16 November 2022

Magician of Light

How a scientist from Tokyo became one of the most prolific hologram artists in the world.

Setsuko Ishii
Setsuko Ishii
SamBarkerPhotography (2021)

When a young Setsuko Ishii was walking through the streets of Tokyo in 1974, a spectacular sight caught her eye. “When I moved, I saw an image in mid-air shift its position, but I could not grasp it even though it was in the palm of my hand. I was completely mesmerized by this unprecedented visual experience. This was my first encounter with a hologram.” For the young scientist who practiced painting in her spare time, this experience had a profound effect. For centuries, many great artists have tried to capture the visual effects of light while scientists have worked to understand its technical properties. Few have attempted to bridge both worlds and harness light from artistic and scientific viewpoints, but Ishii would. She studied the science of light and captured its magic to create an iconic art style. “Holography is a medium that ‘spins out’ light. Everyone has likely seen such breath-taking moments as a rainbow that appears after the rain, a burning-red sunset, or the deep blue at twilight that envelops and submerges all things. In such moments, we are reminded of the existence of sunlight and become conscious of nature itself.”

Ishii began her applied physics studies in 1970 as an undergraduate at the Tokyo Institute of Technology (TIT). She loved physics, but something always pulled her away from the subject: she also loved art and painted in her spare time. “I wondered, ‘maybe I’m not a scientist? Perhaps I am a painter?’" She considered quitting physics, but her family urged her to finish her degree. "I had no idea there was a field between art and science."

"I wondered, 'maybe I'm not a scientist? Perhaps I am a painter?'"

After graduating from TIT, Ishii made a bold move for a physics graduate and joined the Sokei Academy of Fine Arts in Tokyo, where she began her second career as an artist studying fine art and European oil painting. "It was wonderful. I studied classical art and oil painting. I saw genius painters make beautiful artwork." She then studied Fine Arts and painting at L’École National Superieur des Beaux-Arts for another year. “It was heaven!” Ishii began to exhibit her paintings. "I had a solo exhibition when I finished art school. I had learned many contemporary art styles, but I could not find a suitable direction. Despite having solo and group exhibitions, I asked myself: ‘is painting a suitable medium for me?’”

Setsuko Ishii Fragment of Nature 2016
Setsuko Ishii – "Fragment of Nature"  Silver-halide transmission hologram on mirror (2016).

As she did while studying physics, Ishii always had one eye on her other passion: when she studied and practiced art, she was now thinking about science. The encounter with a hologram on a Tokyo street would show her how to combine both fields that she loved. “When I saw it for the first time, I was shocked. I had never seen a virtual, 3D image that existed in the air where I couldn’t catch it. I wanted to know more about this medium. It was a kind of three-dimensional photography where you could make pictures not with a camera lens but from light waves. It was both art and science – perfect for me. It was an unknown realm that I sought, rapidly expanding deep and wide.”

Holography was invented in 1947 by Dennis Gabor, a Hungarian engineer working on improving electron microscopes. Although electron microscopes could resolve structures 100 times smaller than light microscopes, they were limited by hard-to-make electron optical elements. Gabor proposed eliminating the electron optics and instead making an electron hologram that could be processed later using light. Gabor coined the term by combining the Greek words holos (or “whole”) and gram (“message”) as it contained all the information from the wave lighting the object. Shortly after that, he made a hologram with light. Holography as we know it now, with clear, vivid 3-D images, was developed in 1962 by Michigan professor Emmett Leith and then-student Juris Upatnieks. In 1971, Gabor was recognized with the Nobel Prize for Physics for inventing holography.

Setsuko Ishii Self Portrait 2013
Setsuko Ishii – "Self Portrait" Multicolor, multichannel hologram (2013)

The scientist in Ishii wanted to learn everything there was to know about holography. When she returned to Tokyo in 1978, she sought Optica Fellow, C.E.K Mees Medalist and Emmett N. Leith Medalist Professor Jumpei Tsujiuchi, a leading expert on holography at the time and explained her newfound interest. "Professor Tsujiuchi told me he would not accept me as an art student. He explained that if he accepted me this way, it would create a precedent, and lots of art students would start applying. But he could see my passion and made an exception for me, so I got accepted as a TIT science graduate.” She re-enrolled at her alma mater and became an image science and engineering research student. “For a few years, this continued. I studied holography and made experimental holograms. I almost forgot I wanted to be an artist!”

