Interviewed by Nozomu Ogawa / Director, Art Center Ongoing
On the occasion of the exhibition "I wish upon a star" by Yohei Tanaka and Umi Nakajima
Ogawa Looking back at the works you have made to date, it occurred to me that they were based on things you yourselves had seen or experienced in the past. Do you keep a stock of ideas waiting to be made into artworks?
Yamashita The genesis of a lot of the work is in things we have in our memories. Infinity began with "Kuwata Road," for example.
Ogawa "Kuwata Road"?
Kobayashi The story about Masumi Kuwata, from the Yomiuri Giants baseball team. When he was still playing ball there was a time when he injured his arm, so he couldn't pitch. But, to maintain the strength in his legs, he ran round and round the baseball field. He ran so much that the grass died and a path was made. So, that anecdote was still up there in our minds. "Do you think you can really make a road just by running?" we wondered, and so we decided to try it out.
Yamashita But, it took a while to develop into the idea of running so that our tracks formed an infinity symbol.
Kobayashi We wanted a path that we could just keep running around forever, but we also wanted the shape itself to have some kind of meaning. That's how we arrived at infinity.
Ogawa In turning an idea into an actual artwork do you discuss how the idea should be developed between you?
Kobayashi Rather than developing the idea it's more like a process of distilling it to its essence. It takes a lot of time to arrive at a concrete way to present an idea. Sometimes we suddenly realize how to give form to ideas that have been buried in our minds for a long time.
Yamashita We’re interested in the process of causing something to happen in reality. That process often develops into a work of art. That's why we tend to produce a lot of video and documentary-style works.
Ogawa You mean you turn your actions into artworks?
Kobayashi To begin with we didn't have a performance-style approach. But we've realized it can be more fun to try to sort of tweak or distort reality, rather than actually try to create something new from scratch.
Yamashita We do feel that it's even better if we can do something that we can really enjoy at the same time. That's why we tend to set a lot of challenges for ourselves, as works of art.
Kobayashi With a lot of our ideas we really don't know if they will be feasible or not. But the less sure we are, the more interesting it is for us to try them.
Ogawa So instead of perfecting an idea at the concept stage, it's more like you just start giving expression to it as soon as it arrives, even if you don't know exactly how it will turn out.
Yamashita The initial vision is quite clear, though. We just don't know if it will work or not. And, on top of that the elements of coincidence are a part of reality, too. It is interesting when unexpected things happen in front of our eyes.
Kobayashi That's not to say we don't have a strange sense of confidence, a conviction that we can pull this thing off! (Laughs) And, of course while it might be us who actually creates a certain reality, its ultimate meaning depends in part on the viewer, too. I think we probably like creating the kinds of things that we have never seen before. It's not like there is anything really to gain from creating something that we haven't seen before, but, you know, the process can be extremely difficult. It's like there are these things that you are aware of, but, because there is nothing to be gained from them, you don't do them. We want to do those things. What we both strongly agree on is that we want to cause things to happen that you normally wouldn't think possible.
Ogawa You do all the performances within the works yourselves. Is that deliberate?
Yamashita We basically don't work with other people.
Kobayashi The impetus for a lot of the work comes from the two of us wanting to capture a particular reality. The feeling of wanting to come into contact with something directly, wanting to set something in motion is at the heart of our work. So, we personally enjoy that process of intervention in reality.
Ogawa There appears to be no weak spots or gaps in your work. Your objective is very clear and it is also very clear that you have spent a lot of time thinking about how best to present it. That makes it very easy to understand where the work is coming from. You must do a lot of discussion between you before deciding on the direction for a work, aren't you?
Kobayashi When we talk about making a work, we often get the feeling we know what the other is getting at, but then we discover gaps in our understanding. But, if we can't get the idea to work on ourselves then it isn't going to work with the public, either. That's why we end up taking a very objective approach. The other thing is that we both spent a long time overseas, and over there it was important that something be conveyed without reliance on a verbal explanation. That led to video works that can be understood without having any particular language ability.
