Interview: Ryo Arita
Luca Curci talks with Ryo Arita during VENICE INTERNATIONAL ART FAIR 2021 – 14TH EDITION, at Misericordia Archives.
“I work with food, on food, and around food. The Japanese Zen concept of food as both sustenance and transitory perishable art, pleasing to the senses and meant to be ingested and transformed as life-sustaining energy, is an inspiration for my art media. Past projects include portraits depicting Kamikaze pilots made from Koshihikari rice and Nori seaweed, two elements of Japanese cuisine of immense cultural importance, evoking notions of honour, history, and tradition. Growing up both of my parents worked in the restaurant industry. My father, as a sushi chef, illustrated the interwoven concepts of composition and sustenance, color and flavor, food and art. The concept of continuity and evenness plays a large role in my work. Made from food, my works are temporal, like life’s experience. They rot, edible yet timeless, a compelling statement to primary instincts. I aim to continue my study of the world’s culinary traditions, as well as artistic techniques that involve the universal language of food. “Kamikaze Bento”, rendered in the media of rice and seaweed, are faces of sacrifice in the very mediums of the land and sea that sustained them and for which and in which they perished; a powerfully compelling, transitory, visually, physically and emotionally ingestible, digestible Zen”.
Ryo Arita was born in Toronto, Canada to first-generation Japanese immigrants. Throughout his childhood, he attended various art schools and moved to New York City at the age of 19. He attended the School of Visual Arts, where he studied Graphic and Three-Dimensional Design and graduated in 2005 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. Food was a staple throughout his childhood as both parents worked in the restaurant industry. That is where he draws his inspiration for culinary arts. Ryo’s work illustrates the interwoven concepts of composition and sustenance, color and flavor and food and art.
Luca Curci – How did you get to your current artistic practice?
Ryo Arita – According to my parents, I did my first mural age 4 of a snapping turtle. My particular style comes from my background and experience. I come from a family that worked in the food/restaurant industry. The books I read as a child along with children’s books were Japanese food and cooking books. We also watched Japanese cooking shows on VHS as a family, so the food was inescapable if you lived in my household. My parents were not drinkers so the focus was on food from their work experience. I also worked in the restaurant industry for 25 years ranging from small mom-and-pop Japanese restaurants to French and Italian three Michelin star restaurants in New York City. I want to tell my story which is unique but also somehow touches on things like current social issues, historical events and food culture.
LC – What is art for you?
RA – Art has many definitions depending on who you ask, so it’s very subjective. My idea of art in the broadest definition is observation and interpretation through the lens of an artist similar to a witness recounting in their own words expressed visually.
LC – How is your creative process?
RA – I just pay attention to my surroundings and inspiration develops from the seed of curiosity. I work on themes for each project and I become obsessed with that idea and do my research. I talk to people who would know more than me about that subject and I plan how I can execute this idea often involving people who have no idea why I want to accomplish this. Sometimes I fail, but I go in and experiment knowing that there is a high risk attached. The outcome even if I fail come out from learning something such as technique or knowledge which I can apply to my next projects.
LC – What is the most challenging part about creating your artworks?
RA – I often start with a fresh new slate and there isn’t a single resource or person who would know how I can execute my idea so it deals with multiple people or methods and combines them in an inventive way. I’m usually in uncharted land.
LC – How do you feel when you see your work completed?
RA – If I completed a single work it usually falls into 2 categories: fail or success. Sometimes I already know which category it falls under before I complete the project. I discussed how I feel when the project fails but when it is a success I’m over the moon. Sometimes in disbelief that it’s staring at me. There’s usually an internal self-critique that lasts for months which is just brutal.
LC – What do you think about the concept of this exhibition? How did it inspire you?
RA – Well, to be honest, I’m honored and humbled to be selected and exhibit my work in a country known for great food and creativity. As a child, I studied the architecture, paintings, music and murals of this endless bountiful country known for its deep history of legends and masters in the arts. Truth be told, in a way I’m kind of glad I’m stuck here in Japan because I would be balling my eyes out every day over there. I would be an embarrassing emotional wreck.
LC – Can you explain something about the artworks you have in our exhibition?
RA – This is hard to talk about because I want to keep this short but there’s a lot of meaning and symbolism with the medium/food and my subject/theme. The rice is not only integral to Japanese cooking but it is considered sacred and has deep and many symbolism within the Japanese culture not to mention its many uses. I had dinner with my parents one day when I was really young and parents love to scold their kids when they leave food on their plate. This is true for most families but my parents are Japanese so they talked about their experiences as a child during and post World War 2 in Japan. Japanese food culture revolves around Japanese white rice aka “Hakumai”. Historically, rice production could not keep up with the rise in population because 70 per cent of the land was dense forest and rocky terrain. The national economy was based on white rice because the peasants or farmers used to pay taxes in the form of rice barrels. The land was valued on how much rice you can grow. Samurai warriors used to get paid in the form of rice barrels as well so it was used as currency. During World War 2, there was a rice shortage because most of the male farmers went to fight the war. Most peasants or civilians were limited to eating mixed barley, chestnut, mushroom, millet, or vegetables in their rice and cooked them together to stretch their rice supply and make it feel like they were having whole servings of rice. The ritual for these Kamikaze pilots before they go on their final mission was to eat unadulterated white rice in the form of Onigiri (triangular rice balls) or Bento (lunch box) accompanied with pickles or seaweed. Right before their final flight, a toast of sake (rice wine) was given to their commanding officers. We also honor our dead ancestors with a bowl of white rice and you can still see home shrines with a framed photo of their loved ones in the black and white photo or color photos but dressed in black and white. The image is about sacrifice but our struggles that connect our past to the present. It is my hope that we can learn from our past to become better.
LC – Do you think ITSLIQUID GROUP can represent an opportunity for artists?
RA – I think any kind of exposure would be great for up-and-coming artists but ITSLIQUID GROUP is definitely more elevated; you can get more exposure internationally, especially with European art fans. The opportunity to all artists from different levels or stages in their art career can get an Italian perspective, which is different from an Italian-American perspective. I think Europeans are more of a critic when it comes to the arts in general, after all, they live in and are surrounded by ancient and important historical artefacts – architecture, music, paintings, sculpture, etc.
LC – Did you enjoy cooperating with us?
RA – Yes of course, although we are living in a new era with safety precautions and travel overseas has become harder, the email correspondence has been smooth and courteous. If the opportunity arises, I would love to work with them again.
LC – What are your suggestions about our services? Is there something more we can provide to artists?
RA – Speaking as a participating artist, to stay connected especially on opening night maybe live streaming which could be done on a smartphone fixed on a tripod.