By Matthew Koehler

Hanami: Beyond the Blooms at Artechouse; Courtesy of Matthew Koehler

Cherry blossoms are a special occasion in Japan and every spring for about two weeks, while the countryside is still leafless from winter, there’s an explosion of whites and multiple shades of pink everywhere. Beneath the explosion of soft colors, people gather to drink, eat, converse, and enjoy the beautiful but fleeting cherry blossoms. Stepping into Hanami: Beyond the Blooms, which reopened at Artechouse on July 9 after closing in March due to COVID-19, I wondered if this experience would evoke the same nostalgia of hanami in Japan, or something completely different. 

Of course the colors, sounds, and culturally relevant artwork evoked some of that of nostalgia, but this wasn’t anything like the cherry blossom festivals I’d attended in Japan. It was like I was inside an anime or manga illustration, which is the effect that artist Shimizu Yuko was going for. “The action lines make it look like…is it traditional or is it manga/anime, so I wanted to have an experience that is traditional and also very modern and very pop and very much today, 21st century,” she said back in March.  

This was a kind of hanami – digitized and animated and given life. Swirls of pastel colors, large Hukusai-like waves crashing, Fuji, stylized clouds, and the eponymous blossoms danced around the main gallery. For an artist known for her 2D illustrative work in books and magazines, and who still draws the old-fashioned way, this was a major upgrade. So when Artechouse approached Shimizu about doing an exhibit, she said she was hesitant at first becaue she had never done this kind of art before, and didn’t know if there was time to create such an exhibit.

“It was probably the most exciting and most scary and stressful project I have ever done in my career. I was constantly freaking out.” She said that in advertising and illustration, she always knows what the project is going to look like at the end, but with this installation, she had no idea. For her, this project was a big risk for both her and Artechouse. “It’s like, we don’t know where it’s going to go but we trust each other.”

Like previous exhibits at Artechouse, Beyond the Blooms is interactive. Patrons can stand in front of the main gallery, named “The Rapture,” and pose while digital cherry blossom petals form whatever shape they make with their bodies, and track their movements. Twenty-first century technology (Lidar) senses visitors and turns them into animated art.

“Rapture” has six visual themes that incorporate the traditional imagery of Japan. As with the changing scenery, the background music shifts through softer, peaceful melodies to more dramatic ones with crashing waves. Water is a recurring theme in Shimizu’s work, which she explained she is terrified of, and can’t swim.

To the right of the main gallery is another exhibit called “The Awakening” – an apt name as, there are some taiko drums from the artist, and traditional festival lanterns that light up in patterns when the drums are struck.  

Entering the doors to the left of “Rapture,” is a passageway that resembled a walk under cherry trees in a castle park thick with blossoms. This hallway leads to the multi-media room where concentric patterns like fireworks interact with visitors on large mirror-like surfaces. Markings on the floor indicate that people should maintain their social distancing.

Back in March, days before the nationwide shutdowns, I asked Shimizu what feeling she hoped people walked away from Beyond the Blooms with and she said, “We need to de-stress more than ever right now. You come here and you can kind of experience it the virtual way. It’s a nice way to enjoy spring.”

Returning to Beyond the Blooms in mid July, I was struck by a kind of nostalgia. The kind I felt first sitting in “Rapture” in March and closing my eyes. It was calming and brought me to another place. Even the kids playing tag were a breath of fresh air, and though this wasn’t the hanami I recalled for Japan, it was tranquility. And, that’s what Shimizu intended all along. 
Hanami: Beyond the Blooms is showing at Artechouse (1238 Maryland Ave. SW., through Sept. 7. Admission ranges from $12-$19. Advance ticket purchase is required.

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