Had the French architect Emmanuelle Moureaux never visited Tokyo, she believes her work would be totally different. When she first arrived in the Japanese megacity 23 years ago, she was overwhelmed by its colors. In that pre-internet era, she'd only previously known Japan through books and magazines; her imagination filled in the gaps.
On her first visit, she remembers seeing thousands of colors which seemed to float in the cityscape as layers or three-dimensional objects, so unlike the European greys she was used to. “It was as if I saw color for the first time,” she says. And so, just two hours after landing in Tokyo, she decided to move there.
Inspired by this moment, she developed the design approach she now applies to every project, whether that's creating buildings, interiors or art installations. Throughout her practice she combines layers of colors of Tokyo with traditional Japanese "shōji", space dividers made out of translucent paper and bamboo, and so mixes Tokyo's contemporary city life with the country's ancient culture. Her aim is to recreate her initial experience of the city, so others can feel what she did.
Perhaps Emmanuelle’s staggering installations come closest; they are immersive, interactive and color-induced jolts to the system. “I want people to feel color with their entire body,” she says.
Her works are surprisingly low-tech given they're so visually spectacular. They’re made up of thousands of numbers, sheets or shapes cut from paper, strung together with transparent nylon and hung in neat rows and columns, from floor to ceiling.
The first of her 100 Colors series
Like opening a new box of crayons, the impact comes in seeing all the colors together – if you pick one out from the pack it loses some of its power. In Emmanuelle’s installations you never have to choose. “In daily life, people are usually not conscious about color,” she says. “I wanted to create an installation where people can see 100 shades of color in one glance. You never have the opportunity to see 100 colors in one space at the same time.”
I want people to feel color with their entire body
Emmanuelle’s largest piece is Forest of Numbers installed at The National Art Centre in Tokyo to celebrate its tenth anniversary last year. It’s made up of paper numbers spanning 2017 to 2026, to symbolise the decade to come. It was exhibited in a 2,000 square meter space and took 300 volunteers to hang.
Visitors can walk through a tunnel within the paper numbers, becoming fully immersed in the experience; the tones change as you move through. “I imagined a colorful future ahead,” Emmanuelle says. “The future keeps changing, you are free to imagine anything you wish to happen. The gradual change in the shades of colors through the tunnel is like a change in feelings towards the future.”
Silhouettes of a cat and two small girls are hidden among the numbers encouraging people to spend time with the artwork searching for them. It’s important to Emmanuelle that her work feels playful and interactive.
And she doesn’t get too hung up on her installation’s starring role as an Instagram backdrop. “Beautiful works naturally become Instagrammable,” she says. “I am very happy when people take photos of my work, because it means they feel emotion, and want to share it.”
This emotion is the essence of Emmanuelle’s work – it’s what color means to her and what she wants to share with the world. “Color can make people smile, give energy, joy, and most importantly, it makes people happy,” she says. “When people have happier minds, the world will be a better place.”
Words by Alix-Rose Cowie