Yuichiro Tamura

Found images and objects inspiring flights of imagination – the method of Yuichiro Tamura

April 27, 2022
Yuichiro Tamura

Yuichiro Tamura

In June 2021, contemporary artist Yuichiro Tamura presented his first theater work, TASTELESS, at Kyoto Art Theater Shunjuza as one of the works on a program commemorating the 30th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto University of Art and Design and the 20th year of the theater (document footage is scheduled to be uploaded on the Kyoto Art Theater’s YouTube channel in March 2022).

In this long interview, we explored Tamura’s creative approach, an artist known for his installations and performances in Japan and abroad that take preexisting images or objects as starting points to construct multi-layered stories woven from intersecting threads of the nonfictional and the fictional. With TASTELESS, Tamura approaches Shunjuza as a site-specific space for a work that takes the experiences of artist Yu Araki, who spent his high school years studying in the U.S., as a point of departure to weave a multi-layered look into American culture, with subjects including presidential campaigns, American football, and space development.
Interviewer: Sayo Nakayama (production planner for TASTELESS), Eiko Tsuboike

Photo: Yuichiro Tamura

The first stage work: TASTELESS

Theater Shunjuza is a theater facility built within Kyoto University of the Arts (formerly Kyoto University of Art and Design) that takes the form of a Kabuki-style proscenium theater. It is also designed to accommodate contemporary theater works, but for TASTELESS, audience seating was limited to the 2nd-floor gallery, so the audience looked down on the stage from the 2nd floor height. You used Kabuki stage structures known as the Bon (circular stage portion that can be rotated) and Seri (large rectangular sections of the stage that can be raised and lowered with actors or pieces of the set on them) in inventive ways never seen before to create a site-specific work that employed dramatic transformations in the stage space which continued to surprise the viewer. In the opening scene, you had Yu Araki, an artist in his own right, give a keynote speech for the theater’s commemorative 30th anniversary program and then proceed to elaborate on subjects of American culture that he experienced while attending high school in the United States. He introduced one subject after another, ranging from American football and President Ronald Reagan, who had acted the role of a football player in one of his movies in his days as an actor, to the space shuttle and chewing gum, in a multi-layered succession that developed much like a word association game. With this skillful mixing of nonfiction and fiction, the end result was something that one could call a modern day American mythology. In one aspect, it appeared somewhat akin to continuing to chew on chewing gum that had lost all of its flavor, while at the same time it succeeded in creating a sense of the transience of the American Dream.
This was your first theater work, so could you tell us what your initial reaction was when you were asked to create a work for this event?
Personally, I don’t tend to think about what category I would classify my work in, and I really just considered it as an extension of what I have been doing until now, so there was no real hesitation on my part. My creative style isn’t like creating a painting or a sculpture. It is not that type of work but more of a process of putting things together based on the request I receive, and this time it happened to be in theater. Then I started to think about what I could do there. So it was the same as how I normally work.
It seems to me that you didn’t use Theater Shunjuza just as theater but as a space for a site-specific work. What were your feelings when you first came to look at Shunjuza?
When I came to check out the theater, the thing that attracted me most was the view looking down onto the stage from the 2nd-floor seats. Also, since I heard that the Bon stage section rotated and the Seri section could be raised up and down, I thought that the most effective use could be made of these functions when looking down from the 2nd-floor galleries. That was back in 2018 when I first came to see the theater, so my memories aren’t very clear, but I believe I had no preconception that I should have the audience viewing the stage from the 1st-floor seats.

At a performance at KYOTO EXPERIMENT, I had the chance to see works where the audience was seated up on the stage itself, but I thought that it would be better to take this opportunity at Shunjuza to use the full scale of the theater itself. And it was perhaps that attitude that made me also want to use the unique stage functions (of the rotating Bon and the elevating Seri) as much as possible.

In fact, when the offer came, it was accompanied by a text that I could use to base the work on, and it quoted James Graham Ballard (*1). Since Ballard was a science fiction writer, I had a rough sense of scale and specific visuals. Although in the end few elements of the original text remained in the final work, I think the visual impressions I got from Ballard remained alive to some degree.
After that, how did the idea to use elements like American football, President Ronald Reagan, the space shuttle and chewing gum come about?
The theme was food in the original text, so at first I was concentrating on food. But then I began to think that something else might be better, and it was then that chewing gum came to mind. Chewing gum is a kind of food, but if you keep it in your mouth, even after the taste is gone, you still keep chewing it. From there, I talked with the dramaturg Takuya Maehara about using chewing gum as a core image for the composition, and that is where the title TASTELESS came from.
It was in 2019 that your work began, taking chewing gum as its point of departure. It was supposed to be staged for the first time in February of 2020, but it ended up being postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Eventually, it was performed in June of 2021 (*2), but by then a number of new ideas had come out that developed the work even further.
There will always be things that you come across by chance, and I don’t believe there is only one correct answer to be found. There will be some timing to the process, and when the time comes, that is when the output takes place. Conditions will change, and the more time passes, there will also be ideas that will be thrown out. I believe that it is ideal to present the optimum contents at any given time.

For example, at the beginning we were conceiving of the theater as the mouth and a universe in itself. On the stage there would be a large chewing gum-like structure and it would be chewed on. But, how could it be chewed? When we posed that question, a solution was to have a number of American football players throw themselves at that soft substance again and again. Realizing that it might be difficult to seek out football players to do that performance, we dropped that idea, but the image of American football remained. I also thought that I wanted something that was pure white as a visual element. That idea remained in the color of the actors’ costumes. And since the image of the theater was that of a mouth, we might fill it with the sound of chewing. This idea also remained in the June performance.
The Tokyo Olympics were originally scheduled to take place in 2020, and TASTELESS had been planned to premier on February 29th in the same year as that grand event held once every four years. As I remember, this association led to the connection to the U.S. presidential elections that are also held once every four years. It seems to me that, not only with this work but also with many other works you have done, so often the focus is America. Why is that?
The Olympics are held in a leap year, but more important than the Olympics is the U.S. presidential election. So, when I looked up whether there was a U.S. President who played American football, it turned out that Ronald Reagan had. Reagan had won a landslide victory in the campaign for his second term as President in the 1984 presidential election, which was the same year the Los Angeles Olympics were held, so for the American football uniform used as a costume in the performance, we put the number 84 on the back. Reagan was also involved in the U.S. space development program after the Apollo flights, and the space shuttle was one of his program’s achievements, but it also included the tragic accident of the Space Shuttle Challenger. These connections led us to take events of U.S. history around the Reagan years as another theme.

