Tadasu Takamine in Conversation with Vivian Ziherl

Tadasu Takamine cuts a singular figure within Japanese contemporary art, and yet one deeply enmeshed within the vibrant Kyoto scene of the 1980s and 1990s. Furiously inventive, Takamine’s practice constantly strikes out for new visual vocabularies to accompany each new idea and context that he explores, veering wildly across giant plasticine sculpture, mirrored installation environments, Korean calligraphy and oral-sex discussion groups. Throughout, a tension between the artist and his audience, the individual and society, emerges as a thematic idée-fixe. At the time of the interview, Takamine was at work on a new large-scale project for a solo exhibition at the severely earthquake effected Art Tower Mito.

Vivian Ziherl: The late 1980s and early 1990s art scene in Kyoto was a dynamic and influential moment in recent Japanese art. You were a student there at the time. What is the importance of that scene as an original context for your work?

Tadasu Takamine: I had these big questions for art at the time. How art works: how it works in society, what kind of art will have an effect in society. And so I went to some galleries and had some conversations with artists to seek some answers. I was feeling, at the beginning, that most of the artwork is not direct enough. So the question was to be as direct as possible in what is called art. 

VZ: To try to access that time, I’d like to share this (hands over a series of photocopied pages from the catalogue for Museum Performance held at Nagoya City Art Museum, Aichi, 28–29 March, 1992). Can you tell me something about it?

TT: Wow! This is from 1991, I think , no, 1992. This was my first performance piece that happened on a big scale, in a museum. It was with Kodai Nakahara. He was the main artist who had an installation and he invited me. I was living with Noriko Sunayama at the time (also in the catalogue). We were both in Dumb Type at that time, so I also invited her to be in the performance. The space was surrounded with Nakahara’s artworks, and then we created a wall of clay. We used a tonne of clay this big and this high (gestures with hands to demonstrate a set of dimensions approximately 30cm wide and 50cm high) and five metres long. We each grabbed a wire and we tried to just cut the wall from side to side. A very simple action, but it took one hour to do, so it was physically very gruelling. 

VZ: It’s my impression that Nakahara is important for a certain generation of Japanese artists, including Teppei Kaneuji, Yuki Kimura and Koki Tanaka, although he’s not well known outside of Japan. What is it about his work that is so influential? 

TT: In the late 1980s or the early 1990s, his works were always a fast-forward for us. They were very advanced. His work gave me an impact, a physical impact. Which is interesting because I was always searching for the direct way to impact upon society, but his work is not direct at all, far from it. But still his work gave me a kind of physical change. I was also involved with a work that he did in Shizuoka prefecture. It was a performance piece, or an event you could say. It was based on a kindergarten. There was a lot of work there, there was a paper work in which he covered a car in papers.

VZ: What is it about his works that is so transformational? I have this catalogue … (the only survey catalogue of Kodai Nakahara’s work, published in 1993).

TT: It’s very rare! Ah wow, I haven’t seen this for a long time. You know this work was a big influence for Murakami (he points to a sculpture of an ‘otaku’ female figure fixed onto a mirror). 

VZ: It seems to be quite different, as it’s more of a conceptual gesture of appropriation, whereas Murakami was more about otaku itself, of excavating a cultural layer and exploiting it through production. Nakahara’s work, as I understand it, was against commodification in terms of any tendency towards a recognisable style; whereas Murakami is of course just that—a brand. 

TT: Right. It’s very different. It’s totally different, opposite. For Nakahara every work looks like a big question. I was too young to understand, but, for example, this one, as a sculpture it was a big shock for us, because it was going to be dead in a moment (he refers to Fruit Graph, first exhibited in an exhibition curated by Yuko Hasegawa for Setani Gallery; a colour-code of different fruits was given to the gallery to fabricate as a two metre high fruit skewer). The action is so simple, what he did was to stack them up, done. It’s like a magic show. 

He was always searching with the physical body, automatically, he was always interested in how humans’ brains work with material. He had an opportunity to use high technology from the Canon people (flicks through the catalogue), yes here, the Canon Art Lab. In the 1980s to ’90s they chose maybe five or six artists to work with technology. Other artists did really high-tech works, but he (Nakahara) also used those technologies, new ones, but everything that we saw in front of our eyes was stupid.

