Interview with Misaki Kawai

Misaki Kawai is currently showing her work with Taylor McKimens in the “Boroboro Dorodoro” exhibition at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art.

poster for Boroboro Dorodoro Exhibition - The Return of Japanese Subculture

Boroboro Dorodoro Exhibition - The Return of Japanese Subculture

at Watari-um, The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art
in the Omotesando, Aoyama area
This event has ended - (2006-10-14 - 2007-01-28)

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In Interviews by Ashley Rawlings 2007-01-16

 Her drawings and papier-maché installations are a chaotic world of cartoon characters: it’s a ‘cute’, entertaining world that feels like Sesame Street has been remixed by MTV, but there is also an air of uncertainty within it, as the characters she is depicting are a bit lost.

How does it feel to be exhibiting in Japan for the first time?

It’s very exciting! This is my home country and yet I’ve never had a show here before! It’s great that my friends and family can come to see the show and it’s also easier for me to communicate with people in Japanese.

The world in your work is very irreverent and childlike. Without meaning to put labels on it, I can’t help but thing of it as being “kawaii (cute) with attitude”. What do you think about Japan’s “kawaii” culture?

Everything has a balance of good and bad to it: for example, Hetauma (a graphic design style or trend that can be translated as “clumsy skill”) for me is ‘bad, but good’. I think most of Japan’s “kawaii” culture is just cute; it’s very easy for people to like what comes out of it. I don’t find anything particularly shocking in it. But when something looks cute but has a funny or weird aspect to it, I think it’s really special. That kind of cuteness has a very strong character.

 There are so many farts and explosions in your drawings! What’s going on?

I love action! I love Jackie Chan! He is my sensei… I want to meet him before I die!

Your drawings are part doodle, part cartoon, but that narrative is different from the sequential way it would be presented in a comic. How much is cartoon culture important to you?

In Japan, manga is everywhere in our daily lives, even in the drug stores! We even have manga history books and biography books! When I was little, I read Doraemon, Ninja Hattori-kun and Obake no Q-taro and so on, but I was never all that crazy about manga.

Your work has an intriguing mix of a Japanese and American feel to it. How have the two cultures affected you?

Well, first of all, I’m Japanese, so that influence is just there from the start. If I had never come to New York for my art, I don’t think my ideas for my art would have evolved to work on such a large scale. I live and work in New York now, so I take anything that I find interesting from either culture. Moving between America and Japan lets me see the good and bad sides of both countries. It would be my dream to take the best of both and make a new country somewhere in the Pacific Ocean…

Installation View

What are your next projects after Japan?

I’m doing solo shows at the Clementine Gallery in New York, the Royal Gallery in Stockholm, the Perugi Gallery in Italy, and I’ll be showing at the ICA in Boston in March.

Misaki Kawai’s Website

Ashley Rawlings

Ashley Rawlings. Ashley Rawlings was the editor of TABlog from 2006 to 2008. More information about his work can be found at » See other writings


  1. Joseph Bolstad

    Having seen the exhibition, I think it’s important to note that the work is not only “cute,” but also really, really “shitty”. It’s also important to note that I’ve placed quotes around both of these words. Transgressing “skill” in favor of a kind of sublime naivetee is something artists have strived to do throughout history. Although this work has an unskilled look, it is clearly the result of a distinct aesthetic choice. Hence, “shitty” rather than just plain shitty.

    The work at the Watarium has a somewhat pleasurable, rambling, adventuresome quality. It takes time to peek in all of the crevices and understand the whole work. Through the use of cobbled-together, scrap-wood and paper mache constructions, pieced together dolls, and an abundance of goopy paint and hot glue, all seemilngly handled with very little “skill”, the artists seem to be attempting to transgress academic standards and arrive at an individual aesthetic. Unfortunately, the particular aesthetic they reach is feeling pretty tired these days.

    With the exception of some of McKimmens’ pieces, the work on view at the Watarium could easily be confused with the work of scores of other artists and art collectives working in the same manner today. Only to a person who pays no attention to the art world today would this work come as any suprise. By attempting to bypass “skill” and “academicism” the artists end up coming off a bit more like smirking hipsters than gleeful children.

  2. Ashley Rawlings

    I think this is a really important point that you’re making here. Unfortunately I missed most of the three-part Hetauma exhibition that Taylor and Misaki curated in the Watarium bookshop, and so I didn’t think of bringing out that element in the interviews.

    I wonder how this “shitty” approach to making art is taken in the United States, where they have held most of their exhibitions, and how it differs from here in Japan. I suspect that this “rough kawaii” is making a strong impression (either positive or negative) on a Japanese audience that is very used to the ubiquity of highly polished yet often anodyne cartoon characters.

  3. Taylor McKimens

    Most of the raw or “shitty” work in the show you refer to I’m assuming is Misaki’s drawings and sculpture. True, she makes a distinct aesthetic choice, but you seem to imply she is falsifying her abilities or making faux naive artwork. That would be a completely false assesment. I’m not sure how familiar you are with the concept of “Heta-Uma” but it is very much different than “Faux Naive”. Heta-Uma is a completely Japanese concept originated by Teruhiko Yumura (King Terry), and there is no equivalent word for it in the western artworld. Along with Yumura, and maybe Chris Johanson, Misaki is one of a very few artists who are able to really work this way with any honesty.
    Plenty of New York’s most respected art critics, dealers and artists (all of whom pay some attention to the artworld) would disagree with your write-off of Misaki’s artwork.

    Out of curiosity, I’m wondering which artists and art collectives you easily confuse the work with.

    Thanks for the interview!

