Interview: Tomotaka Yasui

Modern maki-e

"I don't express otaku culture," says Tomotaka Yasui at the Megumi Ogita gallery in Ginza, where he is having a solo exhibition of three new works. "Now in foreign countries, all people hear about is otaku culture. I want to introduce other aspects of Japanese culture to other countries — Japanese style, Japanese atmosphere."

Yasui is pointing to a major fault line that is developing in contemporary Japanese art: the distinction between those who do embrace the otaku ethos and those who don't.

On the negative side, the word "otaku" — usually translated as "geek" or "obsessive" in English — suggests pathetic loners living asocial lives with fixations that seem juvenile and contemptible to the rest of us. On the plus side, the otaku idea also has enormous artistic appeal, as a critique of alienation and commoditization in society and because it links to anime, manga, and computer technology, greatly enlarging the techniques and vocabulary available to artists.

Against this backdrop, the art of Yasui may cause some confusion. At first sight, his main oeuvre — glossy, life-size female figures — have all the hallmarks of the otaku. These attractive, poker-faced mannequins suggest simplified icons of femininity that the otaku male would instinctively prefer to the perplexing complexity of real women. They even evoke comparisons to the sex dolls that have appeared in recent years, a phenomenon that could be read as a symptom of a postcoital Japan in which virtual sex outstrips the real thing.

This is an affinity the artist rejects, and a close look at Yasui's art easily shows that his rejection of otakuism is genuine. Instead of referencing mass-produced anime or manga characters in artificial materials, as otaku-friendly artists such as Takashi Murakami do, his figures are delicate, fragile works handmade from traditional Japanese materials, using a lengthy lacquer-layering process.

"In the first stage, I use clay to make an initial figure," he says. "I then make a mold around this using plaster. After I peel off the molds, the important stage for me begins. I make a lacquer mixture and put this inside the two halves of the mold and reinforce this with linen."

After repeating this process several times, he has created the body of the sculpture, which is then assembled, sandpapered and finished with colored lacquer, mineral pigments and other traditional decoration. "Capsule" (2008), the main work at his solo show, has a dress decorated with squares of mother-of-pearl and golden boots.

"I used metallic powder in the paint," he says of the shiny footwear. "In this case, I think it was bronze. This is a maki-e technique (a lacquer technique that uses gold or silver metal powder)."

The figure's polished eyes are made from marble and obsidian, while the texture of the hair is achieved through mixing sand into the final coat of paint. Thus, though the glossiness and sleek lines of the figure may suggest something modern and manufactured, the materials and techniques are refreshingly natural and traditional.

"Before I used plastic paint, but I feel this stops things too much," says Yasui. "Once painted, it doesn't change. Lacquer breathes. With lacquer, we can enjoy changes."

Yasui's works are designed to develop character with age. This, added to their fragility and handmade quality, defuses the sense of artificiality and adds to the illusion that they are almost alive. On a gut level, we can't help reacting to them as if they might suddenly spring to life.

But just what, exactly, is the artist's relationship with these mesmerizing mannequins? Are they a substitute for humans? Is Yasui a latter-day Pygmalion attempting to create his very own Galatea?

"I don't imagine any narrative," he replies. "My art is more about silence. I live in Tokyo, where everything is moving fast. This activity is positive, but I don't think all activity is positive. Sometimes stopping, not thinking, is also important."

Though you could say that Yasui has — perhaps unwittingly — summoned up the male fantasy of the silent women, his notion of capturing a sense of stillness and silence is a traditional one in Japanese art, and one that is carefully worked out in the details.

"Capsule" and two other female figures — "Echoic" (2008) and "Void" (2008) — that will be exhibited at the group show "Humans Made by Humans" at the Kasugai City Library Culture and Art Center in Aichi Prefecture later this month, all have deadpan expressions that seem dormant under the gleam of lacquer. They also have long sleeves that conceal that other expressive part of anatomy — the hands. The loudness of the clothes, with their garish 1960s retro-charm, also emphasizes the silence of their faces.

The symmetry and stylization of these sculptures is a rejection of the Classical Greek-based Western sculptural tradition and its obsession with statues that "move." Yasui, who was born in Belgium and has lived in Israel, says that he feels a much greater connection with Buddhist statuary and ancient Egyptian sculpture than with these Western forms. Rather than Pygmalion praying for a flicker of movement from his beloved creation, Yasui wants his Galatea to stay firmly as she is — a totem of tranquillity and stillness.

"Tomotaka Yasui: Capsule" shows till Nov. 29 at Megumi Ogita Gallery in Ginza.
"Humans made by Humans" is showing Nov. 29-Dec. 14 at the Kasugai City Library, Culture and Art Center in Aichi Prefecture.

Japan Times
13th November, 2008
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