People sometimes ask me what religion Japanese people practice. I usually end up saying that Japanese people aren’t very religious at all. But paradoxically, if you go to Japan, you encounter huge shrines at tourists’ spots and there are numerous smaller ones across the country in many forms. You visit a Japanese household, you might also find a shrine, a box shaped prayer spot, called butsudan.
There certainly are indications that Japanese society is bound together, to a certain extent, with beliefs, values and norms deriving from variations of Buddhism and Shintoism.
To me, who grew up in Japan, it is natural to perceive such a traditional framework as a cohesive layer that can be loosely described as sort of “religious”. It guides traditional ceremonies and rituals of life, death and spiritual, and it contributes to world views of the Japanese people in varying degrees.
However, it should also be noted that this framework really does not address fundamental existential questions for the Japanese people today. In other words, people would go along with the customary rituals as long as they facilitate their social interactions and obligations, however, as soon as they impede their material necessity, they can be set aside. Japanese society is extremely secular and the grip of the socioeconomic hierarchy over its people is very firm. After all, Japan has played a crucial role as an economic power in the western hegemony for generations after it was incorporated into the order of the American empire.
Our trip to Mount Nokogiri, however, has shown me how the abstract notion of traditional Japan has many layers that are deeply conflicting and it has had tumultuous aspects as we examine it in historical contexts.
Mount Nokogiri is located in Boso Peninsula, Chiba. As you can see on a map it is relatively close to Tokyo. My wife and I visited the area once before we had our kids. I loved seeing rakan statues (stone carved arhat statues) along the path during our hike. To me they appeared as expressions of lives emanating from the area which had been regarded as sacred for many centuries.
This time, we decided to stay for a couple of nights at a nearby seaside city, Tateyama. The inn we picked had a nice view of the water and hot spring baths. Since my mother couldn’t take the mountain hike, I wanted her stay to be nice as well. It was a few rustic train stops away to Mount Nokogiri.
I really liked riding the rural trains in the area. Going a few hours south from Yachiyo city into the Peninsula made the scenery much greener and it was fascinating to observe a glimpse of country life as we passed fields cultivated with various crops, a house sitting among trees without a discernible way to get there, huge hawks flying over us and the water visibly getting cleaner as we got closer to our destination.
The hike was magnificently wonderful. It was a bit strenuous for me, with numerous steps. But I’ve never felt a physical exercise to be so refreshing, so invigorating and so satisfying (in fact, it inspired me to start exercising again when I came back to the States).
I took many pictures of the small statues as we walked. If you look at the statues carefully, you will notice that the necks of them have traces of reattachment. Those statues were all violently destroyed once during the haibutsukishaku movement. As the rule of the Tokugawa shogun family ended in 1868, the new government, aspiring to be one of the imperial powers of the time, embarked on drastic reforms. One of them was a separation of Buddhism and Shintoism. Shintoism was elevated as a national religion while Buddhism was regarded as a part of the old power. There was a strong momentum to see the power of Buddhist entities as an abusive and corrupt part of the past. The accounts from the time certainly indicate that the deeds of the Buddhist class did reflect such descriptions. The result was an emergence of a large scale destructive movement across the country against anything Buddhist. As to Shintoism, it eventually ended up as the backbone of imperial Japan, propping up the Japanese emperor as a living god, prompting a direct collision with the US imperial plan over the hegemonic rule of Asia. The inhumane momentum of destruction and atrocity took many lives in Asian countries. In the name of the living god the Japanese colonizers sent young lives as suicide bombers. The colonizers of the US dropped nuclear bombs on two cities full of people in order to declare its hegemonic superiority against enemies and allies alike.
Today the Buddihist legacy in the Mount Nokogiri area is regarded as a significant cultural asset. The beautiful trails are well maintained, so are the shrines and statues for many visitors. It was breathtaking to encounter spectacular views throughout our walk. The weight of the historical layers also compounded the profound orchestration of the natural elements. The moss covered expressions of the aged statues–sad, tormented, resigned, angered, struggling, peaceful and fulfilled–were voices from the past beautifully sublimated within the harmony of nature and people.
As we were waiting for our bus back home, a man at a tiny local restaurant insisted that we take a look at an underground imperial Japanese fortress in Tateyama. Although we couldn’t extend our trip for it, according to him, a mile-long tunnel dug during WW2 is something you must not miss if you were in the area. He also mentioned that the entire Mount Nokogiri was a huge military fortress during the war. To the imperial Japan, the area, situated at the entrance to Tokyo Bay, was the last defense on the ground protecting Tokyo against the invading US forces.
