By Simon Shiida
During the 1980s, with Japan at the peak of the bubble era and consumers spending lavishly on appearances, many companies were paying astounding prices for expensive artwork for their buildings, with works from Picasso and famous Japanese artists often lining their walls. Kumiko Onuma, founder of Orchestra Co, saw there was potential to expand in this extravagant situation and at the age of 26, started a company to incorporate art into the building itself. Onuma told us: “At that time, there was no one that would work with the architect from the planning stages and make art that would fit in with the building.” The company saw immediate success and Onuma became well-known as an artwork director, producing and creating work to give buildings a panache and sense of style.
The bubble era saw an overwhelming amount of companies that would request her services and surprisingly, the extravagant expenditure didn’t die out after the bubble burst: “Costs were down but they still wanted me to make small things. Not big sculptures and paintings like I used to but little things like beautifully made mirrors—it was still very interesting.” She made sure that all costs were controlled and made low-cost yet beautiful items for her clients such as a big anchor that she found in a seaside dumping ground which she cleaned up and painted, making a strong accent in the room.
Unconventional work has always been a trademark of Onuma’s, one of them being a giant birdcage in the middle of a building which also functions as a convenience store. Her other piece of art, a 1 ton bronze suspended sculpture in the Fukuoka Diamond Building won the Fukuoka prefecture ‘Urban Beautification Award’ in 1995. Although her company was a relatively small operation (it only had five permanent staff), she had a network of 20 artists which she could pick and choose from depending on the project. This enabled her to work with a whole host of artists, from woodwork craftsmen in Calcutta to world-famous Japanese metalwork sculptor Empo Okajima. She would often travel to Thailand, Bali and India to source high quality yet good value items which her clients could afford even during the difficult times after the bubble burst. With frequent commission from clients such as Sumitomo Realty, Onuma has managed to build up a handsome profit over the years.
Onuma doesn’t look at other artists but finds inspiration in her surroundings, incorporating skeletons with Japan’s rogue youth culture
When asked about how she came up with her business plan, she simply replies “I just thought it would work.” And it continued to work, until two years ago when she quit everything and decided to start afresh. “I just got bored with it. I didn’t want to do it anymore— that’s all. All the problems with general construction and architecture, Japan is troubled now.” Onuma is referring to the recent incidents of condominium construction companies and real estate firms being found guilty of faked earthquake resistance data. “They cheated,” Onuma says with disgust, “I just didn’t want be involved.”
Since leaving her former company, Onuma has since returned to her artistic roots: skeletons. She first began a fascination with skeletons when she was just nine years old, after having trouble at school and finding that art gave her a sense of release and a way of expressing herself. “I used to come home from school and draw a couple of pictures and found that the skull was the best motif to express myself.” Her first exhibition was during middle school and since then, she has had numerous skull exhibitions and almost all of her work has sold out. Onuma doesn’t look at other artists but finds inspiration in her surroundings, incorporating skeletons with Japan’s rogue youth culture—she sees both skulls and rogue kids as pure, honest and sincere. “There is a problem within Japan. Children these days are not pure—sure, they study hard for exams and for their parents and everyone calls them ‘good children’ but it’s pressure. They’re kept in a cage, unable to be free like how children should be. I think that’s why you see in the news everyday about children killing their parents.” She loves teenagers that live like real teenagers—“being free and young.” However, she is frank about her art not changing anything—she stresses that it is not a message and she doesn’t ever intend it to be. “I don’t want to try and change anything—I am merely expressing myself and my artwork represents reality.” Her work has led her to create a clothes range called ‘Perfect Crime,’ including jewelry and bags which all show the same skull emblem. Skulls are for Perfect Crime what Hello Kitty is to Sanrio and like Hello Kitty, Perfect Crime has a wide age-range of fans, from children to a 82-year-old grandmother—quite unusual considering her clothes are avant-garde to say the least.
When asked why she thinks her fans like her clothes, she replies “because my skulls are cute, not gross. They have emotions—they can cry, laugh, be naughty…they are having fun.” This confirms the irony of postmodern design that the skull, once a symbol associated with heavy metal or more teenage fashion styles, is now being adopted at more sophisticated levels— perhaps comparable with the recent attention that old Disney stills have had in high-level European art circles. In the future, she plans to expand into the China and US markets—China “because they are rich and are into pop-art at the moment” and New York because “it is a challenge.” As the home of pop-art, New York is the benchmark for success which she hopes to crack in the very near future. However, for now she plans to widen her range to include party dresses as well as home furnishings such as lights and furniture. JI
Tel : +81-3-5350-2541
Web : www.perfectcrime.jp
Kumiko Onuma’s exhibition is on at Shinjuku Takashimaya, 10th floor art gallery from 13-19 February 2008.