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Michiko Hoshino : 
Agitation, Transformation, Circulation of Memory

by Reiko Kokatsu

Michiko Hoshino freely manipulates the subtle gradations of lithographic ink to give visual form to complex, splendid images that look as she has entered far into the depths of the human brain. I first made contact with the world of her prints when I asked her to participate in an exhibition, "Universe of Books: Vessels of Poetry - Livre d’artist, Livre objet," held at the Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts. As I recall, it was in 1992, almost 15 years ago. Recently, I once again visited her high-ceilinged studio, dominated by a well used lithography press, in a beautiful wood-frame Western-style house in a quiet residential neighborhood in Musashino. Looking through her orderly, chronological files was an invaluable and delightful opportunity to see all of the lithographs she has produced so far, numbering more than 500. I am very happy to see her complete works being published in book form, and it is a great pleasure for me to introduce her art, even though my pen may not be capable of doing justice to its abundance.

When speaking of Hoshino's prints, one immediately thinks about their close relationship to the work of the great Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges. In fact, the titles of Hoshino's prints are frequently taken directly from Borges's books and stories, for example, Funes, the Memorious, Borges's Mirror, The Aleph, The Library of Babel, and The Book of Sand. Hoshino herself has spoken of finding inspiration in Borges. The images she produced in her early works "before Borges," however, are also remarkable for their originality.

Hoshino began making prints in 1971, and before starting the Borges series with Mirror of Funes, no.91-93, in 1976, she based her prints on three pillars of form, the "Form of Place," the "Form of Memory," and the "Form of Time." She took up the task of dismantling the structure of the human mind and rebuilding it as an image. Through the printmaking technique of lithography, she created a planar, chaotic "place" in gradations of black, and then transferred symbolic images into the place that becomes the background while transforming it in various ways.

Hoshino's first work, Form of Space - Female Space, no.1, shows white paper folded systematically in straight lines and wrinkled triangles placed symmetrically in a space/place composed of lithographic ink stains. The title refers to a female space, and my feminist concerns cause me to react to it. Is this a comfortable place for women? The young Hoshino, in her 30s at the time, was living in Kurashiki where her husband was working. In the first lithographs that she made with a friend's press, one can feel the freshness of her youthful enthusiasm.

Before further examination of Hoshino's early work, let us take a brief look at the formative period before she became an artist. She was born as Michiko Hirakata in 1934, at the same place where she now lives in Suginami-ku, Tokyo. Her father was a public servant working in the Ministry of Home Affairs. Because of his transfers she attended schools all over the country and spent the war years in a rural area where the family was relocated. She returned to Tokyo to attend junior high school right after the war, settling in Suginami where she still lives today. While attending an all-girl junior high school, she developed an interest in painting and literature, but later she and a friend transferred into Tokyo Metropolitan Shinjuku High School, which had been an all-male school but was now open to both male and female students. From this experience, she realized that there was a great difference in the type of education conducted at women's high schools and men's high schools before the war even though they were part of the same school system. She was stimulated by the serious attitude of the male students who were concerned with their future jobs, and even though she wanted to become a painter, she followed her mother's advice and entered the English Literature Department of Tokyo Women's College. She joined the student newspaper department because of its high reputation, and there she met gifted women students older than herself and became involved in the Zengakushin student movement. Deciding that she needed to get a better understanding of the structure of society, she switched her major to sociology in her third year. After graduation, she continued her studies by auditing courses at Hitotsubashi University. In the end, however, she was unable to suppress her desire to paint and entered the painting department of Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. At age 24, she was a few years older than other students in the same class. Among her classmates were etching artist Tadayoshi Nakabayashi (1937- ) and woodblock artist Tetsuya Noda (1940- ). Seishi Ozaku (1936- ) was a graduate assistant. The etching artist Akiko Shirai (1935-2001), who was active in New York during the 1960s, had previously graduated from the painting department. Shirai was a friendly senior colleague who participated in intaglio printmaking study sessions led by Tetsuro Komai at the university.

Hoshino was married soon after graduation in 1963 and had a son the following year. She continued producing oil paintings and held her first solo painting exhibition at Ginpodo Gallery in 1965. Some time afterward she presented her second solo show at Shirota Gallery, but in 1969, her engineer husband was transferred and they moved to Mizushima, Kurashiki City in Okayama prefecture. There she met Kanichiro Miyake, an artist living in Kurashiki who owned a used manual lithographic press purchased from a printing office. It was in Kurashiki that she made her first lithographs, preparing the plates at home and taking them to Miyake's studio for printing.

