The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, is currently holding Shinro Ohtake, the first major retrospective exhibition of Ohtake’s works in approximately 16 years (later traveling to The Museum of Art, Ehime: May 3-July 2, 2023, and to the Toyama Prefectural Museum of Art and Design: August 5-September 18, 2023 [TBC]). The exhibition features about 500 works, including those shown previously at international exhibitions. Among them are several pieces from his 1987 solo exhibition at the “Sagacho Exhibit Space,” which occupies an important place in Ohtake’s nearly half-century-long career.
Kazuko Koike opened this first alternative space in Japan in 1983 and offered Ohtake, who was still a rookie then, an opportunity to hold a solo exhibition. Koike has been a leading figure in the Japanese creative scene since the 1960s, working as a copywriter, editor, and creative director. Since the 1980s, she has also engaged in various practices in the field of art. We asked the duo, who stayed creative and unique no matter what, about their first encounter and the essence of their creative process. 【Tokyo Art Beat】
——You two have known each other since the now legendary “Shinro Ohtake 1984-1987” exhibition held in 1987 at the “Sagacho Exhibit Space” and organized by Ms. Koike. What did you think of this exhibition?
Koike: Simply put, it’s a lot of fun! No matter where you go at the venue, you hear the “sound” of Ohtake. And yet, at the same time, some are very quiet. That was interesting, and what surprised me during the exhibition at Sagacho was this coexistence of noise and tranquility.
A horizontal work (Tokyo-Kyoto Scrap-Images 1984, Fukutake Foundation), composed of many different parts, is displayed in the next room. It is a quiet piece, but when it was brought and hung on the wall at Sagacho, I thought it was truly amazing. I thought, “This is the world.”
—— “The world”?
I thought, “this person has captured the world.” You see, I have been interested in how people perceive the world since I was a little girl, and I was envious that artists could do it so well.
Ohtake: Four landscapes are at the center of that work, with Heian Jingu Shrine on both sides and the area around Nanzenji Temple in the middle. But it’s the back of Nanzenji Temple, not its grounds.
Koike: When it comes to Ohtake, there is an image of him being very boisterous, but he is both loud and quiet. I sensed this in the exhibition as well.
Ohtake: That’s true. In my case, there is a strong image of chaos created with an excessive layering of elements, but the inside is relatively calm. Just like in music, there is silence after the ultimate noise. I have something similar in my paintings.
I have always refused to believe in following a simple theory to create a simple work of art. Since I was young, I was always attracted to the chaotic period of Lautrec or Picasso, just before they developed their style.
However, I feel that, in general, contemporary artists do not value the things they created before they developed their styles. They are overly bound by the tendency not to show the failed parts. But it is more interesting to see someone who has reached the ultimate simplicity of style, for example, by creating something chaotic and the exact opposite just before that. However, after exposing such parts, I have often been told that my work has no consistency or concept.
Koike: You view it through anger.
Ohtake: Expressing this anger through words would only feel empty, so I’ve turned it into art.
Koike: When you started making art, I believe there was a star-awaiting mood in the contemporary art world. At the end of the 1970s, neither the public nor the art world was interested in “emerging art” to the extent that we deliberately had to call it “contemporary art.”
Museums did not welcome young artists, and art galleries were only available for rent. Gallerists did nothing to support young artists either. For us, the galleries in Ginza were imaginary enemies, and we hated art museums. So, we decided to create something that was neither and came up with the idea of an “alternative space.”
What I wanted to do there was to hold solo exhibitions of emerging artists like Ohtake. Just as I was thinking about it, he returned from London and showed me his “world” for the first time through the word “scrapbook.” I still remember the impact it had on me.
——According to your book (Art/Meson: The Worksite of Kazuko Koike), when you visited designer Ikko Tanaka’s office in 1979, you also met Mr. Ohtake, a student of Musashino Art University at the time. He brought a scrapbook with him, and you thought he had a great artistic sense.
Ohtake: Koike and her colleagues immediately selected me to create a poster for the “Studio 200” (a multi-purpose hall previously located in the Seibu Museum of Art in Ikebukuro). The decision was made on the spot.
