Exhibition review: Uncertain Contours of Images: Sayoko Suwabe, SOL Gallery

Japanese artist Sayoko Suwabe mixes paint with performance art.
Artist Sayoko Suwabe in a small blue paddling pool scraping off the paint on one of her portraits. Uncertain Contours of Images. Sayoko Suwabe.

Melbourne is rightly celebrated internationally for its thriving arts sector. It is home to both the monolithic National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), but also dozens of smaller, independent art galleries throughout the inner suburbs. 

SOL Gallery in Fitzroy is one of the latter, but is little short of an institution for those in the know. The current exhibition, which opened on Thursday night (21 February), features four artists, Luke Neil, Seyhan Camgoz, Wang Chen and, the focus of this review, Japanese artist Sayoko Suwabe

From the outset, Suwabe’s CV is intriguing. She was one of three artists who collaborated in Inverted Topography: Between Two Points at the Same Distance from the Equator (2022), which involved her and fellow artists tracking down the longitudinal twin of her hometown in Japan, which happens to be a place called Geranium, somewhere in the South Australian desert.

The result of this project was a glorious bag of curios, with zines and cards full of photos, musings and cultural and geographical reflections (this collection can be seen at her current exhibition). Her next project was 2023’s The Image No Longer Exists, performed at BigCi (Bilpin international ground for Creative initiatives) in Bundanon in NSW.

In this work, in the words of her bio, she ‘invites the viewer to see paintings not as static entities, but instead as dynamic products’ – to ‘see “traditional” art through the eyes of a digital native artist’. To put it simply, in this artwork, she painted a portrait of herself from the moist dirt at the bottom of a cow’s drinking trough and, later, returned the painting to the trough (a bathtub in the middle of a field) and washed the canvas blank with the same water. By doing this, she aimed to challenge the notion that a personality can be captured in a static image, instead proposing that art should be ‘changeable, ephemeral and liquid’. 

This leads directly to her exhibition at SOL Gallery. As with her other exhibitions, for instance Dark Horse Experiment in 2022, her work is a mixture of paintings, video, publications and 3D-printed models, almost exclusively images or figures of herself, which serve to highlight the temporary nature of both the art and the artist. Indeed, one of the works is a PVA model of her head, slowly dissolving in a tray of water (and in opening night’s Melbourne heat). 

This exhibition runs for two weeks and, during that time, Suwabe will give four “painting-washing performances”, one of which she gave on opening night, the last one will be on Saturday 1 March. This performance involves her taking one of her paintings off the wall, sitting both it and herself in a small pool in the middle of the gallery, and proceeding to scrape off layers of watercolour from the work, filling the pool around her with pink pigment. She then hangs the now-thinned image back on the wall, and fills a jar with the paint which now floats in the pool. This jar is one of a row, each labelled The Image No Longer Exists, numbered one to six. These will be filled after each performance with the watered-down paint that once formed a portrait, again highlighting the concepts of transition and impermanence in art (these jars are, of course, like all of the works in the gallery, for sale). 

It could be argued that the greatest art challenges the viewer, and Suwabe’s art seems to be more of a philosophy than a body of work; indeed, she regularly changes, dissolves or erases hers. Whether or not you regard this as art, her work certainly achieves what she states in her bio – striving to become a ‘dialogue between the artist, the medium and the viewer’. Suwabe is an artist who seems to be trying to solve a puzzle – an artist to keep an eye on. 

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The two-week exhibition also features the works of Hugo Mathias and Nani Puspasari, and the gallery is owned and curated by award-winning installation artist Pimpisa Tinpalit. Opening nights happen on most alternate Thursdays, with artists from a vast range of nationalities, career stages and price ranges (from extremely affordable to suitably priced for investment).

Uncertain Contours of Images by Sayoko Suwabe
SOL Gallery
Exhibition dates: 21 February – 3 March 2024
Painting-washing performance
Saturday 1 March 1pm
Performance is 10-15 minutes long.

Ash Brom has been writing, editing and publishing books, stories, journals and articles for over 25 years. He is an English as an Additional Language teacher, photographer, actor and rather subjective poet.