Famed sculptor Isamu Noguchi said that time can heal stones in describing his stone carving process. Time can certainly give us a thrust of objectivity while natural elements can provide a layer of harmony, presenting a new way to understand what unfolds before us. Mount Nokogiri certainly stood as a sacred ground before me. The overwhelming sense of awe generously erased the scars of human atrocity.
However, it has also made me aware of myself as a captive of our time. Tateyama’s imperial Japanese base is now a base for the Japanese self-defense force. The corporate media is eerily silent about the fortification of islands around Okinawa, which lies at the tip of the archipelago and houses an American military base. Japanese regulations have been changed to allow a Japanese “self-defense force,” ostensibly to operate as a part of the western force against China. Those shifts coincide with the US pacific policy to counter China as an emerging economic power. And more urgently, I couldn’t help being reminded of inhumane atrocities of our time–bombing campaign against people, suicide bombing, underground fortress, destruction of environment and cultural heritage and so on and so forth are all elements emerging from the western colonial wars being waged against the Middle East and elsewhere today.
Have we learned anything from the past? Our ability to see our history and events embedded in it, weaving the flow of time and space, as a unified front, as a collective part of our identity, allow us to tolerate pains of atrocity, allow us to reconcile, allow us to rebuild and allow us to be. But we do know that the significant portions of the sufferings and deaths are endured by those who are powerless. How could we allow ourselves to let the momentum of time swallow so many of our fellow humans? Why are we tolerating colonial destabilization of “other people’s”? How could we close our eyes as we encounter people sleeping on streets or losing their lives because they can’t afford to be healthy? Why can’t we focus our hope for renewal for the people who have and will suffer the most? How could we recognize the fact that our willingness to tolerate the hierarchy of money and violence, as the shape of our species, inflicts pain against “others” and against ourselves at the same time, forcing ourselves to expect nuclear missile attacks instead of reaching out for sharing and peace?
Every time I hear people say that for things to get better, things have to get much worse, I think of what happened in Fukushima. Three nuclear meltdowns have not woken up the people. The nuclear industrial complex of Japan is firmly embedded within the war economy of the empire.
This is not the time for conflict. This is the time we need each other to see what has become of us. Let there be braveness, determination and steadfastness in renouncing the cannibalistic momentum of self-destruction. The sacred power of nature will always embrace us no matter how we will do.
I had an opportunity to talk about being an immigrant, Japan, our society, politics and so on with Jeff J Brown. I think the interview turned out to be a very good one. I got to talk about making art as well.
Here is an excerpt:
“I think corporal punishment given to school kids when I was growing up in Japan taught me how a hierarchical order can be maintained for the sake of having the order. The resulting order can operate without meeting the needs and desires of subject populations, sort of like schools or prisons. And capitalist society also maintains itself by economic punishment. What’s prominent about an order maintained by fear, threats, violence and so on, is that it forms itself regardless of each individual’s intrinsic connection to self, to others, to communities, to nature and so on. It is a way to form a social structure, but it is also an effective way to detach subject populations from their true human nature. This is a crucial step in commodifying basic human rights to be turned into profit. This is why capitalism is so effective in forming and perpetuating a hierarchical order while dehumanizing the population drastically, without even their knowledge. I think we as a species should be able to do better than that. The survival of our species depends on it, I think.
Also, the art making process has taught me that in order to come up with a profound solution for a given work, one needs a certain amount of humility, ability to observe elements, openness to accept change, willingness to trust, accept unknown elements, patience to learn the systematic mechanism and so on. These conditions often contradict each other, and they push and pull each other in the process, however, the key to grasping a working mechanism is to understand how the elements act according to their intrinsic characters and their guiding rules. They do not come to a profound formation according to the punitive measures of a master mind. I mean, I can just chop up my canvas and sell them as materials, but that would not realize the potential of the elements. So, what I sense is that we need to incorporate that sort of building process in our society, which truly accounts for the needs of the people, in order to go beyond the neo-feudal hierarchy of exploitation and subjugation. The harmonious whole, with its meaningful mechanism to move our beings does not result from an authoritative coercion. Having honest dialogues with facts placed in objective historical contexts can be a good start for us, I believe. As an artist I can feel that there would be profound results waiting for us.”
In News on
Last year I was interviewed by a German company Liganova which is starting an art collection. They have published a couple of publications based on the interview: One for their newsletter and one for their newly launched Ligastudios.
