On the 10th of July, 2009, I went to Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery to interview artist Tomoko Konoike. We spoke for about 100 minutes through a very good interpreter. Occasionally Ms. Konoike spoke English too. This tapescript covers the first 74 minutes of the interview. If you read through the interview, you'll see how I managed to get some free art out of her as well.
CBL: Usually when I do an interview, I don’t prepare any questions for two reasons. One is I’m lazy and the other reason is that it’s more of an open-minded experience. And also if you prepare too much – OK, number three – then the conversation will be at too high a level for the readers to understand.
TK: [laugh] I see.
CBL: OK, let’s just start with something very simple. Why did you become an artist? How did that happen?
TK: What is your definition of artist?
CBL: Eh, somebody who em doesn’t have to em go to the office every day.
TK: I have been like this since childhood, and then as I got older and became an adult I kept painting and then that gives me money to live. So for me it’s a continuity with playing.
CBL: So, it’s a way of…kind of Peter Pan, like Michael Jackson?
TK: But I’m not as rich as Michael.
CBL: But Michael also had a message for the World. So, does your art have a message for the world?
TK: No, nothing.
CBL: So, your art has no message, so you’re…em… But when you create something is it purely expressive or are you thinking about the effect on people coming to the exhibition?
TK: The work might send a message to viewers, however, but it depends on what viewers receive the message from something. If my work had a message, but it’s only possible to convey to the audience by the communication between the work and the audience. So it’s not a matter of the artist who tries to tell viewers the message. It’s a matter of the communication between the work and the viewers. So, the essential thing. It’s not a matter of if I have a message or not, but if the work can communicate with the audience or not.
CBL: It’s a bit like having children because y’know if you make children, you of course think they’ll be like this or like that, and they have a life of their own and they become something completely different and they… So it’s a bit like that. You create something that has its own independence.
TK: I’m not sure if you have children it will be the same or not, but maybe it will be possible like that.
CBL: Do you have children?
CBL: No? So is your art kind of like your children?
TK: No. No. [laughing]
CBL: It’s a sensitive area. OK, it’s time to…
TK: I actually have no idea.
CBL: Um, so, yeh, you’re not thinking of any kind of communication, but there must be something that makes you create the things that you create, something from inside pushing out. It’s not like a pull thing, where, y’know, you’re trying to communicate with other people, but there’s a kind of push factor inside.
TK: Do you think so?
CBL: Yeh. It’s just an example of European logic, so, yeh, I asked first about the pull factor, which is message and communication. There’s no message or communication. So, there must be a push factor. The pull factor is something outside you that is pulling the art or whatever it is you’re making, and the push factor is purely internal. It’s just something you have to push out.
TK: Could you explain that once more.
CBL: Well, um…
TK: Very simply.
CBL: I’m trying. Um, the push factor… It’s something you feel you have to make by yourself. It’s not with reference to anybody else. I’m trying to think of an example of that. It’s a bit like going to the toilet. Y’know, you have to push it out. It’s not for anybody. It’s a very bad analogy. I’m sorry.
TK: That makes me more confused [laughs]
CBL: More confused? OK, we’ll leave that hanging there for a while and maybe come back to it by a different direction. The thing that strikes most viewers about your art is the repetition of certain motifs. Things like daggers and wolves and bees and legs sticking out. Why do you choose these motifs and not other motifs?
TK: Maybe the first thing I can think about is that I don’t dislike these motifs. I think the people would also like these motifs and I’m one of them so that’s why I might also like these motifs.
TK: Another reason why is that I might like the things that might easily misunderstood. For example, the knives. It’s dangerous. It might hurt people, but it looks attractive, and it takes from wolves. They symbolize bad creatures, bad things, but sometimes they are also good creatures and very smart.
TK: Yes, in certain stories.
CBL: In Japanese stories?
TK: No, anywhere.
CBL: Really? The three pigs and the Big Bad Wolf and, y’know, Little Red Riding Hood and the, y’know, again, the big bad wolf…
TK: But sometimes I know the story the wolf, stupid wolf, sometimes. There are a lot of stories which depict wolves as a bad creature first, but at the end it turns to a good creature afterwards.
CBL: So, you’ve got a mixed view about wolves?
TK: It’s not only the feeling of me. In ancient times the wolf was depicted as a bad creature, but it has been changed recently. Because of the bad example or bad notion of the wolf it changed the diverse interpretation.
CBL: But in your art, the wolf still seems quite threatening.
TK: Is that so?
