From February 3rd to April 29th, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center is showing two video installations by Chiho Aoshima: City Glow and Takaamanohara. A Japanese pop artist with ties to traditional media and themes, Chiho Aoshima’s work is unique and strange. As one of my art idols in high school, Chiho occupies a special place in my heart.

Aoshima’s work is considered Japanese Neo-Pop. On the modern side, she draws inspiration from pop art in the vein of Takashi Murakami and anime films. You can certainly sense similarities to Hayao Miyazaki’s iconic films, but make no mistake, her work is very distinct. But naturally, Chiho Aoshima also draws from historical and cultural roots. She names ukiyo-e or 17th-century Japanese woodcut prints as a significant influence. Think that universally recognizable “Great Wave” piece by Hokusai.

Chiho Aoshima post: Hokusai's famous The Great Wave woodblock print with a massive wave on the left and a small Mount Fuji in the distance, seen underneath the wave.
Katsushika Hokusai “Under the Wave Off Kanagawa” or “The Great Wave” 1830-32 woodblock print

Aoshima also draws heavily on Japanese Shinto mythology, with her work Takaamanohara translating to a Shinto word for “heaven” or if you want more detail, ” the plain of high heaven.”


Surprising Facts about Chiho Aoshima

Although I loved Chiho Aoshima’s art in high school, my research at the time wasn’t exactly extensive. There’s a lot I didn’t know about the artist and some of these facts might surprise you too.

  • Chiho Aoshima is not a formally trained artist. She earned her degree in economics, then did a 180 and taught herself to use Adobe Illustrator.
  • She was hand-chosen to be part of Takashi Murakami’s art collective, Kaikai Kiki (an easy name to remember for any Drag Race fan). Murakami is a well-known Japanese pop artist who established a “superflat” style of pop art.
Takashi Murakami self-portrait titled Kaikai, Kiki, & Me: On Blue Mound of the Dead, featuring cartoon image of the artist and two tiny cartoon characters (Kaikai and Kiki) standing on top of a pile of mostly blue cartoon skulls
Takashi Murakami, “Kaikai, Kiki, & Me: On the Blue Mound of the Dead”, 2013, Acrylic on canvas, Taken at Busan Gwangbok Lotte Gallery 2015.
  • Aoshima’s work is darker than I remembered. I’ll get to this later, but both City Glow and Takaamanohara have dark undertones, one more overt than the other. It caught me off guard.

City Glow

I might have gone into the exhibit backward, but I began with City Glow, Aoshima’s older work. It was pouring rain and thundering when I entered.

Chiho Aoshima City Glow Room with wide video art installation projected as a narrow rectangle along the right-hand wall. In this freeze-frame, there is a light colored skyline of plants and distant buildings, set against a dark purple sky. It is raining heavily.
Freeze-frame of a room with Chiho Aoshima’s City Glow, 2005, Video installation, at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

The dim room carried a long projection across the wall. Sit on one of the benches or beanbags (which I love by the way) you can’t even get the entire piece in your line of vision. Stand against the back wall and there’s still too much to take in at once. This a common theme in Chiho Aoshima’s animations.

City Glow takes up close, right in front of, or even within the scenery. Leaves, flowers, and small creatures loom before you, establishing a sense of scale. You are but a tiny part of this scenery, craning your neck upward to even see the tips of blades of grass. The opening scene places you beside two enigmatic figures. You learn later that they are anthropomorphic buildings, blank-faced creatures that move much like trees in the wind.

Chiho Aoshima City Glow Opening scene of City Glow video projection. The projected animation is primarily green, covered with animated plants. In the foreground, there are two anthropomorphic buildings with anime-like faces.
Freeze-frame of Chiho Aoshima’s City Glow, 2005, Video installation, at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

The next piece, Takaamanohara, has similarities to City Glow, but get ready for your eyes to be even more overwhelmed.


After watching full seven minutes of City Glow, I didn’t know what was going on. I wanted to watch it again, but there wasn’t much time before the museum would be closing, and I needed to leave time for Takaamanohara. In the next room, I found longer, more expansive video projection. The size of the two could have been the same, but Takaamanohara spanned a wide landscape. Instead of being surrounded by creatures that tower over you, the viewer takes on the role of distant onlooker.

Chiho Aoshima Takaamonohara freeze frame of a colorful city of anthropomorphic buildings against a bright, highly saturated blue and pink sky.
Freeze-frame close-up of Chiho Aoshima’s Takaamanohara, 2015, Video installation, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

We are spectators who see natural disasters from their insignificant start to the destructive finish. But like City Glow, different elements compete for your attention. It’s Where’s Waldo? meets I Spy, but with movement and no indication of what you’re looking for. There’s a sense that you’ll never be able to take it all in, never be able to notice every detail, even when those details should be obvious, like a giant, monster-like woman scaling a building.

But you’re not alone in your spectator role. The sentient buildings sway and move and turn like slow giants to watch events as they unfold. The experience is bizarre and surreal.