Here is the original interview unedited with extra pictures.
Photo by Richard Foulser
– tell us about your life in Japan
I always liked making things when I was a kid. But I didn’t grow up in a family where that sort of stuff can be your job. My dad worked in Tokyo and commuted from our suberban house 1 1/2 hours away. I grew up to be a typical teenager: angry, feeling alienated for mostly immature reasons. Then my family had to move to the US for my dad’s job (I was 18 then). I got to be a minority in the US (we moved to a little town Wheeling, West Virginia) and I had to struggle to communicate . It was traumatic but also pretty funny if I look back now… I think every teenager should go though that. I think that set me up for pursuing art. I learned some English and I decided to go to a local community college where I met a teacher who showed me what you can do with art. He showed me that putting together lines, colors and etc. on a piece of paper can be like making music or writing stories. I was very naive, ha ha. And he was very good. I was good with my hands but I never knew how to put things together to make it really speak; I never knew that you could put words in between the lines and make it all deep and profound visually, you know? And I totally got hooked. After that I was basically stuck in studio drawing, painting and etc…
Why New York? What did you think New York would give you that Japan didn’t at that time?
I moved around quite a bit before I came to the NY area. In the US, there is this great thing called “artist residency”. You tell them that you are an artist and if they like what you do, they’d let you stay and give you a studio. Some places even pay you to be there. I even met my wife at one of those places. So, after I got my MFA, I was basically half homeless moving around those places. Can’t imagine how I did it now but I didn’t really care much except for what was going on in my studio (my wife would tell you that I still don’t ha ha). And after a while, I wanted to really show my work. And naturally NYC was the place to go. Back then (It was around 1997 or so) and probably now too, the numbers of venues you can show and artists population in NYC area were just staggering compared to other places. If you go to one of those residencies, you’d be amazed to see how many of the artists you meet would be from NYC. But today I wouldn’t care too much about where I work. The work comes first definitely.
How did the NY art scene meet a young Hiroyuki?
– were you already having pieces as you came to NYC (you were 18, right?)
Coming to NYC, well, actually it wasn’t NYC. After a couple of weeks looking for a cheap place which doesn’t exist in NYC, I settled with a good sized space across the river in NJ. It was one of the sweat shop buildings in a big Cuban community. So it wasn’t really NJ either; it was Cuba. It can be seedy but it was mostly mellow and warm. I heard more Spanish than English. I remember the first taste of chicaron (what a concept, deep frying a chunky pork belly) and good cuban coffee. Have you had Cuban sandwich? The crispy bread outside and exquisite mixture of melting cheese, rich fat pork and the great accent with the pickles? Anyway, as soon as I got there I sent out slides with nice cover letters to galleries that I found to be good. I think I sent a couple of dozen. And they all came right back saying basically get lost, ha ha ha. The only place that was willing to show my work then was OK Harris Works of Art. I heard Ivan Karp would look at your work. So I went. I showed him slides and he said he would do a show with the first look. I wasn’t sure what he meant so I tried to show him the painting I brought, too. Then his son, Ethan, said “No, you don’t have to, he’s giving you a show . That’s good. He doesn’t even have to see it.” I still remember that well. They did my first solo show in NYC.
Do you have a favourite show-space in NYC where you often go?
Well, I’d love to say this museum or that gallery but every time I have extra time in the city, I just end up walking around watching people, looking at interesting ads, graffitis or buildings… NYC is just amazing visually in general.
When did you have your first exhibition and knew you are really getting into the spotlight?
Hmm… I don’t think I’ve felt that before… It’s really about myself and the work when it comes to shows. I am an audience too and there is nothing else better than to feel the impact of everything in the show working together to move you, and to see it happening as you place the work and do the lighting. I totally feel the spot light then, but it’s on the work, not on me.
Have you ever played with the idea of opening your very own gallery? How do you choose where to show your work?
I guess these questions are sort of like the front and the back of a same coin… I would want to open a place where I would want to show myself too but then I’d realize how tough it is to do it well. You have to have a space that maximizes the experience. You would want to treat the artists well and be capable in doing the right things. And what do you do with the expense that can be enormous? It’s easy to see that finding good places to show can be hard… So when I try to think about where to show I really can’t plan and wish for exactly what I want. It’s more like depending on my gut feeling and going with the venues that make me feel like I’m doing good to people who like the work. That often works for me. And I also don’t underestimate the people who try hard to make the show great. There often are happy surprises.