In my generation we grew up watching Back to the Future and other Hollywood movies in the mid-80s, so I felt a familiarity with American culture. But our dramaturg this time, Maehara-san, is about 15 years younger than me, and he seemed to think it strange that I put so much emphasis on America and space. I think it is due to the difference in the era when we were growing up, but when I naturally talk about Reagan as I do, it doesn’t ring a bell with the younger generation. That is why I think it was important to have a dramaturg of a different generation than mine to look at the text’s consistency.
The first time you worked with Maehara-san was on an installation work you created for the exhibition “NISSAN ART AWARD 2017: Exhibition of New Works by Five Finalists,” titled End Game, which introduced elements from Samuel Beckett plays. After that, you have also collaborated with him on several works, so I would like to ask what role the dramaturg plays in the creative process.
I work out the basic composition of my works. Then I give that to Maehara-san, and when he sends it back with notes about the parts that he has trouble understanding, then I consider that input and respond in ways such as, “I think I will change this part,” or if I feel, “This part is dull, isn’t it,” then I may say, “I guess I’ll cut it out.” He is someone I can consult, and you could say he also plays a part in the structure. And since he knows more about theaters than I do, this time I asked him to take charge of some technical aspects such as the length of the subtitles we project in the work.
In what is normally called a theatrical work, the stage script is written before the scheduled performance and there is usually time allotted for rehearsals, during which the work is brought more or less to completion, then you move to the actual theater, where fine adjustments are made. In contrast, with TASTELESS the working process was very short, with just five days in the theater, including the day of the final performance. Before you brought the production to the theater, you had sent your text in several stages of its development to show us the progress, but we didn’t receive your final text until we entered the theater. In the prior meetings you had shared your ideas with the technical staff, including the lighting technicians and sound crew, but it seemed that there were other things that you were leaving up to them to work out. What work did you actually do with the technical staff?
I have been working with the sound designer, Masamitsu Araki, for several years now, and I have also worked with the lighting designer Fumie Takahara before, so I knew they were people I could communicate well with. So, rather than my giving detailed instructions about the sound and lighting settings, I just gave them a general idea of what I wanted, from which they would come back to me with settings and ask me how they looked. Then, seeing their suggestions I would give my impressions, such as, “Maybe it should come in a little more from the side, like this.” Since that is the extent of my input, the final results depend to a large degree on the skills and sensibilities of the technicians. And, since both Araki-san and Takahara-san are graduates of the Kyoto University of Art and Design (now Kyoto University of the Arts) and have worked at its theater, they already knew the technical staff there and were able to work directly with them. They were a sort of buffer between the theater and myself, and I feel that worked out rather well. If we had been interrupted by problems caused by the unfamiliarity between the theater staff and an outsider like myself, I don’t think we could have worked at such a fast pace to create this production as we did.
We had the technical director for Kyoto Art Theater, Kazushi Ota, serve as stage manager. He has served in the past as stage manager for the Ishinha company (*3), so he is someone with the ability to adjust to various conditions on-site.
I have worked with Ota-san before on Norimizu Ameya’s tour artwork Irikuchi, Dekuchi (*4) (Entrance and Exit) at the Kunisaki Art Project 2012. I was involved with the video part, and the working conditions were rather difficult, but Ota-san was able to handle things with great flexibility. In fact, I am not one who makes detailed plans beforehand, and there will often be things that come to me on location, so I tend to finalize things on the spot. That is why my way of working becomes difficult if I am suddenly told, “How can we do something if you don’t tell us about it at the beginning?” I haven’t done a lot of work with other stage managers, but I would say that, in the end, it was a successful stage work because of Ota-san’s presence.
In theater works, the most importance is usually placed on elements like the (acting) performance, physical expression, and the stage script, but in the case of TASTELESS, I felt that it was by far the visuals that accounted for the largest amount of time in the composition.
I believe that is probably true because that is where my background lies. On the contrary, I didn’t give the performers lines to speak and control the performance in that aspect. I don’t think I did much at all in terms of giving instructions concerning the spoken parts or the movement or acting. So, for example with the performer Koji Yamazaki, although he had a few lines, when he did say something his mouth was usually full of chewing gum, and with Araki-san, his lines were delivered in reverse. So, I don’t think there were really any legitimate spoken lines.
The performer and artist Araki-san was your classmate in graduate school, but this production was your first meeting with the actor Yamazaki-san. In fact, this was your first time working with an actor, wasn’t it?
Yes. It was my first time working with someone whose profession is an actor. In the first scene, Araki-san appeared as the artist he is and gave a talk as an artist. On the other hand, because Yamazaki-san is an actor, there was indeed some hesitation between the two at first. But this was something I have experienced before, because I have worked with people from a number of fields. For example, if it involves a fashion model, I don’t know until I meet the person how to control the way they move, but once I meet them, I can see what to do to make them move.

In the past I also worked with a rakugo-ka (a comic storyteller), and when I gave them a story to recount, I was told, “Since rakugo works in such and such a way, we can’t deliver the lines unless you write them out in such and such way.” I ended up having to rewrite what I gave them. In each case there are new experiences like these. However, if I had to deal with two or more pure actors, I think I would probably not be able to put together a work in such a short amount of time. In a case like that I’m sure it takes time to work out the final performance, and it likely takes about a month of work in rehearsals.

