David Umemoto’s sculptures lay bare the skeleton of structure, embracing the art form in a contemporary brutalist style highly reminiscent of his architectural past. Brutalism, popular in architecture (particularly government buildings) during the second half of the 20th century, is characterized by ruggedness and an unapologetic lack of comfort. Especially in buildings, brutalism is imposing, and in some cases delightfully grotesque. Umemoto’s work inspires the same feelings on a micro-scale, and we can’t help but wish they were large enough to walk through. His sculptures remind us of impossible landscapes like MC Escher’s, and convey a unique combination of isolation, minimalism and intrigue, like an abandoned city from an ancient time.
When crafting his pieces, Umemoto has an underlying system he adheres to; each sculpture is modular, and theoretically would fit with every other piece he has created. His process is largely iterative, and many of his larger sculptures are born from such experimentation, being a combination of smaller pieces that came before. His system is inspired by a core tenet, which is described succinctly on his website.
Though drawing direct inspiration from brutalism, Umemoto prefers another name for the style of his work – but we’ll let him explain that himself. We got the chance to speak with Mr. Umemoto, and he gladly answered a few of our questions.
What does brutalism mean to you?
I think the etiquette “brutalism” has been associated with my work mostly because of my use of raw concrete. Personally, I would like to describe my style as something like primitivism. I’m really inspired by the primitive arts and architecture from the Americas, Polynesia and Africa. I like the way they used art as a language, a scripture, a code, a way to communicate with nature, the outer world, or the unknown. Their sculptures were tools, their buildings machines. Their compositions use very basic geometry and symmetry and repetitive patterns. I would like to think that anyone anywhere, with simple tools and basic local materials could build my structures.
How did you make the transition from architecture to sculpture? What elements in particular transferred?
What draw me into sculpture was really the freedom of creation. By not having to consider all the constraints associated with architecture, like functionality, budget, building code, etc, I can really be free to explore anything I want. However, I think I still design my sculptures like I am designing buildings. I still like to compose my sculptures by working on the elevations, playing with volumes and light, and treating the surface like walls, the voids like rooms and the openings like windows.
I also always have in mind that it should be possible to scale up the pieces and build them as buildings.
What is your process, start to finish, for developing your sculptures?
I have two main ways of creation. The first one is sketching ideas, and then drawing them with 3D software to validate the volumetry. After that, I make “technical” drawings to make the molds, which are usually in polystyrene. I mainly use this process with larger, more complex and more unique pieces.
The other way is by first creating a set of modular silicone mold parts. Then I play with them, sometimes with a specific idea in mind but other times more randomly, then I assemble them to cast “varied” series.
Your thought process is based on scientific principles; would you say you have a “scientific” mind? Has your creative work always come from this scientific base, or were you inspired at some point in your life?
I definitely have a very rational and structured mindset. I don’t usually like to improvise or do spontaneous, automatist creations. It’s rather an iterative approach, where I like to create successive pieces with incremental variations. In the big picture, I have a feeling of where I want to go, but I can’t rush it and I have accepted that it’s going to take me many years. I can’t really describe it in words, but it is still somehow quite clear in my subconscious…
You spent a year in Asia to further develop your craft. How impactful was that experience on your path as an artist?
It was determinant. First, because by leaving like that, I broke many bridges behind me that forced me to go ahead. Second, because it confirmed that I loved everything related to the matter, not just the theory; the satisfaction of working with my hands; to touch, feel, smell the materials and the tools.
You have developed a very systematic, iterative approach to your creative process, and every piece you make fits inside that system. Many of your works are actually rearrangements or combinations of old elements, emphasizing the modular nature of your art. So, assuming your system is absolute, could every piece you’ve ever made be successfully combined into a single, massive work of art?
You have an excellent point that is exactly what I had in mind when I started to make everything fit in a system! However, while it would technically be possible, it’s not much of a consideration anymore. I still like the idea as a theoretical possibility, but I’m not sure of the relevance of it, practically.
Would you ever consider CGI and Virtual Reality as a platform for your work, combining both architecture and art to create abstract spaces that would never be navigable in the real world? Oftentimes I find myself wishing I could experience your pieces on my own scale.
At the moment, not at all. The whole point of going into sculpture and crafts was to be into “real reality”… I’d like to say I’m rather in a process of technological regression. I try as much as possible to use the simplest tools and materials. In my work, I think the process is as important as the finished artwork. I personally think technology is taking up way too much space in our lives, and this is my way of expressing that.
I noticed that the logo you’ve chosen for your website, a skeleton hand, also appears engraved in some of your pieces. Does the symbol mean something more than an aesthetic flair?
The logo is an excerpt from a series of prints I did a few years ago. I was exploring the different layers of the human body. One was the skeleton, which is the structure of the body. I made a whole skeleton out of interchangeable modular tiles that would allow me to create bases for different artworks. I liked the parallel between the skeleton of a living being and the columns and beams of a building.
What do you want your audience to feel when they experience and interact with your art?
I would like them to imagine the pieces at different scales and to see them in different times and spaces.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on larger exterior pieces and on contemporary “zen” garden installations.