VZ: He didn’t take on the aesthetic baggage of this technology?

TT: That’s right, the expectation was that it should be good-looking new art, high-tech art. Against that, what he did was actually research into brains, the physical body and the brain, but visually it’s just crazy. I love it though.

VZ: A question arising in the relationship between your work and Nakahara’s is that you deeply avoid style; when a viewer looks at one of your works they won’t be able to predict how the next one will look, or what the one before had looked like. It’s as though you’re inventing something every time. I wonder if that relates to this sense of avoiding commodification, of avoiding the production of something that can be a brand, that can be marketed.

TT: I’m not comfortable being a good-selling market artist. I still believe that art can change something. The market is there already but sometimes, finally, it’s about the outside. For example there was a piece I did collaborating with a musician at YCAM (Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media); it is a theatre space. The first thing I did was to go there and to look around, not in the space, but at the ceiling or the dressing room, outside the space; and to think of which space I could use. I’ve always wanted to use not the main space, not the central space, but the optional spaces. I start to research from the edges. 

To return to the story about the market, an example is the ‘Supercapacitor’ series. I did this series in the same way, because I work with Arataniurano, a commercial gallery, and they wanted me to have a solo show. That means my thought and my artwork will go to the market. So OK, this is the market, but instead of my name and my brand going to market, I thought, let’s put this supercapacitor (an energy-saving battery) into the market. So I used this market system to promote this now ‘good’ technology. 

VZ: Another important influence on the 1980s and 1990s Kyoto scene was Dumb Type, a performance art collective which you mentioned above. Could you talk about their influence as well?

TT: In spirit Dumb Type and Nakahara are like two big heads, and they make something of opposites in the way they operate art. For Dumb Type, especially in S/N (1992), it’s a very direct way, like a shout in society. Whereas Nakahara is the contrary, he’s a very silent person, his work is nothing direct, it has no words in it and yet in this indirect way he gives something very strange.

VZ: You were involved in S/N as well. In fact, you became involved with Dumb Type in 1992, the same year as the exhibition with Kodai Nakahara.

TT: That’s correct. In S/N the language, the words, are very important in the piece. The piece is as understandable as possible. Still they hesitate to use a word like love. If you speak Japanese, to say ‘I love you’ is very difficult, in our daily life. It’s hard like ‘ah, I can’t say that’. So instead of saying ‘I love you’ we have to do a lot of things to compensate, to explain the same thing, the one phrase ‘I love you’. It’s the same idea in S/N. Instead of saying ‘I love you’, we used a lot of high technologies. But still we used a lot of words. Half of them were by mouth, and half of them were by slide text and video. 

VZ: And the piece dealt with some significant political realities at the time.

TT: Yes, it started with Furuhashi Teiji’s illness (the informal leader of the group had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS). But we came to connect with these structural problems related to boarders, war, social injustice.

VZ: Politics forms the edges of your work quite often and particularly through the surfaces that your artistic practice shares with your personal relationships. I think here of Baby Insa-dong (2003) in which you examine the condition of ‘Zainichi’ (Korean immigrant) communities in Japan through your marriage to an ethnically Korean women, or Kimura-san (1998) in which you disclose sexual-care within your friendship with a profoundly disabled man.

TT: Kimura-san or Insa dong are about the nature of human relationships. At this moment in Japan this question is again very important for the nuclear issue—the question of relations, how to form them. I can show extreme images that may be efficient for an anti-nuclear message, however, to want to change opinions is not the purpose, instead it’s about how to make a relationship with the issue itself. 

Tadasu Takamine, Cool Japan, 2012. Installation detail, Art Tower Mito. Photograph Yoko Hosokawa. Courtesy the artist. 

Kodai Nakahara, Untitled (Lego Monster), 1990. Lego blocks, 280 x 320 x 210cm. 

Dumb Type, S/N, 1992. Photograph Kazuo Fukunaga. Courtesy Dumb Type. 

Tadasu Takamine, Kimura-san, 1998. Courtesy the artist. 

Vivian Ziherl is a writer and curator currently based in Amsterdam.