Saturday, 10 September 2011

Mikiko Kumazawa, artist

In June 2011, I interviewed the young Japanese artist Mikiko Kumazawa. The interview was at the Mizuma Art Gallery in Tokyo. The interview was conducted with the help of an interpreter, Antoine Perrin, a native of France. The interview proceeded at a leisurely pace and lasted well over an hour.

[The interpreter is absent, looking for some images. We start chatting in a mixture of English and Japanese.]

CBL: Do you know CNNgo?

MK: No.

CBL: Well, it's CNN, but it's a kind of website for cities.

MK: Tokyo?

CBL: Yes, yeh...So, usually I write for Metropolis.

MK: Metro...?

CBL: Metropolis. And Japan Times. Usually I'm writing articles for Japan Times and Metropolis. I want to write a new art column for CNNgo, introducing interesting artists like you.

MK: Thank you. Are you free writer?

CBL: Yeh, free writer. I have many jobs.

MK: Many jobs?

CBL: Yeh, many jobs.

[Interpreter comes back. I look at visual references]

CBL: Ah yeh, that's the ones I remember. It looks all so familiar. Going back, good...Careful with the recorder. Sometimes they go off for unexpected reasons. Right. Good, good. We've got plenty of references there. OK, so let's maybe just start at the end first. This is the latest, and, uh..."Erosion"...

MK: This is not the latest.

CBL: Not the very latest, but it's being displayed now anyway, yeh?

[We look at "Popcorn," a picture featuring several naked girls that was shown in Taipei last year]

CBL: Well, OK. We'll get into that one a bit later, but we'll start with this one because it's out there. So, it's called "Erosion." Erosion usually means something is being worn away. Em, what is being worn away in this picture?

MK: All the elements I have in the painting are like old elements that are broken or worn away or with stickers posted on it, like the broken traffic cone or the post box.

CBL: And mixed in with the old elements which have been eroded, there's lots of high school girls.

MK: Schoolgirls are in society the most exploited individuals.

CBL: In what way are they exploited?

MK: For example, enjo-kosai (compensated dating) with older men.

CBL: But is that typical of schoolgirls?

MK: In Japan there is this image...

CBL: It's just that I also teach in a girls' high school and most of my students are incredibly innocent, I like to think.

MK: I think that's very scary because you can't trust their appearance.

CBL: They lead a double life, maybe. So exploitation is a kind of erosion.

MK: Yes.

CBL: So what are they losing?

MK: I don't know. When I was drawing this work I was in a very down phase and I was thinking of adults like mean individuals, so I was maybe thinking that these girls were becoming adults by this way, by losing their purity.

CBL: Some people might see it differently as, y'know, they're learning how to manipulate the world, using their appearance and so on, playing off their image.

MK: In this one ["Panic," a picture featuring pregnant women] the women are all very strong.

CBL: In this one [revolving sushi shop] too, you look at those three works together there's a kind of theme of the position of women in Japanese society. Is there a kind of feminist agenda to...

MK: Not especially.

CBL: Looking at "Panic" you say the women here are very strong and I can see that they have a kind of demonic scary energy, but also they are very ludicrous and comic, so it's not so respectful. It's more satirical I feel.

MK: I'm not saying they're bad but maybe there is something scary about them, like the pregnant woman who is scary for me.

CBL: Why do you feel like that? Most people would think it's a beautiful natural thing, and sometimes we even give up our seat on the train to them.

MK: Of course I'm giving my seat on the train to them, but the shape is scary.

CBL: Do you mean it's scary because you're a woman and you feel, 'I don't want to be like that'?

MK: Not like that.

CBL: It looks scary...? I can't understand why it's scary.

MK: It's the shape. Just the shape.

CBL: The shape? So fat people are scary?

MK: Maybe I'm very impressed by the power of the women to make children – of course it's a fantastic thing – but at the same time it's something very strange and very scary. I was in a positive mood when I was drawing this picture so the fear is not the main theme of this painting but there is always this kind of strange awful picture.

CBL: Now you mention that you were in a different kind of mood, for example, with the "Erosion" you were little bit negative mood, and then with "Panic" you were in a positive mood, um, but these pictures take a long time to do I think, so does your mood stay the same throughout?

MK: I just have to draw the sketches, the draft, and when I've finished that I have nothing else to do but fill in with all the details.

CBL: So there's that initial moment of big creation which is very closely connected to your mood and then there is the more meticulous kind of, sort of sketching all the details, yeh, and the mood is not so important in that case?

MK: Yes.

[The interpreter disappears for several minutes after a phone call. We look at a catalogue of the Zipangu exhibition, a group show in which Kumazawa's "Erosion" is featured. I look at "Fortoken" by Manabu Ikeda. We chat mainly in Japanese.]

CBL: This looks a little like your art. Again, it's, em, very detailed and everything is mixed up, so...interesting. Is this exhibition still on?

[Kumazawa nods]

CBL: Maybe I'll go soon.

MK: Are you from America?

CBL: No, no, I’m from Scotland.

MK: Scotland?