Ogawa That sounds simple, but I imagine it is actually quite difficult. I think it requires a lot of courage not to fall back on the idea that "It's a work of art, so it's OK for it to be kind of ambiguous." On the other hand, while your works are all highly polished, the actual content contains elements of silliness and humor. Is that intentional?
Yamashita What happens is we end up devoting a huge amount of energy to really silly things. I think making something humorous results in its meaning being conveyed to the audience in a different way to that if it were said seriously.
Kobayashi I just like doing silly things. But, I don't like doing silly things in a silly way, so I like remaining very cool and serious as we do something silly.
Ogawa You have several works, such as Candy and infinity that consist of repetitions of simple actions.
Yamashita Yes, at one point there were a lot of works that emerged out of the repetition of actions. But, I also think that is the wrong way to look at it. The way we were looking at those works was not as accumulations of actions, but as attempts to make miracles occur. In order to achieve those, yes, it took a lot of energy and it resulted in an accumulation of actions. But that was never the ultimate objective.
Kobayashi The accumulation of actions is just a matter of how much time we care to spend on a work, and our time, well, we are determined to get the work done no matter how much time it takes us. And then if some unexpected transformation occurs in the middle of that process, we think that is really interesting. We also want to cause some kind of change in the viewer as well, so, for example, we try not to incorporate any elements that can only be understood by a limited number of people. We want to take the most obvious materials – like water, for example – and use them to bring about some kind of change in the understanding of the viewer.
Ogawa Being accessible to anyone no doubt makes your work stronger.
Kobayashi With the materials too, we always choose straightforward and simple materials – always trying to make the work as easy to understand as possible.
Ogawa So, you start with everyday, unexceptional things and, by turning them into artworks, you make them miraculous. Do the two of you think that artistic production is necessary for making miracles happen?
Kobayashi For us, any attempt to make miracles happen is a kind of artistic creation. All the works of art we have made really are all part of a process to make miracles. But, in most cases the only thing we are left with to show the audience is the documentary video or some kind of leftover artifact. Still, we want the viewer to spend a little time looking at those remains and then to imagine what it was that caused them.
Yamashita The background behind even a tiny thing takes on more value when it is funny.
Kobayashi Yeah. We like it when that happens.
Yamashita For that reason, we tend to focus on the details. When we are actually making the work we do tend to do that – despite those details seeming boring, or trifling.
Ogawa You mean when thinking about how to develop an idea?
Yamashita The sort of thing that a conventional value system would judge boring – we can give it new value, by doing something or other to it.
Ogawa When you are developing your ideas together, do you ever reject each other's proposals?
Kobayashi We do. Like, I have no idea what you're talking about! (Laughs)
Yamashita Hmm, I guess that does happen. (Laughs)
Kobayashi I have a notebook full of ideas, but most of them have been rejected.
Ogawa But, on the other hand, the works have to work on the rest of society too, so the fact that you make them together is a big advantage. It's not like you can just go and make something in your own little world.
Kobayashi That's right. The reason we originally decided to work together is because we wanted to create a type of work that possessed a balance between the sexes, not being too much influenced by one or the other. But at the same time this process makes is difficult to make work quickly.
Yamashita It would be so much easier if I was working alone!
Kobayashi We hold meetings about every work.
Kobayashi We explain the meaning of each idea to each other. We don't let ourselves use vague terms like "nantonaku" (for some reason or other).
Yamashita So, from the very earliest stage it's like we have to impress a client with our presentations. Our works don't really appear confronting or anything, but each of them is the product of a major battle!
Ogawa Is it like once a day at a certain time you have a production meeting?
Kobayashi It's not quite that bad. (Laughs)
Yamashita We live together, so it's difficult to really make it like a job. Our everyday lives seem to incorporate those kinds of discussions. There's no division between our lives and our work.
Kobayashi Still, one of the reasons our work is accessible might be connected to the fact that it exists as a kind of extension of our everyday lives.
Translation: Eden Corkill