CBL: By the way can we have some visual references like some catalogues or something from former exhibitions and so on because this article is not just about this exhibition. It’s actually a general thing about the artist and her career and everything, yeh. It’s actually going to be a main feature, y’know, like this. [shows copy of Metropolis magazine] So. Em, this article will be a main feature. Not this, more like this – bigger.
TK: So, how many pages?
CBL: Probably three, maybe three, I think, two or three, but probably three because your pictures are very nice. Yeh. [catalogues produced] I’m just trying to imagine how ordinary people would see this, how they would respond to wolves, for example, y’know. In this picture [Knifer Life] for example, which I remember from the Neoteny show, it seems like… This looks like a kind of feeding frenzy almost.
TK: A feeding frenzy?
CBL: A feeding frenzy. It’s like when animals become crazy to eat something. So, em, I think mainly wolves are quite scary, so your idea of wolves is a little strange maybe.
TK: Oh no. I forget the exact years, but a few several years ago the journalist from the New York Times also said exact same thing. And I used to be written by an article from a European journalist, because it gives you the scary images, as if I might have some scary experiences or cruel experiences, or I might have some traumatic memory by the bad man or sexual abusement or something. They might imagine that I myself have such experiences through these…
CBL: Yes, exactly of course!
TK: But on the other hand, for Japanese audiences even feel the happiness through my images.
CBL: Through the wolves and the knives?
TK: Not only motif but also images and painting.
[raucous laughter from installation staff]
CBL: That’s going to make my recording difficult to transcribe maybe, in the background. I’m not sure. Anyway, if they could keep it down a bit. Just to, y’know, a little bit.
[interpreter goes off to request silence. Ms. Konoike starts looking at my name card and asks me about my name which I explained earlier]
TK: Liddell. Mountain? Mr. Mountain, Mr. Loud Valley?
CBL: Yeh, Mr. Loud Valley and Colin means young wolf.
CBL: Yeh in Gaelic.
TK: In Gaelic?
CBL: Yeh, it’s the ancient language of Scotland and Ireland.
TK: I can see a picture, an image from your name.
CBL: Oh yeh, please paint a picture of me.
[starts illustrating my name here]
TK: Here’s the mountain and the valley and then the wolf barks loudly.
CBL: Let’s have a look. Ahah. But it doesn’t look so young. So, maybe in ancient Celtic society, the wolf is also a positive symbol.
TK: Yes, I’m right, the wolves used to be the closest animal to human, and then, for example, people counted the number by using the bones of wolves, and also it’s… The wolves are related to the dogs, the ancestor. They share the same ancestors, so people are surrounded by many dogs and wolves, so it was their natural environment in ancient times.
CBL: Yeh, the connection between dogs and wolves, and also between the recent show that I saw with your art that I saw at the Ueno no Mori, the Neoteny show. The idea of neoteny is very interesting em because some people say that dogs are a neotenized form of wolf.
TK: That sounds interesting.
CBL: About the Neoteny show, em, what do you think about that show and the other artists you’re grouped together with, and the concept of the show, which is this idea of neoteny?
TK: I’m not so much care about other artists because the thing is that exhibition is important because… What is important in that exhibition is Mr. Ryutaro Takahashi collected all those collection and works and artists, and it’s linked to the concept itself.
CBL: But he must see some similarities because he has his taste and y’know everyone’s taste is usually quite specific, so he must see some similarities between you and the other artists.
TK: Comparing the people who is born or grown up in your countries and Japanese people or Japanese artists, [they] do not have the idea of the definition of art itself, I feel it. Because we Japanese started making art since we were child and it’s continued from the playing and creating art, so… For the European people they have the basic shared idea of Christianity, for instance, but we don’t have it, so we have no prior definition of art based on that kind of Christianity for instance. So, em, we… So for us Japanese, art exists as an…without definition. For Japanese, I think that art exists without any definition, so that makes Japanese artists quite unique, but I think that this makes the Japanese art as a renaissance, the next thing or next stage compared with European artist.
CBL: The next step has a… You’re talking about the development of art. So the next step is the Japanese sense of art? So, like beyond European Art?
TK: I mean, the next means something that gives us a clue to break this chaotic contemporary situation.
CBL: Which chaotic contemporary situation?
TK: The international art scene.
CBL: Like the confusion about what’s art and what’s not art?
CBL: Is the problem art itself? You’re saying that in Japan the idea of art is well basically a Western import, and some things are art and some things aren’t art, even if they are both beautiful and well made, one thing can be art and one thing can be called crafts or something. So the idea of art itself is the problem and it makes confusion?