Chiho Aoshima Takaamonohara freeze-frame showing the video projection at an angle, focused on a cluster of anthropomorphic buildings on the far left end of the screen, all turned to watch something in the distance.
Freeze-frame of Chiho Aoshima’s Takaamanohara, 2015, Video installation, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

After Takaamanohara, I went back for a second viewing of City Glow. It’s more immediate, the messages a little more obvious, but there are parallels. Despite the cute faces and hyper-saturated colors, there’s a definite tension and you can’t quite shake once you’ve felt it. Even after all is well again, with rainbows and fairies and sparkles, you know that if you stay long enough, the fires and monsters will return.

I don’t quite know how I feel about City Glow and Takaamanohara. But I have a nagging urge to go see them again.


Jennifer Steinkamp Title Image Sketchbook page


This month there’s an exhibit at the Fine Arts Center (FAC) that I’m excited to see. Don’t worry, you’ll see a blog post on it as soon as I visit. But that exhibit had me looking through old FAC archives for ideas and I came across the work of Jennifer Steinkamp.

Judy Crook in Colorado Springs

I last saw Steinkamp’s work in October. Her work was displayed in a dim room, the kind that you hesitate before entering in an art museum. Approaching the dark entryway, you see flashes of light here and there that your mind processes as video. Still, you peer inside before entering, and then move into the room slowly. There’s something about Steinkamp’s work that makes you want to move slowly.

This piece, titled Judy Crook, is a three-screen projection. There’s a massive digital tree displayed on each wall, to your right, front, and left. But I’d be remiss not to mention that my attention next goes straight to the beanbags. There are beanbags on the floor. People stand in various states of stillness around the room; only two teens speaking in hushed chatters, faces lit by the glow of their phone screens, are using the beanbags. But I know what I want.

Confidently and comfortably, I sink into a bean bag in front of the teens – no distractions – and settle in for the ride. Like many installation projections, your attention is torn. You watch one image move but out of the corner of your eye there’s another that seems to be doing something interesting too. Most viewers in the room seem to have come to a rhythm, or at least I have. Watch one tree for a while, switch to the next, then dart back to the first when a sudden change in color hits the screen. It feels indulgent, switching views as I please, but art is made for the viewer.

The trees are obviously digitally animated. That is to say, they look fake. A little bit cheesy even, like early animation but not that bad. I call a bluff on all the reviewers who describe these threes as elegant. There’s something strange about them. I think of the deleted scenes of an animated movie, the ones that they never ended up refining for the final movie. These trees are raw.

But their movements are mesmerizing. These trees are so obviously fake, are just over the line, but they move like real trees. Or at least in a way that we could see trees as moving. They’re like an artificial time-lapsed video: the branches twist in what you imagine to be wind, leaves bud, grow, change into brilliant colors and fall, landing in a heap on the floor.

It was a good time.

Jennifer Steinkamp Judy Cook
Jennifer Steinkamp. Judy Cook. Video Installation. 2012-2017. Website accessed Feb 5, 2018.

I didn’t take any photos of the work to share, but I can do you one better. Visit Jennifer Steinkamp’s website above or here, click on one of the tree images, and enjoy videos of Judy Crook. And then imagine being in a room surrounded by three of those trees projected at 8 to 20 feet tall.

Marie Curie in Busan

It wasn’t until I went back to look at Steinkamp’s work on the FAC website that I suddenly found her name familiar. It turns out I’d seen one of her pieces while living in Busan, South Korea! Unlike the Judy Crook trees, which I found to be an interesting and peaceful experience, I LOVED the Steinkamp piece I saw in Korea. It was called Marie Curie.

I frequently the Busan Museum of Art (BMA) while in Korea, for the art of course, and also because shockingly, admission was free. That didn’t seem to be a big appeal for the general population though, because most of the time the BMA was pretty empty. The day I saw Jennifer Steinkamp’s work was no exception.

At the end of one long gallery was an enclosed section with that same dark entryway. No one else was around, so I didn’t know what to expect when I rounded the corner. What greeted me was a room covered with projections of branches. Think Judy Crook but a close-up of only the branches. The images looked still for a moment, but then I realized they were constantly moving, slow then fast then slow again, leaves and flowers swaying in a common rhythm. These walls were covered from top to bottom. Each wall was a bit different – fewer flowers here, differently shaped leaves there – but the room was a unified whole.

You enter the room and become tiny. Massive branches dance across the walls, swaying, sprouting flowers, and waving leaves. They are fake, sure, but it doesn’t really matter. Their movement is infectious. You can’t help but feel swayed too.

I walked around the room slowly, then quickly, and then may have done a few twirls. The leaves and flowers were playful; something about being among them feels like running across an open field with wild cosmos and sunflowers and pretty weeds that have grown too tall.

Visit Steinkamp’s site to view Madame Curie stills and video clips for yourself, but I’ll warn you, they capture very little of the full experience.

Jennifer Steinkamp Marie Curie
Jennifer Steinkamp. Marie Curie. Video Projection. 2011. Website accessed Feb 5, 2018.

Apparently, this is what I thought of it in 2015:

Jennifer Steinkamp Marie Curie Sketchbook sketch
Sketchbook page