freed from preset filters, dipping, albeit briefly, into a forgotten limitless imagination.