TK: I don’t think so because Japanese people like that chaotic situation.
CBL: So the chaotic situation’s a good thing?
TK: It’s not a matter of good or bad because we live like this in this situation.
CBL: Yeh, but to get back to basics, y’know, because we could go anywhere with this debate, to get back to basics, people, y’know, like art because it looks good. Y’know, that’s the bottom line and if something looks good, I think people will buy it and be interested in it, and, y’know, clearly, y’know, your art looks very good. It’s well painted. The technique is very good. It looks interesting. It has certain kinds of aesthetic effects, certain kinds of harmonies and balances, and surely that’s much more important than any debate about what art is, isn’t it?
TK: I’m sorry. Could you repeat the question?
CBL: OK, well basically, the important thing is not about art and what’s not art. What’s important thing is you make something that looks good.
TK: Is it advice?
CBL: No, no, no, that’s the important point, and I think y’know there’s lots of aesthetic pleasure in your art, and there’s also a little bit of intrigue as well y’know because that’s also important.
CBL: Something that’s hidden. For example, this painting here: [Knifer Life]. As you can see, there’s various lines. You could follow the lines, they’re swirling. There’s a swirl here and then these lines which feed into it, there’s kinds of rhythms and melodies, linear melodies. So, you’re drawn into the picture by the aesthetic charm. When you get there, when you arrive, there’s also mystery. And to me that’s to me, y’know, very obvious kind of a feminine personality. Women like to look attractive and y’know draw attention to themselves, but also it’s very important to keep something hidden and withdrawn from the wolves who are chasing you. What do you think about that?
TK: I have no idea. Yeh, it’s your idea.
CBL: It’s one of my ideas. It belongs to the World.
TK: Seriously, I do not have such concept in my work at all.
TK: It’s not a matter of artworks only. Men tend to look at women as some kind of mysterious creatures.
CBL: I’m not saying it’s a concept. I’m saying this is something that maybe you don’t realize, which makes you do something. It’s a kind of… People have their human nature, and human nature designed for…not for art. It’s designed for primitive life. And then in a situation like y’know today where we have a complicated civilization, the primitive instincts, the primitive way of thinking expresses itself in other ways, like art.
[Interpreter asks me to rephrase]
Well, basically people are designed to exist in a kind of primitive life. They have all these y’know useful ways of thinking and instinct, and when they live in a civilized situation, they then…that primitive instinct expresses itself differently, like in art.
[Interpreter asks me to rephrase because she couldn’t read her own notes]
OK. So, it’s… Art is… What you’re doing, it’s not like a concept. It’s just like an instinctive female thing to be attractive and to be mysterious.
TK: Yes, yes, I understand.
CBL: OK, I got an answer.
[turns to another picture: Chapter Four: The Return-Sirius Odyssey]
Em, right, this also has wolves, and these are dragon fly wings, and the girl with the red shoes. Why are the shoes red?
TK: Because I wanted to have red in the painting.
CBL: Aha. So, you needed red? Aha.
CBL: So, it’s like you’re painting and then you think it needs something and you put a little bit of red in, and then you it needs something else so you put something else in?
CBL: So it sounds a little bit like cooking.
TK: I guess so.
CBL: So, would that explain your choice of motifs, because these motifs are like certain ingredients – they go well together?
TK: I guess so. But I didn’t have a reason or a concept at the beginning to select the motif itself.
CBL: There was no recipe?
TK: But it turns out that with those sort of ingredients or motif, I can reach there at the very end, even though I didn’t know why I choose them from the beginning.
CBL: So, the cooking analogy works very well in this case. Yeh?
TK: I guess so.
CBL: OK, well let’s choose a different picture.
[turns to: Chapter Three: The Wreck]
What’s the cooking story here?
TK: At first I wanted to have a big red thing here.
CBL: This is a heart?
CBL: With greens and blues. Please continue.
TK: I don’t remember why I painted this image.
CBL: OK. Let’s choose another one. Let’s go back to this one. [Knifer Life] What came first?
TK: Yes, I remember about this. I felt something surrounding my body, like air.
CBL: Like wind?
TK: Like wind or clouds. I painted something surrounding me. I’ve been thinking about what surrounded me, and one day I realize, ah, it’s knives. These parts on the right half I painted first.
CBL: So that’s actually you?
