May 7 – June 4, 2011
Scion Installation L.A., Los Angeles, United States
Curated by: PMKFA & Antonin Gaultier
Artists: Atsuhiro Ito, Kyohei Sakaguchi, Megumi Matsubara, Motoyuki Daifu, PMKFA, Takashi Suzuki, Teppei Kaneuji, Ujino, Yotaro Niwa, Yuri Suzuki
moderated & written by NAOKI MATSUYAMA
Naoki Matsuyama (NM): When I was asked to moderate this conversation, I couldn’t immediately imagine how to go about it because I had an image of your works as being very different. For instance, Megumi’s works tend to rely on the presence of other people. The name she gave for her architectural practice, Assistant, is emblematic of that. On the other hand, Teppei’s works remind me of a child playing alone, which is an expression that Teppei has often used in the past. But on closer scrutiny, I began to see underlying similarities. Today I’d like to explore such differences and similarities with you, so that we can perhaps glimpse the way two Japanese artists of the same generation were formed and continue to give expression to their ideas.
Megumi, you just came back from Nairobi, Kenya. Why Nairobi and what did you do there?
Working from scratch in unknown places
Megumi Matsubara (MM): I stayed in Nairobi for a month for an artist in residence organized by a Japanese artist. I’ve been interested in Africa for some time, since even before I made My Imaginary Lagos where I juxtaposed photographs of Lagos an acquaintance of mine gave me, with photographs that I had that I could associate with them. What I’m interested in are not the giraffes and the lions, but the cities in Africa. I knew from my own experience of Lagos, which I ended up actually visiting, that it’s difficult to find information about African cities other than that they’re dangerous. I wanted to be open for a fresh experience. So I intentionally avoided searching for information about Nairobi on the Internet. In a way, the process of getting to know Nairobi itself turned into a work.
For the first ten days or so, all I did was to scan the city, including the people, the things around me, everything. That’s when I saw the billboard and newspaper stands that I used for my project. With the newspaper project I produced my own newspaper by painting over newspapers and photocopying them and I sold them in a newspaper stand in the city. The billboard project was inspired by this empty billboard that stood inside Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa. I ended up making an installation with everyday objects and photographs I took but what was interesting was the process of discovering the history and politics behind that billboard as I talked to people to get permissions and so on. It all began just because I found those empty billboards strange, and wanted to do something with them.
NM: How does that relate to the way you work, Teppei?
Teppei Kaneuji (TK): I’m also often invited to work abroad and produce a work from scratch at the place and to destroy it before I leave.
MM: Destroy it?
TK: Yes, I guess that’s to save money. I’ve worked in many places, especially in Asia, and most of the times I don’t know anything about the place. I start from imagining what kind of place it is. And even after I get there, I don’t do proper research. I just try to be faithful to the things I feel or see. For instance, just by shopping for things and looking at the things I buy, it’s possible to discern something that makes the place particular. In a way I seek a connection with society through things, or the relationship between myself and other things and spaces. I’m interested in what emerges out of that. I’m not very good with dealing with other people, so I tend to focus on my own small activities. Well, I can only work that way. By focusing on a small sphere of activity and letting something come out of it. I just try to be honest to what feels real to me. But at the same time, I’m really drawn to what Megumi just described because it feels more open to possibilities for something personal to connect with a wider context like history.
Working with others
MM: What I felt while I actively sought contact with people in Nairobi, well, what I’ve been feeling for a long time but felt particularly strongly there, is that I’m really empty. Really empty. I was born and grew up in the city and words like roots don’t resonate with me. I feel like I’m floating. I feel like I’m nothing without other people, or things other than my own self. I’m just like a mirror in a way, and can’t do or make anything without the input from other people and things. So nothing happens for me if I just keep on looking at things. It’s only through communicating and allowing other people’s lives to enter my own that I’m able to take action. I don’t allow theory to have precedence and I accept the multiple layers of things and people in the city to lead me.
