This story really moved me. It happened in the 90s in Japan. The economic bubble of the 80s had burst and the corporate oriented restructuring and austerity measures gave some people a newly found reality of surviving outside of the corporate routines. The underground station of Shinjuku, Tokyo was filled with cardboard houses populated by the homeless people.
It’s a story of young artists who themselves lived on the edge of the corporate cage, relentlessly trying to be true to humanity…
I came across their website recently and the English translation was missing in the descriptions of their art works which are crucial in telling the story of those artists. I offered to translate some of them and here is a first set of images which tells about how they got started.
Photos are by Naoko Sakokawa.
The very first Shinjuku Underground Station West exit Cardboard painting.
Initially, I wasn’t intending on painting those cardboard houses at the underground corridors at all. I was set to street-paint in Shinjuku, guerrilla style. I walked around Shinjuku with paint cans with “TAKEWO”. But the seemingly open, unrestricted big city didn’t have any place for the guerrilla paint job. We looked and looked but it was all systematic. We just walked around aimlessly with disappointment.
We just stood around hopelessly. The city was gigantic and oppressive. As we followed the river of people in despair, we came across the village of cardboard houses at the Shinjuku Underground Station West Exit. We stumbled onto one of them, knocking the cardboard door:
“What do you want?” A large man with a menacing face answered.
“I’m an artist and I would like to paint on your cardboard house,” I answered.
“Like I said, I would like to paint on your cardboard house.”
“OK, go ahead.”
That’s how our cardboard house painting got started. We, “TAKEWO” and I, spent all night painting two of the cardboard houses that night. We kept hearing distant sounds of people screaming and shattering glass, and the underground corridor was filled with the police siren and the ambulance siren every once in a while.
In the summer night, our rebellion was born in the underground of the mega city.
This piece is considered a representative work of ours that survived the forced removal of homeless people by the city of Tokyo on 1/24/1996. It’s THE Shinjuku Underground Station West Exit cardboard house painting.
Yamane mentioned the words “Left Eye of Shinjuku”. The image of those words got the three of us started. It was an all night live painting. The battle of us three. It was so intense that we drew some audience.
Across from the West Exit rotary there is a monument called “An Eye of Shinjuku”. It’s the right eye. And the one we painted is the left one. Makes sense. It’s the pair. The giant eyes had emerged in the Shinjuku underground corridor. The underground became a creature with a soul, baring its teeth against fucking Japan.
Just in case, I must say that the “Left” of “The Left Eye of Shinjuku” has nothing to do with the left wing. So those middle aged dick-wad lefties dragging around the 60s shouldn’t mix this up with that. We are not piece of shit like you all. By the way, it’s odd but when we finished painting this one, we somehow felt that when this painting is gone, that’ll be the time this village will be gone.
The Left Eye of Shinjuku which survived the forced removal had prevailed as a symbol of the underground kingdom.
Then the big fire of February of 1998 came. Soaked in water, the painting was disposed of by the City of Tokyo, and the village has disappeared as well. The Left Eye of Shinjuku really died with the cardboard village.
A piece made with circles.
I wished my work to be weirdly “inevitable” to the time and the space, not to be about my personal ideology, my philosophy or my process.
I drew lots of circles. A circle doesn’t have edges. It’s round, and it looks the same from any angle. And it’s somewhat humorous. I was edgy but I drew lots of circles.
When we become excessive, we lose the essence. I also wanted my expression to include a healthy dose of looseness and a sense of humor. But that was pretty tough. We often ended up painting with a grabbing-someone-by-the-neck sort of an attitude.
Myself screaming savagely with a knife in my hand, myself being inclusive with a sense of humor, many thoughts went through my mind.
But I felt that the experience which transformed me positively the most is when I touched the warmth of humanity.
This might be a picture when the cardboard village was being removed.
Far into the picture there is the word “sin” (罪) and to the left, there is the word “no”(無), the piece reads “innocent”(無罪). It was a piece done as a reaction to the not guilty verdict of 1/24/1996 to an activist for protesting against the removal of the cardboard village. Later the verdict was reversed. The activist became the sinner and the city committed a sin of eradicating the cardboard village. A sin is manufactured according to the convenience of the society. The society is made up with individuals. While we fight among each other, we are harming the planet. It might be correct that we are all born sinners.