I thought we could create the aesthetic for TASTELESS with the lighting and sound, but there were times when Yamazaki-san was bewildered and asked what the situation would be at a particular moment. Since the visual structure was already established, we wanted to tell him not to worry, but an actor doesn’t have the same perspective. So, we also did things like showing him footage that he could check. Also, the thing that bothered Yamazaki-san most was that the audience was so far away that it was hard to see their reactions. Because the audience was on the 2nd floor. Normally, the audience would be close enough that the actor could feel some reaction, but he said that this time there was no such feedback. And yet, Yamazaki-san was alone on the stage, in the theater, and the entire audience was looking down on him from afar on the 2nd floor, and from a visual perspective, I think that was good.
There were also lines that Araki-san and Yamazaki-san wrote themselves. Araki-san completed a scene called “The American Memory” where he combined his own experiences in America as a high school student to your original text. Yamazaki-san also delivered a monologue. What kind of request did you make for him to compose that?
After it was decided that we would do this production, I had the opportunity to see Yamazaki-san’s documentary video work Koji Return (2021) (*5). The way that Yamazaki-san’s personality came through was wonderful, not to mention the content of the work. So I thought that it would be great if we could bring out that natural personality in our production. During our meeting before we entered the studio work, I told him that if there was anything that he wanted to talk about in the performance he should do so. But since there was so little time for rehearsals, he said that it had been difficult for him to grasp the relationship between himself and the work as a whole. Because it was different each time, you could say that it was adlib, but Yamazaki-san said that he just decided on what the beginning and end would be, and then composed the contents in between in response to the situation at the time. One thing I did insist on was that he change the wording when he said that he wanted to talk about “something worthwhile” and I asked him to change that to “something with meaning” (the Japanese term for “meaning” includes the character for taste).

Date: Sunday June 27, 2021
Venue: Kyoto Art Theater Shunjuza

From a Photographer to a Contemporary Artist: Composition, Media and the Audience

You were born in 1977 in Toyama prefecture and went to university in Tokyo. Which part of Toyama are you from?
I was born and raised in the town of Oyama, which has now been absorbed into Toyama City. It is a town at the foot of the mountains and I would ride the train for 30 minutes to get to school in the city. After graduating from high school, I wanted to go to Tokyo so I left Toyama to attend university in Tokyo, where I enrolled in the sociology course at a common liberal arts university. At the time, around 1996, sociology was a popular course of study. It was at that time that Shinji Miyadai became famous. But since it was a common university, there were a lot of students, and it didn’t feel very meaningful to me, so I quit after two years.

I was getting anxious at the thought of being drowned in the giant world that was Tokyo and starting to think if there wasn’t something more interesting that I could be doing, and I took the entrance examinations for the faculties of cinema, broadcasting, and photography at Nihon University College of Art (Nichigei). I probably applied for the faculty of cinema because I had been skipping class a lot to go see movies at theaters like Musashino-kan in Shinjuku and Ginrei Hall in Iidabashi. My first choice was cinema, my second was broadcasting and my third was photography. Since photography was the only one I passed the exam for, and that is where I went. That was in 1998. At the time, “girly photos” by HIROMIX (Hiromi Toshikawa), Yurie Nagashima, and Mika Ninagawa were popular, and Takashi Homma and Masafumi Sanai also emerged as stars in that era of excitement about photography.

Magazines were selling well at places like Magazine House, Ltd. (*6). It was the common path for students in the photography course to work part-time at Magazine House from their second year. That meant working as an assistant for one of the employee photographers, and there I was able to form a general idea of what the work of editorial photography involved.

I ended up taking an extra year and graduated after five years at Nichigei, after which I just hung around for about half a year, until I heard from a friend that the Kurashi-no-techo Co. Ltd. was looking for photographers to hire. I at least knew something about editorial work, so I applied and was hired. That was in 2003.
That was in the height of the days when the Kimura Ihei Award was a gateway to success for young photographers and a time when magazines played a big role in shaping the lifestyles of young people, wasn’t it? With the Internet now things have changed completely. And I guess there are few magazines today that hire employee photographers.
In those days the magazines still worked with photographic film, so photographers were treated as skilled technicians, but since the advent of the digital age, we often see the editorial staff taking on a dual role as photographer, so there are very few pure employee photographers left today, except perhaps in the sports publication world.

