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Interview of Kosuke Tsumura: What is Japanese Art?

What is Japanese Art?
Fashion and Art’s “Functionality” and “Non-functionality”

Using the idea that “what ultimately houses a human is clothes”, Kosuke Tsumura designs fashion that is survival-themed, but also works as an artist. In straddling both genres, fashion and art, what exactly would be the uniquely Japanese style he showcases?

Kosuke Tsumura at the interview.

Kosuke Tsumura at the interview.

ART-iT: Mr Tsumura, apart from your work as a fashion designer for ‘Final Home’, could you please tell us about how you first came to work in the art scene?

Tsumura: After I clinched the So-En Award which I had been applying for since I was in high school, I started working at Miyake Design till I turned 22. After that, I nurtured the hope of winning an art prize, so I applied for the ‘Contemporary Art Exhibition of Japan’ and came in second runner-up.

The artwork I made was from punch carpet material that was both cloth-like and which could also be moulded three-dimensionally. So even though I was working with art then, what I made did feel really close to fashion.

Back then, I was reading “Bijutsu Techo (Art Notebook)” as well as fashion magazines, and it was the sight of Joseph Beuys’ piano covered in felt (“Homogeneous Infiltration for Piano”, 1966) that had a profound influence on me . Beuys was performing wearing a hat and a fishing vest, and even though it was considered art, it also reminded me a little of fashion.

Beuys’ artwork was inspired by the sensuous feel of primitive materials, which he discovered after he had to protect his body in animal fat and felt after his plane was shot down in World War II. I felt that particular point was extremely similar to the way fashion designers obsess over materials.

ART-iT: You’ve created quite a number of works using mixed media, or works which are multi-functional. You’ve also created works which reinvent materials used in fashion.

Tsumura: Using the example of a pocket, there are times in which they can be useful but also situations in which they are not put to use, and merely decorative. And with hats and bags, if they are not worn and merely displayed, they become simple objects of artwork. It’s not quite like Duchamp’s urinal (”fountain”), but I’m interested in the subjective nature of an object which changes when perceived by the viewer, either as art, or something to be used.

The Japanese very often view the world in a multi-functional way. With the Japanese kimono for example, it can either be left to hang on a rack and used as decoration, as though it is a painting on a folding screen, or even be used as potential bedding.

I think it is distinctly unique way of thinking to the Japanese to disregard boundaries when it comes to perception – to view something as an object of art or not, to define whether it has function or not. But after we imported the European idea of art, it seems to me that Japanese art changed to follow fixed ideas and ignore the multi-functional possibilities inherent in art, which makes us concentrate all our energies on staying faithful only to the European style.

ART-iT: It hasn’t really been called ‘art’, but naturally, even in other countries aside from America and Europe, there are still creations of objects which are traditionally beautiful, or which pursue an aesthetic vision true to the eye. Our current conceptions of ‘art’ are linked to changes in the contemporary era, which leads us to wonder how they will develop, as well as why these movements cannot remain fixed, and if they are going to continue to change. This is what I want to make the central theme of our series of discussions.

Left "Queen Giddra", 2008, mixed media 38x42x23cm Righ "Borderless Frame", 2008, mixed media 90x117x16cm Courtesy of the artist and NANZUKA UNDERGROUND

Left “Queen Giddra”, 2008, mixed media 38x42x23cm
Righ “Borderless Frame”, 2008, mixed media 90x117x16cm
Courtesy of the artist and NANZUKA UNDERGROUND

ART-iT: In 2008, you held a solo exhibition titled ‘Dream God/Muzin’ at NANZUKA UNDERGROUND, in which your artwork involved two directions – first, the use of Gobelin tapestry in objects, as well as reproductions of cheap imitative flat oil paintings.

Tsumura: Yes, in fact in one of them I arranged things like Mickey Mouse’s head, King Giddra and high heels as though they were fruits to be served on a platter. I also created art by covering a frame that held nothing but a blank canvas, with cloth. I also bought imitative paintings of famous modern paintings for about 5000 yen off the Internet auctions, and then added touches reminiscent of that painter’s style on top of the painting itself.

Almost like a painting being invaded by camouflage prints. With van Gogh’s ominous painting of ‘Starry Night’, it reminded me of traditional Japanese tattoos, so I incorporated dragon designs as tattoos into the painting itself. Since Gogh was painting in the period of Japonism in the West which was greatly influenced by ukiyoe paintings, Gogh’s paintings seemed to fit the patterns of Japanese tattoo.