"I studied holography and made experimental holograms. I almost forgot I wanted to be an artist!"

Before Ishii created her first art with holography, it was already catching on as a creative medium with artists in other parts of the world. In 1967, Margaret Benyon, an artist from Birmingham, UK, was experimenting with techniques involving optical illusions and came across a newspaper article on holography. As a fellow in fine art at the University of Nottingham, she had access to the mechanical engineering department and made her first laser holograms with the university's optical equipment. It did not take Benyon long to hold her first exhibition. In 1969 she showed a collection of holographic artwork at the University of Nottingham art gallery. In the USA, conceptual artist Bruce Nauman produced pulse laser portrait holograms of his own face making exaggerated expressions. With Making Faces, Nauman presented his first holography exhibition in 1968. A decade later, Ishii would take this new art form to another level by staging the largest outdoor holographic exhibitions in the world.

Installation with Water Effect
Setsuko Ishii – "Aquarius Whisper" Multicolor rainbow hologram (1994)

When Ishii became enamored with sunlight, her interest turned to the outdoors. “My focus turned from the objects themselves to the environmental space. I began to think about the entire space in a gallery, about environments, and then about taking my artwork outside. It evolved into an outdoor installation.” Displaying her work outdoors in natural light was as much a scientific decision as it was an aesthetic choice. “Light is essential to reproduce holographic images. Vivid colors that appear in the image become visible via reproducing the light source, broken down into various wavelengths. This light source can involve a variety of conditions, but I learned that sunlight is perhaps one of the most ideal light sources. This inspired my awareness of sunlight, which I had taken for granted until then. I became aware that the light of the sun, which had been an unconscious element to me as much as the air that we breathe, was the most familiar natural element to us and to all forms of life on this earth, as well as an indispensable and irreplaceable one."

Encounter II
Setsuko Ishii – "Encounter II" First outdoor sculpture Henry Moore grand prize Exhibition, a competition at Hakone Open – Air Museum.

In 1979 Ishii submitted her large-scale sculpture and first outdoor artwork at the first Henry Moore Grand Prize Exhibition, a competition at the Hakone Open-Air Museum Japan. "As I had been used to exhibiting my paintings in exhibitions, this was the natural next step.”  Titled “Encounter II,” her display consisted of a rainbow hologram and sunlight. “Half of the ring was a real object, and the other half was a reconstructed hologram image. I was interested in the contrast between the real and the unreal in this work. The hologram was illuminated by sunlight reflected from the mirror, which automatically tracked the sun. The size of the rainbow hologram was 80 cm × 100 cm, which was one of the largest in the world at that time."

Viewers did not know how to react to this innovative idea or the medium. "Contemporary artists were creating interesting and funny artwork. But people who visited my works did not understand what they saw. They didn't complain, which I took as a good sign. But all the time, all anyone wanted to know was, ‘what is the technique? What is this?’ They didn’t mention the idea behind the art or question it. Only, ‘what is this I’m looking at?’ Finally, I answered. 'You watch TV, but do you know how the images are created? It's just a black box, but you enjoy watching the TV. You don't need to know how my art works, so enjoy it!’"

"It was an unknown realm that I sought, rapidly expanding deep and wide."

Today, Ishii is celebrated as one of the most prolific holographic artists in the world. Called the “Magician of Light” by the Japan Times, her exhibitions and public installations have been shown all around the world, from Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, Italy, to the Walker Hill Art Center inSeoul, South Korea. She has been named artist in residence at the Museum of Holography in New York three times and artist in residence in Paris. She has received numerous prizes for her work, including a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) fellowship for advanced visual studies.

Ishii’s scientific background and dual passion for art and optical science had created a whole new artistic experience. “By using the colors of light as paints, and a three-dimensional space itself as a canvas, I generated a spatial environment that embraced the viewers. This method allowed me to ‘mold’ light like clay in the palm of my hands. Thus, without the need to wait for the rain to let up, I could produce a rainbow by freely playing with the sun. And in the completed space of the work, it was possible for the viewers to encounter a burning sunset or the deep blue at twilight.”

Setsuko Ishii at her Solo Show
Setsuko Ishii at a solo show at the Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art. July 2022.

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