Artist Luna Ikuta: Finding Otherworldly Beauty in the Microscopic Environment

Los Angeles-based multimedia artist Luna Ikuta works within a diverse range of mediums, materials, scales. For her series Afterlife–currently on display at the immersive 8K lobby screen inside the US Bank Tower in downtown LA–Ikuta developed a unique method of stripping the shade and chlorophyll to make plants appear transparent. The pieces resemble a mystical and ghostly aquatic landscape that invites the viewer to immerse themselves in a spiritual world of the “living” dead. StandardVision recently spoke with Ikuta to gain more insight into her unique process and perspective:

How would you describe your work to someone who is not familiar with it?

LI: I am a multi-media artist working in sculpture, installations, and experimental aquascaping.

You mentioned that your background is in industrial design, engineering, and architecture. What led you to pursue fine art, and what was that transition like?

LI: I studied industrial design and jumped around working at professional studios known for public art installations to custom interior and furniture design. I have always been interested in how designed objects inform our perceived value of space, and how material properties evoke emotional response. My love of making and working with my hands naturally led my interest towards working in various materials, and my work began to transition from functional objects into fine art as I developed a style of my own. I’m not tied to one medium or particular type of work, but I value traditional craftsmanship and knowledge of how things are made.

The process behind your series Afterlife (currently on display at the US Bank Tower in DTLA) is extremely unique. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and how you came to work in this way?

LI: I wanted to create an unworldly space but in physical reality, not CG. I believe our outdoor environment is sensationalized by media art, and although beautiful and fantastical, it lacks human interaction. The core idea stemmed from searching [for] ways to instill awe and holistic wonder back into the basic ecosystems of our immediate surroundings. Most of the plants in this series were foraged while going on my walks around where I live in Los Angeles. 

Afterlife merges bio-engineering and traditional practices of aquascaping to create an immersive art installation of transparent plants. This process extracts the living cells from plants while leaving the ECM (extracellular tissue matrix) intact, physically transforming vibrant botanical specimens into transparent scaffolds. Although the plants are no longer alive, this process allows the complex and delicate morphology, textures, and vascular networks to remain intact. The method is more scientific, but I use this practice to create a sculptural installation of unworldly ghostly flora, gently swaying underwater as “reincarnated spirits”.

What are some iconic, recurring elements or symbols in your work and why are they important to you?

LI: My portfolio of work is diverse, but I am always fascinated by the perceived value of objects and exploring emotional responses tied to intrinsic material properties like weight, temperature, surface finish etc. Nature is a ubiquitous muse for art, and for my practice as well, for I believe that as biophilic creatures we share a common appreciation for the outdoor environment. Regardless of theme, I think that the most consistent element in my practice is the desire to fully execute the weirdest of ideas, even if those works may or may not be considered “traditional” art.

There is an ethereal, almost ghostlike quality which is present in much of your work. Can you expand upon any details behind this aesthetic or how you came to create in this way?

LI: From a scientific approach, cleared tissues provide informative insight into how biological systems work. Unlike other forms of anatomy scanning like 3-D scans, MRIs, and histology, cleared tissue provides complete 3D reconstruction of the original anatomy but as a clear skeletal scaffold. By placing them in underwater tanks, the light diffraction allows the tissue to glow a soft translucent white. I stare at each of these tanks in awe of each specimen, acknowledging how under-appreciated each organism is at an individual level. In a way, I no longer need a crazy drone shot to think that nature is stunning; the same effect can be achieved when staring into a cluster of cleared weeds. I stare at it and fully surrender to the fact that it is impossible for any human to physically recreate the perfectly imperfect forms sculpted in nature, try as we might. This realization was a true death to ego. Afterlife as a title means many different things to me. 

How do the works in your series Afterlife relate to your sculptural pieces?

LI: I like to ask myself if I were to physically build a world, what would it look like?  This is why my projects often jump around in size and scale:  I enjoy creating instances for people to interact with my universe of created objects. Some sculptures I’ve made are meant to be held in your hands, and some are meant to walk through. Afterlife is an extension of my pursuit to create this world–it addresses what the natural landscape would look like if I were to play the Creator of my universe. I plan on pursuing this practice, and am currently in a transitional phase of how to approach new works with the humbling lessons I’ve learned from this series. 

Any exciting upcoming projects for 2021?

LI: I will be opening a gallery showroom called Transparent Garden in February. This space will be a public showroom that acts similar to an aquarium, but of transparent plants. As a studio space Transparent Garden will also be my new playground dedicated to experimenting new plants and landscapes for films in 2021. I am also working on a public arts commission in Los Angeles that will be permanently installed in the later half of 2021. A lot of new things! I am very lucky and excited.

An excerpt from Ikuta’s series Afterlife is currently on display at the curved immersive lobby screen at the US Bank Tower in downtown LA. You can learn more about Luna Ikuta on her website, or by visiting her Instagram.