There is a mound of dead fly carcasses: dry, black, glittery. They sprawl out of the rotted remains of vegetables. The process of putrefaction has leant these gourds a curious beauty, they have taken on the quality of sea shells, faded and autumnal, folding in on themselves.
This is Shiro Masuyama’s Famine Houses project, now showing at Lisburn’s R-Space gallery. Masuyama, as an artist fuses with his environment, aware all the time that he is a foreign body. A placement at the West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen, saw him drawing parallels between flies, trapped in the inorganic maze of the Arts Space, and the Irish of the Great Famine, alone and starving in a suddenly hostile environment. His reaction was to carve houses out of pumpkins and turnips, echoing the bonfires of Samhain, used to ward off the long, cold winters in Gaelic folklore, and which have trickled down to modern times as Halloween lamps. As a neat inversion of the Roach Motel, these houses actually foster the lives of their residents. As the pumpkins warped and collapsed over time he also saw connections with the abandoned houses dotted around Skibbereen, ruined in the aftermath of the Famine.
Halloween in Japan has a similar custom to our own: carving vegetables and decorating the house with them. Though we carve pumpkins and turnips into scary faces, propped into windows to scare off the spirits of the dead and the deep darkness of winter, Shiro makes a horse with a cucumber or an aubergine. “You want the spirit of this horse to come into your house.” Presumably to give it a haircut!“When I stayed in Cork I didn’t have much of an opportunity to meet Japanese people,” he says. His delivery is fly carcass dry. To counteract this lack of the familiar he started to collect Japanese plants, so the place would feel more like home.
There are lovely brooding shots of him bringing his plants to a desolate, ruined castle. They look pathetic and hangdog, limp and shivering against the vibrant, well watered green of the Irish grass. But they are tenacious. They take hold and they endure.
On his inclusion in “The 2016 Contemporary Irish Artists book” he says “I may be the only Japanese artist in Ireland. At least that was my pitch.”
Working with plants can be difficult. One piece died. Shiro decided not to exhibit it but photographed it anyway – it resembled a pastie with a twig sticking out of it!
For this show he has a Chatsworth House tea towel draped over a table– it shows a lavish English stately home but is made of Irish linen. The print depicts the house squatting in its grounds, but the artist has carefully unpicked the depiction of the lawn and instead it rests upon a bed of soil, so that up through the cloth plants poke their heads, etiolated stalks pushing through the fabric, searching for the light. There are a series of these, depicting both English and Irish buildings, plants poking through: both shamrocks and flax plants are used.
Shiro’s antenna is always twitching – everything is a potential project. When dogs kept defecating in his front garden, Shiro’s first assumption was that this was deliberate. His second was to attempt to communicate with his local community using a language he knew they would understand: he created a mural bearing the legend “No More Dogshit Here!!” He came to view the little brown bundles as metaphorical landmines in a still bomb-scarred Belfast, and the mural depicts in, unflinching detail, where the dog eggs come from and a man in the forensic suit of a bomb disposal expert accidentally deploying one.
As his “Borderline Project” he has a Half Irish/ Half British caravan and has filled it with the symbolic tat of both nations. As an outsider in Northern Ireland Shiro finds he is often unable to grasp the subtle nuance in cultural difference. He sets about this process in conference – people have entered the caravan to offer advice on which nick-nacks belong where. What he has ended up with remains half Carroll’s, half Oxford Street, and the whole as portrait of a schismatic culture rendered from its own ephemera: a London Pride pint glass sits alongside a Mrs Brown’s Boys mug. Both iterations of Tayto are present and correct. The bed in the caravan has to be a neutral space and while the sheets are divided into two separate colours Shiro likes to sleep in the middle!
In Sligo he worked upon a wool based project because he knew there were lots of sheep in Ireland. He was worried that people were just eating the sheep and not using their wool. So he learned to sheer the sheep and make the sheep a woolly jumper from its own hair! When out in Peru he does the same to alpacas, knitting them scarves “because they have long necks”! The effort nearly kills him as it triggers his asthma but he stoically continues, suffering for his art.
Once again we see the artist plugging himself into his environment, and responding to it, always aware of his otherness and the separateness of the world around him. But trying to find avenues of communication, of acceptance and understanding; a way of being in the world.