On Monday, May 17th, our intern Erica had the opportunity to speak with SPOKE artist Naoe Suzuki, who is currently exhibiting in our SPOKE Gallery as a part of our “Layered Time” series. Naoe is exhibiting works on paper from her Extinction Studies project, and is also debuting her new series: Land Forest Water Animals You and I. The show is in its final week, closing May 29.
Erica Goldstein: Good morning, Naoe! It’s so nice to get the chance to speak with you. Do you mind beginning by telling me a bit about your relationship with MW Productions/SPOKE?
Naoe Suzuki: Hello! Yes, of course. I’ve known the curator of the show, Kathleen Bitetti, for close to two decades now. She invited me to be a part of the show, and I was very excited to participate. I’ve also known Michael Dowling, the creative director of the organization, for quite some time now as well. My relationship with MW Productions/SPOKE really began last year when I was awarded the Artist Activist Award at last year’s Turning the Wheel event for my work in environmental activism. It was such an honor to be recognized with this award.
EG: Wow, two decades is almost as long as our organization has been serving the city of Boston! We’re so happy to have been able to honor your work over the past year. Could you tell me a bit about how Boston’s urban environment impacts your work and your identity as an artist?
NS: I’m not sure if Boston’s urban environment has informed my work or my identity. But I’m certain that living in the United States has, as a transplant from Japan and as an immigrant. I have lived in the U.S. for over thirty years now and I made this country my home. So, I would say that living in this country must have shaped my worldviews which inform the way I approach my work.
EG: Ah, got it. How is your work in environmental activism reflected in these pieces? Could you give me some more background on what inspired you in these works?
NS: Definitely. I’ll give you an example of how environmental issues encompass many different issues.
Last year we witnessed the terrible handling of the pandemic by the Trump administration and the rise of Black Lives Matter movement. These two are interlinked deeply. Infectious diseases, public health, environmental and racial justice. As we saw during the Covid-19 pandemic, more Black and brown, Hispanic, and Indigenous people suffered and died from the coronavirus at disproportionally high rates compared to white people. People who live nearby industrious sites and waste plants are mostly people of color and they suffer from pollution from these sites. We know that pollution affects physical health. Research has also shown that nature has mental health benefits, and having green space in urban areas improves people’s mental health. But much of urban neighborhoods lack green space and many of these areas were historically the Redlining areas where Black and brown people were clustered to live by laws and design. It’s all systemic. Where you live affects your health. Racial justice and the environment are interconnected.
In my new work, Hours Days Weeks Months Years Decades Centuries, I explore these interconnections by drawing and layering many black circles on a circular paper. The idea for using black circles came from the New York Times’ infographic maps in which black circles were used to indicate the growth of the coronavirus death rates. In the spring of 2020 at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, I was obsessively checking the maps of the coronavirus infection and death rates in the New York Times every day. It was terrifying. Then, the killing of George Floyd happened, and the Black Lives Matter protests followed. The New York Times was tracking the BLM protests and where the protests were taking place. There was a map with black circles again, but when I realized what I was looking at, I felt tremendous hope and joy. The title relates to the interconnectedness of these issues that are experienced on the basis of hours, days, weeks, months, and years, but also decades and centuries, referring to the lasting impacts of slavery in this country.
This exhibit is about interconnectedness. All of the works on paper in this exhibition speak about that. Visually, they are all monochromatic, created with India ink or mineral pigment.
I’m looking at the interconnectedness of the human-environment relationship through history, maps, language, and scientific data. Human activities are changing the environment, animals, marine life, plants, and human well-being in profound ways such as loss of biodiversity, climate change, mass extinction, and greater social and economic inequality in the human population. Once you start looking at one element in nature, whether it’s trees, water, or soils, you start to realize that everything is connected in ecosystems.
EG: This idea of interconnectedness is very interesting to me. Could you tell me a bit more, please?
NS: Sure. Ecosystems are affected by human activities and human activities are driven by beliefs and perceptions. I’ll start with the notion of nature. Western perceptions of nature and wilderness are historically rooted in dualism, seeing nature as inferior. Nature was also understood as dangerous but romanticized at the same time and considered useful as resources to humankind. In Extinction Studies, I research historical maps of the Adirondacks, the region that has been protected from deforestation and to be “forever wild” since 1892. What interests me is the history of the Adirondacks about how it came to be protected, but also what happened before that, and that goes back to colonialism and its’ relationship with land and nature. Nature was to be extracted as resources and the early settlers did just that by cutting down many forests. This notion of nature has had lingering impacts on the planet as Western culture dominated the world.
Three bodies of work in this exhibit are connected in terms of our relationship with the environment, its’ consequences such as climate change, and how that is affecting our lives. How humans live, produce, and consume has a big impact on the planet. Our behaviors are informed by our mindsets that have deep roots in our culture and history. Whether it is climate change or racial justice, when we ask a question, “Why is this happening?” we realize that there’s a complex web of interconnections in ecosystems, systemic structures, and history.
In Extinction Studies, I trace animals’ names from the maps of the Adirondacks. These animals’ names were from places like “Eagle Lake,” “Little Otter Pond,” “Buck Mountain,” “Beaver Brook,” “Loon Lake,” and “Salmon River.” I loved finding these names on the maps. But will any of these animals be still here fifty years from now, or even thirty years from now? I wonder about that.
EG: What a creative way to shed light on these very important, dynamically connected issues. So, why should patrons of the arts in Boston come to visit our SPOKE Gallery to see your show?
NS: My hope is that these works will inspire or ignite people’s thinking, and will hopefully create a dialogue about the environment, and even rethink the way we live that is affecting the planet. As of now, more than 37,000 species are on the Red List, meaning they are facing extinction. Research came out last month that suggests that no more than 2.9% of the world’s land is considered “wilderness,” meaning that it remains ecologically intact with a healthy population of all the original animals and wildlife preserved.
We are at a turning point. Human activities are driving environmental damage on the planetary level—over-exploitation of natural resources, pollution, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and climate change. At the same time that this climate change is occurring, social and economic disparities are also getting wider. Our future really depends on what kind of change we can make right now. These issues are not immediately apparent in my work, except for Land Forest Water Animals You and I, in which I use the Climate Crisis Font developed by the Nordic’s largest newspaper Helsinging Sanomat. The font’s weight responds to NSIDC’s (National Snow and Ice Data Center) Arctic sea ice data from 1979 to 2019 and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s prediction all the way to 2050. One can visually get a sense on how much the ice has been melting and how much it is expected to melt in the future based on current forecasts. I would like the viewers to spend time looking at my work and thinking about these things. There are multiple layers of different but interconnected issues embedded in my work. So, the theme of this exhibit series, “Layere Time” was perfect for my work.
EG: Thank you for such an illuminating conversation Naoe. We are proud to support you as a SPOKE artist, and look forward to continuing our partnership in the future.
NS: Thank you so much, Erica! It’s been my pleasure to share my work with the SPOKE community.
Naoe Suzuki’s SPOKE Gallery exhibition is closing this Saturday, May 29th – you don’t want to miss it! Be sure to stop by our gallery space this week to check out her show centered around environmental justice. You can also read her essay about anti-Asian racism here.