Art Central 2023

Hiraku: Opening Up To Freedom

Katsumi Nakai

22 Mar – 25 Mar 2023

Curatorial text by: Charmaine Tam

Novalis Art Design, Booth B34

Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre

Hiraku: Opening Up To Freedom
Charmaine Tam

‘I’m interested in the mystery of the objects that vibrate or change: open and close.’
‘I am opening up spaces.’

Katsumi Nakai  (1927 – 2013)


This is an exhibition of Japanese artist Katsumi Nakai’s defining oeuvre, despite being his later works from 1991 – 2011. In finding Milan, Nakai found freedom in his own terms, namely his signature style of ‘hiraku’ (opening) works. Since his first work in this manner in 1966, Nakai has continuously explored the different possibilities of ‘hiraku’‮٦‬‭}‬٪ط) (opening), which is opening up from 2D into new space and dimensions. Nakai’s work is unique in its hybridity. His work is a cross between painting and sculpture, melding Eastern and Western influences (be it a conscious or unconscious decision). It is impossible to classify Nakai as one or the other, as his work reflects himself as a whole, whether that is his personality, or his life experiences from both the East (Japan) and West (Italy). Regardless of whether it was a conscious decision on Nakai’s part, the Eastern and Western influences have been absorbed by the artist through osmosis of simply living and experiencing culture from both Japan and Italy. Hence why viewers can get the sense of both Eastern and Western influences while looking at Nakai’s works.


It is necessary to understand Nakai’s background in order to see how he came to making works in this signature style, to understand his work as his own pursuit of freedom of sorts. Nakai was born in Osaka in 1927 and grew up with a Shinto priest father. The term Shinto means ‘Doctrine of the Gods.’ His father and his upbringing had a lasting impact on him, both in the formation of his character, and how he views relationships with the world and with others. Recounting his childhood Nakai said:


‘When I was a child this State religion attributed divine origins to the emperor and to the ruling dynasty. During the day we all lived in a small house near the temple. Every first and fifteenth day of the month my father wore ancient costumes for important ceremonies. […] The temple was on a small hill surrounded by pine and secular trees. I would run down the hill towards the lawn launching my kite in the sky.’


Nakai respected his father immensely. He was very proud of having a father who was a strict upholder of Japanese tradition. His Shitoist upbringing perhaps had an impact on his character. Nakai was a purist in the sense that he liked everything to be clear and was adamant on fairness whether with people or things. This is reflected in his work in the cleanliness and purity of line and shape. Although his ‘hiraku’ works offer seemingly endless variations, with the possibility and experience of opening up space and dimension to discover previously hidden colours or shapes, the overall effect remains clear rather than convoluted.


Nakai was 17 years old when World War II ended. The war undoubtedly left an important and massive impact on him. His heart was heavy after witnessing the horrors of the Second World War. ‘Art is life, not death. If you go to war you have to kill or get yourself killed. I [Nakai] didn’t like it.’ He chose art and started painting to feel free. Partially to find freedom and peace from this heavy feeling leftover from the war, and to escape the many traditional confines imposed by Japanese society. He recalled that, ‘On 15th August peace came: The people that up until yesterday were traditionalist and obedient, suddenly became modern, progressive, hungry for more freedom and innovation.’ He was a founding member of Japanese art group Tekkeikai in 1958.  Even then, he felt too restricted in the Japanese art world. In his own words, ‘[…] few Japanese collectors liked the avant-garde art; people wanted traditional, academic and commercial art.’ And so, in 1964, he ‘left chasing the sun,’ looking for a sense of freedom, and found Milan.


Nakai arrived in Milan in 1964, to a city in the midst of change. In the 1960s, Italy had mostly healed from the havoc of World War II and was experiencing the ‘economic miracle.’ This was also reflected in various avant-garde art movements that emerged around Milan and elsewhere in Italy. Nakai was quickly accepted into the circle of the ‘New Milanese School’ as crowned by critic Guido Ballo, where there was also close overlap with Spatialism (Spazialismo) that was spearheaded by Lucio Fontana. Nakai was immensely curious about Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvas and concept of Spatialism. For a brief understanding of Spatialism’s main concept, here is a quote from a talk given by Lucio Fontana at the Milan Triennale in 1951:


‘We have renounced the practice of familiar art forms and are working to develop a kind of art based on the unity of time and space…We think of art as a sum of physical elements: colour, sound, movement, time, and space, brought together in a physical and mental whole. Colour, an element of space; sound, an element of time; and movement, unfolding in space and time. These are the foundations of Spatialist art.’


Inspired by Fontana and other artists active in Spatialism, Nakai started experimenting with wood as early as late 1965, where he began cutting pieces of wood. He made his first complete ‘hiraku’ work in 1966. Nakai was already experimenting with a more three-dimensional way of working in his paintings in the 1950s, where he painted oil paint in thick, but precise and sharp layers using a palette knife. His encounter with Fontana’s work sparked a breakthrough. Nakai found the freedom he had been pursuing and arrived at ‘hiraku’ works. Instead of Fontana’s cutting and incising, Nakai went further. He cut into a piece of wood, thus creating works that open up and reach out into surrounding space and dimension. Nakai worked in this style and method ever since, throughout the rest of his career. This is not to say that Nakai remained stagnant, but he continuously explored the different possibilities of ‘hiraku,’ of opening up new spaces and dimensions through experimenting with different shapes, different ways of opening, and different colours. In his own words, Nakai expressed his views towards the process of developing his ‘hiraku’ works:


‘I sensed […] the necessity to express myself through the third dimension. […] I tried various materials until I discovered that wood is the most suitable for my sensitivity. I was happy. And this is it.’


