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After months of lockdown, Artechouse’s cherry blossom show is a breath of fresh air

“Hanami: Beyond the Blooms” at Artechouse. (Photo by Max Rykov)
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In Japan, cherry blossoms are prized for their fragility. They bloom brightly but quickly decay, their passing a ready-made metaphor for the transience of human existence. But digital flowers are forever, which is a boon for Artechouse. The computer-arts venue had to close its third annual blossom-themed installation after just two days in pandemic-interrupted March. Reopened last week, the now-out-of-season “Hanami: Beyond the Blooms” will run until leaves begin to turn red in September.

In its three years of operation, Artechouse has presented several shows that were technologically venturesome or thematically provocative. “Hanami” is not one of those. The four-part installation (whose Japanese title literally means “flower see”) is primarily an exercise in color, light, movement and sound — all of which are quite welcome after almost four months in quarantine.

The show is based on the handsome illustrations of Yuko Shimizu, a Tokyo-born New Yorker (and not the woman of the same name who created Hello Kitty). Shimizu uses Japanese motifs and techniques in her work, which has been commissioned by many of the country’s best-known magazines and newspapers. But the Japanese elements of “Hanami” don’t seem especially personal to the artist, and not necessarily even to her taste, as she explained during a media preview in March.

Artechouse’s digital cherry blossoms are dazzling — but lack the poignancy of the real thing

Three of the show’s four attractions are packed with pink blossoms, whether imitated with synthetic fabric or computer-generated as moving images. Yet, as Shimizu noted, the artist doesn’t really use pink a lot in her work. “I’m actually wearing my only pink shirt today,” she said.

“In Rapture,” which fills Artechouse’s main room with animations of Shimizu’s drawings, is dominated by dancing cherry blossoms, along with fluttering birds and butterflies. The roughly 30-minute sound-and-video loop also features a dramatic oceanic sequence that evokes the “Great Wave” of Hokusai (whose major retrospective at the nearby Freer Gallery remains closed). If this segment appears more threatening than rapturous, that might be because Shimizu has a fear of water. (Ironically, her surname means “pure water.”)

While the artist does employ computers to colorize her work, the illustrations begin as hand-rendered black-and-white drawings. “I’m not a tech person,” she said, so it was Artechouse’s staff that transformed the artist’s pictures into an active — and interactive, of course — video montage.

Interactivity is an Artechouse hallmark, although sometimes it’s more integral than it is in “Hanami.” The proximity of humans (standing six feet apart from one another, of course) triggers visual and audio responses in most of these pieces. A walk through a hallway is punctuated by tinkling sounds that one staffer identified as expressing “childhood wonder.” The ­mirror-walled backroom, which Shimizu called “the selfie space,” features flowers that blossom when approached, scored to the booms of imaginary fireworks.

More straightforward one is “Awakening,” in which beating on a pair of taiko drums lights up simulated-paper lanterns. It’s briefly diverting, although also the show’s corniest conjuring of traditional Japanese artifacts.

If “Hanami” doesn’t splash very deeply into Shimizu’s Japanese heritage, it does offer an intriguing look at her technique. The looser elements of “In Rapture” retain the quality of the artist’s brushwork, as well as the fluidity of the pigment and the texture of the paper. Where pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein used paintbrushes to carefully reproduce the mechanical printing processes of their day, the technicians who have adapted Shimizu’s artwork enlisted digital technology to simulate the splats and splashes of freehand painting.

That’s the most effective aspect of “In Rapture,” the installation’s centerpiece. Visitors to “Hanami” are unlikely to feel as if they’ve made a virtual trip to Japan, but they will get the sensation of having wandered through a 3-D retrospective of Shimizu’s colorful, detailed illustrations.

An earlier version of this story included an incorrect credit for a photo taken by Max Rykov. This version has been updated.

Hanami: Beyond the Blooms

Artechouse, 1238 Maryland Ave. SW. dc.artechouse.com.

Dates: Through Sept. 7.

Admission: $12-$19. Advance ticket purchase required.

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