INTERVIEW WITH UTAKO SHINDO

More and more artists are pursuing trans-border lives across a multitude of communities without being rooted to one place.  Moving across locations, cultures and different languages over the last ten years has had a major influence on your artistic practice.  Can you talk about your sense of ‘belonging’ or connection to multiple cities and how you keep moving from one location to another, as you have said, ‘like a seasonal bird’?

Having multiple connections to different geographical places has enriched my understanding of how ‘people’ are similiar and different with/from each other from place to place and how we are informed by the particular millieu which we are exposed to.  To have more than one connection or belonging to civic locations has been helpful for me, as an artist and as a person because I want my artwork to be made in a way that allows itself to be experienced by people from/in all sorts of places.  Discovering people also means learning about myself too, who is, among them unique.  I have learnt that about myself through making connections to places in abstract and poetic ways.  I think that my artwork speaks, as it is intended, to present the kind of ‘place’ that I belong to, which is the kind that is poetic and not always on the map.

It feels that when some artists choose to go overseas, it’s a strategy for their career development: to align with and/or ride on the globalised art market or trend.  In that case, perhaps the flow is a currency, which is not the kind that a seasonal bird would ride on.  In ancient Japan, there were nomadic people called Hokaki-bito who were socially marginal people on the periphery of society. Their visit indicated the visit of Hoka, which means some external, unknown information, spirit or god. That instance in Japan is considered by some academics to be ‘the birth or art’. So those who were more nomadic, were associated with the sacred in that sense. Although I am not one of those people, I can relate to this in terms of where my art practice comes from. 

I don’t quite know whether it is a particular situation, information, or a feeling, but they are all factors that navigate me from place to place. Of course I anticipate something without knowing what it is - and it may be a bit of a cliche - but I also follow my intuition.  It is also important to find out whether a new place is good for making art.  Whenever I don’t know where I want to land, I think about the advice from fellow Japanese artist Ai Sasaki who once told me to imagine what I want to feel and what I want to be, then just work towards it.

Could you tell me about your decision to study art in Melbourne as opposed to art capitals such as Berlin, New York or London, or even Tokyo?

I’ve always wanted to go overseas. My family lived in Canada for a few years before I was born and there were always things in the house that were from Canada or things that were sent from people whom my parents had met during that period.  Although Tokyo is a highly modernized and westerized city, it felt like a big decision to live overseas, partly because of the language, but more so because of the restrained nature of Japanese culture and society (which is sometimes hard to come back to once you are out). So I needed to wait for the timing and the reason to be strong enough to go overseas and on my own terms.

Although I have always had a love towards art, I never thought of becoming an artist.  I was not in an environment which encouraged me to pursue art or one that showed me that it could be something for my future. It wasn’t until I was at university, majoring in politics in the law department, that I discovered that there was a thing called contemporary art.  I liked the freedom in that genre which seemed to be multi-disciplinary, full of craftmanship, aesthetics, feelings, and thoughts on various areas such as politics, sociology, philosophy which could be gathered into artistic expression/ investigation.  But as a typical university student, I did not really know what I wanted to do and it felt really stressful to me. It’s hard to describe, but I guess I lost my sense of direction and the desire to complete my studies.

Around that time, in between attending lectures, acting in performance groups and working part-time evening shifts here and there, I started drawing things and people around me who I encountered in the public sphere.  I think it was the influence of one of my close friends at that time who always had a pen and paper with him, taking notes, making sketches here and there which then became a source of his creative writings.  And I was lucky to be surrounded by very inspiring young people at that time through and beyond my uni-life.

Then September 11 happened.  The Japanese Theater Director, Toshiki Okada wrote a play called Five Days in March, which in my understanding, depicts a psychological shift that occurred amongst young people in Tokyo after 9.11.  I think my experience was similar.  I noticed the distance between ‘what was a supposedly a historical incident for the world’ and this everyday life I was having in Tokyo.  In the latter I felt alien to 9.11, even though I thought I was aware of the global political climate as a student in the school of politics.  I asked myself, ‘what does it really mean to live in the world, what is the world, and where is my world’.  It was also one of the first moments when I realised that the world has been governed by ‘western’ alliance countries, among which Japan is a part of.  9.11 threw a question/doubt around this governance.  I wanted to make a physical distance from it, but also wanted to know more about the world through the universal language of english (for the practical communication), and through what could be more genuinely a universal language which was art.  I strongly believed at that time that if art was about looking at things from different perspectives, then studying art in a foreign environment would provide me with the ideal conditions for art-making.

