Harm Rensink Interview

Interview with Japan-Influenced European Artist Harm Rensink

Greg Goodmacher

Japanese culture has been inspiring artists worldwide for hundreds of years. Vincent Van Gogh was one such artist. Today, think Harm Rensink and Japanese bathing practices.

Rensink is a prolific and successful Dutch artist who is strongly connected to Japan, especially Japanese bathing practices. He traveled throughout Japan, bathing his body in hot springs and his eyes in Japanese art. His experiences in Japan shaped his perspectives on art and his own creative works.

We met in Nagoya after he contacted me via hotspringaddict.blogspot.jp with questions about Japanese onsens. We traveled to a hot spring in Nagoya city - Ryusenji-no-yu - and to Sanage Onsen in Toyota city.

After our meeting, Harm continued experiencing Japanese bathing culture and exploring art installations across Japan, and he constructed an artwork in Osaka that was based on his experiences.

Since his return to Europe, Harm has been creating more artworks that connect non-Japanese with Japanese culture. Most recently, he has curated the Cool Japan: Worldwide Fascination in Focus exhibition at The National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden (the Netherlands).

Harm discusses his views on art and Japan below. To see Harm's onsen-connected artworks and to learn more about his design projects, visit his website.

Cool Japan Exhibit in The Netherlands.
Cool Japan Exhibit in The Netherlands

What is your connection to Japan?

Japan has always been a fascination of mine. I became especially attracted to Japan when I studied design. I came into contact with Japanese Design Studio Nendo and designers such as Isamu Noguchi and Terunobu Fujimori. These artists work with their cultural heritage, translating traditional cultural objects and rituals to give them value for our current times. Relevancy is very meaningful for me, and when I developed an interest in the art of bathing, I found a great heritage of baths and rituals and philosophies regarding Japanese bathing that designers are converting into experiences for contemporary times.

How did that connection develop?

In May 2015 I started a five-week-research project in Japan during which I traveled from Tokyo to Kagoshima, experiencing Japanese people and their baths. I researched the meaning of their onsen experiences, and I bathed with numerous Japanese people. At the end of my trip I transformed my experiences into an art installation at an event and art facility, called Creative Center Osaka, in Osaka.

Which Japanese artists do you admire? Why?

I admire Kusama Yayoi for her monumental works that connect people no matter where they are from, Terunobu Fujimori for his Japanese hot spring facility, Lamune Onsen, in Oita, and Nendo for the refined design experiments in his installations and products.

How has Japanese culture influenced you as an artist?

I believe that Japanese artists have a great eye for detail. This sensitivity comes from an instinctual understanding in the way your hands think. The mind and the hands make connections when seeking purpose during the act of creating. When I create a bath, I always listen to my instinct, to my senses. These tell you more then you could ever think!

Where have you visited in Japan? What were your impressions?

I can tell you many stories of all the wonderful places I have been. I think one of the most striking impressions I've had was on Teshima Island, which is close to the art island of Naoshima. On Teshima, Ryue Nishizawa made an amorphic architectural installation, which connects with the natural surroundings via large holes in the building. In this monumental place, water drops sprout from the floors like a gentle source of something special. Water movement throughout the building creates a path that ends in beautiful pools.

Two Hot Spring Addicts (Harm on right) Outside Sanage Onsen, Toyota City.
Two Hot Spring Addicts (Harm on right) Outside Sanage Onsen, Toyota city

Could you tell us about some of your works that were inspired by hot spring experiences?

After visiting Japan, my works haven't been the same. My sensibility in the experience of bathing developed an extra layer. For example, I made an installation at Design Week in Seoul that is an olfactory bath that has nothing to do with water or heat. It is an installation based on our memories of scents and re-experiencing relaxing moments in our past.

Which hot springs in Japan were especially enjoyable, moving, or stimulating?

In Shirahama, Nanki, Wakayama Prefecture, I visited a bath that writers described in records that are over 1,300 years old. For over a thousand years, the intent of the residents has been to use that place and preserve it in the same condition. I find it spectacular that people still use the baths in the same way! In Kannawa Onsen, Beppu, Oita Prefecture, I soaked in several natural baths in the countryside with locals, communicating not by language but by enjoying and socializing in baths.

How did you decide on the artworks you included in the Cool Japan Exhibition at the Museum Volkenkunde?

A team of art historians, exhibition planners, and designers collaboratively chose the artworks. I especially like the pieces of Hokusai, whose monstrous drawings seem so contemporary, yet they are very old. I find the relationship between ancient and modern Japan striking!

Why did the Museum Volkenkunde decide to have a Cool Japan exhibition?

Answering that question is difficult because I am not the museum, but if I must answer, there are three main reasons:
Dutch culture is being influenced by Japanese popular culture such as anime and the spread of otaku. (Otaku means people with excessive interest in a subject. Another meaning is a person who withdraws from society and stays at home.)

There is also a historical relationship between the Netherlands and Japan. Consider the Dutch trading post of Dejima in Nagasaki, Kyushu (The recreated Dejima trading post is worth a visit!). Philipp Franz Balthasar von Siebold, a physician and scientist representing the Dutch on Dejima, brought many artifacts from Japan to the Netherlands. People in Holland have a keen interest in traveling to Japan.

What can European artists learn from Japanese artists?

This is a difficult question. I believe in the exchange of knowledge and skills. Maybe we should organize a workshop to find out!

How do you stay in touch with Japanese art while you are in Europe?

By making exhibitions about Japanese art. Two years have passed since I was in Japan. It feels like a long time. It is time for me to go back to see, hear, feel, and breath with the Japanese again.

Books on Japanese Onsen

Goods From Japan to your home or business.