"Doragogh", 2008, 61x50cm Courtesy of the artist and NANZUKA UNDERGROUND

“Doragogh”, 2008, 61x50cm
Courtesy of the artist and NANZUKA UNDERGROUND

ART-iT: From these, we could probably start to think about the Japanese style or possibly, even a non-Western style of art. Before we start our discussion, I came up with two key concepts, one of which is ‘kitsch’. Even though the word is associated with imitation goods, it’s still often used in the art world.

The other key word would be ‘camp’. The critic Susan Sontag explained the concept in ‘Notes on “Camp”‘, and roughly summarised, it’s a technique that utilises kitschy objects to mock sources of authority as well as criticize by objectifying the concept, in order to challenge the establishment and question existing ideas commonly accepted. I think that including you, there are many Japanese or non-Western artists who make use of kitsch or camp as their source of inspiration to create and express.

Kosuke Tsumura at the interview

Kosuke Tsumura at the interview

Tsumura: Our stereotyped conceptions of art and design come from America and Europe. Originally, even though Asians did not hold these conceptions, since they were values that were thrust upon us, we had no choice but to accept them.

What that means in short is, even a word like ‘non-Western’ indicates that our thoughts cannot possibly exclude the West, which is the main stream of thought. That’s why with Japanese fashion, even if they are designs that make it to the Paris Collection, since they’re designs that don’t inherit a traditional history or context associated with haute couture and the nobility, they’re all still regarded as regional street fashion.

ART-iT: As for why we divide our conceptions in terms of Western and non-Western, firstly, modern developments started in the West, and through colonization, this effect of modernization also spilled over into the non-Western sphere. At that time, naturally, conceptions about ‘art’ that we had never held before suddenly set in, but for the Japanese, it was in the Meiji era that the new word ‘bijutsu’ (fine arts) was coined and linked to existing concepts of beauty.

However, this ended up creating a discrepancy between our original concept of art and the new imported concept of art in that one word, “bijutsu”. For instance, with clothes, we had originally associated our notions of beauty with designs that considered the natural features particular to a region as well as their traditions, which resulted in garments that embodied characteristics of a particular country and culture.

In contrast, Western clothing is designed to be functional and easy-to-wear, which meant that they were easily accepted without resistance. In short, the phenomenon of having the Japanese trade in their kimono for Western clothing is a result of the emphasis on functionality that comes with the culture of modernization. From the same perspective, art does not seek functionality. I think that is the considerable difference.

Tsumura: In order to inculcate western modern thought, it was really easy to change people’s clothes because it’s something that’s most common in daily life. Through the Western style of dress, we transformed our mannerisms and social upbringing, and it was used as a functional tool to change even the Japanese aesthetic.

ART-iT: A representative example would be military uniforms, right?

Tsumura: That’s right. People can be indoctrinated just by wearing clothes. But art requires some sort of knowledge for appreciation.

ARTiT: Art, especially contemporary art, is more of an intellectual game rather than a display of techniques that achieve ‘beauty’. In contrast to this, clothes are worn by everyone, and fashion has always catered for the masses and naturally been a part of popular culture.

But no matter how you look at it, art is often connected with the elite, and associated with authority. I think this is the reason why kitschy objects can become powerful weapons against this concept. That’s what the critic Junzo Ishiko mentioned in his essay written in the early 1970s, ‘Kitsch Argument’.

‘Kitsch objectively utilises and transforms artwork officially approved and recognised by sources of authority. In short, the technique employs imitation of an authorized artwork’s appearance, but rather than a simple imitation of the artwork itself, we are further elaborating on and expanding the content of the artwork itself, and treating it as one concept or an individual dissemination of information.

That’s also to say that paintings such as the ‘Mona Lisa’, which have a long history of renown and have helped to shape our standardized conception of beauty, and which we use as foundations on which to build our system of values, are actually exceedingly authoritative. And so, building upon that artwork means that they’re using the connotations surrounding the Mona Lisa to further expand on the concept of the artwork itself, to view it objectively instead of subjectively – iconizing her into a concept of beauty.

Tsumura: The ‘Mona Lisa’ itself can be used as the basis for an artwork, right?

