Imprinting Memories with Gyotaku

Alexis Aubin-Laperrière has spent the last few years dedicating himself to gyotaku, a traditional printing technique from Japan. In the artist-fisherman’s studio, fish have a second life on washi.

Text—Marie Charles Pelletier
Photos—Gabriel DeRossi

For Alexis Aubin-Laperrière, art is a wild language, something we discover only once a piece is finished. A way of unearthing our subterranean thoughts.

“I’ve always loved language: the way in which speech forms, the lapses and words one after another, like an attestation to the fact that we’re always trailing a little ways behind the unconscious,” he says.

His practice is an internal wandering, at the end of which he leaves the trace of his passage, whether in writing, drawing, engraving — or, most recently, gyotaku.

In each spot of ink, a fragment of memory. Something he has tried to grasp and freeze in time.

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Printing fish
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Alexis was born in 1987 in Chicoutimi. His artistic awakening happened in childhood, when he would observe the landscape paintings in his grandfather’s house — works by Clarence Gagnon and Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté in particular. When he was 17, he left home to head to the city and went on to complete a master’s in fine arts at Concordia University.

During his studies, he caught wind of gyotaku but never actually tried it. The call was heard later, in summer 2019, to be precise. After a day spent fishing for mackerel in Rivière-au-Renard, Gaspésie, he turned to his partner, Alice, and told her of his plan to make a print of one of his catches.

His first attempt was a disaster. “My poor mackerel was really ugly, but that’s when I really started to think about gyotaku,” he explains.

Gyotaku (魚拓) — gyo for fish, taku, rub — is a practice that consists of making a print of a specimen on paper or fabric, by meticulously applying sumi ink to its scales.

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The ink is non-toxic, made from vegetable oil and soot.

At the juncture of scientific archive and art, this traditional method dates back to the first half of the 19th century in Japan. It was used at the time to accurately inventory species, or to make fishing trophies, before rinsing the fish and then selling or eating them.

Gyotaku embodies the oldest form of taxidermy. Although it has been refined for a long time, it holds a wealth of data on marine life in Japan, allowing the cataloguing of its biodiversity.

On each print, the fishers wrote down the measurements of the catch, the name of the species, the place and date, and then signed it. Sometimes they added an ode to the sea to express their profound respect. The print of a body, in the detail of each of its scales, was an homage to the beauty of nature.

Alexis, who has been a fisher since he was very young, admits that his relationship to fish flesh has transformed, just like his fishing stories.

 

“I probably don’t see fish as most people do anymore. I still surprise myself with the wonder I feel at their fins, their mouths, or their eyes. It gives me a new reason to go fishing.”

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At the crossroads of nature and culture with gyotaku

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After a year of trial and error, Alexis finally got the hang of the practice of gyotaku — or, rather, began to interpret it in his own way. Since then, he has been printing his own and other people’s catches. He exhibits and acts as a guide at the Reford Gardens, and builds up his inventory.

In his studio in Little Italy in Montréal, the walls are covered with prints of fish, and the shelves are stocked with brushes, ink pots, and rolls of high-quality paper. Washi, made of white mulberry, is known for its fineness and resilience. For Alexis, this place is a transitory one where the encounter between his two passions takes place. Between nature and culture.

 

It also happens, as during his time at BESIDE Habitat, that he’ll decide to make the fish print right there on the shore. The process is always intuitive, no matter where Alexis finds himself. The final result is made up of the sum of his manipulations and the constancy of his movements.

Because gyotaku is an ode to delicacy, to precision, and to the philosophy of living in the moment.

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Alexis begins by cleaning the fish of silt and then drying it. After placing it in the desired position — fins spread and mouth open, using stitches — he applies sumi ink in the direction of the scales. He places the piece of washi paper on the specimen and rubs vigorously by hand. The print is revealed to him at the moment when he lifts the paper, more like a fossil until the eye is painted in; at that precise moment, the fish comes back to life.

The ink when fully dry reveals the relief of the fish in different shades of black. The result is fascinating: rarely do we have the chance to see a print this palpable, on which there sometimes remain fragments of DNA. Because to imprint a memory, it’s absolutely necessary to enter into contact with the living.

For Alexis, each gyotaku is a window into the underwater world, but especially the improbable trace of an encounter between an artist and a fish, between the ephemeral and the indelible.

Marie Charles Pelletier is a designer and an editor at BESIDE Média. Now based in British Columbia, she continues to write the stories of people who inspire her. She spends the rest of her time getting lost — in the mountains, or in her thoughts.

 

Gabriel DeRossi is a Montreal-based photographer and private chef. A nature and adventure enthusiast, he finds inspiration through movement and the observation of his surroundings. When not running in the mountains, he uses his photography practice as a way to explore various topics and make meaningful connections.

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