Sunrises from a Small Window | Shibuya's chronicles of the contemporary
Sunrises from a Small Window | Shibuya's chronicles of the contemporary

Sunrises from a Small Window | Shibuya's chronicles of the contemporary

Posted on 10 February, 2023



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In 2020, the mass media took on an increasingly central role in everyday life, with the eyes of the entire world on the news as it chronicled the progress of the COVID-19 pandemic. In contrast to the media fervour, the streets of cities lockdowned worldwide were cloaked in ghostly silence. Time, though, kept flowing, taking its course from sunrise to sunset. It was while looking at a beautiful dawn from the window of his flat in Brooklyn that Sho Shibuya, a native Japanese artist, had an insight. A painting of the sky on the New York Times front page: a sunrise to overlay the tragic headlines, reflecting chaos in human affairs, with the stillness and peace of nature.

Compared to other creative projects that sprung out of the pandemic, among them the Pandemic Objects exhibition held by the Victoria & Albert Museum, and ICOM’s Clothing the Pandemic, Sunrises from a Small Window provides a much more intimate and personal interpretation of the lockdown period. Painting the sky on the newspaper, Shibuya created his own daily routine, a meditative exercise to escape an oppressive reality. Afterwards, the series came to include also more socially concerned works, commenting on relevant news. Sunrises from a Small Window is, thus, an original and visually striking representation of recent events, an attempt to place the pandemic in history.

Finding solace in nature

Sunrises from a Small Window first saw the light in April 2020 as a reaction to the storm of tragic news crowding the media. The raging Covid-19 pandemic was then dominating the pages of all the main newspapers and media. Meanwhile, the streets of Brooklyn were unusually silent due to the ongoing lockdown. While looking at the sunrise outside its window, Shibuya had the idea of covering the front page of the New York Times with a painting of the sky.

What was a sudden and unplanned gesture turned into a daily routine, as the artist began to paint each day’s sunrise on the front page of the newspaper. It became, in fact, an “honest and emotional reaction to the day”, he declared: “a little mission for myself, to capture the sunrise every day as a visual diary”. The artworks gained wide visibility when shared on Shibuya’s Instagram profile and featured in several exhibitions, including Art Basel Miami 2021, in collaboration with Yves Saint Laurent.

When time breaks into art

The use of newspapers in contemporary artworks rests on a long and established tradition, starting with the papier collé technique. After Pablo Picasso‘s pioneering insight, Nature morte à la chaise cannée (1912), Georges Braque and Juan Gris made newspaper sheets into a trademarked material of Synthetic Cubism, combining them with charcoal drawing and oil painting. In the same years, some exponents of Futurism, including Carlo Carrà and Ardengo Soffici, found ardent newspaper headlines an effective means of conveying their dynamic and energetic vision of reality.

Whereas Sunrises from a Small Window echoes the collage tradition in terms of technique, from a conceptual point of view it shows a strong reference to On Kawara‘s works. Indeed, Shibuya himself admitted his inspiration to his fellow countryman. Particularly to the Today series (1966-2014), where each canvas bears the date of completion of the work itself. In both artworks, there is the same urge to capture fragments of time by fixing them, in the literal sense of the term, in a material medium. Each artwork is thus a day, a physical piece of a visual timeline that, when viewed in hindsight, evokes memories and impressions of past events.

Immersion and escape from reality

By 2020, Shibuya’s work started developing in two different directions, both somehow complementary. Indeed, the original core builds on the artist’s desire to estrange himself from the relentless flow of news that dominated the lockdown period. Obliterating the news with sunrise, he found a refuge from anxiety in the unflappable serenity of nature and established a personal routine in a moment of bewilderment.

Though, starting on May 25th 2020, something changed. Triggered by the murder of George Floyd, Shibuya painted a black box on the newspaper, joining the solidarity expressions on social media. Since that day, the Sunrises series has a second soul, in many ways opposite to the original one, with which it now cohabits. In fact, Shibuya dips back into the flow of news from an artistic angle and leaves his personal testimony of the current times.

Until the death of George Floyd, every painting had depicted the sunrise. On that day, reading the news, I was overcome with emotion, and painting the sunrise didn’t feel right – so I painted a black square over the cover. As the project evolved, I continued to paint a more abstract, graphic interpretation of the news whenever I felt particularly moved by a story.

David Saric’s interview with Sho Shibuya, Sharp Magazine

Headlines: 2020-2022 – The last three years on three walls

Headlines: 2020-2022, a selection from Sunrises from a Small Window, is one of the 17 artworks chosen by Hervé Candès, Fondation Cartier’s artistic director, for the exhibition Mondo Reale, on display from 15 July 2022 to 8 January 2023 at Milan’s Triennale within the Unknown Unknowns agenda. As part of the XXIII International Exhibition, revolving around exploring uncharted, mysterious universes, Mondo Reale – literally, “real world” – focuses on planet Earth. The concept is that of a landing on planet Earth: different artistic languages and disciplines, from mathematics to poetry, coexist in a fluid space aimed at the investigation of “the unknown of the everyday world”.

Within this framework, Headlines: 2020-2022 provides a visual resume of one of the most eventful periods in recent years. The Capitol Hill riot, the US presidential elections, the wildfires that devastated California and the Russian invasion of Ukraine are just some of the facts making up this peculiar review, alongside the sunrises as a record of the first lockdown days and the unceasing flow of time.

Artworks are displayed in chronological order along three walls of the exhibition space, each of them enclosed by a pivoting frame. At the end of the series, a digital frame constantly updating shows the sunrise created on the same day by Shibuya. The viewer’s impression is, then, that of flicking through an archive of recent history, where sunrises and news commentary represent two faces of the same coin. A walk through a shared memory lane, which manages to be both a genuine expression of the artist’s sensibility and a journey into the events that are shaping the contemporary.


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