CBL: Yeh, so in Summer, Summer holiday, I will go to Scotland.

MK: Is that in England?

CBL: Scotland is the Northern part of Britain.

MK: Is it cold?

CBL: In the summer it is perfect and healthy, because Japan is too hot.

[The interpreter returns]

CBL: Now, the most obvious characteristic of your art is there's so many things all together, heaped together in a big mountain, and of course people who come to Japan from foreign countries sometimes they have that impression of very dense city, and why do you want to show Japan like that? Is it also your impression that Japan is a very dense, crowded and maybe chaotic place? And in a way, it's like your impression of Japan is similar to foreign people who come to Japan and are a little bit culture shocked by the density of the city and how many things are crammed together and the number of people flowing through the city.

MK: I like when everything mixes together.

CBL: Why do you like it?

MK: When I go to a museums and when I see paintings I often feel a little bit uncomfortable not knowing really what I have to see and what I have to understand in the paintings, so, when I draw my own paintings, I just make it with as many elements as possible to make the viewer relax and just accept seeing and linking things.

CBL: So you deconstruct the idea of the painting?

MK: I don't especially really like art as such, for example, so I probably don't have this precise image of what painting should be and shouldn't be, so it's more like a natural feeling.

CBL: So, anybody can look at this picture in their own way. They can start anywhere. They can see some of it. They can ignore some of it. It's all very random how people respond. Is that true?

MK: What should I say?

CBL: With this kind of picture there is always something you can see and something you can't see because the eye and the mind can only take in a limited amount. Different things come into focus at different times, and that means the picture is always refreshing itself. But also you feel that you never finish looking at the picture and then you leave it unfinished. It's like... Often when you go on an exhibition you'll have a good look at a painting and you'll have got it, you'll understand it and then you'll move on. With this kind of painting you're never satisfied.

MK: This is one of the perspectives that I want to work on maintaining.

CBL: And not produce something very simple. For example, Kumi Machida's "A Perch" [We look at "Tsumarigi" by Machida in the Zipangu catalogue], I mean you see that and, OK, I got it, so it's very different. But in the picture there are always elements that don't make sense. For example, you're thinking what are these mysterious ridges on their backs and, wow, that's unusual, and where is the rope? What is holding the rope so there is that kind of element of mystery. Visually, your mind is satisfied but maybe your mind is a little bit confused when you walk away. And then if we compare that back to your picture, the eye is confused, but the idea are familiar and commonplace, because schoolgirls, Gachapin , 7-11, post boxes...

MK: Well, I couldn't say.

CBL: OK, let's go further back into the past. Have you always drawn lots of pictures since you were a child?

MK: Since I was a child I've been drawing manga characters. Since going to the university I started thinking of manga stories.

CBL: So, when you were in elementary school you were always drawing?

MK: Not particularly. I always had bad marks in my art lessons.

CBL: Is that because you didn't listen to the teacher and you drew things your own way?

MK: When there was a theme we had to draw, I didn't know how to react.

CBL: I guess that's a characteristic of good artists. They're very stubborn and they're driven by something inside. I saw some earlier examples of your work.

[We look at prints of her early colour paintings]

CBL: These are a little more painterly. These works – this one's 2004 and this one's 2007 – and "Taberareru" (Being Eaten) and "Kaihoh" (Liberation) with the Tokyo Tower there. From these I get the feeling that you're trying to do a painting and you want to use paint like a normal artist has to use paint. And that's a kind of expectation - a serious artist is an artist who uses paint - but that you're not satisfied with this medium, and then you find this medium – pencil – and you find pencil is much better for your art. So do you remember about the moment that you changed from paint and you decided you would use pencil?

MK: This is the first one I used pencil.

[She indicates "Maru Maru Goko" (2007)]

CBL: The basic theme is quite similar. You have these strange giant figures mixed together with the city like a kind of King Kong effect, but because the mediums are different, everything feels very different. It becomes much more detailed.

MK: At first I was thinking of making colours with this painting, but this black and white was a lot more impressive and looked good, I thought at the time.

CBL: When you were using paint, did you feel frustrated by paint, because you can’t really get so much detail so easily?

MK: I don't really understand what colours will look good at this place and what colours will look good at that place.

CBL: So, paint was too complicated?

MK: I just can't manage to put everything together and have a good balance when I'm using colour.

CBL: And everything, the tones, all fit together easily because it's basically just pencil, a bit darker a bit lighter. It all blends together very, very easily...em, but also it makes everything look a bit grey. Do you think that's suitable for Tokyo? Is Tokyo a kind of grey city?

MK: I've never thought about that.

[We look at another picture showing what appears to be a train crash.]

CBL: What's the title here?

MK: "Dassen" – derailment.

CBL: Your art represents the very everyday elements of life, and in particular, one of the things that comes up again and again are trains. Are you a densha onna (train woman - the female equivalent of a male trainspotter or otaku)?

MK: Not particularly, but as I ride the trains it is something that is hitting me everyday.

CBL: Do you suffer from claustrophobia? You're quite a small lady, so it must be quite terrifying sometimes to get into a very busy train like this.