In Movie on
Last night, I saw a documentary movie, Campaign 2 by Soda Kazuhiro, and it was in many ways remarkable. First of all it was very funny. It owes a lot to the main subject, Yama san’s down to earth, understated yet dry sense of humor.
Yama san is a 46 year old man with a rather unusual history. After failing to get into the most prestigious University in Japan, the Tokyo University, 5 times, he manages to get in. This is where he meets the director of the movie Soda Kazuhiro. Soda describes him as a bohemian sort of man who he only saw at parties but never in the class rooms. As a result, he spends a few extra years to graduate. One thing we must understand is that being a graduate of the Tokyo University promises one a special social standing. Many intellectuals and bureaucrats are graduates of the institution. This peculiarity leads to his next spectacular event of becoming a city council man backed by the giant political party, LDP, which has reigned the post WWII Japan. The LDP has been covertly supported by the US ensuring its strategic role in Asia economically and militarily which of course include the nuclear polity of Japan. It represents the traditional values of the post war Japan, the consumerism and the corporatism. Soda describes his candidacy basically as a puppet of LDP faithfully following the guidelines of the machine in his campaign. This unusual event becomes Soda’s successful movie Campaign, which precedes the current film.
However, in Campaign 2, Yama san appears as an angry man–although he is always smily and likable–who is disillusioned by the corruption, the nation’s inability to deal with the nuclear accidents, the political structure which makes the meaningful political process impossible and so on. He is no longer backed by LDP. He runs as an independent candidate with 100000 Yen out of his pocket. It poignantly depicts the ridiculousness of being rational in a society where logic and humanity have ceased to be the measures of the social fabric. Yama san narrates the movie in humorously self-deprecating way, pointing out the surreal fact that the air people breath contains twice as much radio active materials as pre-Fukushima, pointing out people’s striking avoidance about the fact, pointing out the inevitable victory of the LDP candidates, pointing out the hands-on, DIY aspects of his political campaign which basically consists of himself, his wife and their sweet 3 year old boy and so on. We enter into a bizarre structure of an equilibrium where micro-managed corporate will meets bursting energy of humanity.
Soda’s shooting and editing style are also remarkable . With a very limited notice by Yama san, Soda who was in Hong Kong at the time, flies to Japan, purchases equipments and singlehandedly follows him with his camera. The movie is long (150min.) but it goes quite fast with the sense of immediacy. As Soda himself explains he does not follow a script. He dives into the scene, starts shooting without a preconceived notion, and the result is the streams of spontaneous moments letting the story flow with pleasant, often very funny accidents. But he does capture the essence of our time beautifully, yet brutally, without compromise. We see many touching moments in the interactions of the people who happen to appear in the movie. We see a chilling portrait of the machine in the interaction between the director and one of the LDP candidates.
The movie certainly shows the peculiarity of the Japanese society. However, we can easily see a parallel in any society where sheer power of money and violence overpowers the basic humanistic values: where the democratic values only exist so long as they promise to perpetuate the economic and the political structure owned by the ruling elites. Do we see Yama san’s action as a helpless attempt at changing the irreversible direction humanity is heading? Or is he a part of the awakened population which shifts the direction in which we are heading? I keep wondering. A highly recommended movie.
The movie screens at MOMA on:
And here is another old one. This was one of the very last paintings on canvas I did back back in 1995. I feel that there is a direct lineage to the sculptures I do today. When I painted it I felt that I was stepping into something different– the colors got muted and the forms were starting to emerge. Wish I can show it in person.
Here is a picture of my old painting and a detail. I took a few old works out of my storage a few months ago intending to document them but I got busy with the show and I kept procrastinating.
As I kept looking at them I was quite struck by the elements that I can still see in my current work: Some of the forms, use of lines, contrast, and so on.
And you can observe that the object like quality is actually starting to articulate themselves as the very rough texture, irregular edges, grooves and blobs. This was a year before I stated to make holes on boxes covered with plaster.Painting on canvas #1 (detail), 1995, 60 x 40 inches