Koike: Ikko Tanaka also has a great eye. This was indeed an era of such vigorous directors.
Ohtake: That was the first time my work was printed in color. I went to Ikebukuro Station to take a picture of it being posted all over the pillars.
Around the same time, “K2” (a design company founded by Seitaro Kuroda and Keisuke Nagatomo) published a magazine called Yasei Jidai (Wild Age). One day, I heard Mr. Kuroda might look at my work as a part of my friend’s project. So I brought about 100 drawings, even though I was utterly unrelated to the project. He looked at everything and said, “Give the job to this guy.” That was the first time four characters of my name were printed 1 centimeter tall.
Art directors back then made decisions in a very spontaneous and intuitive manner. There were no meetings or anything like that.
Koike: There was mutual trust between the creator and the client.
——And you approached Mr. Ohtake with the idea of having a solo exhibition.
Ohtake: She was the only one who asked me to do a solo exhibition back then.
Koike: Due to the gallery situation, we could not organize the exhibition immediately, so we had to wait three years. Regardless, I convinced them that this place was meant for people like him. That turned out to be a good preparation period.
Ohtake: I remember crossing the Eitai Bridge heading to Sagacho and thinking, “This is my last chance.” The space in Sagacho was made of stone, massive, and stored the memory of the building within it. I felt a lot of pressure to fill that space with my work. Under such pressure, I created Rubbish Men (1987, Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo), also displayed in this exhibition.
In addition, it was before I went to Uwajima and when I was using a 20-tatami mat-sized office in Tokyo as my atelier. I was over 30 years old, but when I look at my work from that time, I regret some parts. It is not a matter of having a big place or time to create something. The extreme and unreasonable pressure and the eagerness to fight back against it. I realized that the production environment, including the location, did not matter as long as I had that.
Koike: Ikko Tanaka and Eiko Ishioka, an art director, visited the 1987 exhibition. At the time, it wasn’t easy to get a clear view of the art scene from the design side, so we were all pleased to see someone so extremely talented come.
Ohtake: At that time, there was a lot of energy and activity in the design and illustration fields. On the other hand, the art field has a solid Western complex. When I was a student, all I saw when I visited galleries in Tokyo were already well-recognized foreign works. I felt that people were making fun of me, saying that “art” would never emerge from the younger generation in Japan. Staying here was not an option, and I decided to go abroad as soon as possible.
Koike: I wasn’t interested in the art shown in Ginza either, and I often went abroad. As a viewer, I greatly sympathize with Ohtake’s decision to go to London.
——During your first visit to London in 1977, you met Russell Mills, who later became your close friend, and you said that it was the “first time you met a mature artist of your generation.” While the image of the wild and eccentric artists is still preached at art schools in Japan, you said that everyday life and production were inseparable.
Ohtake: Russell got married while he was still a student and worked a regular job doing illustrations for magazines and newspapers. When I first saw his work, I saw a trace of Max Ernst, Dada, and Surrealism. European art history is transmitted naturally, not by imitation, to young artists who ground themselves in everyday life. I was struck by the impact of works I saw at the graduation exhibition that followed those traditions.
——You didn’t feel that kind of richness and depth of foundation in Japanese art?
Ohtake: Indeed. To be honest, it felt very boring.
Koike: Yes, you are right. There wasn’t, even though theater and music have been evolving.
Ohtake: At that time, there was still an image of an old-fashioned artist who makes oil paintings and does nothing else, lingering in the Japanese art schools. Around the same time, I saw a portrait of Frank Stella with a time card and was fascinated by its humorous side. He was doing art as a “job.” I admired this world of art deeply rooted in society, which did not exist in Japan.
Also, at that time, there were no competitions worth trying out. Instead, I intuitively found my way through illustrators such as Teruhiko Yumura, Yosuke Kawamura, and Nobuhiko Yabuki, whom I admired in high school. Teruhiko Yumura, in particular, had a significant influence on me.
——On a poster featuring a photo from your scrapbook, Ms. Koike added the caption “live more intuitively” to capture the sensibility you brought to the art world.