What does your art reflect the most? (you, your vision of the world, the world itself)
I think everything counts really. But one thing that’s really sure is that I get motivated to go to the studio by what’s happening in my studio, and working there gives me more ideas and directions. So it’s like exploring what’s possible visually with what I do in my studio. As I learn, I get these layers of ways to deal with visual narratives and new vocabularies also develop, and as I keep going, I come out with more ways to see things differently.
From what I know, you have started with drawing – how and why did you do this shift to sculpture?
I think I wanted the experience to be more articulate and immediate. I do still like the suggestive, gestural quality of drawings I used to do but it’s also so gratifying, so mysterious and so strong to grasp those qualities as much as I can and tell it in 3D with every detail. How it actually happened was that, first, I picked up on the object like quality of drawings. It’s like seeing them as they are with their distinct presence with every imperfection as theirs, instead of seeing them as a picture of something that is supposed to be dipicted. I think a big part of modern/contemporary art has to do with this realization and appreciation of taking visual experiences as they are. In a way it’s sort of primitive compared to, say, like music. That led to paintings with textures and irregular edges. Then, they started to grow off the wall. At some point they were more like sculptures.
Photo by Evan Harris
Do you listen to music when you are working or perfer it to be in quiet?
Sometimes I do. I think the music can shift my mood to get things going. Or the rhythm can be nice to keep the physical work going. But there are moments I have to keep it totally quiet. My guess is that certain processes need certain brian activity and sometimes music interferes with that… But I do love music.
If you happen to put on tracks while you are working, which artists, bands, etc. do you listen to?
Oh, that could be anything really. Lately, I’ve been really liking this band from the 70s called Popol Vuh. It sounds sort of familiar but it also sounds totally out of this world. The mellow speed and the atmosphere seem to work for the pieces I’m working on. I grew up listening to lots of aggressive band music and I still have a soft spot for it. For example, someone posted at Facebook the other day this band called Up Front, and I’ve been enjoying listening: it sounds sort of like Minorthreat, a lot of energy and there is a pleasant innocence about it. I’ve been listening to lots of classical music for the past years also. The level of development in non-descriptive expression in the field is just amazing. It’s such an inspiration and encouragement for working in the visual field. Ah, I can just keep going about music…
I am so sorry, I know artists hate this question, but I simply HAVE TO ask this:
where do you take your inspiration from – nature, art, architecture?
I think anything can be inspiration if you are talking about how I get motivated to work: Anything that got put together well to have a cohesive whole that functions more than its parts. Like, you wake up and go outside and suddenly feel like the way the sun hits your face just explains everything about why you still want to be alive. You feel so fulfilled and happy. It’s just the same old sun and same old self in the morning but somehow the combination means something to you… And that can be a good inspiration. But like I said, it’s mostly the developments in my studio that inspire me to go further.
Do you take decisions on the materials you will work with before you start with a piece or doese the piece itself tell you what materials to use?
My work grew out of paintings so the idea of materials dictating the pieces is sort of new. I always thought it’s natural to paint every bit of surface to make sure it goes with the form. So far I’ve been mostly using plaster shells on foam/wood structures to paint on for all practical reasons (cost, ease of use and so on…). For a long time, I didn’t understand sculptors talking about materials with almost religious intensity. I mean, why would you expect a surface which is hardly uniform or predictable to do what it is supposed to do? Now I understand the seductiveness of the materials and the convenience and the thrill of counting on happy surprises and so on but I still like the flexibility and the super real presence which a meticulous paint job can present. So if you see different materials in my work, they are most likely painted or stained that way.
A stained plaster piece looking unlike plaster. #68, 2007-09, 41 x 23 x 20 1/2 inches, enamel, oil, plster, tar and wax
Do you as an artist have a favourite artist?
please give some examples of artists you like from different epoches, different styles, etc.
