In 2009, the Japanese painter Natsuyuki Nakanishi invited me down to his home somewhere in Shimizu prefecture to interview him. This would have taken all day and probably involved more expense than I would have received for the article I was writing, so instead I opted to interview him by email in Japanese. This is the English translation of that interview.
CBL: Is your art part of any group, movement, or tradition?
NN: I don't belong to anything. I've almost never thought about it even.
CBL: At the beginning of your career, you were involved with performance and conceptual art. Now your art is mainly two-dimensional painting with an apparent aesthetic intention. Why did you move towards this more traditional kind of artistic expression?
NN: Because I think painting is superior to performance and conceptual art. According to my idea, the real world is like something existing within a cave, in which we see things as if with a little light from outside or a very little light from a candle inside the cave. In other words, what we see are those shadows and our own shadows not the real world of ideas. The cave is shaped like a kind of cylinder. To see real things means going out of the cave. This means taking the light in. The way to get the light inside is to cut the cave, which is like a cylinder, in two halves. Then when you open up the cylinder the flat side appears, which is the canvas. Also this flat surface becomes the front when you see it, and I think that the reason why the flat surface was found was to emphasize and keep frontality. Cezanne said people are in the spectacle and painters show people what this is. The scene is the spectacle and the cutting of the cave in half is the painting. The outside light is excessively bright and the painting surface is to screen and catch this. Because of this, facing the painting surface is much more intense than any kind of performance.
CBL: In your early days, you worked with Butoh dancers, such as Hijikata, Ohno, and Amagatsu. Is this very distant from your art now, or are there any similarities?
NN: Because I influenced or inspired them, rather than the other way round, those Butoh performers are the ones who took in the painterly factor to keep their career going. Now I think I'm more advanced about position. Dance is the body times three dimensions. As a painter I'm in front of a flat surface and have a front and a behind, so I'm between those things, so I think I am a border surface. I think deeply about where I stand. This is much more complex and intense than the positioning of a mere dancer.
CBL: Is your art an attempt to (a) create beauty, (b) to attain meaning, (c) to express mind or feeling, (d) none of these. What is your intention when you face a blank canvas? Do you have any intention?
NN: I am the border between the front and the back. I am surrounded by a very small space so I stand very still. The word stance, which refers to the situation of being still, is both similar to and opposite instance.
CBL: Are your paintings a record of what happens after you face the canvas? Your notes on painting suggest this.
NN: I think that paint already exists before it is drawn on the canvas. There are two kinds of paint. The first is the paint that hasn’t been born. The second is when, after setting up the canvas in a definite way, I approach it and stop as it occurs to me. Those are the two paints I mix. Painting is a world of desire towards abstraction. And to bring that to me, I make a memo or drawing, and that is first part of facing to the unborn things. That is the gesture to find out what it is. Painting has lots of species, like creatures, so I have to rear my paintings as if they are creatures by using many techniques or ways.
CBL: Your installation at the Yokohama Triennale used colored piles of sand. This reminded me of Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas. What drew you towards this kind method?
NN: Painting involves right-angled flat surfaces. This was invented by people with consciousness during the circumstances of human evolution. It's not like it was made naturally. Flat surfaces that can be found in nature are lakes and water surfaces. That flat water surface stood up is our posture, is the vertical. First of all there was the water surface. Flat places make silence, and are also the places where you can discover surprise. For example, there's an ink bottle on the flat table and if you knock it down you're very surprised. This surprise may have been caused by you dirtying the table, but it may also be caused by you discovering how flat the table is as the ink spreads on the flat surface. That is why you are surprised, because it shows you. To feel surprise at comprehending flatness is important for drawing because painting is flat surfaces. Sand which is like water flows, but it flows a bit unevenly and more slowly than water. For the Yokohama Triennale I did a simulation, using sand to check that the place where I stood was a flat surface, which is like a water surface, with a sense of surprise and silence. Sand mandalas also have a meaning of being a place of satori. I think that there's a desire to stay in an eternally quiet place. On the contrary, although the flat surface is place that looks settled, it can also lead to a state of fear and awe when it is a surface that is too huge like the ocean. Even a flat plain can give this feeling.
CBL: Sometimes the canvas can be like a window and sometimes it can be a kind of barrier. Which is it for you?
NN: Some of my works have SFF as a title. This means screen, filter, film. The only thing that has those three qualities is the canvas. Alberti said painting is a window, but I think eyes are rather like windows. The screen acting as the interrupting space is prefigured in Japanese fusama paintings and folding screens. Painting can make sense not only as a screen but as a partition, as with my installation for the Yokohama Triennale. Not only covering the canvas, but by the fact that it has permeability, the canvas can separate or retain reflection by its transparency. In addition, the distance – time and the space, which is the other side of this, has also become a filter.
CBL: Is there anything else that is important to understand or appreciate your art?
NN: In some of my answers to your questions I expressed that painting is better or superior to other worlds, but this is because I think painting is important, and I want to share this with lots of other people. The desire that people want to see paintings is stronger than any other desire, and it has great breadth. More than saying 'in painting,' when this world starts, simultaneously the world comes into being, and what you have is the boundary between the two. I think painting exists at basis of the world rather then inside the world. The feeling of wanting to see paintings is sometimes the same as people wanting to see the sea, mountains, trees, forests, and waterfalls, but the desire to see paintings is more special. Those things are all in front of you. People already have their own paintings in common with other people but they can't see them unless they bring their paintings off their back and down in front of them. When Cezanne said, "I'll show you," he may have meant this.