The works presented here at Art Central and Novalis Art Design in Hong Kong are his ‘hiraku’ works spanning 1991 – 2011, a few years before his death. They are, nonetheless, equally representative of his life practice. Some are biomorphic abstract shapes that open up to reveal more secret discoveries in colour. Others start off as a monochromatic rectangular flat painting but open up to reveal surprising colours and shapes. In terms of colour, the viewer might notice that the use of red is quite prominent within the series of works presented here. Red was the colour that Nakai used the most frequently. Simply because he loved it and the vivacity and vibrancy of red ‘made him feel good’.

Some critics have mentioned the motion of folding and unfolding in his ‘hiraku’ works being like origami. However, it must be noted that Nakai’s work is not foldable. Or rather, he did not view them as foldable works. He himself stated adamantly, ‘They are not foldable works. I am opening up spaces.’ Nakai was only ever interested in the ‘opening up’, and not the ‘closing in.’  Of course, they must coexist within the work, but Nakai’s work can be closed and returned to its original state only so that the act of the work ‘opening up’ can be experienced again. So that the opening up to new spaces, dimensions, and new discoveries can be enjoyed over and over.

It is interesting to note that his works have been compared to both Japanese and Western influences. They have been likened to church altarpieces, or little shrines in Eastern culture; some find the colouring to be Japanese in character, some see an Italian sensibility in the vividness of the colours; some see flora and fauna harkening back to kacho-fugetsu, the traditional subject matter foregrounding nature in Japanese culture, others see Western architectural influences or biomorphic shapes. It is not one or the other. In terms of Japanese influence, it was never intentional. However, it is inevitable that Nakai’s Japanese upbringing would have had an impact on his art subconsciously. He grew up in Japan, then lived in Milan for thirty years before returning to Japan back in 1995/6. His work is an amalgamation of his life experience, of his experience living in both Japan and Italy, and hence they show hints of both Eastern and Western culture, melded seamlessly together to form a portrait of Katsumi Nakai the artist, and his life.

Katsumi Nakai spent his life pursuing freedom. He has found it in art. In the act of ‘hiraku,’ opening up, and in his works, he shares this experience, this freedom of opening up to new discoveries to his viewers and to posterity.





中井克巳(1927 – 2013)

是次展覽展出日本藝術家中井克巳(Katsumi Nakai)的代表性作品,即便它們均屬於1991-2011年間的後期創作。在探索米蘭的過程中,中井確立了他的標誌性「打開」(開く)系列作品,並以此為自己找到了自由。自1966年他首次以此風格創作以來,中井不斷探索「打開」的不同可能性,即是從二維空間去開闢新的空間和維度。中井的作品擁有獨一無二的混合性,是繪畫和雕塑的交匯,並同時(在有意或無意之間)融合東方和西方的影響。我們難以把中井克巳的創作歸類於一方,因為他的作品反映了一個整體的自我,包括他的個性,以及來自東方(日本)和西方(意大利)的生活經驗。不論是否有意為之,東西方的影響就在中井於日本與意大利的日常生活之時被他吸收。因此,觀眾在欣賞中井的作品時,可以同時感受到東方和西方的影響。



中井非常尊敬他的父親,為有一位嚴格維護日本傳統的父親而自豪。神道教的成長環境或許影響了他的性格——中井是一位純粹主義者,他喜歡一切都清晰明確,並且堅持公平的原則,無論對人還是對事都是如此。這個態度從作品簡潔與純淨的線條和形狀裡體現出來。儘管他的 「打開」系列提供了似乎無窮無盡的變化,創造開闢空間和維度的可能性與經歷,從而發現被隱藏的顏色或形狀,但作品的整體效果仍然是清澈明瞭而非繁複晦澀的。


中井於1964年抵達米蘭,來到一個正在變化中的城市。在60年代,義大利基本上已經從二戰的災難中復蘇,並正經歷一場「經濟奇蹟」,在米蘭和義大利各地興起的各種前衛藝術運動也反映出當時的經濟盛況。中井很快就進入了被藝評家吉多.巴羅(Guido Ballo)所宣揚的 「新米蘭學派」圈子,這圈子亦與盧齊歐.封塔納(Lucio Fontana)所宣導的空間主義(Spazialismo)有所重疊。中井對盧齊歐.封塔納割裂的畫布與空間主義的概念非常感興趣。為了簡介空間主義的主要概念,在此引用盧齊歐.封塔納1951年在米蘭三年展上的演說:




是次於香港Art Central和Novalis Art Design展出橫跨1991至2011年間的「打開」系列,它們來自中井去世前的數年間。然而,這些作品對中井一生的創作均具有代表性。它們當中有些是呈生物形態的抽象形狀並繼而開展,從色彩中揭露出更多的秘密。另一些作品本身是單色的方形平面畫作,但開展出令人驚訝的顏色和形狀。在色彩方面,觀眾可能會注意在這一系列作品中,紅色的使用相當突出。紅色是中井最常使用的顏色,他喜歡紅色的活力和生機「能讓他感覺良好」。

有些藝評家認為,「打開」作品的折疊和展開動作有如日式折紙(Origami)。然而,必須注意的是,中井的作品是不能折疊的。或者說,他不認同它們為可折疊的作品。他本人曾堅定地表示:「它們不是可折疊的作品。我是在開闢空間。」中井只對 「打開」感興趣,而不涉及「關上」。 當然,兩種情況必須在作品中共存,但中井的作品之所以可以被關上再恢復到原來狀態,只是為了讓「打開」的過程能被再次體驗,讓打開新空間、新維度和新發現的經驗可以被反復享受。