Even though she had taken courses in etching and lithography in art school, Hoshino had little studio experience. She recalls that she learned how to make lithographs by questioning the veteran printing technician. This experience of virtually teaching herself the techniques of lithography became the foundation of her later approach as a lithographer. The zinc plates she had enjoyed using for 20 years went out of production because of pollution problems, and from 1989 on she was forced to change to aluminum plates. She developed her expression with the new plates to the point where it compared favorably with the zinc plates, and in 1995 she discovered a new waterless technique in an English print magazine in which silicon is used for masking the non-image portions of the plate, making it unnecessary to use water. She visited the inventor of this method, Nick Semenoff, at a university in Canada in 1997, received instruction from him directly, and moved the base of her activities there in 2003. She worked actively to learn new techniques, absorbed those that best suited her, and expanded her means of expression. We should not forget that Hoshino's positive and enthusiastic attitude toward making changes and learning new techniques made it possible for her to create the magnificent, baroque images of her prints.

Even though the number of women artists increased in the postwar era, it must be expected that in the context of continuing discrimination against women in Japanese society and the Japanese art world, Hoshino must have endured great hardship in carrying out an art career in parallel with a home life that involved raising two children. Hoshino does not say much about these things, but she lost her real mother at age 19 so she had to raise her children single-handedly without any help. The role of a housewife was especially difficult to bear because Hoshino had experienced great freedom as a young woman while engaging in struggles for social change. However, she says, "It is simple to advocate women's liberation and demand equality, but I noticed that it is difficult to actually be recognized as equal, so I decided to make painting my profession because I liked it more than anything else and had confidence in my talent." Supported by pride in being an artist and not just a housewife, Hoshino persisted in working on her art late at night after the rest of the family was asleep. She also participated in a women's mountain-climbing club, the Eidelweiss Club, from the time of its founding. This gave her confidence in her mental and physical condition, developed during ten years in the technical study section of the club. During her twenties, when she participated in the demonstrations against the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty in 1960 a she began searching for ideas and forms of expression that were not second-hand. This was an important period for reconstructing her own values. Reflecting on her early experiences as an artist, she speaks quietly now about how she opened her heart to the inner world of human beings rather than social phenomena and built the spiritual foundation she needed to devote herself to her art.

Let us return to the work. In the Form of Place series, Hoshino creates "places" with sharply delineated but chaotic and free forms on white paper, mainly funnel-like shapes or warped rectangles, experimenting with the gradations of lithographic ink. In Forms of Place - Night Flying I, no.28, images including small people, roses, and shells are folded into or dance about the space. The element of time was added in the Form of Time series. In Form of Memory, Hoshino seemed to be exploring the depths of human psychology. One cannot help but notice that her themes - place, time, and memory - are related to Borges's writings. The artist recalls that the first story by Borges that she read with interest was Funes, the Memorious. What is most significant is not that Hoshino's themes were based on ideas taken from Borges but that her encounter with Borges's literature brought both richer chaos and more logical structure to the forms of place, time, and memory in the process of exploration that she had been pursuing since her early career as an artist. Monument in a Void Space, no.74, of 1975 was the first title that directly referred to Borges. The pre-Borges-series prints Visual Angle - Night, no.76, Nail of Rose I, no.75, and Tulip - Blossom, no.78, have a glamorous sensuality because of their boldly executed sinuous black lines. They are a culmination of the Place, Time, and Memory series Hoshino had been working on up to that time.

The next year, 1976, Hoshino began making the series that was given the obviously Borgesian title of Funes. Among them, Funes - Sanctuary of Memory, no.99 is a print filled with tension that resembles a struggle between "mad" chaotic disorder and orderly structure in a "temple of memory" built by the man Funes, who remembered everything he had seen, moment by moment, endlessly. Later she created other series under the titles, The Mirror of Borges (1978, no.112-117), Time Falling (1979, no.145-156), and The Library of Babel (1985, no.224-237). Around the time she began making the Funes series, she called Hajime Shinoda, who first translated Borges and introduced his work to Japan, to ask some questions. They became friends and three of Hoshino's prints, El Aleph - River in the Sand, no.127, For : The Congress by J. L. Borges, no.161, and For : The Book of Sand by J. L. Borges, no.162, were published as illustrations to Shinoda's translation of Borges's The Book of Sand (Shueisha, 1980). With this, Borges fans and scholars became aware of Michiko Hoshino as a printmaker whose images effectively enhanced Borges's writing.