NM: Teppei, you tend to work by yourself but you also have experience of working with others, though much more rarely. What is it like for you to work with others?
TK: Yes, even now I’m involved in a project with photographers and another one with a stage director who asked me to produce a stage set. I do have a yearning for something like that chemical reaction that results from communicating with people, but I’m just not very good at it. I almost have to force myself to do it. The way I work is similar to making collages: it’s to see other people as materials I can use and to ask them to see myself as a material too. I’m told that’s a very dry way of thinking about collaboration, but for me it’s the only way to work in a sincere manner.
Working with others is sometimes painful and shocking. People have completely different methodologies and what you do may not be accepted. But I like that sense of misalignment, of things not going the way I wish them to. It’s only natural that other people may do something that doesn’t make sense to me. And I include such misunderstandings to create “collages”. It’s exactly the same with my sculptural works. I stack everyday objects together and cover them with powders and resin. These materials are very difficult to control, and I actively let that lack of control to enter my works.
Emptiness, blank space & absence
NM: Megumi mentioned “emptiness” earlier. That reminds me of the expression “blank space” that you use, especially in relation to the series White Discharge that you just described.
TK: Yes, I can understand what Megumi was talking about very well. I share that feeling of rootlessness and of having nothing inside myself. It’s a very strong feeling that drives me when I produce works. I guess I’m trying to fill up that void or empty space with things. I start by doing stuff with things around me, and end up covering them in white to make them formless in a way, so that I can start to deal with emptiness itself as an object. It’s very important for me that my starting point is blank space. And I believe there are many states of blankness.
MM: For me, emptiness can be something that is created when you overturn a structure. To take a simple example, I’m interested in words not just for their meaning but also for their dimensions or visual qualities. By treating words purely based on their visual quality, and forgetting about grammatical structure, some kind of emptiness of meaning, or what I call absence, occurs. I’m not interested in a state where A equals B, but rather in one which by randomly placing A and B, some kind of blank space is generated between them. That space belongs to no one and precedes anyone’s definition. It’s just something that’s there.
Using everyday objects
NM: You mentioned that you used everyday objects in your project in Nairobi, and this relates to Teppei’s works too. Do you use those objects to create the in-between spaces that you just mentioned?
MM: Each object carries different images with it. There’s an infinite list of hidden meanings behind a scarf or a pair of shoes. It’s just like with the connotation of words, like the word “red” having different layers of associations and meanings. For me everyday objects are merely an example of things that carry different meanings, and I use them just like a painter uses paints. Words, objects, they are the same for me. They’re just like paints.
TK: I understand that and I might just be repeating what you just said, but I like taking things that have a meaning somewhere as something useful, and putting them in a different context. I like creating that feeling in which the world as you know it is suddenly distorted. To put it very simply, I feel that by taking something that was part of the composition of the world, you can easily and immediately establish a connection. And when I collect things according to a rule or system that I defined, the meaning that an object used have becomes void and the object is given a new role.
NM: What kind of rules or systems do you set for yourself?
TK: For example, if I decide that I’m going to stack objects highly, I’d collect things regardless of their color or use, and focus on whether something can be used as a pillar or not. Or sometimes I would just collect transparent things, regardless of their material.
I always had this habit of collecting things. I guess I started using everyday objects for the simple reason that they were there. With Teen Age Fan Club for example, I used the hair part of anime figures partly because they were a very familiar part of my childhood and I happened to have a few, just like any guy of my generation. The figures come from different animes and video games, are made by different people and present diverse scales. But they can all be associated due to the fact that they’re all figures, and by combining the hair parts, I was able to create this one mass that looks like a creature but which also lacks a sense of agency.
A White Line & Midnight in a Box
NM: Let’s talk about the works in this show. Megumi, could you tell us a little about A White Line?