Back then when visual magazines were at their peak, photographers were expected to have their own individual style. But at companies like Kurashi-no-techo, photographers were used for things like taking records of experiments or new product tests, so I was doing work that had nothing to do with that kind of artistic style in photography, and I was drawn to a more aloof style that was distinct from what was in fashion. I worked at Kurashi-no-techo for a total of four and a half years, and in the last two years they had brought in Yataro Matsuura (*7) as Editor in Chief, and he changed the system so that most of the work went to outside freelance writers and photographers. Each section editor would have their own group of freelance writers and photographers that they would choose from depending on the type of article. That had become the norm in the whole publishing world, and that changed the magazine style of Kurashi-no-techo to fit the times. But in a structure like that someone like me couldn’t compete as a photographer. I hadn’t gotten that kind of training.
After that, you went on to study at the Graduate School of Film and New Media at Tokyo University of the Arts. What prompted you to make that move?
When I was at Kurashi-no-techo, Masahiko Sato (*8) was writing a series of articles in the magazine that I thought was interesting. When he was working at DENTSU Inc., he was a TV commercial planner, and after that he wrote and produced the popular song Dango San Kyodai (Three Dango Brothers), and he was the supervisor for “Pythagora Switch” (a long-running children’s education program) among other things. He had taught at the Faculty of Environment and Information Studies at Keio University and then went on as a professor of the Graduate School of Film and New Media at Tokyo University of the Arts. That is how I learned about the Department of Film and New Media. At that time, I was the only photographer left at Kurashi-no-techo and I was beginning to feel it was time for me to shift with the tides. But people might wonder what I was going to do after I quit, so I thought it would be smoother if I could say that I had applied to the Tokyo University of the Arts graduate school and was accepted, so I applied. I ended up being accepted, and I quit the company at the end of March. That was in 2008.
Masaki Fujihata (*9), who established the Film and New Media course at the Tokyo University of the Arts in 2005, was a pioneer of media art in Japan. At the time we were entering a new phase where front-line artists in contemporary art were entering academia to teach young students. When you entered the course, which generation of students were you in? There are three majors: Film Production, New Media, and Animation. Which one did you enter?
I entered in the third year and I majored in New Media. The department was an interesting place, and while there were several graduates of art universities like Musashino Art University and Tama Art University, there were also many who came from various fields such as science, psychology, and physical education backgrounds, so it was quite a hybrid collection of students. When the department was first set up, there was momentum to do the kind of media art that was led by ICC (NTT Inter Communication Center) (*10), but by the time I got there, things had shifted and the cutting edge was not really media art that used a lot of digital media anymore. The overall sentiment was one where the instructors were starting to say things like, “Everything is media, even the body is media.” So I was under the impression that a lot of things were beginning to be put into practice under the term “media.” All kinds of equipment could be used, things would be shown in different ways, physical expression could be brought in, and speech was debated over. So, I guess what I was learning there in graduate school was the literacy to handle these elements in composite ways in media mixes, and the way to use media conditions.

Until I started graduate school, Sato-san was the only person I knew, but when I began, I studied under Fujihata-san. The distinction was rather vague, but I had the impression that if your work or interests were art-leaning you were in Fujihata-san’s studio, and if it was design-leaning you were in Sato-san’s studio. Yu Araki also studied under Fujihata-san. But I also did a lot of work with Sato-san. I did the photography for Sato-san’s book Atarashii wakarikata (New Ways of Understanding) (Chuokoron-shinsha publishers, 2017), and I also participated in the exhibition “The Definition of Self” directed by Sato-san at 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT (2010).
So you didn’t go to graduate school with the aim of becoming an artist. When did you decide to become an artist?
In my two years in graduate school, it was a repetition of being given a subject to create something on and then having that critiqued. The instructors seemed to want us to just keep creating work after work. I was just going along with the flow and creating one thing after another. In the end, the university purchased my Master’s degree graduation work, NIGHTLESS (2010), and I won an Excellence Award in the Art Division of the 14th Japan Media Arts Festival (2010). And as soon as I finished graduate school, I secured a one-year Creator-in-Residence period at the Tokyo Wonder Site (*11) residency program in Aoyama. I think this was another turning point for me as an artist. In that same year Motoyuki Shitamichi and mamoru were also doing residencies, and the next year Yu Araki and Noriyuki Kiguchi, known for his work Akumanoshirushi, also did residencies. There was a monthly open studio, but since there was no clear process involved in my work, I had no work to show. So, each month I had something happening in the studio. I don’t know if you could call it performance, but when you entered the room there would be a tap dancer or a bodybuilder, or a rakugo-ka would do a skit. So, I just did a series of things with no coherence in what I called a Wunderkammer (wonder room) style.

The Aoyama Residency was something like Dejima (the island where foreign visitors were kept in isolation to avoid contact with the Japanese population during Japan’s “closed country” era in the Edo Period [1603 – 1868]) because there were a lot of foreign artists visiting and we would all go out drinking and have a good time, as well as setting up exhibitions. And I think that it was in that environment that I absorbed a lot of the way these people called artists carried themselves and their logic and what you might call their working methods. After that, I continued to do residencies on a regular basis in Japan and abroad, and to participate in exhibitions as an “artist.” I also went to other countries in Asia frequently on The Japan Foundation programs, and that has also brought me to where I am today.
Your work NIGHTLESS that won an Excellence Award in the 14th Japan Media Arts Festival was a sort of road movie made up purely of screen shots from Google street views. This became your first work to be shown to the outside, and it was shown in countries around the world, at such venues as the “3rd Yebisu International Festival for Art & Alternative Visions” and the “57th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen.” How did you arrive at that method of putting together samplings of existing images and materials?
That work was the result of a subject I was given to work on during the summer vacation in my second year in the Master’s course. At first I simply thought to try shooting a film since it was my last summer vacation as a graduate student. But I didn’t think that I wanted to shoot, using people. For some time, I had been interested in the imagery of Google street views. I had gotten tired of taking photographs myself, so you might say the dry images of street views felt just right. Rather than actually taking a picture, with street views it is more like scanning. With such images, I wondered to what extent I could bring a sense of story to them and make a work in that way. I wondered what would result if I could get to a point where people said they felt “moved” by something made with images produced by an entity without a motive to take photographs. That would indeed be a case of real creation, wouldn’t it?

So, I added a narration and made a short film along the lines of a road movie, and when I submitted it after the holidays, Fujihata-san said it was pretty interesting, so I should make a proper full-scale work out of it. That was in October, and from there I worked intently on it to have it done in time for our graduation exhibition in January. I used screenshots of Google street views and strung them together in animation form, and that process was quite difficult, so it took about one full night’s work to put together one minute of film. I had to manually take the screenshots one by one, and then move a bit further on to pan and take a shot. And if it came to a point where there was suddenly a break in the road, all the work I had done on the road to that point went to waste, so location hunting was an important part of the work. In fact, it would have been easier just to go to the actual location and do the shooting there. Besides the original narration, I wrote almost no other story text for the film. Instead, I used things I found on YouTube or brought in sounds from country radio stations in the U.S. In fact, the entire soundtrack was composed of fragments of found footage (*12) that I strung together. The venue for the graduation exhibition was a large studio space at the university, and I placed a Cadillac there and visitors would view NIGHTLESS while seated in the Cadillac. The sound was played through the car’s speakers, and the viewer feels like they are at a drive-in movie. That added a great sense of immersion.

