Inoken is not an easy artist to reach. Physically based in Shanghai, which, with its 7-hour time difference from Amsterdam, means it is difficult to find a time to converse.
Outside of scheduling issues, we find a quite literal disconnect. Due to China’s current politics, many of those familiar forms of pandemic communication- Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp- are banned, meaning we eventually resort to email.
Even within the comforting familiarity of one’s inbox, there is yet another divide, this one linguistic. With his life divided between Japan, China, and Korea, Inoken counts English low on his laundry list of languages. (The interviewer, meanwhile, has disappointed the Duolingo owl in at least three languages.)
These assorted distances could perhaps be seen to come together in his work. With an unornamented line and simple titles, it almost appears that the work is coming to the viewer from the same distance as the artist’s words that find their way to my email inbox late on a Friday afternoon.
To a certain extent, Inoken plays into this. He enjoys using mathematics in his work, citing physicist Nikola Tesla as a inspiration, saying “his physics has a mysterious perspective that attracts me”. Tesla-style mysteries manifest themselves in various different forms in his work.
For a start, the number nine is a key part of Inoken’s artistic process. In his answers to my interview questions, he goes into some detail about the famous Tesla quote ‘If you knew the magnificent of the three, six, and nine, you would have a key to the universe’. Indeed, he goes one step further, describing the number nine as having “uniqueness and dignity”.
He tells me how
“the number 9 is perfect. It is a harmonious number. For example, a perfect figure circle is 360 degrees [3 + 6 + 0 = 9]. Triangles are 180 degrees [1 + 8 + 0 = 9]...the total of multiples of 9 is only 9 no matter how you add it. For example, 9x2=18 → 1 + 8 = 9”.
(Despite the care he takes to explain this concept, he, charmingly, concludes by asking me to “please check it out on the Google”.)
Many of his works are produced within a 9x9 square, a restriction he hopes makes “the expression simpler”. He tells me “the place where lines intersect [is the same as] a human life. It seems to be accidental at first glance, but it is inevitably created by the accumulation of one’s own actions”.
Could this, then, be some of Inoken’s ‘mysteries’? His pieces themselves are cryptically titled: “the moment of sunrise or sunset”, “the handmade void”, and “the scene of winter and summer” appear to be almost cryptic crossword clues: vague, but with the feeling there is a further meaning beneath the surface.
For me, this impression is only heightened by the way that Inoken chooses to print his title directly over the work. It makes the title an intrinsic part of the piece, where one is all but forced to use it as the key to unlock meaning.
However, Inoken’s own thoughts on his titles perhaps subvert that view. When asked, he tells me that “the title does not represent at all the intent of the work. The substance..of the emotion is only expressed as the surface, because I think that way [connects] to some kind of irony.”
Irony is something in which he also takes great stock. Whilst he himself says that “irony is not always a necessary part” of his work, Inoken finds that all-too-often it creeps in by itself. He finds that irony creeps in even when attempting to make an authentic representation of the world as he sees it.
As he puts it,
“when we think about the essence of things, and try to express it, it often appears ironic.”
In this post-irony world of post-post Modernism, it is a familiar refrain that sincerity often appears insincere by its very scarcity.
However, it would be unfair to say that his work stems purely out of a desire to distance the viewer. There is a deep personal thread to be found throughout his artistic practice, starting in childhood, when he used to paint and draw with his brother. He tells me how his childhood creativity manifested in various forms, from making his own little ‘gardens’ out of stones and water, to drawing on the carpet.
Inoken uses these early recollections as a rich source of inspiration, writing that “memories of [my] childhood are intense and still vivid- I feel that the emotion at that time was very pure.” When working, he always tries “to input [those] pure feelings into myself when I create”.
Music is another source to which he returns frequently. A keen lover of vinyl, Inoken credits records as one of his greatest influences in his work. Some of his favourite music comes from the 1970s, a time he describes as “a completely different [era] of marketing.”
As he puts it, pre-internet, a customer had to become “obsessed with the artwork” first, before they ever listened to the music inside the cover. An accomplished guitar player- as preparation for this interview, he sent a few videos of him playing- he views music as “a wonderful thing that can connect people''.
“I don’t think music [can be] accomplished alone”, he writes. “The most important essence of music is [the] listener. Now, if I drop a needle on my 70s vinyl in [my] room, I can...easily connect with [the musicians] beyond my generation.”
Unlike other art forms, music, as he puts it, “isn’t a physical thing” making it easy for it to “touch my heart like [a] water flow”.
This concept of ‘flow’ is also important to him. Inoken tells me his current style owes much to poster design, describing it as “visually simple [with] care taken not to disturb the harmony of the space”. He credits the turn-of-the-century French poster designers, Adolphe Mouron Cassandre and Jean Carlu in particular for their use of “linear expressions and gradations”.
Moving beyond Tesla, he says that the use of the 9x9 square helps him to “emphasise the connection between straight lines”, which, for him, are directly analogous when “considering the universe and the life of a person”.
He is equally grounded in the real when considering the works of others. When asked to choose his favourite piece from Pieza, he is split between the works of two Sophies, Cheung and le Roux. Inoken is enthusiastic about the way they “cut off the unrealistic moment in the real world”.
Despite his love of irony and higher mathematics, in many ways, his work is ultimately this: the unrealistic moment in the real world.