Hmm… That’s tough… I’ve got my own interest in process and direction and I look at my work with that all the time so my capability of appreciation is somewhat skewed I’m afraid. Also, when I started out, I meticulously tried to avoid doing what other people were doing. I was sort of afraid of getting influences I guess. Also, I have a rather more standoffish relationship with visual art than, say, with music. I would be often totally taken by music, almost getting drowned with the pleasure. But when I look at visual stuffs, I’m often more objective in general. More interested in seeing alternate ways and investigating than consuming it for pleasure perhaps… I think it’s only in the past a few years that I’m becoming more open to seeing and enjoying as I feel more grip on my own work. But I’ve always enjoyed Martin Puryear’s work. I like the forms he works with. The way the work relates to you in the space is also nice: And the subtle playfulness he puts. I also like Anish Kapoor’s work. I saw his Bean piece in Chicago a few years ago, and it was so encouraging and happy to see people totally being fascinated with it. I mean, I saw people literally dancing around it and having fun being with it. And I also enjoy lots of figurative works. That’s what I started out with myself (I used to love doing figure drawing). I think Basquiat is just a marvelous painter. The sense of color, the way he composes in such striking ways, the confidence in lines with such fragile subtlety and doing all that with such spontanaity is just amazing. I see many others that I enjoy online, people like Kris Kuksi, Ron van der Ende, Eddie Martinez, Christina Bothwell, Blu, Jen Stark, Karim Hamid, just off my head randomly…, and many more I guess… I just had fun seeing the Nick Cave show in NYC. When I was in school, I looked at artists like Jesper Johns, Rauschenberg, Kiki Smith, Eva Hesse, Tapies, Louis Bourgeois, and so on. But they all came in through other students’ works that sort of emulated them. It’s interesting to learn that way. You see what the essential qualities are for the students and you experience the first hand account of dealing with the materials…
You don’t give titels to your work – why?
I’m really interested in what I get by combining visible things, and I don’t want to make it about stories, references, symbols and such, at least not on the conscious level. I mean, I want the visual language to hit your guts hard, not the theories, anecdotes, or background stories sort of making you feel something in wishy washy ways. And also I don’t want to limit the work inside of my narrow cultural and social constraints. So I figured the easiest thing I can do to put the focus on the substance is not to work with those things. If they creep in, I just try to stay away from them. It’s very inefficient but it’s very effective when it works. I think I can get to the bottom of what we are that way. So not giving them descriptive names is a way to make sure that it doesn’t imply things aside from what the forms are doing. But it’s probably something to do with my laziness too. I know that you could come up with titles that can enhance what I’m trying to do… So oh well…
Where do you take your friends to when they are coming to visit you in New York?
I don’t know… I’ll ask my Facebook friends, ha ha ha. I don’t get to eat nice exotic stuffs out in Eastern Long Island where I live, so I might try to convince them to go for nice Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Indian or Chinese… If you are talking about food that is. I used to like walking around in Chinatown looking at fish, veggies thinking about cooking. Nice sushi would be good too. If there are good shows, gallery hopping in Chelsea is also nice. But like I said, what I like to do there is just taking a walk looking at things, people, buildings and etc. I always see interesting things in NYC…
How do you relax? What do you do in your free time?
I go to my studio ha ha ha. I can always work on something… I have an electric guitar set up and I have fun with that sometimes. It’s a nice thing to bounce on when I feel like I am stuck with my work. Or when I just have the urge. I think I have some sort of addiction to loud, distorted guitar sound… I also keep sketch books everywhere and I like to draw shapes and things when I have time. Also, my wife and I watch TV shows sometimes. We’ve been enjoying “Breaking Bad” lately. What a fabulous show.
What do you get to read MAGAZINES or BOOKS more often? Which are your favourite magazines?
I haven’t read any magazines for a long while… At least not the actual paper versions. I really depend on internet for news and articles now. I used to read lots of books too and I aways had a big pile next to my bed, but not much reading lately. It’s just that the time is limited since we got two small kids. But I’ve read a couple of Malcom Gladwell’s books recently and I really liked them.
Which 2-3 names in the fashion industry from former era do you see as iconic?
Hmm…you got me. What can I say. I’m the kind of guy who shows up at my own opening in a Dickies jump suit making my wife’s eyes roll with dismay…
Photo by Evan Harris
Who are the most influential names in art today?
Not the individuals, but I think TV shows and movies totally rule on that. And in terms of the impact and the quality too perhaps. I don’t get to watch many but some shows I’ve watched are just amazing: Like Breaking Bad, Wire, Sopranos, or some episodes from Battlestar Galactica, for examples. You get great writing, camera work, acting, set design, music, sound effects, visual effects and on and on. I just think the total experience from them is the culmination of art history on the planet. Have you watched District 9? Just amazing.
Which of them has left an imprint on your style (if at all)?
Well, things get in me and I must express something in my work, but like I said, I don’t make my work about anything specific so that’s something I can’t really answer…
What are you working on right now?
Right now I have 4 pieces in progress. They seem to be freer into space and they speak a bit more as shapes. I’ll see how the surface gets treated. I started out as a painter so working with the surface is a very special and fun process for me. I’ve been also trying a few resin materials instead of plaster since the pieces are a bit bigger and more complex.