Photo: Yuichiro Tamura

Whereas TASTELESS had to be viewed from the 2nd floor of the theater, NIGHTLESS was viewed from the seat of a Cadillac. It is interesting how you have given consideration to the audience seating with each work.
Yes, I do give careful consideration to the audience and its position. This time with TASTELESS, I wanted to create the ambience of a lounge to the audience seating before the performance, so I brought in fitting sound and lighting. The staff involved asked me if I really need that, but I thought it was essential. One thing I felt whenever I went to see a theater production was how unnecessarily nervous the audience seemed before the performance. That is something that always bothered me.

I believe that the reason why I worry about things like that is because of the large amount of time I spent as the audience myself experiencing a variety of different things. As I mentioned earlier, I worked in a company for four and a half years. Since I was working full time during the week, one main issue was how to spend my time on the weekends. But on Saturdays I was usually too tired to do anything. So, the big question was how I would spend Sundays. And the way I spent my Sundays affected the way I would get through the weekdays ahead at work. In that situation, I often went to museums or galleries on Sunday. I might have been going more frequently to exhibitions then than I do now. This was also the case for me, but I think people who go to museums on Sunday are usually hoping to see something special and out of the ordinary. They seek things that are in contrast with what they are used to on weekdays. I want to satisfy that desire in them. So, when I create works, I consider what I would have liked to experience when I was in the audience back in my years as a full time worker.
With NIGHTLESS, it was a work that you created working by yourself, so when did you start working with a team?
I experienced a number of things after NIGHTLESS, but the first time I worked with a large number of people was for the work Deep Marsh for the group exhibition “MOT Annual 2012: Making Situations, Editing Landscapes” held at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo.

In the Dojunkai apartment building that used to stand near today’s museum lived Inejiro Asanuma, who was the chairperson of the Japan Socialist Party before he was stabbed to death in 1960 while giving a speech. The apartment building no longer stands, but for this exhibition I asked the stage art crew of a film company to recreate an apartment like the one Asanuma lived in on the exact scale of the original in the museum’s underground parking lot. There the visitors were given a radio by a museum staff member, from which they heard a history of the Fukagawa district where the museum is located, ranging from prehistoric times to the present, and recounted in the distinctive Japanese of Christophe Charles, who is presently a professor of the Department of Imaging Arts and Sciences at Musashino Art University. The narration took the form of, “… years ago, here there was ….” The sound was broadcast from transmitters to fill the vast, dimly lit underground parking area.
Deep Marsh
Deep Marsh
Deep Marsh
Deep Marsh

Deep Marsh (2012)
Photo: Yuichiro Tamura

We hear that you learned about Asanuma by talking with people while attending a local festival in Fukagawa.
When I was first offered the opportunity to participate in the group exhibition, I had the vague idea that I wanted to do something related to the locale where the museum stands today. When I asked the museum curators where I should go to learn about the Fukagawa area, I was told that Fukagawa has a local festival and that maybe I could join in with the locals in carrying the omikoshi, the local shrine’s festival float. So, I was given a festival happi jacket and joined one of the young curators in carrying the float. I was asked by locals if I knew who the people there referred to simply as Sensei (respected teacher), and when they saw that I didn’t know the answer, they told me it was Inejiro Asanuma and that he used to live close by. But the small apartment building where he had lived was no longer there, and in its place now stands a high-rise condominium. I went to hear about Asanuma from the person in charge of the neighborhood association, and it turned out that he had lived on the same floor of the apartment building as Asanuma, and he gave me the blueprint of the apartment that he had kept. That led to the idea of recreating a replica of the apartment that Asanuma had lived in.

Also, for the simple fact that this was a group exhibition for young artists, I naturally wanted my work to stand out. When I told the curators that I wanted to use the largest space available, they told me that there was the large underground parking lot. That was how I got to use the underground parking lot that had the same breadth as the whole museum building. But since that alone wouldn’t constitute a work in itself, I used a corner of the main galleries to put up a display of items from the museum’s permanent collection, to which I could also put up captions. The display looked just like the average permanent collection exhibit, but the captions I put up with the works constituted a story made up solely of the titles of the works, and at the end of the gallery I put up a notice saying that the exhibit continued on the museum’s 3rd basement floor. Visitors saw that and took the elevator down to the underground parking lot. It was a layered exhibition that connected the aboveground to the underground.
In the underground parking lot, a portion of a Japanese style apartment including an entrance, a small hallway, and a Japanese style tatami room was reproduced. It had a strong resemblance to the Hashigakari (the entrance portion) of a main Noh stage.
It wasn’t as if I was consciously introducing elements of Noh theater from the beginning, but as the work proceeded, I began to feel a resemblance to Noh. At first, I wanted to do a full reconstruction of Asanuma’s apartment, but the available budget wasn’t sufficient to do that, so we had to limit what we could reproduce. I consulted with the art director that maybe we didn’t need the kitchen, or the lavatory, and we don’t need this room, or that wall either. In the end, it came down to replicating just the entrance, the hallway and the six-mat tatami room. After we took out the walls, what was left was incidentally almost the same in composition as a Noh stage.

In Noh there are often stories where the supporting actor is a traveler who comes to a place and meets the main actor, who recounts a story about an event that took place in the past and then reveals that he is in fact the ghost of the person in that story. The local politician Asanuma who was stabbed to death was a person of this locality. The viewers were led to the underground, a place that embodies the past, and encounters his ghost.