Around that time, I also had a series of serendipitous moments: looking after my great uncle who worked in Australia for some years, meeting a writer who was on Asia-link residency, and hearing the story of Melbourne as a good city for studying from the best friend of another friend.  And Australia was financially affordable among English speaking cities known for its art education. Even paying the international student fees, it was cheaper than going to a private art university in Tokyo (there is only one public art university in Tokyo which is really hard to get into). And everything was much much cheaper than what it is now in Melbourne.  

So Melbourne became one of my options: because it is multi-cultural and because this diversity is communicated/mediated through the English language in a relatively democratic world.  I found out about the Centre for Ideas at the VCA through the Australian Embassy and I was intrigued by the multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary potential, and its geographical closeness to Asian countries (the concept of Asia Pacific as a new cultural and political region was discussed at University and I was interested in that). Overall, Australia’s future, which was unknown, interested me at the time, in contrast to Japan’s which appeared in my youth too developed and restrained. 

After your Masters you thought about quitting art, but then decided to do your PhD. What was the catalyst or incident that occurred, if there was one, for continuing on this path? Could you tell me about your decision?

There were some moments, even before undertaking my Masters degree, when I thought about leaving this path. I guess it’s common when someone starts something new that they can be shaken by external events or internal doubts until one ‘masters’ it.  From my experience, a Masters degree does not really mean that you ‘master’ fine art. 

Even though I felt things are going well as an artist in Melbourne after my MFA, something felt missing. I needed to return to Japan and to bring that element back into who I was becoming as an artist.  I started making works in Japan through a studio residency in Tokyo, and as well, generating a project, which I intended to open an artistic and cultural dialogue between Japan and Australia. The project was called Immanent Landscape_内在の風景. I was lucky to receive support from organizations, curators, and artists in Japan even though I had almost no experience and visibility in the art scene there. However, it was really tricky back then for me to describe my intention and embody it through my art project and my own art-making with my limited ability, as an artist, curator, translator and coordinator. And more or so, it was difficult because I was dealing with something really central to art, something that is not possible to be translated in everyday language (whether it is in English or Japanese). 

I knew that Immanent Landscape_内在の風景 was dealing with a genuinely universal quality about art; in the context of the project, a kind of place that art can articulate. But, in order to carry on the project, I needed to communicate the untranslatable in art in verbal and written languages.  However, due to the nature of project,  the focus was put more on this type of ‘cross-cultural dialogues’ (a trend in the art scene) , which in the end is reduced to English so that it can be ‘shared’ through the international market. 

After that project, I stayed in Japan as I was welcomed by some organizations to help them develop international and transcultural art projects or programs. But my question remained, what is this thing which resists translation in art.  I was torn between ‘being useful for the globalized art world’,  and ‘being uncertain about my ability to master the uniqueness of the language of art’, that felt untranslatable but important.

But the growing demands of coordinating things, and less time and space (and less interest expressed by others) in my art-making made it hard for me to face up with the latter question. This situation was not good psychologically. To work accordingly to someone elses interpretation of ‘what is art’ did not helped me either. The frustration, doubt, and being out of touch with my own art making and language was apparent. I sensed that I should either stop working for others’ ‘art’, or quit making my art practice. But I really didn’t know which way I should go, until I encountered an event with my grandmother. 

In 2012 I was visiting my grandmother in hospital and together we were overlooking the vast western Tokyo landscape through the window of a high-story building. She, on the threshold of her dementia, saw a volcanic mountain called Mt. Aso in the view. Although the mountain exists, it is located in the south of Japan, not in the west of Tokyo, which is indeed mountainous, though. Yet, the way she enunciated and described how beautiful it was, it felt so poetic that I felt an emotional truth to it.  It shifted the way I saw the scenery and opened a kind of place 'in-between’ her and myself.  It happened on the ordinary summer day, and it's perhaps nothing special to others, but this event became meaningful to me, as it was untranslatable, like how the Immanent landscape would emerge/appear so.  This experience slowly led me to take a path to investigate all that questions around this subtle and incredible quality in art that is untranslatable through undertaking the PhD project.

