May 30 - July 13, 2024
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Hong Kong

Suite 807, 8/F, K11 Atelier, Victoria Dockside, 18 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui

A gentle breeze stirs; butterflies flutter their wings; a teddy bear sits in the room, smiling; the crescent moon casts a soft, pearlescent glow over the kitchen; leaves seem to nestle, tenderly drooping, lulling a little girl into her dreams. The minutiae of life quietly inhabit every corner, hidden amidst various shades of verdant green, where lost moments linger...

To translate Tomoko Nagai’s painted scenes into words, one naturally gravitates towards quiet, delicate, almost whispered phrases—as if more emphatic words or a louder voice would break the spell of this dreamlike serenity and tranquility. The stuffed animals, the little girl, and even the pots and pans are transformed into playthings of a make-believe home, beckoning us to a world that seems far removed from reality. Here, we are drawn to observe often overlooked details and listen to their rhythm. Yet all these elements originate from our shared reality, informed by the artist’s memories and experiences.

Photo: Ringo Cheung. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.
Photo: Ringo Cheung. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.
Photo: Ringo Cheung. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.
Photo: Ringo Cheung. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.
Photo: Ringo Cheung. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.

Nagai’s earliest memories involve playing with dolls and toys and fabricating miniature houses for them. She recalls, “I would indulge myself in fantasies, using dolls to enact the scenes. This probably marks the beginning of my artistic endeavors.” Home represents the initial physical space where individuals first perceive and comprehend the world through their bodies. This corporeal journey extends from one’s home to the surroundings and, ultimately, to the city one inhabits. Nagai vividly remembers an abandoned station near her childhood home, where an object by the tracks—perhaps a part used in freight trains—had the shape of a dog. “It seemed like a living entity. And this curious resemblance, like a primal landscape, has stayed with me.” For her, memories need not be anchored to specific entities; they can manifest as ambiguous impressions or even illusions, deeply rooted in our minds, providing a point of return.

As we grow, our journeys expand from the relatively confined spaces of our homes into the wider world. Life, both public and private, pulls us in all directions, catching us off guard. The physical cognizance nurtured in the sanctuary of the home seems increasingly inadequate under the weight of these pressures. The cherished, lighter moments of memory are on the brink of vanishing. Nagai navigates universal life experiences—such as the birth of a child and the passing of a beloved pet— by retreating into a fantasy world to confront a growing fear of loss.

But Nagai’s “submersion into the world of fantasy” is not an escape into the irrational. According to the artist, “There are many things in the real world I adore, such as exquisite landscapes and majestic forests. When I encounter these captivating tableaux, I think to myself, ‘If only something could be added.’ So, I embellish reality through my imagination, bringing it closer to my ideal world.” Nagai traverses reality and fantasy, never tethered exclusively to either. Through her nuanced perceptions and lived experiences, she crafts a distinctive “third space”—a hybrid domain that hovers between the tangible and the imagined. This space emerges from a unique perspective, shaped by an alternative logic and a deeply personal sensory interpretation.

Nagai’s works offer fresh discoveries upon each viewing. In My Favorite Sofa (2023), tucked among the lush green foliage, a grey teddy bear and a parrot seem engaged in a silent dialogue while, in the background, a little girl and a kitten are engrossed in a Hamtaro story. In Tea Time (2023), a teddy bear sits atop a lion, preparing for afternoon tea with friends. In Bath Living (2023), the bear luxuriates in a bathtub and greets “the little sprites” in the bushes as light filters through the leaves, casting fluttering shadows reminiscent of butterflies. Nagai’s acute observations and perceptions recall Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. As Italo Calvino aptly said about the poem, “Knowledge of the world tends to dissolve the solidity of the world, leading to a perception of all that is infinitely minute, light, and mobile.” Lucretius urges us to focus on these microscopic, kinetic, subtle worlds to guide us toward hidden, invisible realms:

For behold whenever

The sun’s light and the rays, let in, pour down

Across dark halls of houses: thou wilt see

The many mites in many a manner mixed

Amid a void in the very light of the rays,

And battling on, as in eternal strife,

And in battalions contending without halt,

In meetings, partings, harried up and down.

From this thou mayest conjecture of what sort

The ceaseless tossing of primordial seeds

Amid the mightier void—at least so far

As small affair can for a vaster serve,

And by example put thee on the spoor of knowledge.1

Where, then, do Nagai’s paintings lead us? As Lucretius wrote, it is only in a darkened room that we can see the movement of particles in sunlight. Perhaps it is our experiences of loss and decay, or the harshness we face in reality, that draw us closer and make us cherish these fragile, ephemeral shimmering particles—the serene and beautiful scenes depicted by Nagai. It may be precisely because of the troubles, cruelty, and misfortunes in life that we are able to recognize, perceive, and truly appreciate beauty. As Misuzu Kaneko expresses it in her nursery rhyme “Rainbows on Eyelashes”:

Wipe away, wipe again,

Tears that keep flowing down. I can’t help but think—

—I must surely be

a child who was found.

On the bridge my lashes make,

A beautiful rainbow sways.

As I look, in wonder stray—

—what snack will come my way today?

In Nagai’s “third space” between reality and fantasy, we retain some of our naivety, idealism, and rebelliousness amid life’s harsh realities. Through her creations, we are invited to construct a new home for our adult selves, a place shaped by our individual visions. This home is a vessel of cherished memories, “a portal to fantastical worlds and a refuge from the brutality of reality,” offering us a fresh start.

1. Lucretius. On the Nature of Things, Book II, "Atomic Motions," translated by William Ellery Leonard, Dover Publications, 19 Mar. 2004.

Tomoko NAGAI

Born in 1982 in Aichi, Japan
Lives and works in Japan

Tomoko Nagai was born in 1982 in Aichi, Japan, now lives and works in Japan. In Nagai’s artworks, various animals, children, colorful trees and mushrooms are depicted in a theatrical arrangement against the backdrop of forests and domestic rooms. Loaded with a multitude of motifs, each of Nagai’s paintings embraces a unique sense of spatiality, wherein a dynamism that encapsulates the worlds of fictional narratives intricately overlaps with layers of images. The colorful matière and brushstrokes form a fantastical rhythm as the artist exercises an expression akin to composing a musical piece. The viewer perceives this melody while standing face-to-face with each painting. This evokes a sense of being inside the painting, as the viewer’s own memories and experiences – nostalgic sensations, recollections and dreams from childhood – connect with the worldview represented in each artwork.

More about the artist
List of artworks
Room A
Room B