TK: Now I finished drawing this painting for that for this exhibition, and now I realize that maybe it’s not either wolves or knives that I wanted to draw. And Maybe I wanted to paint humans probably. I thought I believed I liked wolves or knives, but I now realize and surprised that I want to paint a human.
CBL: So, the thing you want to paint, you can’t paint, so you paint something that’s maybe next to it.
CBL: That reminds me of the artist Ikuo Hirayama.
CBL: Yeh, it reminds me of that because when he was a young boy he saw the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and he couldn’t paint that for many, many years, and then he had to go off and paint the Silk Road, China and Mongolia and all that nonsense, and then Bamiyan, and the old Buddhist sites, and then finally he was able to paint the atomic bombing.
TK: I think that maybe he also didn’t know, eh, by the time he could reach there.
CBL: What do you mean?
TK: He didn’t know before he could paint it or not.
CBL: Yeh, yeh, yeh. So, in your case, is it the same with painting people directly?
TK: I thought maybe eh these are wolves wanted to bark loudly. In humans case maybe [background noises] but this picture could tell much more than human scream, because I transformed humans into the wolves in this painting It’s more effective to tell people that human wanted to bark or scream.
CBL: Why did you want to scream?
TK: There is no reason when I want to scream.
CBL: So it’s push factors not pull factors.
TK: But, I’ve no idea. I’m not sure if I want to scream or someone makes me want to scream. That’s the big difference. I don’t have a strong notion of the self. I feel more like something is coming through me.
CBL: A vessel?
TK: Yes, maybe vessel.
CBL: What’s coming through you and where is it coming from?
TK: It’s something over there. [groping behind her to the right garbbing a tail]
CBL: Over behind you? And it has a tail?
TK: I can’t see it.
CBL: It has a tail.
TK: I can feel the tail.
CBL: And you know what it looks like?
TK: Maybe I can tell only if I paint it, and then realize this is it or this is not it.
CBL: Ah painting is like a mirror to see the thing behind you?
TK: It’s not a mirror. It’s not something you can see. It’s more a feeling.
CBL: So it’s feeling but then you change the feeling into visual?
TK: Yes, because I want to see it.
CBL: So, it’s like synesthesia. Do you know this? It’s a medical condition. Some people have it. For example when they hear music, they see colors. So, kind of feel it and then paint it.
TK: I’m not sure if it is color or not, because I make sculptures. I create animated pictures. There are many different mediums I use so I’m not sure if it matters only colors as I paint.
CBL: There are many kinds of synesthesia. There’s five main senses and they can all be mixed up by some people. Also, I guess the one thing that people will notice at this exhibition is the strong kind of Nihonga influence.
TK: What kind of Nihonga influence?
CBL: Well, the fact that you’re using these kind of sliding doors. Like the little touches of Nihonga, like the skull here there is some gold material.
TK: Ah kinpaku!
CBL: Kinpaku. So, there’re touches of Nihong and the fine, detailed brushwork is very Nihonga, I think. So, it’s like you’re blending this kind of y’know this modern contemporary art sense with this traditional y’know Nihonga techniques. And there are quite a few artists doing that, I think, in Japan, isn’t there?
TK: No. I don’t think so. There are many artists who combine the contemporary elements and also a traditional Japanese things, for instance like Takashi Murakami. I think there are many artists who do the same thing.
CBL: So, you’re saying that you’re different from that? You’re not doing that?
TK: I think it’s not necessarily escapable for this generation, because we need to overcome the former previous generation, so we have to face it.
CBL: Overcome the previous generation? What do you mean exactly?
TK: We have to transcend, come to the next stage from the former generation.
CBL: Move on a step. But in Japan, of course, Nihonga and Western art have been very separate for a long time and of course, secretly influencing each other. And in recent years the kind of fusion of contemporary art and Nihonga has become much more obvious. I don’t really think of Murakami so much, but I’m thinking of Tenmyouya and [Fuyuko] Matsui and, y’know, even [Makoto] Aida. They’re doing this much more obviously, and I feel that your art kind of fits together quite well with theirs.
TK: But I think the artist who ah described that fusion elements is Takashi Murakami.
CBL: Described or… In what sense?
TK: Yes, I think everything he does in terms of artistic expression. Because he’s closer to the older artists, for example 15th and 16th century, like [Ito] Jakuchi or Ohkyo [Ohkyo Maruyama] or those Edo period painters, who had the order from the Emperor and then designed a painting for them, and conceptually what Takashi Murakami does is quite similar, for example, his artistic collaboration with Louis Vuitton, so his position is quite similar conceptually, not because of the superficial elements like the motifs or how to paint, but conceptually what he does is quite similar to the former artists in 15th and 16th centuries, so that’s why he’s possible to deliver the fusion of contemporary idea and traditional Japanese painting.
