Visiting Artist Naoe Suzuki Shares Work, Ideas with Students

Naoe Suzuki’s work stands at the intersection of art and science. That’s literally true of her exhibition at Rivers, where her prints, paintings, and drawings are on display in the gallery space of The Revers Center for Science and Visual Arts. (An installation in the Campus Center’s Bell Gallery completes the show.)
Suzuki recently completed a stint as a visiting artist at Rivers. In addition to the show of her work (on display until early next month), Suzuki gave an artist’s talk during all-school meeting and visited a beginning drawing class taught by faculty member Nicole Winters, who was the driving force behind organizing the visit. 

The “visit,” of course, was all done virtually. Winters explains, “When I started conceiving of the artist program, I thought it would be more akin to a residency, where an artist would come to campus and make work and be provided with a studio and teach workshops – a very immersive experience.” 

COVID, of course, had other ideas, but that didn’t stop the visit from proceeding, albeit in modified form. Suzuki did come to campus in person in October to install her Bell Gallery work, a large-scale series of images titled “Field Notes II.” Alone in the otherwise empty gallery, Suzuki meticulously layered the sheets of vellum, prints, and digital images that make up this striking work, which calls to mind peering through a kaleidoscope whose display is confined to gray tones. (To view a photo gallery of Suzuki’s work on display at Rivers, click here.)

During her artist’s talk, Suzuki explained the genesis of the work. In 2016, she was invited to spend time at the Broad Institute, the Cambridge biomedical and genomic research center jointly run by MIT and Harvard. A non-scientist, she was intrigued by the formulas and “scribbles” scrawled on white boards throughout the building by researchers; although she couldn’t understand them, she found herself drawn to them and to the encoded messages they contained. She spent three months tracing them, then scanned them and began to experiment with manipulating them digitally. She repeated and layered the images, making them dense with mysterious information and writing.

The experience, she told the audience, gave her insight into the similarities between the work of the artist and that of the scientist: “Science, as I observed, is driven by a desire to understand the unknown and the courage to go in search of things that may not be knowable. This was where I,  as an artist, felt closely in sync with scientists about the way we do our work. Sometimes we don’t know what we’re doing, or what we’re after, but we keep experimenting, we keep exploring, we keep showing up in the lab or the studio.” She added, “During the pandemic, I wanted to create a new installation with the traced writings, so I was very happy to have the opportunity to do that at Rivers.” 

Another thread that runs through Suzuki’s work is maps and mapping; indeed, “Mapping” is the name of the full exhibition at Rivers. Suzuki isn’t overly literal about what constitutes a map, and that’s where her work became a perfect fit for the beginning drawing class. These students had been assigned a map-making project, but here, too, the map isn’t meant to be a representation of a particular geographic area. “It’s more about the concept of creating a map, and what maps can be,” says Winters. She typically shares the work of artist Mark Bradford with the class, to show them how broad the definition of “map” can be. “Students get an idea of the different ways you can create a map. And maybe it doesn’t even look like a map in the end.” Instead, students create maps based on something that’s meaningful to them, be it an activity, an interior space, or even something that doesn’t exist in the physical world. 

During the class, students had the opportunity to ask Suzuki about her own approach to mapmaking. While many of her works are based on actual maps of places that, she said, are “dear to my heart,” she takes those maps and alters them to emphasize, for instance, the flowing water they describe, or the animal names attached to their features. She spoke to students about what had inspired the content of her maps, noting that sometimes the ideas have a long gestation period, lasting years. 

As Winters pointed out, that’s not possible in a class, where the timelines for assignments are measured in weeks, not years. But despite the fact that students had only had a couple of weeks to ponder their maps, they had some interesting ideas to share with Suzuki: One was working on a map based on the lines of the hand; another was focusing on a photo he’d taken from a hotel room window in Tokyo. 

For her part, Suzuki said her stint as visiting artist “has been great fun, even though I’m not there. Especially during this difficult time, it’s been very special to me.”

And Winters is excited about bringing more artists to campus in the future. She says, “I love engaging with artists, and I love showing contemporary artists to my students; it gives them a greater sense of what the art world is like. It’s about so much more than making a pretty picture. It’s really about ideas, and I want students to make work about ideas.”
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