In your video work Topology between the Three (2014-2016), you describe the work, “While there is no place that can stay the same, one’s longing for some places remains forever.  Words, sounds, images and colours are joined together to hold someone’s longing yet only fragmentally so that the gaps become openings for others to enter.”  Can you tell me about this work and where the concept came from and the role memory plays in these works.

There is no big concept for this work. This work emerged as one of several attempts for me to articulate poetically the Mt. Aso that my grandmother associates with, through her memory, and the construction of her reality due to her dementia. Mt.Aso in her memory may not be the same as it is on the map, but it can indicate where she is now. I think, even those who do not have dementia, experience something similar. In fact, our sense of our ‘pre’sence is often shaped by what we experienced ‘pre’viously (or what we ‘predict’ can be included). Or it might be that, we live in-between here and there, now and then.  So, the work is based on my hearing of my grandmother’s remembering (or describing now). Yet, I wanted to put audiences into a similar situation of constructing their ‘now’ by remembering something through dwelling in the ‘gaps’ or ‘in-between’ space-time, which I made this video work embrace.

My artwork,  which often takes the form of an installation, tends to join fragments of pieces: images, sounds or materials that have originated in different locations. When I first read Walter Benjamin’s essay, The Task of the Translator, which became the key reading in my PhD research project, the way he describes an ideal form of translation - which is literal - for intending the pure language (that which is considered untranslatable) as ‘joined fragments of vassal’, I was reminded of my own habit.  In asking, how art can embody ‘the untranslatable’ (which was my research question), particularly in the early stage of my PhD research, Benjamin’s writing, which offers visually and spatially rich metaphors, enabled me to pay attention to, the distance, or the gap, in the act of translation: between the translator and the translation; in other words, an artist and an artwork.

Perhaps in this work, the distance or gap, was created by the footage and the subtitles (the first versions of this work had a voice over of a conversation between my grandmother, myself and my mother), which were recorded at different times and locations. They correspond to each other, but not quite. Yet, the ambiguity and nuance of colour, image and sound, word, which, I was hoping, somehow fill in and withdraw from the gap.

When I took your photograph, I remember you told me a story about the significance of wind in Japanese culture.  What part does wind play in your work?

Did I tell you that? I forgot. Sorry…

I was walking down George Street in Fitroy yesterday and bumped into a lady who used to come to the cafe where I worked nearly a decade ago.  While having a coffee, she asked, what was the meaning of ‘four winds’? - which was the name of the apartment owned by Japanese people near her old place in Brisbane.  I did not know the answer, but I thought about wind which can come from the north, south, east and west, and each indicates the change of four seasons.  

The change of season, or transference of the atmosphere within a day, can be the main subject of artworks (poetry, brush painting, theatre or design) in Japanese culture.  I think (although I am not the authority of ‘wind’ culture in Japan) that ‘wind’ is significant to many cultures, including Japanese.

Though I have only a few video works, the sounds of wind, whether it blows stronger or softer, seem to help audiences anticipate the change in the contextual focus of the work, while the visual component may remain the same.  So it does indicate the shift of the atmosphere, or the shift of the work itself.  Indeed, my latest video work, which I shot in Bogong village and high-plains, the winds sounds/noises play these roles, very effectively, though I did not initially intend them to.

Having worked as an artist, sometime curator and translator over the last ten years, you’ve mentioned that you have observed the demand imposed on an artwork to be translatable, which comes from an attitude that conceives an artwork as a tool or as an object to serve existing ideologies/or and marketable values. 

The more I am enmeshed in the global art and research context, the more a sense of concern grows in me, (towards the inevitable pressure to be communicable) in one dominant language, which can be a threat of being homogenised, in some cases.  For instance, it can reduce ambiguity down to the dichotomy, in many levels: cultural, social, political, religious.  The economy is a factor among them, as we live in a capitalised world.  Currently, English speaking countries dominate the market, and consequently the way people think and behave (or study and research, or make and exhibit). I want to point out that the simple fact, as the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben says, 'the english dominance is not an innocent' condition of the world.  I am not against the idea of sharing knowledge or experiences beyond all kinds of borders and I hope to do so, but by means of a poetic use of language.  Predominantly through art, in my case, but also through english if I can use it appropriately to the original thought which might come from other languages.  

The problem as I see is that, in that crossing, the struggle of ‘translation’ is often invisible, and somehow hidden, while the struggle can reveal the differences, from which I witness that new expressions or meaning can be born. I observed the struggle to be reduced to be an easy and simple conclusion: translated into a word that is easily distributed. Yet, the difficulty and struggle should be challenged, in a generative manner, in a rigorous sense (I suppose, that is to stay respectable to the original as possible as one can, to the degree where one encounters the limits, which then promote metamorphosis/transformation of one’s own first language as well as being).

The shifting shadows around an acrylic cube was the one of the direct prompts for your investigation into the untranslatable in art, which you intuitively made a link between.  Through shadows, you try to address two questions: what is the untranslatable in art and how can an artwork embody the untranslatable?  In Junichiros Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, he discusses the importance of shadows in pre-modern Japanese aesthetics to complete the beauty of the object. This was an important book in your research.  Can you talk about your use of shadows in reference to this book and how shifting shadows is given a primary role in Japanese aesthetics.  

I refer to this book in my PhD thesis because its translated version is well know by the western readers in general and academic contexts. In my paper, I tried to include interpretations of and discussion on this writing by other writers, philosophers and architects to give a larger map of discourse around the shadow in contemporary thought.

Since this text is well received by the non-Japanese readers, I have no doubt that what is considered to be Japanese sensitivities/aesthetics resonates. Yet, perhaps I can point out the significant character: the way ‘shadow’ is understood in the Japanese context, which is different from ‘shadow’ in the west, which has been often defined in the the context of art by the myth of Plato’s cave. Shadow is not only considered negative, but generative. It is also not entirely opposite to light.  In my understanding, shadow is nuanced that mediates the darkness and the brightness, the death and the life or by Tanizaki, nuance of love. That is perhaps why, it is associated with a spirit or ghost of some life, which lives or drifts in-between. Or the embodiment of something that is not normally external. So the shadow is also considered in Japanese culture as grounded in the impermanent, invisible, immaterial work than the substantial one.  In this, shadow becomes both spatially and visually symbolic of the world. In my art, shadow perhaps speaks of my longing for such things that are impalpable yet somehow touch me truthfully. And some of other people’s artworks do that to me. Often these works are hard to articulate in words. Shadow is like an appearance of an artwork which metamorphoses, according to how you are, how you see it, from place to place. So using shadows and images in my work, is one simple way of enhancing the strangeness as well as the beauty of one’s experiencing art.

Looking over your work over the last ten year, there seems to be always the question or return to belong-ness and connection to place. You say about yourself that as a ‘Japanese woman artist, you will always remain foreign/external to the globally dominant culture’. How does this translate into your work?

Did I say that? (Laughing) It sounds to me now a big statement. Perhaps, I meant that while I live in this world, I don’t foresee Japanese women becoming the dominant power of the global culture. Although they are an influential figure, though, to some degree.

Since I have lived outside Japan, I have become sensitive to having a Japanese background and having a female body. Many cultural or artistic products from both Japan and non-Japanese contexts, have contributed to creating modern images and views of the ‘Japanese’ woman.  It is amazing how people are still now influenced by these images, which are often projected onto me.

Nevertheless, my own case of being someone with a Japanese background and a female body is an important aspect of my art-making. My Japanese language informs me so much when I make artworks. My body is a important part of my art-making: my hands for drawings, feet and shoulders to hold the camera.  These parts of my body have also been motifs in my art.  In these cases, I am extra careful about how I present them in my work. I often introduce them in part or as an abstract way, so that I can escape from having the Japanese ‘image’ projected onto. Though I am not sure if I would describe that I ‘translate’ these concerns in my work, I certainly see that they are reflected in some of my video works, which deal with my belonging and connection to somewhere and at sometime, for example Feet Through (2008).  