Koike: I guess we both connected through things we wanted to say to that era. It must be an exciting job to create pieces like that with something you’ve picked up and found, right? “Studio 200” was a project that explored various directions for the museum beyond the visual arts, such as performing arts and lectures. You’ve picked up on that, too, didn’t you?
——After the exhibition at Sagacho, you started traveling back and forth between Tokyo and Uwajima City (located in Ehime Prefecture, Southwest Japan) to create three-dimensional work for a solo exhibition scheduled for 1988. Since then, you didn’t have solo exhibitions in Tokyo until 2006. When you turned 50, you held “Zen-Kei: Retrospective 1955–2006” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. It is hard to describe in words when I imagine the time you spent far away from the so-called “scene.” How did you continue to make art there?
Ohtake: It is impossible to describe the feeling in a couple of words. It was closely connected to living and having a family, not just art or the production process.
Koike: After Sagacho, you were invited to participate in the Against Nature: Japanese Art in the Eighties exhibition in 1989, which toured worldwide, allowing you to reach an international audience. That was eye-opening in that sense. But after that, it was quiet for a while.
Ohtake: Not exactly. In parallel with art, I started “sound” activities (PUZZLE PUNKS, Dub-Hei & New Chanell) again around the mid-1990s, resulting in a rather hectic fifteen years.
——You also participated in important group exhibitions such as “Ground Zero Japan” (Contemporary Art Center, Art Tower Mito) in 1999. How was it?
Ohtake: It was fun in its way.
——What did you do in Uwajima other than working in your atelier?
Ohtake: Uwajima is my wife’s hometown, so I often went on snack bar tours with my father-in-law, singing karaoke and so on. I would memorize the songs locals were good at and add them to the list when I felt it was the time [laughs]. I learned many old songs through this experience. Looking back on it later, I now realize that my daily experiences in Uwajima, which I thought were meaningless at the time, were very significant.
Regardless of Uwajima, I strongly desired to break out of the prison I had been stuck in back then. So, instead of enjoying creating things, I was mentally far from feeling satisfied with my work.
Koike: No, no, the things you create are fun. For the viewer.
——I feel the same. Personally, when I see your works and writings, I feel invigorated, although it may sound strange to say so. That’s what I find so curious.
Ohtake: I think I sought this kind of breakthrough feeling in my art.
——In fact, I often hear from artists deeply inspired by the 1987 Ohtake exhibition.
Koike: When he attended the preview, Takashi Murakami said he decided to pursue contemporary art after seeing that exhibition.
Ohtake: He said, “Works from Sagacho make me want to cry.” It’s very much appreciated feedback. I don’t know how I created so many works in a small workspace in Tokyo back then. The Rubbish Men is displayed horizontally this time, but when placed vertically, it is four meters tall, and when I was making it in my tiny studio, I could not see the whole aspect of it. I made it while imagining it in my head, and then I saw the entire thing for the first time in Sagacho. I thought, “This is what I’ve been working on.”
Koike: When you put it up in a space about five meters high in Sagacho, I suddenly realized, “This is all Tokyo trash.” You created a world that no other contemporary artist could have made with that power in it. Garbage has been a significant theme in art since the end of the 20th century and has been featured almost everywhere. But it was never turned into a masterpiece like that. I find it fascinating that it is now in the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo collection.
——“Rubbish Men,” exhibited on the second floor, also has a sound element.
Ohtake: In Sagacho, I displayed the titles of the works on boxes made of balsa wood and incorporated a sensor that detects movement into each of them. When a person looked at the title, the shadow blocked the light and activated the sound. For sound, I borrowed several cassette tape recorders from a friend, set them up behind a wall, and left them playing.
Koike: I recalled this when I looked at the exhibition today. Even if there is only one picture, I can feel your sound in it. The richness of analog sound. I was reminded of it again.
——In a text displayed in the “Sound” themed exhibition room, you expressed concerns that art critics only look at the symbolic aspects of your works without paying attention to sound and acoustics, even though they are created by using non-material elements such as sound, light, and smell.
Ohtake: I always thought that was absurd. In the mid-1980s, for example, Robert Longo and Talking Heads teamed up, and music and art blended naturally overseas. On the other hand, Japan had no such thing, and I remember feeling hopeless over this difference.