MK: Yes, probably.

CBL: In this picture, "Doko ikko kana?" [Where Shall I go?] everything looks very orderly. You have this perfect interconnecting railway system, but in "Dassen" and "Nidome"[Second Sleep] here you have chaos. In your art there is a relationship between order and chaos.

MK: I guess so, but I'm not really conscious of this opposition. Usually I like chaos.

CBL: You like chaos. What kind of chaos do you like?

MK: As in everybody's free.

CBL: So, nobody has to work.

MK: Only those who would like to work should work.

CBL: Another example of chaos is the big earthquake in Tohoku. That's another kind of chaos. What do you think about that chaos? Is it all negative or are there also some positive things?

MK: That's difficult, not really. This is a little bit special.

CBL: So, by chaos you just mean like a student lifestyle?

MK: It's maybe a little bit different.

CBL: So it sounds a bit more like people dreaming, y'know. Everybody does what they have to do and they do... They do their job and they have appointments and they catch the train, but while they're riding the train they have some wild thoughts, and when they have a bit of free time they have some kind of fantasy about chaos. So it's like chaos only exists in the mind as a kind of abstract feeling, so it's a bit like a salaryman going to a punk rock concert.

MK: For "Dassen" the idea came when I was riding on the train and it was overcrowded so I decided to get off the train. And with "Nidome"... So in the train when you're going to work and you still have some time on the train, Japanese people just have the rest of their night on the train.

CBL: This woman here, is that you?

MK: The bodies are different.

CBL: Yes, I know, but it's a woman getting off the train quite dramatically. I get the feeling that there is a kind of aggression in your art. You yourself are a very gentle person but in your art sometimes there is a kind of aggression, an outburst of some sort of slightly scary feeling there. So, what do you think? Do you sometimes have an angry feeling?

MK: Yes.

CBL: When you're angry, how to you express your anger? Do you shout, do you break things?

MK: I just talk and complain to my friends.

CBL: Then you feel better?

MK: I regret it.

CBL: But sometimes you have some angry feelings left over and sometimes there's a little bit of violence in here, yeh, I feel. Sometimes very mixed feelings from these. Sometimes I feel you're angry against high school girls sometimes.

MK: Not at all.

CBL: Just my impression. As for "Revolving Sushi Shop," it looks more like a comedy, I feel. Yeh? It's not some sort of strong message is it?

MK: This was just a funny idea I had and this ["Doko ikko kana?"] is the same kind of feeling I had.

CBL: So, this is a bit like Escher.

MK: I love Escher.

CBL: Escher, you like Escher? Yes, very Escher this one. Now let's go to this one. What's the title of this one?

MK: "Popcorn."

CBL: Popcorn? Is this actually popcorn?

MK: Yes, you have corn and you have popcorn and your have mushrooms.

CBL: OK, so there are lots of different things, here. You need to look very closely, em, so there's some fruit as well, yeh, fruit and popcorn, and corn and mushrooms, and who are these mysterious ladies?

MK: My friends.

CBL: Ah, do you often use your friends as a model?

MK: Mmh.

CBL: So, in all of these pictures we can see your friends?

MK: And family.

CBL: So these are all friends of the same age as you?

MK: Mmmh.

CBL: Why are they all naked?

MK: Maybe there's no special reason. I just wanted to try something like that once.

CBL: They're eating. Is that right?

MK: When I have a new idea for an artwork, I often start by trying a few sketches before doing the real one. This is the kind of process of painting.

CBL: I'm just wondering how people are going to react to this, I mean some people will see it as slightly pornographic. Sexy art usually sells quite well. But also it has a kind of comedic elements. So this was shown in Taipei. How was the reaction in Taipei?

MK: I wasn't there.

CBL: So, no feedback. And of course high schools are very popular.

MK: Probably.

CBL: Because you seemed to have moved. I noticed that you've moved from, looks like housewives and mothers, and you've moved to high school girls and naked women. What's going on here?

MK: This is just random.

CBL: It's just the random creative process? There's no agenda there? OK. Now back to the Zipangu exhibition, because there are lots of artists brought together. Do you feel you belong to some sort of group?

MK: As I said earlier I don’t really understand art and the system and everything, so I don't have a real consciousness of belonging to a special movement or a group.

CBL: Aha, just that you've kind of been lumped in together with a other artists for this show, and I kind of feel there is a Japanese-ness about all this art, and your art, of course, because of the subject matter, also has this Japanese-ness, so how closely related is your art to the subject matter? Could you go to another city like Paris, New York and do the same thing?

MK: This one is New York.

[She indictates "Maru Maru Goko."]

CBL: Yes, that's the Chrysler Building. But they are all Japanese mothers and children.

MK: This is simply because I couldn't find any non-Japanese models.

CBL: OK, you can use me as a model.

MK: I am interested in knowing more about foreign cultures and making works.

CBL: You could use Nina [Kouprianova] as a model.

MK: Beautiful!

CBL: OK, right, I think we'll finish there because if I have some questions later, I can probably email in.

No comments: