“I cut Damian Hurst. I cut Gerhard Richter too. I haven’t cut Cindy Sherman yet but I’m planning to one of these days. It’s going to take a bit more time to explore her volition towards the mannequin.” It’s a conversation that, while hinged with animosity, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Unless of course you’re talking to Noriko Ambe, a Long Island City-based artist who, among other things, creates intricate cut-outs from artist catalogs and other books. We recently caught up with her at her studio on a sunny, autumn morning.
A Sea of Clouds
Ambe wasn’t always a sculptor. It was her interest in landscape and perspective that originally guided her through a degree in oil painting. But after struggling with a brush and paper Ambe became frustrated with what she felt was limited to the act of describing. She eventually stopped painting. It was around this time she rekindled her old fascination with maps and began tracing the lines.
Everyone has an “Aha” moment. Ambe’s came in 1999 when she was on a small plane to Washington D.C. As turbulence took hold of the aircraft, Ambe stared out the window in fear. Hoping to calm her nerves, she focused on the sea of clouds and watched as the her own consciousness slowly melted into the topographies of the natural world. It was a sensation she had longed for. One that was missing from her work. One that was now a part of her artistic vocabulary.
It was a study on the conceptual artist Luis Camnitzer that consequently led Ambe to establish herself in New York. In the summer of 1999 Ambe traveled to Italy on a grant from Japan’s Pola Art Foundation to participate in a residency program organized by Luis Camnitzer. The Uruguayan artist had moved to NY in 1964, where he co-founded the New York Graphic Workshop. After spending 2-months in Italy, Ambe followed in his footsteps and traveled to NY where she finished her 1-year residency and began her Linear-Actions Cutting /Drawing Project (the free-hand cutting of single sheets of paper and stacking them together), which would go on to define her career.
But she continued to work out of Japan, periodically traveling to New York to meet with gallerists. In 2003, what Ambe calls a “shocking” development transformed her career. The Perogi Gallery in Brooklyn invited her to stage a solo exhibition. “You are crazy to invite an unknown artist like me for a solo exhibition,” Ambe told the gallery. “You have to be crazy, too,” they countered.
The first book she ever carved into was one on the geography of Japan – a fitting title considering her practice was about to become a meditation on carving her own geography. Ambe quickly realized that, by recording her bodily actions, she was able to transcend descriptions and enter into something more infinite.
What’s your definition of art, we asked. “When you transcend your own self-consciousness, then you have art,” she replied, without hesitation.
Light-duty utility blades are the lifeblood of Ambe’s work. But to precisely cut layer at a time, not just any blade will do. After all, she replaces her blade after just a single layer of cutting. Ambe swears by a brand of blades manufactured only in Japan. Upon returning home, Ambe will visit 2 or 3 of the largest craft stores in Tokyo. And if you arrive after her, you’re out of luck as their inventory will have been depleted.
“Books have a message. I try to pull that message out,” Ambe tells us, as we gather around her collection of yet-to-be-cut material. But she admitted to us that there’s something inherently sadistic in her art. Once she is done cutting up a book – a process that usually takes 2 – 3 days – its original purpose has been lost (transformed is probably a better word). “Part of it is guilt,” she says, “but the other part is a ‘just go ahead and do it’ feeling.” But it’s that feeling of guilt that pushes her to create an art object that she’s satisfied with. Something that will make up for the fact that she has just destroyed a book.
“Joubutsu,” she says, referring to a Buddhist term that refers to someone who has died and entered Nirvana. In fact, listening to her talk I couldn’t help but be reminded of the classic image of a Samurai warrior saying a prayer for a victim he had just slayed. As Picasso once said, “every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”
We got a sneak peek at Ambe’s latest work. Below is “A Piece of Flat Globe” volume 29 and 30. (photos courtesy the artist)
Studio Visits are an ongoing series in which we visit NY-based Japanese artists in their studio. You can read them all here.
(special thanks to Masako for helping make this studio visit possible)