Using this as a pretext, at the end of the exhibition, I put on a performance that took an idea from the Noh play Fukanuma (meaning Deep Marsh). Before the performance, I had done some things based on the fact that this area had been a lumber-yard before the museum was built here – I contacted the local Kiyari group (singers of laborer’s chants) and had them come to perform chants, I also lined up potted pine trees in front of the apartment. And I think the things I was doing were rather different in taste from what was going on up in the museum where the group exhibition of young artists was taking place.
This also involved the rhetoric of Asanuma (shallow marsh) and Fukanuma (deep marsh). By the way, do you make a habit of doing research in your creative process? For TASTELESS, we know that you did prior research concerning the theater’s mechanisms that then affected the content of your work there.
You couldn’t really call it research, because what I mostly do is look up what I can find on Wikipedia. Some people speak of my work as “research-based,” but I just call what I do “searching.” Rather than getting deep into research, what I am looking for is usually a broader and shallower expansion. It is not searching on a vertical axis but on a horizontal axis. Also, by looking for things that have connections to each other, I am able to expand the range of things to look at. Of course, when I need more detailed information about something, I look into related documents and records, or I ask for resources from the museum curators.
I believe that with your generation, artist-in-residence opportunities overseas became more common.
For our generation it became possible to receive overseas residency opportunities from organizations like Tokyo Wonder Site and The Japan Foundation, and I believe that also compelled us to react intuitively to things we encountered in those residencies. Also, projects outside the usual museum context were developing, at venues such as the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial and the Setouchi Triennale. This gave birth to a new type of work where we would go directly to the location to create, and that made us a generation with more opportunities to expand the scope of our practice.
Through the Agency for Cultural Affairs Overseas Study Program for Upcoming Artists you were able to attend the Institut für Raumexperimente (Institute for Spatial Experiments) (*13) led by the artist Olafur Eliasson at Berlin University of the Arts for one year.
Many artists around me received grants from organizations like the Agency for Cultural Affairs and the POLA Art Foundation when we were in our mid-30s to study or do research overseas. That is when I went too. At the time, the popular place to go was Berlin. So, I too thought I would go to Berlin, but I had no clear plan in mind. That is when Yusaku Imamura at Tokyo Wonder Site informed me that Olafur Eliasson was running an educational program in Berlin, and he proposed that I go there. I said, sure, I would love to go. So, he made the contact and I went to Olafur’s school to do research.

Although the people there were “students,” they all had their own individuality and it wasn’t a rigid structure of teaching and being taught, so it was a very stimulating place to be for me. The focus of the school was to see how experimental you could be in a space that you were given to work in. We had to learn how to read the context of a space and then how to react to it. Since the subject was the space or society, the scale of the works we created was quite large. The fact that Olafur was the teacher was also probably an influencing factor. So there were few students who were doing traditional fine arts like painting or sculpture. Not all of the students were German, but a lot of them seemed, in a way, to be carrying a cross for Joseph Beuys. The things they created were not dictated by a particular medium, but rather, their attitude itself was their statement. Whatever they did was justified as a work by nature. In other words, their engine as artists was always running, and all they had to do was to put it in the gear to turn out an artwork.

We all went on an excursion to China at one point, but the only thing that was decided was the rendezvous date in Hong Kong, and we could get there any way we chose. One of my classmates said to me, “You are Asian, why don’t come with us on the trans-Siberian Railway?” I was invited because there was one untaken space in the 4-person compartment they had reserved, so I ended up spending a week crossing Siberia in winter with the Germans. On the Siberian Railway there are ten passenger cars with compartments and a corridor, and one night my classmates woke me up and said that we were going to change the carpet in our car’s corridor with that of the next car. That was their art action. All the cars were the same length, so the corridor carpets were the same length. But it turned out that the ends were slightly different. The plan was that we would take photos of the ends when we were done and that was it. Wherever they found themselves, they would read the context of the place and plan an action for it. They were always doing that, and their toughness was amazing.
Trans-Siberia Railway
Trans-Siberia Railway
Trans-Siberia Railway
Trans-Siberia Railway

On the Trans-Siberia Railway departing from Moscow headed to Beijing for a project of the Institut für Raumexperimente at the Berlin University of the Arts.
Photo: Yuichiro Tamura