Koike: That’s why your obsession with sonosheets (a phonograph record, thinner than regular vinyl, invented in 1958; also used as magazine inserts) and cassette tapes seemed so new to me. You made a limited edition of 200 catalog insets for the Canvasism - Dreams and Cells exhibition at the Seibu Art Forum, Tokyo, in 1988. That was impressive, too, because you had to fund it yourself. It could be called self-investment, but you didn’t have that in mind. You just said, “If there is no such thing, I have to make one.” That resonated with me.
Ohtake: Besides the sonosheets, I included a small vertical picture book in the art book SO: Works of SHINRO OHTAKE 1955-91. The inserts are pretty important, and the reception changes drastically just by having them. It may be similar to how the young generation nowadays makes zines, but until a certain point, I could only make black and white copies, so I was thrilled when the colored ones became available.
Koike: You said you did a bunch of color copying in rural Atlanta.
Ohtake: I participated in an artist book project for the Atlanta Olympics (1996), but there was no money for printing it for some reason. At that time, I discovered the “CMYK color mode” on Kodak’s copier, made a reproduction film, and used it for printing. In a way, that was another situation where I was extremely limited in my choices, and it was a question of whether to give up or not, and choosing to “do it” revealed something new. If I had the money, I could ask a professional, but if I had something I wanted to do, I would do it myself. That is something I have always valued.
——This exhibition also includes rooms dedicated to the themes of “time” and “layer/stratum.” You both had long careers; how does age influence your activities?
Ohtake: Compared to Ms. Koike, I am still a beginner, so I would like to ask her too.
Koike: That’s not true. Even though I’m getting older, I have no clue if anything has changed.
——You don’t notice anything?
Koike: I think I will disappear without figuring it out. Age doesn’t come to my mind as much as I thought it would. There is always curiosity, frustration, and anger toward the current state.
——What frustrates and angers you now?
Koike: Another war, or the division of the United States, and what will happen to it? I think about Japanese politics...and the fact that the government awarded me (in November of this year, Koike received the Person of Cultural Merit award for her achievements in promoting arts). After all, my colleagues convinced me to accept it, but not a day goes by that I don’t think about it. I am from the generation that was forced to paint over textbooks that were fine yesterday.
Ohtake: I haven’t thought about my age since I was maybe 23 years old. The Man (1974-75, Toyama Prefectural Museum of Art and Design) in front of you (displayed at the exhibition hall entrance) is a piece from when I was nineteen. I hated the idea of turning twenty, so I picked up some cardboard and assembled it in a six-tatami mat room to make something before then. From then on, age was on my mind for a while, but it didn’t matter anymore.
——I did not expect that answer. Respectfully, I assumed that age might be an interesting topic...
Koike: I don’t have time to think about it. I imagine, however, as if I were someone else, the day when and how I will no longer be me.
Ohtake: In a recent interview, (David) Hockney said, “I don’t think about it because we are all born to die.” His words made a lot of sense to me.
——I feel that anger is an essential driving force of creation for both of you. But the negative emotion creates something very happy and joyful. I find this connection very strange and interesting.
Ohtake: In my case, anger is not always negative. People might say, “Why do you always get so angry?” but the anger becomes a happy painting. Regardless, I convert everything toward creation. Anything is fine as long as there is an opportunity for it.
Koike: Just being angry doesn’t produce anything. So, I find a possible path and put my energy in that direction.
——It’s about turning it into action, not just being angry.
Koike: A friend of mine, a designer named Jurgen Lehl, who was based on Ishigaki Island, was angry about the plastic waste on the beach. He was furious, but no matter how much he spoke about it, he couldn’t get anyone to understand. So he started a project that turned waste into lamps, hoping people would notice the issue if the plastic waste were beautiful and valuable. He passed away in the process, but I still carry his ideas inside of me. The more negative emotions, anger, and frustration simmer, the more powerful and expressive they become when transformed into something else. I believe so.
——Another thing you both have in common is an editorial sense, a way of interacting with the world in which you do not create something from scratch but rather create something in response to the various things that already exist. Mr. Ohtake expresses this beautifully in one phrase...
Koike: “What’s already there” (Sude ni Soko ni Aru Mono, the title of Ohtake’s essay collection).