In the print market, lithography is known for its capacity to produce vivid colors and it is common to think of lithographs as colored. Hoshino, however, deliberately chose a world of black and white, dark and light, and she has continued to work in monochrome up to the present. The reason is the contemplative quality of black, which causes viewers to think about what exists in the depths of the print rather than on the surface. It is perfectly suited to the type of expression she is seeking. From the time Hoshino first began doing lithography, she firmly captured a felicitous sense of unity between technique and expression, which could only be achieved with the kind of matte, untextured, symbolic black unique to this medium.

Hoshino first used the technique of photographic transfer in The Library of Babel series, effectively transferred images of worn books and portraits of Borges onto the prints. In 1999, she resolutely began creating digital prints with computer graphics. In making the shift from zinc to aluminum plates, she says that she had difficulty at first in mastering the aluminum plate. Unlike zinc, which tends to break down easily but allows complex effects, aluminum plates are more stable but are not as receptive to change. Hoshino learned that she could use copy toner as a solvent for the ink to achieve subtle gradations, and she found successful ways to continue using previous techniques on aluminum. Looking at her first lithograph on an aluminum plate, Book as a Mirror - Absorbs Everything (1989, no.260), one is impressed by the image of the burning pages of an open book evoked in delicate shades of black and gray. I described the book as "burning," but from a different point of view, it is possible to see the flames as being absorbed into the book. The viewer is led to think of an incredible phenomenon, infinite darkness spreading throughout the book as it is completely consumed by fire, recalling the following passage from Borges. "I feared that the burning of an infinite book might likewise prove infinite and suffocate the planet with smoke" (Borges, The Book of Sand).

Mirrors, time, libraries, books, sand, memory, roses, gardens, labyrinths - Hoshino's radiant prints of the 1990s were developed in a circular manner, as if moving around the concepts suggested by these words. In the Circular Ruins, no.444-459 series of 2002 (this is also the title of a short story by Borges), actual objects in the real world are depicted in intricate detail. Libraries and other kinds of buildings are shown over and over being inundated and eroded by streams of water that flow and swirl in delicate eddies. What makes the greatest impact in these prints is the images of rapidly flowing torrents that curl back, race forward, and overflow their banks. The water has a sense of vitality like a living creature with a will of its own. Libraries, crystallizations of human wisdom, and temples, symbols of Western civilization, are capriciously overrun and immersed in its wild energy. Looking at the large print (64.5 x 88.0 cm), The Circular Ruins - National Library in Buenos Aires, no.448 , we feel incredibly elated. The human heart feels an attraction for the destructive energy that undermines authority and imperiousness. To quote from Borges, "There is a mysterious pleasure in destruction" (The Congress, Norman Thomas di Gioyanni translation). In addition, without at first realizing it, one is soon captivated by the fearful power of nature in the uncontrollable water.

With the waterless technique that Hoshino has mastered in recent years, it is possible to apply water-based paint to the surface of the aluminum plate and execute sharp lines with greater accuracy than could be obtained with the previous oil-based media. Hoshino has made the most of this characteristic in the recent In the Mirror series, made between 2003 and the present. The image of water poured out by Hoshino flows through the picture more freely and has a more sensual appearance. Also, the stream of water seen in Mirror in the Mirror, no.474, and In the Mirror - Closed Time, no.477, is not a racing torrent but a wavering and hesitant flow that turns back around the spherical content of the mirror (or hour glass, a doubled sphere). The image here recalls the small, glittering sphere that contains the entire universe described in Borges's Aleph.

These varied forms of water are perhaps showing a connection to the persistence and lack of context of "memories" that retained even as they undergo change and appear in dreams. When we confront one of Hoshino's prints, we are dazzled and feel dizzy, but at the same time we are led to think of the violent, irrational people who attempt to eliminate or destroy other people in the wars and massacres occurring in the real world today. The age when Western civilization was unilaterally in control of the world has come to an end. The ethnic and religious values of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa are exploding all over the world, while reactionary forces promote nationalism to resist this tendency toward multiculturalism and globalism.

Of course, Hoshino's prints never directly refer to upheavals and struggles in the real world. They are characterized by a quality of transcendence over ordinary life. Still, they can be interpreted and appreciated in many different ways, depending on the viewer. From a certain viewpoint, when you look at these prints, you are asked to think about what sort of society you would like to live in or what values you have. The best art contains the potential for diverse readings. As we observe the transformations and circulating dynamism of "memory" in the abundant, flowing images that Hoshino has created, we may be permitted to go beyond mere despair at the destruction of the world and entertain hopes for recovery after destruction has taken place.

(Senior curator, Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts)
Translated by Stanley N, Anderson.