Is there anything you are concerned with that you want to express in your art?
There is nothing in particular that I am deeply concerned with and want to express as an artist. I accomplish the work that I am given. When I receive a commission for a work, I respond to it. I am increasingly aware that it is a matter of reaction. I am now in a position where I am teaching at an art university, and it is primarily in the area of painting. When I see people painting, it seems like they are reacting to things that rise up within themselves, and that is what is projected on the canvas. I think that is about as close as you can get to “expression,” but the format of my work is different from that. I receive requests for work based on what they have seen from me in the past, and a curiosity as to what could be the resulting work, or if they foresee an interesting proposal. I seek to answer those expectations to some degree in a way that is worthwhile. In a positive regard, I am somewhat like an architect who works within the context of the order I get and the conditions of the site. Although people in the architectural field have told me my work is more like designing a custom-made home. To do satisfying work in that context, in other words to enhance the quality of the work, I believe it is crucial that I reduce myself to a clean slate, to as close to zero as possible. So, I guess you can’t consider me an artist bent on self-expression.
In TASTELESS, you didn’t list your role as direction, but called your role “composition.”
In art, there are no credit titles like “director,” it is just the artist’s name and the title of the work. In other fields where credits have to be given, I often use the term kosei (composition) in Japanese. In film or theater, I might be considered director or stage director, but these titles connote a top-down hierarchy, and it implies that other technicians and staff working on the project have to get the approval of the director for everything they do. I personally dislike the idea that I am the only one with the right to make final decisions. Rather than stopping a person in the middle of a task and giving my opinion about what is good or bad about the direction things are going, I would like to create a more spontaneous relationship in which each person makes their own decisions, and everyone else reacts to that in turn. Then my role will be the final bringing together, the “composition” of the work in its entirety.
I don’t think much has been said about the creativity involved in that kind of “ability to compose” the whole. In the publishing company you were working at as a photographer, magazines are also a product of composing and editing the planning, text, copywriting, photos, illustration, layout and design.
I think it is because I have had various experiences, and sometimes I am told that maybe my time as a company employee has been an influence. Since there is a limit to the number of pages in a magazine, if it is a 16-page cooking article, you have to be able to calculate from that how many photos you will need, and things like that. And in editorial meetings there is the framework of page allotment for different content, and there we discuss factors such as the initial plan of what we want the overall composition to accomplish. And in those conditions, you want to maintain the kind of working relationships in which if someone proposes that illustrations would be better than photos in a certain part, you will be able to say, “OK, let’s do that.” If you are always trying to push through your own ideas, those kinds of suggestions will stop coming out. In that sense it is good to keep things open, but if I am too yielding, the project might stop moving forward at the necessary pace. Of course, I have to maintain a good balance in that sense, so that when a good idea does come out, I can say, “Yes, definitely, let’s do it that way.” With TASTELESS, someone I was working with for the first time asked me which way I wanted something done. When I replied, either way is OK, do what you think is best, they were surprised, saying that they had never heard an answer like that.
I’m under the impression that you often take historical events and persons as your subjects.
I think that is just what I am generally interested in, or a tendency that I have. For example, in the work Milky Bay (2016) that I created for the exhibition “BODY/PLAY/POLITICS” (*14) at the Yokohama Museum of Art, I worked with a number of subjects including bodybuilding, Yukio Mishima, and the postwar G.H.Q. Allied occupation headquarters. It wasn’t that these were things I had a special interest in initially, but as I worked on making a work on them, naturally I develop my knowledge on these subjects. My interest began in the relationship between the U.S. and Japan in the postwar era, and the fact that I focused on Ronald Reagan in TASTELESS was also rooted in that growing interest. Looking back on my work in the last few years, I suppose it could be seen as a series on the U.S.

But rather than blindly following my interests, there are also factors such as the demands of the times and the themes of the exhibitions I am asked to contribute works to. In particular, when international exhibitions in Asia turn a critical eye on Asian history, occasionally the focus is put on the era of the Japanese colonial empire. In these exhibitions, other Asian artists often unravel the hidden histories of occupation, which the Japanese themselves don’t know about. In this context, how should Japanese artists, whose country was the colonizer, comport? I think a multi-faceted historical figure like Yukio Mishima can be a useful tool in response. When dealing with international contemporaneity, we can trace our common awareness to 1945 or the ensuing Cold War era. From there we can weave stories with the words of people who lived in those times. Like serving as a medium, I believe it is a useful structure to utilize presences from the past whose words speak to us in our world today. In that sense, I am strongly drawn to the composition of Noh stories I mentioned earlier.
From that perspective, I feel that COVID-19 might be one of the first common languages the world has shared since the Cold War.
Yes, I agree. But even if we touch on that, it will not constitute a work in itself, will it? I think it depends on the work’s content and how far you ascend from that point of departure. In 2020, I presented the work Chemistry / The Story of C (*15) dealing with COVID-19 at the Yokohama Triennale. It focused on the way that the presentation of works online and offline have become the norm since the onset of COVID-19. The work dealt with the way in which Internet space and real spaces have come to complement each other in a rather imperfect way, as well as the search for a coexistence between the two. It was a work in four acts with appearances by a magician, a rakugo-ka (a comic storyteller), a fashion model, and others. The story revolved around a number of English words that begin with the letter “C” that navigate new ways to look at today’s world, including “C” for coronavirus.

In your question you mentioned a common international language, but I believe a common language is something that can contain an element of danger. I think it is more useful to break down language and choose fragments of it to use in composition. In “C,” I presented such fragments to be taken as tools to build from. Then my job is to find points of connection between the fragments (*16) and then bringing them together in a composition.
Uragiri no Umi
Uragiri no Umi

Milky Bay (2016)
Photo: Yuichiro Tamura

Chemistry: The Story of C
Chemistry: The Story of C

Chemistry / The Story of C (2020)
Photo: Yuichiro Tamura

*1 Born in 1930 in Shanghai, James Graham Ballard was an English novelist. He became a leader of the New Wave science fiction (SF) movement in the 1960s and expanded its horizons with his contemporary works, believing that new SF novels should explore not outer space but the inner space of human consciousness. He wrote the semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun based on his experiences in his formative years at a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II that became a best-seller and was made into a movie by Steven Spielberg. In TASTELESS, references were made to Ballard’s short story The Waiting Grounds (1959) that depicts the cycle of outer space on an alien planet and it is quoted in the performance.

*2 TASTELESS was created in response to an assignment in the theater experimental open-call research project “The Waiting Grounds – Interdisciplinary Efforts to Explore the Present of Performing Arts and Theater” (enacted under research representative Sayo Nakayama) of the certified Joint Usage / Research Center at the Kyoto University of the Arts. Originally the work was scheduled to be performed on Feb. 29, 2020, but had to be cancelled in compliance with government policy released on Feb. 26, 2020 by the Novel Coronavirus Response Headquarters. After that it was performed on June 27, 2021 as a production of the Interdisciplinary Research Center for Performing Arts.

*3 Ishinha was a theater company founded in Osaka in 1970 with Yukichi Matsumoto (1946-2016) as its leader. The company’s most distinguishing feature was that the actors and the staff worked together to build giant outdoor theaters in vacant lots. The awe-inspiring quality of the stage art they created ranged from realistic sets that rivaled movie sets to very abstract spaces. The company was also known for things like its rhythmic style of delivering lines based on the Osaka dialect and intonation that was dubbed “Jan-Jan Opera.” Since its founding, the company consistently performed original pieces based on themes of immigration and “drifting” in various locations, but the company disbanded on December 31, 2017.