In making Feet Through, I was influenced by Alain Resnais’s film, Hiroshima Mon Amoir. The main character is not a Japanese woman, but a French woman, played by Emmanuelle Riva. I was struck by the way her time/presence is disrupted by the past: the death of her lover during the war, as his death is still incomplete for her, and the way she was locked in the semi-underground cellar where she licks the walls (I assume) to fill her hunger for love.  

Walls are interesting architectural components, which divide space, but also create space: they hide things and also imply things. In the early days, I drew large works directly onto the wall and my interaction with them was recorded in a form of drawing.  In my work, the wall implies my relationship with the space, space or my own being (belonging) which sometimes feels vulnerable by being away from my first and long-term dwelling (home) where there was deep love.

Later I also notice that in the film that most of shots that show Riva’s foreignness in Hiroshima, close-up shots of her body, including the opening shots of her back, are ambiguous images, unknown of race, and possibly gender too. My feet, appearing in the video work, Feet through, was seen as male feet, or unknown, by some viewers. It was really interesting. My Japanese queer friend, ended up using the still image for the cover image of his academic publication, Contact Moment! I was pleased because my artwork metamorphosed my being and became something else through the world and the audience’s perception.

And, on the recent video work, I also used the back of my body. I was trying to suggest (not to translate as it felt impossible to articulate with the filmic or video art language) what is internally happening in my female body, by showing the changes in movement of my back shapes, almost immobile and moving very subtly.  I suppose the subtlety is a kind of of Japanese aesthetic that my body might have embodied by growing up in such an aesthetic environment.  Some audiences thought that I was a rock!.. Yes, that is great…!  I hope that I was seen as a Japanese rock or stone in the Japanese garden (laughing).

Can you talk about your installation where it is here, it does not matter, how i have got here, can I forget (2016). Watching the film of this work, The Untranslatable, A Poetic Place, your work seems to be about subtlety and nuances between each of the works, and heightening the audiences sensitivity between what they are feeling, what they are visually seeing, and to be finely tuned receiving human being (which is often difficult in the modern world). Was this the intention?

It is edited by me, but shot by my wonderful friends who are also film makers, Dimple Rajyaguru and Ben Andrews, and hence, seen through others’ gazes. Your comment, “about subtly and nuances between each of the works”, that is also a wonderful comment. Yes, my work could be put in this way. For this film, I was thinking about the audiences movement/transference between each image and I suppose, nuances and subtly’s between each of the images influence the appearance of each image/or the work. 

I think this can be applied in thinking about our experiences in general. In-between one experience of an event and another, shapes the each event. As you revisit the event, it changes too, in reflection of how you have changed too. The space/time in-between allows this movement of experiencing, revisiting, remembering, forgetting, shapes one’s perception of the world, poetically. It shifts subtly and appears with a different nuance, each time.

My intention was not what you described but precisely the way you did so - you experienced and reflected on the world in more rich and poetic manner.  That was my intention. And what you said articulates so well about the site where such experience and reflection occur. That your body: being or becoming through hearing, feeling, seeing and receiving. 

You have an ongoing investigation between textures, subtlety and nuances in-between your works. Can you talk about the role that mediums and materials have in your works?

Mediums and materials are chosen, often by chance, and reflect the environment I was/am in. For instance, I have sheets of paper from Puebla, Tokyo, Melbourne, and each city has a certain type of paper that is easy to get there but not in other places. As I chose the kinds of paper from many options according to my likes, what comes to me has some common feel to it. For instance, a rough paper can create shadows on its surface. So, I suppose my medium is shadowlight (lightshadow), and any materials can be there to give presence to these medium, often, temporarily, through various kinds of process of ‘transfer’ that I embrace within my process of making: project, reflect, trace and emerge.  In that sense, ‘wall’, ‘window’ or screen: any large surfaces that can ground other materials as well as these medium, play a key role. That is perhaps why I build a wall sometimes as part of my installation, and perhaps that is why my art work often takes the form of an installation, which is, to me, in a sense, functioning to build ‘a poetic place’, place for one’s intimate experience and reflection.

Interview Melbourne 2017

UTAKO SHINDO

束の間の、つなぎのようなもの -
THAT IS, LIKE A BRIEF MOMENT TO BE FILLED

Centre for Contemporary Photography | Melbourne 09.06.2017—23.07.2017