    Smirking Hipster

  4. Joseph Bolstad

    Taylor writes, “…Misaki is one of a very few artists who are able to work this way with any honesty…” This statement perfectly exemplifies the elitist attitude of the of the “shitty” movement apologists. It upholds that only few artists who make “shitty” work are being “honest” while implying that many others are not. So then, how do you determine whom, among the bunch, is being honest or original in the first place? It’s useless when so much of it looks the same.

    Kawai works in a very similar vein to plenty of other artists. In addition to big names like Royal Art Lodge, a good number of artists I went to school with or have seen in smaller venues were doing things like roughly sewing together little dolls or making faux-naive cardboard-city sculptures. Clearly, this style — whatever you want to call it — is making a global impact on the art world. We can try to assign historical precedents like “heta uma,” but that doesn’t excuse the work from simply being what it is, and getting the reaction that it does, today. It doesn’t matter if this work has been singled out or praised by “New York’s most respected art critics, dealers and artists” — sorry guys, aside from a few merits, it still feels stale to me.

    For anyone who’s interested, there’s a very relevant online discussion about “shitty” drawings here:

  5. Nori

    I enjoyed Misaki Kawai’s installation piece to an extent. I felt like an I was an human cat climbing up and down on a cat house, but got bored with it like a normal cat. I don’t like to argue over the concept of Heta-Uma, but I think that the idea is also seen in the U.S., also in other countries in Asia, and Europe etc. I mean it is not something that one Japanese guy invented one day. I don’t think we look for a perfect understanding or interpretation of the idea of Heta-Uma to someone other than yourself just like Misaki Kawai doesn’t to us. I could identify certain skills that she uses with the way I liked to draw cute girls when I was little, which might not be identified by people from other places or grew up in different circumstances, times. I can see that those who find (or usually do not find) spectacles in some scatalogical art get surprised by such foreign version of it.

  6. Taylor McKimens

    I only bring up art critics, dealers and artists because of the statement made by Joseph: “Only to a person who pays no attention to the art world today would this work come as any suprise.”
    I brought up Heta-Uma because of this statement: “Although this work has an unskilled look, it is clearly the result of a distinct aesthetic choice.” The difference between Faux-Naive and Heta-Uma is all about the honesty of the drawing. Unless you are completely closed off to any art that is raw in nature or just don’t care as it appears is the case with Joseph, it is important and pretty easy to distinguish between Faux-Naive (which in it’s name implies a certain sense of falsification or stylization in the work) and Heta-Uma which is a sort of honest “bad technique – good result” image making.
    The honesty I’m referring to is about minimizing conscious decision making and editing, or intentional stylization while drawing – a sort of uninterrupted connection from the brain to the hand. There is nothing elitist about this.
    I am not in any way implying that artists who stylize and calculate their image-making are not as good of artists as ones who don’t. Royal Art Lodge (whose art I like) makes images that are clearly stylized. The overwhelming majority of artists work this way including me. Any trained artist does. There is nothing wrong with it. It’s just important to note the difference.
    When someone draws with an honestly bad or untrained technique it’s usually referred to as Outsider Art, but that label also implies a lack of awareness of contemporary art issues and ideas, and is often associated with mental illness. So it is not an adequate term for artists like Donald Baechler, Teruhiku Yumura, Chris Johanson, Michael Williams, Yusaku Hanakuma, Misaki etc. who make art with an honestly bad or untrained technique, and who are all not “outsiders”. They are immersed in and knowledgeable of contemporary art concepts. And rather than learning good technique, they prefer to continue working in and exploring an untrained approach. This could only be classified as Heta-Uma, and there are not many artists who fit that description.

  7. cindy baldwin

    Super Cool stuff!!!! Im going to use your stuff for my 1/2nd grade Art classes! Cindy Baldwin-Iowa City

  8. Fred K

    . Anyways, that is way off the line to say that Misaki and a few of the other artist that you mentioned are a few of the artist to be able to successfully utilize “heta-uma”. The whole conversation actually tackles some pretty tricky borders that are hard to define. Basically I’d go with Louis Armstrong’s statement that there’s good music and bad music and apply it to art. To what extent one wants to define trained technique or exploring an untrained approach is hard to say. Of course after artists have been defined for so long by the technical aspect of there ability as craftsmen it is only natural that for much of the twentieth century and after that many artists utilized what could be called untrained technique or Heta-Uma. From what Taylor says Heta-Uma is not made out of ignorance or, but from a conscious decision as aposed to outsider art, as he says, which is associated with mental illness, and is usually associated with a lack of choice in the execution,…but to me, the tricky part is trying to define what is conscious decision making or not, in Heta-Uma or anything else, because you really can’t define that. In response to Joseph, his words seem bitter, and he is basically giving the typical, “I’ve seen my brother do this kind of thing, why not put his in a gallery”. Misaki has the courage to do this work without trying to polish it, or make it impressive by most people’s standards and I imagine that she makes this her life. Courage matters more than talent, and to put out something that a lot of people would immediately dismiss, and pushing that quality and developing it instead of doing what most people would do, go to trying to make acceptable “art”, is something I admire.

  9. Joseph Bolstad

    This is probably coming way too late, but here I am years later wondering why I had such a problem with this work and tried to lump so many artists together back then. It’s often said that the work which bothers you at first is the work that sticks with you, and this work definitely stuck with me, so the work must be doing something right.
    Looking back, I think that when I wrote the first comment I was far too wrapped up in trying to point out art world trends, and because of this I didn’t really give Misaki’s work a fair shot. I regret that, and I apologize for what now seems like a bitter response. At least the comment generated a thought-provoking conversation. Thanks to everyone for writing.

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