From Painting / To Painting: Mai Yamashita + Naoto Kobayashi Return to the Origin

Yu Iseki (Curator, Contemporary Art Center, Art Tower Mito)

Transfer / Labour / Time

The secret of the human condition is that there is no equilibrium between man and the surrounding forces of nature, which infinitely exceed him when in inaction; there is only equilibrium in action by which man recreates his own life through work.
―Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace1

Mai Yamashita + Naoto Kobayashi have been creating art through traveling the world, engaging with nature and living things. They observe what is slightly“ unreal” or“ strange”, record the process of production, and then put it together into documentary work such as movie and/or photography. Their light and humorous pieces are inspired from their ordinary ideas and their Alchemy-like method, as Kobayashi describes, brings “the moment like a small miracle”.2 Although outwardly simplistic, there is no doubt as to the time and effort each artist spends on the project.
Rubbing a Camel (2010) is a video installation work that consists of 6’56” video and a bronze camel statue with rubbed shiny mat gold bumps on the back. The work takes its inspiration from the idea of ‘idol belief’. Healing and prosperity can be achieved by touching sacred objects and these objects can be scattered all over the world. For example, the Japanese “Nadeushi” and an Italian ‘Piglet’ symbol (Il Porcellino). For 5 months, Yamashita + Kobayashi stroked the hump of a bronze camel while traveling around Egypt, Spain, Germany and Switzerland. The video recorded the process, showing the artists rubbing the ‘hump’ in various locations. Each time, the pair are positioned exactly the same, while the landscape backdrop changes depending on their global location.
A Spoon Made From The Land (2009) is a piece constructed entirely using a traditional Japanese iron-making technique called "Tatara". The artists made a spoon out of iron sand collected on Iioka Beach in Chiba. The iron was collected with a scientific magnet. During the Yokohama Triennale 2011, the spoon cast in steel was put on top of a huge sand hill with the documentary capturing the production process of the spoon was on display as a backdrop. A Spoon Made From The Land shows the act of production and the process of making the spoon. We take for granted the ease in which we are able to obtain such a tool in our modern times, yet Yamashita + Kobayashi’s work reflects the enormous time and effort required when creating an object such as this by the most rudimentary of means.
Yamashita + Kobayashi say “The rationality isn’t necessary to art and free labor is the best luxury 3.” In these works, they find mental freedom in inefficient, uneconomical labor and create new value and meaning within. By staying out of rationalism for “the small purpose” and pouring “great effort,” they try to resist any capitalism-like sense of value. At the same time, they try to make the connection of it’s yet to be seen/unknown world. The structure and story then begin to surface. It seems apparent that both find joy by immersing themselves within that vortex.

Memory and Landscape

Yamashita + Kobayashi’s primary and middle school hold an annual event, “A Spring Sketching Trip”. It is a day trip for students. As part of the school art class program, students get the chance to observe and draw a typical spring landscape.
One of the recent works, A Spring Sketching Trip to Fukushima (2015), was inspired by their prototypical experiences during early schooling. They recorded landscape views by watercolor, traveling by bicycle for about 10 km from Tatsuta Station to Yonomori Station. Due to the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011 and the following series of incidents at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, there is a significant region of train line that is still out of service.4
Yamashita + Kobayashi describe their landscape drawings as “looking back at the sweet memories of childhood, [snip] including ordinary scenery and sometimes vivid scars. Visiting the areas where no one lives anymore, overtaken by nature5.” There are depictions of wasteland villages, disused railway stations (North of JR Tatsuta Station ), broken down cars, discarded and left (In front of JR Tomioka Station ), the telegraph pole broken in a half (Namikura, Naraha ), the house foundations left after the tsunami (Yamada-hama, Naraha #1 ), the cow barn without cows, waiting for demolition (Kami-shigeoka, Naraha ). There are also paintings showing the situation brought about by the nuclear accident. For example, the temporary place where the sandbags, written “Shahei (radiation shield)” are piled up, filled with polluted earth (Hotokehama temporary storage site, Tomioka ). Piles of sandbags left in uncultivated fields (Kami-Koriyama, Tomioka ), the park which contains a monitoring post used to calculate radiation levels (Okauchi Chu-o- Park, Tomioka ).
The artists also captured signs of life; footsteps of wild animals on the field after the polluted earth was removed (Shimo-Koriyama, Tomioka ), or the snake crawling on the street (Yamada-hama, Naraha #2 ). On the north side of JR Tatsuta Station, vegetation has even begun to grow in a roadbed as well as alongside the railroad track. Of course, it is just a part of the area. At Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, five thousand workers a day still go in and out of the plant. It is said that thousands of the workers serving there are starting to move into Naraha Town and parts of Hirono Town.6 The area has greatly changed due to no access by humans. One day, when the decontamination work is completed, the area may regain its former identity and once again be renowned for its villages, forests and beach side towns.
Yamashita + Kobayashi express that“ without being emotional nor sentimental, and without being overwhelmed by the fear of things that cannot be seen, the most of what we can do as an artist is to cut out what our eyes capture 7.” They might be trying to catch the things that cannot be recorded by photography and video by not drawing the radiation they cannot see, and drawing only what they can see.
How to make a mountain sculpture (2006-) is the series of the work where Yamashita + Kobayashi carve a mountain in firewood by looking up at the mountain from the bottom. It is a series of projects to make sculptures in front of mountains based on their“ look and make” policy.
This series started with the Swiss Alps in 2006 when Yamashita + Kobayashi took residence. They were based in Berlin when 3/11 occurred, after which their focus switched to Japanese mountains. As with the foreign series, the Japanese series shows the artists working immersed in nature with wooden sculptures. We can assume it was produced with the perspective of looking back to their motherland and its diverse nature.
Japan consists of about 0.25% of the earths land mass, and 7% of active volcanoes in the world exist in this country. Thus, Japan’s mountains are facing a very real possibility of change at any time by an eruption. By carving out the mountains that they see, it seems that Yamashita + Kobayashi are trying to keep their experience with the five senses to physical memory. So as A Spring Sketching Trip to Fukushima, it can be also said that the artists are trying to create a story in time, to capture the process of recording the story and to accurately portray and sense of living and working within the story for their audience.
One of the paintings from A Spring Sketching Trip to Fukushima series shows a famous cherry blossom spot, “Yonomori, Tomioka Town". A row of cherry blossom trees in Yonomori is a symbol of Tomioka Town, encompassing its history of farmland reclamation since 1900.
It is a tourist spot in spring where about 400 Someiyoshino cherry trees stand along the 2.2km street. However, since 3/11 the area has been designated as a difficult-to-return zone. By restructing the evacuation zone in March 2013, it has become available to meddle in daytime within 300 meters on the south side, however most of the area has not been changed. As shown in the artists’ works, the cut off point can still be clearly seen by roadblocks. Without the roadblocks and warning signs, it would be the same spring landscape with the full view of cherry blossoms“ Yonomori” always had. As reconstruction progresses, Fukushima may regain the landscape of old. When this time comes, A Spring Sketching Trip to Fukushima will have a new meaning.