MM: I was asked to carry out a ten-day workshop at Tokyo Wonder Site with students in the summer of 2009. They had this theme of making participants experience the condition of garbage in Tokyo before making a work. They took us on a tour of disposal plants and dump-sites. I’m not sure how important that was to the choice of using toilet paper, but I somehow decided to use it and do something in Shibuya. It was more of an instinctive performance. I crossed the Shibuya crossing with a toilet paper in my hand that rolled out onto the street, and I was followed by two others who crossed each other.
Visiting those dump-sites made me think about the duration of things, the way they are so easily forgotten. I associated that with the crowded streets of Shibuya. When someone bumps on to us, we’re annoyed, but only for a brief moment and then we forget about it. A chaotic situation that attracted our attention ceases to matter the next instant. But the performance itself was very simple and was improvised on the spot. It was a one-time performance that lasted a mere three minutes.
NM: The ephemeral movement of A White Line seems to be in strong contrast to the great stillness of Midnight in a Box which is also a video work. It strikes me as a departure from your past works Teppei.
TK: It’s a recent work. I started dealing with video since my solo show at the Yokohama Museum of Art. I tend to start with small things to conjure up images of big things or to connect them with big spaces. But I do also have a yearning for gigantic sculpture or architecture and I felt that I could handle that kind scale if I were to use video. When I made my first animation work in which I portrayed a building or a big mass, I really had a sense that I could do something that I couldn’t do otherwise.
With Midnight in a Box, there was a period in which I would record or photograph the after-hours broadcast that shows footage of the city taken from a fixed camera. I always have the TV on at home and since I often work until the early hours, I was very familiar with the images. But one day, as I was looking from time to time at the footage on the TV that showed lights going on and off, or cars passing by, or even the sky brightening up in the morning, I had the feeling that the small space of my room was connected with the large spaces of the city. And then I watched the footage at a later day and something stranger happened: it felt as if the movements in the cities, and my own experiences that I could recall, were turned into an object. That’s why I chose to project the footage into a box, to treat the enormity of the city as an object.
Art in post-quake Japan
NM: One thing that we must talk about before we wrap up this conversation is the earthquake that shook Japan on March 11. I’m struggling to find words to talk about it but I feel that this event caused a definite rift in the way we envisage our “everyday life”. Do you think that this event that’s still unfolding in the form of a nuclear crisis will have an effect on your works?
TK: In my case, I don’t think there’ll be a major change. The reason I say this is because what I have been doing in the past encompassed an event like this in some ways. I’m not saying that I predicted it.
I just mean that I always dealt with the possibility of something being engulfed by a large phenomenon. For me the everyday included the possibility that the meaning of things may suddenly be upset. So I don’t think I’ll change my style in any obvious way.
I know that my works may be associated visually with the events, although of course there’s no direct connection because they were made before anything happened. But I believe that everything that I made is potentially connected with anything that could happen in reality. In a sense everything is related. You used the term “everyday life” but I believe that the concept of the “everyday” itself must be updated. The word itself may no longer be appropriate. I think we need to acquire a new conception of it.
MM: I haven’t directly experienced the earthquake because I was in the slums in Kibera when it happened. It was a strange twist of fate for me to experience the earthquake in Japan through the experience of being in the slums. There’s a pretty harsh reality in the slums: enormous amounts of garbage, unbelievable things being burned constantly and so on. But everyone would ask me if I were okay when they found out I was Japanese.
I could only think about Japan through the slum. I felt that the way the Japanese economy has been deteriorating and the way these African cities were growing energetically had finally met at one point. It was a strange feeling, being told by people that they wanted to become as prosperous as Japan, when Japan was facing so many problems that were made even worse by the earthquake. I felt very concretely, and this might be something peculiar to my generation, that the two countries may be at the same point but moving along vectors pointing towards opposite directions. I don’t think the earthquake will have a fundamental impact on my work. For me, the only thing I can do not to panic and lose sight of my daily life is to continue to create, to connect with people. Only that, if you like, would update our conception of the everyday. Only the feeling that we are connected, that we can create, will give us the ability to create the “everyday” whatever may happen.
NM: Thank you both.