——Yes. I wonder if that similarity caught your eye when you first saw his scrapbooks.
Koike: I believe so. I think that is exactly what is happening. Because everyone is out there walking down the streets. They see the stores and streets of Portobello, London, but to him, they are the “essence” of creation. I think there is hope for the world if there are people like him in it.
——There is one story about Mr. Ohtake that I love. He said that when the painting software for computers first appeared, he launched it to try painting, but he had to enter the length and width of the canvas and, therefore, could not successfully start the creation process. But then again, he could draw on a piece of paper he picked up on the street afterward.
Ohtake: I’m instantly interested in drawing on a piece of paper from the ground, but not so much on a blank page I need to set up on the computer. It is strange, isn’t it?
——This episode illustrates well that creativity, which is often thought of as something that comes from within oneself, is born from interaction with “what’s already there.”
Ohtake: It’s a funny story, but when I went to London, I was surprised to see that all the street garbage had English on it [laughs]. But in the end, that is how it goes. The result is different when the environment changes and people see things differently. In London and later in Hong Kong, I adored and badly wanted things sold in drugstores and dropped on the streets. I collected them from every corner, which was my scrapbook’s beginning.
In that sense, I think the young generation should go abroad. It is useless to look at the streets on your computer screen.
——When it reaches you, it is a scene that someone else has seen.
Ohtake: It would be a waste not to go. We have only one life. Since I was young, I have always perceived the idea that I would die in a non-negative way. Similar to what Hockney said, what was born will die. Isn’t that certain?
Koike: And we don’t live forever. The withering trees teach us that.
Ohtake: And I am confident I was born at a certain moment and in a certain place. I strongly believe that not a single day will be the same in this life. So I feel that I have to preserve what I see every day. I don’t think about whether there is “meaning” to it or not. No point in thinking about it either. I feel it on a physical level.
Right now, in front of you (in the first exhibition room) are photos taken in Betsukai when I was a teenager (Ohtake took a year off after entering university and worked at a ranch in Betsukai, Hokkaido for a year). Working on a farm is hard, so you don’t have time to paint, but with photography, if you press the shutter, you get something out, right? Thus, I was eager to preserve “today” as it is.
It may have no meaning or value to others, but I had a powerful feeling that I wanted to spend my time preserving something of “today.” All the works in this exhibition are born from this idea.
Artist. Born in Tokyo in 1955. Held major solo exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto / Contemporary Art Gallery, Art Tower Mito (2019); Parasol unit, London (2014); Takamatsu Art Museum (2013); Marugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art, Kagawa (2013); Art Sonje Center, Seoul; Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art / Fukuoka Art Museum (2007); and the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (2006). Group exhibitions include the National Museum of Art, Osaka (2018); the New Museum, New York (2016); and the Barbican Art Gallery, London (2016). Among the many international art festivals in which Ohtake has participated are Hawai’i Triennial 2022, the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial (2018), Yokohama Triennale 2014, the 55th Venice Biennale (2013), documenta 13 (2012), the 8th Gwangju Biennale (2010), and The Setouchi Triennale (2010, ‘13, ‘16, ‘19’, ‘22). He has also participated in such historically significant exhibitions as Against Nature: Japanese Art in the Eighties (1989), A Cabinet of Signs: Contemporary Art from Post-modern Japan (1991), and the 1st Asia Pacific Triennial (1993).
Creative director. Born in Tokyo in 1936. Was involved in the founding of MUJI (“Mujirushi Ryohin”) in 1980 and had been serving on its advisory board since then. Worked on planning and direction of numerous exhibitions, including Gendai ifuku no genryu-ten (Origins of contemporary clothing, The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, 1975), City of Girls exhibition in the Japanese Pavilion of the Venice Biennale of Architecture (2000), Tadanori Yokoo Towada Roman exhibition: Pop It All (Towada Art Center, 2017). Established in 1983 and presided over Japan’s first “alternative space,” Sagacho Exhibit Space, and discovered numerous contemporary artists, including Rei Naito, Yasumasa Morinura, Shinro Ohtake, and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Professor emeritus at Musashino Art University.