From Painting / To Painting

Yamashita + Kobayashi studied painting at university, yet they have rarely embarked on this form of art. It might not be such a rare case as contemporary artists, but since most of their previous work has been based soley around other mediums, the choice of paint in this instance somewhat amplifies the special nature of this particular piece.
The new work shown mainly in this exhibition is the series of Artist’s Notebook (2014 -15)(pp.6-41). It is the series of paintings of the notebook covers in which Yamashita + Kobayashi have been keeping their ideas. A total of 36 notebooks show the ideas history of the artists’ since 2001 – even before they started their career as“ Mai Yamashita + Naoto Kobayashi”. There are ideas that materialized into real work, and ideas that will no doubt be produced in the future. There will also be others that will just stay inside of the idea notebooks.
The viewers are not able to flip the pages to see the ideas, it is only possible to guess the amount of time and travel the artists have spent through looking at the notebook covers. By imagining inside the notebooks, the viewers can create the image of the work by themselves.
The new series, Boku to Watashi (Me and Me) (2015) (p.49), World (2015)(p.50), Art (2015)(p.51) were inspired from “Gestalt collapse” and “Meaning saturation” – the phenomenon of a complex character breaking down into its component parts in one’s mind and losing its meaning by constant staring. In this series, Yamashita + Kobayashi continued writing four words –“ Watashi (feminine form of “I” in Japanese)” and “Boku (masculine form of “I” in Japanese)”,“ world”, and“ art” on hundreds of mounted clear films. 80 films from each word are shown by slide projection “Boku” and“ Watashi”. Also displayed on a lighting box are the words “world” and “art”. As the four words are being written, repeat - collapse and reconstruction takes place, as per the Gestalt effect. It suggests the relationship between self and surrounding“ art”, and the“ world” where they exist.
Many variations of trajectories appear – sometimes it goes back to where it started and deviates from there. In the center of these wide ranging trajectories, the form of Yamashita + Kobayashi as artists will stand up. Their return to paintings indicates that the artists are coming back to their origins and they are making the next step towards the bigger cycle.

Monotony is the most beautiful or the most atrocious thing. The most beautiful if it is a reflection of eternity—the most atrocious if it is the sign of an unvarying perpetuity. It is time surpassed or time sterilized.
The circle is the symbol of monotony which is beautiful, the swinging of a pendulum of monotony which is atrocious.
―Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace8

This exhibition also includes another new triptych work, Artist Statement Written by Hieroglyphics (2015)(pp.1-3). Hieroglyph is a writing system created by the ancient Egyptians, however this was stopped being used after the 4th century. It had largely been forgotten until the decipherment of Rosetta Stone by French scholar and Philologist, Jean-François Champollion during the 19th century. Although Egyptian Hieroglyph is hieroglyph, there is a significant amount of phonogram which is shown in various readings. Therefore, it is possible to write Japanese by hieroglyph. With your patience and some guidance, Yamashita + Kobayashi’s statement in hieroglyph can be deciphered with ease. This is a typical trick by the artists who have continually tried to
create their work with a sense of humour.


Translation:Yoshiko Kogi