Artist and designer Sho Shibuya (formerly) bases his life on rituals. With his routine inevitably changing as COVID-19 shut down public spaces and the office of his design studio Placeholder, Shibuya, like many of us, began to focus on life in his Brooklyn home and channeling the energy he might have for commuting or dining out with friends into a creative practice he continues today.
Equipped with The New York Times he reads every morning, the Japanese artist began reinterpreting the sunrise outside his apartment window into bright, colorful paintings that masked the cover of the daily newspaper. The works became an exercise in simplicity, minimalism and meditation, and today they are part of a growing archive that includes hundreds of gradients, in addition to more evocative pieces that explore politics and current events. The paintings have attracted the attention of countless publications and institutions – a collection of the sunrises is on view at the Triennale Milano until December 11, 2022 – and resonate in part for their calm, optimistic response to the endless chaos of the world.
In this interview, Shibuya talks to Colossal Editor-in-Chief Grace Ebert about his stripped-down, measured approach to conveying complex issues, the oscillating relationship between concept and image, and his fascination with humble, everyday materials.
Shown above are Shibuya’s work from April 2021. All images © the artist, shared with permission
Gracefulness: What are you working on today?
Already: As always, I will paint today’s sunrise.
Gracefulness: So do you still do sunrises every day in addition to the other pieces you do?
Already: Yes. People ask when or why my work shifted from the sunrises to the events I post on Instagram, but I still do the sunrises. I just don’t share all.
Gracefulness: What triggered this shift you’re talking about? The newer pieces are more openly political and have recently become more sculptural? I’m thinking of the little nosed COVID test piece, the body bag, which refers to Ukraine.
Already: The COVID piece and the body bag pieces are three dimensional. I’m always trying to figure out how best to tell the story on the news. I don’t force myself to paint an acrylic painting, probably because I never learned to paint. I’m just self-taught, which maybe makes me more flexible in my process of what to use.
Gracefulness: So many people see and interact with your work on Instagram, and the internet is obviously notorious for not always having healthy conversations about the tough and complex topics you are talking about. I may be alluding to negative reactions, but how do you deal with that?
Already: I am sharing the images as my honest emotional reaction to the day. It’s natural for people to have different perspectives and I respect that. I find it useful to start a conversation with what I post. It’s not easy to ignore the negative comments, but I don’t get involved. My point of view is in the picture and I don’t take it back.
Gracefulness: Don’t you understand?
Already: Yes, that’s pretty accurate.
Gracefulness: How do you distill such complex ideas into such minimalistic paintings? Even the more complex work you’ve been producing lately is still fairly minimal, and it feels like you’re grasping exactly what’s happening.
Already: I spend most of the time it takes to create a piece on research. There’s a lot of information I need to know. In many cases, while researching, I found a clue as to what to paint. My penchant for minimalism came from my graphic design background. It always needed a simple and sensible execution. The only difference now is that I’m the customer.
Gracefulness: When you’re thinking about creating something so focused on the visual, what makes you sometimes leave a headline intact? In some of your work you have the headline at the top or maybe in the middle and sometimes you mask it completely. What are the criteria for this?
Already: The New York Times doesn’t publish a big headline at the top of the front page every day. Only when there’s a big story, like the war in Ukraine or the mass shooting at the Texas school, The New York Times leaves a large caption across the paper. So when their editors decide a story is important enough to warrant a big headline, I put the headline in my picture.
Sometimes I paint over the inside pages for sunrise, and the abortion issues in Texas was one of them. I felt the image should have more context in addition to the gradient. I preferred the concept to the visual.
I don’t use a headline for very obvious things. The Mona Lisa play was one of them.
Gracefulness: So basically the criterion is that it has to run on top and span the whole page, but then also has to add some context.
Already: Yes. I always have a principle, like a rule, which is to always prefer the concept to the visual. For example, I know that painting on the front page of the newspaper can be more effective. But sometimes, when the context is better on another site, I would prefer a different canvas.
Gracefulness: why The New York Times? I know you’ve been in New York for a while now, and I think partly because it’s the biggest newspaper, but is there another reason you’ve singled out this one in particular?
Already: I’ve lived in New York for ten years and started reading The New York Times regularly for the past five years. I’ve always felt I needed to be more immersed in US culture. I’m really good at continuing things everyday and sticking to habits. reading The New York Times was one of those things I did. I learned more about the context of politics. I’m in New York and I have a subscription and I’m seeing the sunrise in New York, so why not?
A year before I started The New York Times paintings, I focused more on a non-profit project. It’s called plastic paper. I was interviewed by The New York Timesand I got the entire Sunday cover, and through the experience of the interview I also admired their process.
Gracefulness: I wanted to ask plastic paper. It seems like you are drawn to ubiquitous materials that people find everywhere. Do you have other collections?
Already: I love everyday objects. Maybe because I’m a foreigner I have a different perspective; When traveling to another country, might even a street sign seem interesting to a fresh eye? I was very fascinated by everyday objects. My English teacher said to me, “Look at a penny, pick it up and you’ll be lucky all day.” I’ve been collecting pennies ever since.
I treat the images the same as eating or sleeping; an important part of my daily routine. It’s a small mission for me to record the sunrise every day as a visual diary.—Sho Shibuya
Gracefulness: Can you tell me about the ritual nature of your work and its connection to slowness and intentionality? When you think of reading a print newspaper, you don’t scroll, read half an article, swipe to the next article and get distracted. Watching a sunrise feels similar. These parts of your life seem to counteract the fast, reactionary pace of the news cycle. I would like to know how you feel about this.
Already: The process of leafing through the newspaper every morning, watching the sunrise and then painting is quite meditative, but I also enjoy reading digitally because it makes it easier for me to look up unfamiliar words. But I treat the images the same as eating or sleeping; an important part of my daily routine. It’s a small mission for me to record the sunrise every day as a visual diary.
Gracefulness: I read somewhere that you said that time inspires you the most. Does that still feel like today?
Already: Yes. For example, the timestamp on old photos is really inspirational. I feel moved when an object captures time. So seeing the dateline at the top of the front page is quite moving and I don’t know how long they will continue to print the newspaper but I hope my images can become like an artifact that preserves the moment for the future.
Gracefulness: I want to come back to your graphic design practice. You’ve described how your background affects your work in terms of keeping things minimal and how you develop concepts, but do you think it works the other way around? Does your painting practice influence graphic design?
Already: They probably correspond with each other. As a graphic designer, I focus on concrete things like making packaging mockups by cutting paper like origami and making the mockup. This type of craftsmanship has probably inspired some artworks like the COVID test piece. I don’t think it’s literal to say that my interest in sunrises translates directly into my commercial design work, but I would say there are common elements, techniques and influences.
Stay up to date with Shibuya’s latest works on Instagram.