*4 Director Norimizu Ameya, novelist Mariko Asabuki, and others gathered to work onsite on the Kunisaki Peninsula of Oita Prefecture, where they created the 12-hour art tour Irikuchi, Dekuchi. For this tour, Tamura was in charge of creating video/film works including documentation. The documentary was released for sale on Blu-ray and DVD, and also made accessible for rental viewing online.

*5 Koji Return is a documentary film about the “hyakusho” life of Koji Yamazaki (of FAIFAI), based on the fact the original meaning hyakusho, which today means “farmer” in Japanese is actually a word that meant people with 100 (hyaku) family names, 100 house names and perform 100 different kinds of jobs. Yoko Kitagawa (of FAIFAI), Yasutaka Hayashi (of Chim↑Pom) participated as directors, working in the field with Yamazaki on the production. The film was released on YouTube.

*6 Magazine House Ltd. publishes POPEYE, BRUTUS, relax, and GINZA, among others. Publication of the culture magazine relax (1996-2006) is currently suspended, but during the period when Hitoshi Okamoto was editor in chief (2000-2004) it was loved by many readers and fans for the unique perspectives of its feature articles on culture, music, and fashion, as well as for the page design by art director Eisaku Ono, and gained a following abroad as well.

*7 Born in 1965 in Tokyo, Yataro Matsuura is an essayist and creative director. After quitting high school, Matsuura went to the U.S., where he became fond of the American bookstore culture, and upon returning to Japan he opened the old magazine store m&co. booksellers. In 2000, he began a truck-based mobile bookstore business, and in 2002, he opened the bookstore COW BOOKS in the Meguro district of Tokyo. Beginning in 2006, Matsuura served as chief editor for the magazine kurashi-no-techo for nine years, after which he joined Cookpad Inc. in 2015. That same year, he started the website Kurashi-no-Kihon. Currently, he is Director of the Oishi kenko Inc. which runs the aforementioned website.

*8 Born in 1954 in Shizuoka, Masahiko Sato was a TV commercial planner at Dentsu Inc. known for his popular commercials like those for the Koikeya “Scone,” “Polinky” and “Don Tacos,” NEC’s “Baza-ru de goza-ru” and Toyota’s “Corolla II.” After he became independent, he continued to work in a variety of fields such as creating the video game software “I.Q.” and the NHK children’s education program “Pythagora Switch.” From 1999, he served as a professor of Keio University in the Faculty of Environment and Information Studies. From 2006, he has been a professor at the Graduate School of Film and New Media at Tokyo University of the Arts, and in 2021, he was named professor emeritus of Tokyo University of the Arts.

*9 Born in 1956 in Tokyo, from the early 1980s Masaki Fujihata produced computer-generated works, and from the 1990s he created a succession of interactive works. In 1996, his work about networks, Global Interior Projects #2, won the Golden Nica prize at Ars Electronica (Linz, Austria). His work on the theme of interactive books, Beyond Pages, is included in the permanent collection of The Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe (ZKM). In 2005, Fujihata took part in the founding of the Graduate School of Film and New Media at Tokyo University of the Arts, and he served as the Dean of Research until 2012. He is currently a professor emeritus of Tokyo University of the Arts.

*10 NTT Inter Communication Center (ICC) is a cultural facility run by NTT East Corp. That opened in 1997 within the Tokyo Opera City Tower in Nishi-Shinjuku, Tokyo. Focusing on the fusion of scientific technology and cultural science, ICC has introduced cutting-edge technologies in media art including virtual reality and interactive technology. ICC also published the journal Inter Communication (publication suspended from Issue No. 65 in 2008).

*11 Tokyo Wonder Site is an art center that supports creator activities in a wide range of genres, interdisciplinary work, and experimental work, while also dedicating itself to the development and promotion of new art and culture from the heart of Tokyo. It was founded by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in 2001 as an organization devoted to supporting the nurturing of young artists, and it operates facility spaces dedicated to providing venues for artists to exhibit their works and spend time in residence working on creative activities or research. Since 2006, it also conducts a variety of residency programs for artists and creators from Japan and abroad working in a variety of genres. In 2017, the organization’s name was changed to Tokyo Arts and Space (TOKAS).

*12 Found footage refers to the technique involved in referencing or reusing existing film/video footage in the creation of new film/video works.

*13 The Institut für Raumexperimente (Institute for Spatial Experiments) was an educational program conducted over the five years from 2009 to 2013. It was led by the artist Olafur Eliasson and operated within the Berlin University of the Arts. Although its actual arts activities have now been concluded, the base of activities has been moved online and continues to function.

*14 “BODY/PLAY/POLITICS” is a group exhibition composed of six contemporary artists from Europe, the U.S., Southeast Asia, and Japan. Tamura showed an installation work titled Milky Bay that took the Yukio Mishima novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea as a base to present a new perspective on Japan’s postwar era through the history of modern bodybuilding.

*15 Chemistry / The Story of C: The cruise ship Diamond Princess, which later became the site of a cluster of COVID-19 infection cases among its passengers and crew, had originally caught on fire while still under construction at a Nagasaki shipyard eighteen years earlier. As a result, its sister ship Sapphire Princess, which was being built at the same time, was renamed Diamond, and the original Diamond Princess was repaired and renamed Sapphire. The work revolves around a story stemming from this episode of diamonds and sapphires. It can be seen in the archive at the following site.

*16 Reformulation of an Artistic Practice on Fragments is the title of the doctoral dissertation Tamura submitted at the end of his course in the Department of Film and New Media at Tokyo University of the Arts in 2016. In the dissertation, Tamura elaborates on the concept of “fragments” as an important part of his practice, with examples in his past work, and explains in detail the acts of “dismembering” and “connecting” them in the process of creating work of substance.

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