Six beautiful translucent whales float in a circle, each carrying a sublime scene in its body, as if it absorbed a piece of the sea’s bottom or perhaps something from another world.
For Isana Yamada, this is not a guessing game though—each detail has its meaning behind it.
Yamada, a 27-year-old Japanese artist and designer, has perhaps always been an artist at heart.
“I’ve loved drawing and handicrafts ever since I can remember,” he told me in a Facebook interview, translated from Japanese. “But it was in high school when I was really inspired to start pursuing art.”
Through a teacher who oversaw his high school art club, he met a very enthusiastic lecturer from the Tokyo University of the Arts (Tokyo Geijustu Daigaku or “Geidai”) and decided to go to Geidai and pursue art as a career.
Of course, getting in one of the most prestigious private art schools in Japan is not just a matter of a whim. It took him four years of trying and three years in a cram school before he was finally accepted in 2010.
The Idea of Whales
Picking whale as a subject has a personal connection for Yamada. His first name (勇魚—Isana) means “whale” in old Japanese—literally “brave fish.” And there’s another meaning to it. Whales are migratory animals, and Yamada wants his art, too, to transcend borders.
For his master’s degree graduation art work, he envisioned sculptures of whales floating in a circle. He figured he’d create six whales for that purpose so he was looking for an idea that would connect the image of a whale with the number six.
And indeed he found one—Samsara, the six paths of reincarnation in Buddhist thought.
As Yamada is not a Buddhist himself, he first studied the subject in literature and then consulted a monk for advice.
Each whale, about 2.3 feet long, represents one realm of existence within the six paths of reincarnation.
But why would he put the representation of the realm inside the whale’s body? You may have already guessed it wasn’t an accident either.
The Japanese have a deep respect for old things—be it long-lived animals like whales, or even old tools. It’s because they believe that with the passage of time such beings and objects start to contain spirits or even immortal entities. Even the objects themselves become sentient. In Japanese, this is called Tsukumogami (付喪神) and that is exactly why Yamada placed the realms of being inside the whales.
The realm of hell, a place of atonement, is represented by volcanic rock of Mt. Fuji. Yamada picked the active volcano as a symbol of a harsh environment.
The realm of hungry ghosts is represented by polar bear bones inspired by polar bears starving because their natural habitat is being disrupted by climate change, as has been recently alleged.
The animal realm is represented by a prison on the bottom of a sea. Because animals are controlled by instinct, Yamada likened their situation to a prison, where one’s life is controlled by others.
The human realm is a place of both suffering and joy. The artist expressed it by a sculpture of a shipwreck on the sea’s bottom. It “represents the difficult trip that humans take,” he said.
The asura realm is believed to be a place of abundance but also endless fighting. Yamada expressed the realm by a model of Ohka—a Japanese suicide aircraft used in the World War II—surrounded by 55 skulls, which is the number of Japanese pilots who perished in Ohka attacks.
Lastly, the heavenly realm is expressed by a sea of clouds. There’s little to suffer in this realm, but there is still desire.
Yamada made the sculptures out of epoxy resin, because it creates “beautiful air bubbles.”
“I thought [it] was most suitable for expressing the underwater effect,” he said.
But it was also the most challenging part, because he needed to make sure the bubbles were where he wanted them.
In the end he managed to distribute the resin in such a way that the heads of the whales are clearer while the tail is more opaque, creating a feeling of the whales swimming through water. He also managed to make it look like the bubbles come from the crevices in the structures inside the whales.
“I think art comes from giving a form to ideas and little things that touch my heart,” Yamada said. “I think I can leave them behind as a trace of my existence in the world.”
Ideally, he would like to create a new artistic genre with his work.