CBL: Mainly because of the Louis Vuitton commission? That seems like a very slim basis for this idea.
TK: Yes, I think the way he works is quite Japanese.
CBL: So, this is something em that you’re hoping to do, to get some kind of corporate sort of sponsorship and to produce something like that?
TK: I don’t refuse any work.
CBL: So, that’s a yes. If you say that Western art journalists instantly think that you’re selling out.
TK: But I think that maybe I can enjoy playing with it.
CBL: So, um, you don’t think of it as artistic prostitution?
TK: In your European context.
CBL: Yeh, but because you’re Japanese you can get away with it.
TK: Yes, I don’t feel any guilt about it.
CBL: Yes, I’m right behind it. I think that this European way of looking at things can sometimes be very totalitarian.
CBL: A totalitarian system is a kind of total system. Everything has to em belong to the same idea or the same morality. European system is very totalitarian. So Christianity is a very totalitarian religion, uh Communism’s a very totalitarian social system y’know those kind of ideas are totalitarian. And the idea about art can sometimes be a bit totalitarian sometimes. Now with this show, it’s about a journey to the center of the Earth. What came first the art or the concept for the show?
TK: There was a work… I discussed with the scientists about to organize an exhibition about inside of the Earth, but something had happened. It was postponed and then… but I studied very much for research.
CBL: Can I just ask which scientist or which show or…
TK: I don’t remember their names. There were many scientists and meetings.
CBL: What kind of show was it going to be?
TK: Underground exhibition [ska paint?] which was held at the Miraikan in Odaiba.
CBL: OK, so they did hold the exhibition, but their collaboration with you didn’t come through, yeh?
CBL: Why not?
TK: Um… It was quite a difficult problem. It was because the curator had a sensitive problem at the time, and I decided not to participate in the exhibition.
CBL: So, the curator was too sensitive?
TK: No. It’s hard to tell you. She’s still working in the same position, so I don’t want to describe in detail. [laughs]
CBL: I see. OK, I understand. So, because of that you were researching about inside the Earth?
TK: Yes, and it was very fun to speak with scientists at the time.
CBL: And what did you learn about the inside of the Earth?
TK: The [garbled] I learned that we as humans call the Earth, but it’s only the surface of the Earth because we can’t dig very deep inside. What we know is only about the surface of the Earth. This is the first thing I learned. And even scientists, more than 90% of the Earth is invisible and unapproachable, and the way how we or scientists can get the idea is collecting the data using the wave of the Earthquake. I thought maybe I could go to the inside of the Earth by imagination. Do you know the name of the scientist ‘Kiruhia’?
TK: German. It’s between scientist and magician.
CBL: How do you spell it?
TK: K-E-L… It’s pronounced ‘Kiruhia.’ The person lived in the age when the people believed the God still made the Earth. On the other hand, people started to think more like a total system using a technology or more scientific or realistic idea. So it was the age when ‘Kiruhia’ lived.
CBL: So that would be 16th or 17th centuries?
TK: Probably yes. And there was a picture drawn by ‘Kiruhia’ and it’s a… the half side of the Earth when you cut it in half and it looks quite beautiful. And I enjoyed discussing with the scientists and that drew my imagination picture drawn by Kiruhia’ also gave me imagination so I came up with those two different imaginations from contemporary socie… age and ancient age.
CBL: OK, so that concept was before the art…or the art… Some things were after the concept or…? Because I think my original question was what came first, the art or the concept for the show?
TK: Do you mean the concept is related to language or word to describe what kind of exhibition?
CBL: The basic unifying idea of the… The exhibition’s unifying idea is this journey inside the Earth, yeh? So this is the exhibition’s concept.
TK: Everything comes at the same time, all together. There are several reasons. It’s not actually the reasons but there are opportunities given, I mean. One is the postponed exhibition and I research the inside of the Earth at the time, and also I have the offer of the exhibition from Opera City and also there are physical conditions, like the scale of the exhibition space and those different things came to me all at once then my different ideas got together and spilled out. To me the travel to the center of the Earth sounds almost like a children’s play. It doesn’t sound realistic to adults. But when I am given a big exhibition space like here, and then if people can play the childish play seriously then I think I can give that imagination more realistic idea even for adults.