Sunday, 9 November 2008

Tomotaka Yasui, sculptor

I interviewed the artist Tomotaka Yasui on the 6th of November, 2008. The interview took place at the tiny Megumi Ogita Gallery and lasted about an hour. The interview is transcribed from handwritten notes and may include some slight inaccuracies.

CBL: About how many of your works are women, children, and animals?

TY: About 80% have been women. Recently I’ve started making children and objects like shoes.

CBL: Is this an attempt to diversify and offer more options to collectors?

TY: Well, maybe, but even with the smaller items, I’m still using the same processes and materials and that takes much time.

CBL: Can you tell me about the materials and methods you use?

TY: The first stage is I use clay to make an initial figure. I then make a mould round this using plaster. After I peel off the plaster moulds, the important stage for me begins. I make an urushi [lacquer] mixture and put this inside the two halves of the mould and reinforce this with linen. I do this 5 or 6 times. Then, I put the two halves together and take off the plaster. The material is a bit rough so I sandpaper it. I think it’s like making a car body. Next I put urushi painting on the surface and sometimes mother-of-pearl. I put white urushi paint on the surface as a background to the other colours. To get the texture of the hair, I mix sand into the paint. The eye is marble and obsidian.

CBL: Is this figure modelled on a specific person?

TY: No. At first I used models, but now I don’t directly use a model. But sometimes I check the parts I want to use and combine them.

CBL: What about the shiny boots?

TY: I use metallic powder in the paint. In this case I think it was bronze. This is a maki-e technique.

CBL: You use traditional Japanese techniques. Why?

TY: Before I used plastic paint, but I feel this stops things too much. Once painted, it doesn’t change. Urushi is breathing.

CBL: You mean artificial or chemical paints are dead?

TY: Well, dead is a little bit strong, but everything is too fixed. It’s too much for me. With urushi we can enjoy change.

CBL: Yes, “change” is very important. So, urushi is kind of fuzzy or flexible?

TY: Yes, that’s it. It’s flexible.

CBL: I’d like to ask you why you chose to work in sculptures of women?

TY: I was born in Belgium and I also lived in Israel. I was always looking at foreign people. It wasn’t easy to find Japanese people. For me foreign people were very interesting, their atmosphere…

CBL: But your figures are Japanese people.

TY: I like the shape of foreign people, but it’s very far for me. I like Western fashion but now I’m very interested in the Asian shape. I don’t put them in kimonos. The fashion is foreign style.

CBL: In this case the fashion looks very 1960s, what with the short skirt, boots, etc.

TY: I like the old things, old designs, old fashions…

CBL: So the 1960s is ancient! When you lived overseas and there weren’t many other Japanese people, did you feel a kind of loneliness?

TY: At first. If I had Japanese people, I think I would always talk with Japanese friends, but there weren’t. But I learned a lot from meeting and talking to foreign people.

CBL: Did you feel something was missing? I mean it’s interesting that you mainly do figures of women. Why don’t you do figures of men?

TY: I like balance. I like the women’s balance.

CBL: Is it because the male figure is top heavy compared to women where the centre of gravity is lower down?

TY: Yes, that’s a big reason. In the future I want to challenge male figures, but first I need to do lots of sketching. I don’t have the experience of sketching men.

CBL: So, before you start working in 3-D, you explore the form in 2-D. Is there a difference of feeling when you make figures of women and figures of animals?

TY: Animals don’t talk, so it’s not easy to communicate with words. It’s not so far. Women have more character.

CBL: Do you sometimes feel that she might wake up, like Pygmalion, the story from Greek legend about a sculptor who fell in love with his statue and prayed to Zeus to make her real?

TY: I don’t know that story, but I don’t think so. I don’t imagine any narrative. My image is more about silence, no meaning…

CBL: But when we see these life-sized, semi-realistic figures we can’t stop psychologically reacting to them like other people – at least in part. They spark off certain natural responses. For example this figure of the child here, you feel like patting it on the head or, if you’re Italian, maybe pinching her cheeks.

TY: I live in the city. Tokyo is very special. Everything is moving fast. The action is positive, but I don’t think every movement is positive. Sometimes stopping, not thinking is also important.

CBL: So these works are saying that stillness and silence are important.

TY: Yes, but when I made these I had to move around them a lot.

CBL: You had to dance around it! Because of the poker-faced expressions, the lacquer coating, the hidden hands, the figures seem to be avoiding contact, avoiding communication.

TY: But this is my style of communicating. If I didn’t want to communicate, I wouldn’t put on this show.

CBL: So, it’s communicating by not communicating. You’re trying to communicate. What are you trying to communicate?

TY: Everyday is very fast, let’s slow down. Let’s cool it. Change of pace is very important. In Tokyo I always see things accelerating like this [makes upward slashes with his hand]. I want to get away from always moving, and express silence and stillness.

CBL: Human relationships are complex and often noisy with arguments, misunderstandings, awkward emotions, etc. Your figures almost seem to represent a desire, a wish for that kind of relationship to be simplified and made into a kind of icon. Your figures may remind some people of the otaku culture, in which people who have difficulty dealing with real relationships are attracted to virtual relationships or relationships with objects that they can control. How does your art fit into the otaku culture?

TY: I’m not interested in the otaku culture.

CBL: Are you negative about otaku culture?

TY: Otaku was a discriminatory term in Japan. At first I didn’t like it, but now the meaning of otaku is changing. But, anyway, I don’t express otaku culture. I express ancient Egyptian or Buddhist artistic ideas through my sculpture. This is nearer for me.

CBL: Egypt is nearer for you! Interesting! I notice you don’t mention ancient Greek sculpture. I guess that’s because it has this feeling of motion which you don’t like.

TY: I think Greek sculpture is very far. Egypt is nearer because the form is not so realistic.

CBL: Well, realism means less freedom because your art becomes tied to the reality of the work. You have to serve the reality. Stylization gives you more freedom to do things as an artist your own way. Is that how it is for you?

TY: I suppose so.

CBL: How about other Japanese artists who have worked in human figures, like Simon Yotsuya and Katusra Funakoshi? Are there any affinities there?

TY: Funakoshi and Yotsuya are very different from me. I think one expresses otaku and the other the more traditional and European style of sculpture. He’s a Catholic, isn’t he?

CBL: The interesting point is that you were born overseas and have lived there for some years, but you don’t express this more traditional, European style.

TY: I don’t express my experience of living overseas in the European shape, but it was very important for me because it enabled me to see Japanese culture from outside. I could compare European and Japanese. Also I was influenced by Western fashions. Japanese fashion is difficult for me.

CBL: Did living overseas make you feel more Japanese?

TY: For me it’s difficult. I live in Jaoan and I now feel very Japanese. In Europe it was sometimes very difficult to speak, but I didn’t feel so different. Sometimes I wonder where my country is. I feel because my wife is Japanese… When she was small, she played Japanese children’s games, which I missed. Sometimes she says, “Why don’t you about this game?”

CBL: With your art, which uses traditional Japanese techniques, expresses Japanese artistic concepts, and which is focused on the physical type of Japanese women, I get the feeling that your art is a kind of coming back to Japan, a kind of homecoming.

TY: Now in foreign countries, all people hear about is otaku culture. I want to introduce other aspects of Japanese culture to other countries, Japanese style, Japanese atmosphere. Atmosphere is an easy word to say, but I guess I mean silence.

CBL: In a way, although your art may superficially look otaku, it’s actually quite the opposite, quite old fashioned and traditional.

TY: I think otaku people are the same age as me and I also sometimes play video games, but only for a few years. When I was growing up, while my friends were playing their computer games, I was going to Kyoto.

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