ART-iT: For example, paintings of Mt. Fuji which incorporate bath-houses, toy souvenirs of Tokyo Tower or even Godzilla dolls are ‘kitsch’. I don’t think these works carry any critical intent, but the artist made them ‘camp’ in the way he used a methodological manner in deliberately utilising those objects. With pop art, for instance, Andy Warhol took the images of Marilyn Monroe and Mao Zedong to be kitsch and then displayed them in an artistic context. I think Japanese artists like Takashi Murakami also especially work in this intentional and deliberate way.

Tsumura: That’s right. To me, works which have undergone processing such as images of Marilyn Monroe, the Mona Lisa, or Mt Fuji with a bath-house have already become ‘natural’ in the urban environment. I think using those works as materials out of which you create your next work can be considered camp or kitsch.

I think it’s good that art holds powers of authority. To a certain extent, not protecting established sources of authority in art means you lose the very ability to experiment. As the very basis of design is to create something that the masses need to use in a comfortable way, you can’t experiment that much.

But since art is a human experiment in how we feel and sense things, our level of acceptance for the radical changes with the times. As the design industry is one which turns experimental results into something that can be sold, I am often conflicted by how art absolutely has to be experimental.

ART-iT: Reverting back to the topic on Japanese art, you once collaborated with the artist Muneteru Ujino on the project, “Ujino And The Rotators”. This project, a sound sculpture, involved using a turntable and home electronic products such as an electric fan, a drill and a dryer to create dance music, and I thought that the use of home electronic products was very distinctly Japanese.

I thought that home electronic products symbolized the age in which our consumer culture expanded, during the long period of high and rapid economic growth we experienced after the 60s. That was when electronic products really started to enter the home and become popular. Even though I am slightly older than Ujino, I still vividly and realistically remembered this excitement when the mixer was brought out on stage.

Tsumura: And you probably yearned for things like the toaster, right?

ART-iT: That was from the 40s and 50s, when Japan aspired towards the showiness of American culture, and in short, I think that period unique to Japan was when we went through ‘Americanization’. Apartments in Japan are kind of small, and while we didn’t turn bread into our staple diet, we put a toaster and things like bacon and eggs and orange juice on our low dining tables, which gives it all a very kitschy feeling to us. That said, that sort of lifestyle might have helped in refining our senses, right?

Tsumura: Yup, I guess you’re right.

ART-iT: And for Ujino to have done it so naturally, I realized that he was doing something uniquely Japanese and non-Western.

Tsumura: That’s right. I think that the generation that Ujino and I grew up in was a generation that consciously tried to express specific parts of our culture which had been invaded by Western culture, but for those who are much younger, it’s not even deliberate anymore, it’s become completely part of their nature. Conversely for example, things like cosplay and the princess-like costume culture in Tokyo are influencing Europe.

ART-iT: And so is Gothic Lolita, right?

Tsumura: Gothic Lolita is done in the European style, but Japanese people look cuter wearing it than the Europeans. That’s because if the Europeans wore it, wouldn’t it just look ordinary?

ART-iT: It’s the differences in image, or the gap in perception which makes it interesting.

Tsumura: Since it is strange to see Japanese girls wear Gothic Lolita costumes which do not originally suit their body shapes, they then make extra efforts to look cute. That ends up creating more interesting differences.

ART-iT: Then perhaps, it can be said that Japanese products will get a market by re-exporting ideas through such means instead of re-importing them.

Tsumura Kousuke:
Fashion designer, born in Saitama, Japan in 1959. He received the 52nd So-En Award in 1982, and started work at Miyake Design the following year. In 1994, he set out to start up his own fashion label, ‘FINAL HOME’. He also won the ‘Newcomer of the Year’ Award at the 12th Mainichi Fashion Grand Prix. Continuing work as a sculptor, he took home the second prize in the 21st Contemporary Art Exhibition in Japan in 1992. He has displayed his artworks at many exhibitions, including ‘SAFE Design Takes On Risk’ (New York, 2005-6), ‘Beautiful New World’ (Beijing and assorted places) and ‘TOKYO FIBER09′ (Milan; Tokyo). Primary solo exhibitions include ‘Dream God/MUZIN’ (Tokyo), design exhibition ‘THIS PLAY’ (Tokyo, 2007), ‘DREAM CONSCIOUS – Dreams Taking Form’ (Tokyo, 2009). He currently teaches in the Department of Scenography, Display and Design in Musashino Art University.

This dialogue was done by Mr. Ozaki, the former chief editor of ART-iT, at DAY STUDIO★100(Vantan Shibuya School) on 18/10/2009.
The original article is in Japanese.

translated by Bonnie Oeni (Azito)