Yamashita + Kobayashi: Straying from the mainstream

Natsumi Araki (Curator, Mori Art Museum)

Time and Miracles

To create the boldly titled "GOING MAINSTREAM", the artist duo of Mai Yamashita and Naoto Kobayashi took to rowing down the Nile and Amazon rivers in a rubber boat. The concept for the piece — a literal interpretation of a pun based on a distorted understanding of the figure of speech — clearly goes far beyond a joke. The artists gambled their time and money and risked peril traveling to the world’s two largest rivers in order to embody the idea of "going mainstream". Such eccentric absurdity is the distinct charm of Yamashita + Kobayashi.

Yamashita + Kobayashi take on challenges like this with diligence, calm persistence, and a sense of humor (albeit tinged with madness), but what is it exactly that they do? We should first take a look at their attitude towards time. Regardless of whether or not a piece turns out exactly as planned, Yamashita + Kobayashi begin each project with a clear and certain vision of the completed work. Take for instance the bronze camel, rubbed by hand until golden, or the bowling ball-sized candy, licked down to a small lump: it is as if they begin with an image of the final result and then rewind to get to the starting point, pouring all of their time and effort into creating their vision from there. “The way I feel about it is, I'm willing to use all of my personal time in order to see a project through to the end,” says Kobayashi. His comment is both truly graceful and resoundingly lacking in common sense, spoken from within a contemporary system in which our lives are built upon the selling of each piece of our fragmented time.

Yamashita + Kobayashi also maneuver and manipulate time. For "When I wish upon a star", the artists slowed down a video of a shooting star so that the split-second movement lasts for two long minutes and paired it with a narration of seemingly endless wishes. They stretch out and condense time as though molding clay, sometimes using their own personal time as a material, and sometimes using video technology to control the flow of time.

Often they attempt to make miracles occur. For the piece "miracle", in which the artists rolled five dice at once, they have edited together only the instances when all the dice landed on the same number. For "telepathy", in which each artist drew what they guessed the other was thinking of, they have edited together only the instances when their drawings matched. For the viewer it is both stunning and amusing to see a consecutive sequence of miracles take place. These are, however, only the accumulated positive results of large-scale experiments undergone by Yamashita + Kobayashi, who spend incredible amounts of their time on these projects. For the ten times they successfully communicated through telepathy, there are 990 times that they failed.

Nature and Mankind

With time as their ally, Yamashita + Kobayashi have reminded us through their actions that miracles do, in fact, occur. For most, telepathy might not happen as often as it did for longtime partners Yamashita and Kobayashi, but there is a possibility that we, too, can communicate with our thoughts. Telepathy is a miracle, to be sure, but it is also a part of nature and the workings of the universe.

Yamashita + Kobayashi are deeply conscious of the relationship between nature and mankind, and explore this in their work by conducting various experiments. For "TARZAN", the artists had animals at the zoo listen to a recording of the famous Tarzan yell from the movies to see their reactions. For "Release of mineral water", they released the contents of a bottle of mineral water bought at a Japanese liquor store into a river in Germany, from whence the water originally came. The contrast between jungle and zoo, between a river and commoditized water, is a comment both humorous and bleak on the relationship between natural nature and domesticated nature.

They often let animals be the creators of art. For "Lion & Canvas", the artists put several canvases inside a cage of lions and later exhibited the canvases, covered with marks from the lions’ teeth and claws, as "paintings". For "Forest Dishes", they let wild animals walk on clay dishes and then called the footprints "design". Although the person that appears in "Mr. Someya Doing a Handspring" is human, by presenting the foot and hand prints left behind from his handspring as the work of art, it is as though they have attempted to capture the movements of a wild animal. Yamashita + Kobayashi draw animals into the human spectrum, and likewise draw out the animalistic elements of mankind in their search for commonality between human and animal, and by extension between mankind and nature.

It is interesting to look at "Dogsled" as a piece that symbolizes the clash between humans and nature. In this piece, radio controlled cars dressed in fake fur become "pseudo-dogs" that pull a cart carrying Yamashita as if it were a dogsled. With some clumsy maneuvering the awkward ride eventually comes to a stop. The noise made by the toy cars, however, lingers on like the cries of an animal, and leaves a deep impression. It is the sound of animals resisting enslavement by humans (also, the sound of machines resisting unreasonable labor forced upon them). This piece has a slightly pessimistic overtone, rarely found in Yamashita + Kobayashi's work, and seems to convey a warning about the human habit of trying to have control over everything.

Mankind is powerless before the overwhelming force of nature. Nevertheless, humans have since ancient times attempted to use their humble arts to carve out a place in nature, and Yamashita + Kobayashi seem to be continuing that tradition. We learn about what humans have created in the past and can trace acts of nature through the studies of archaeology and history. Yamashita + Kobayashi’s work sometimes appears to be a form of parody or digest version of archaeology. For example, the piece of candy in "Candy", licked until tiny, recalls the process of shape change in nature caused by centuries of erosion; the animal tracks in "Forest Dishes" resemble fossils; and the mystical shape that appears in "infinity" resembles a site of mysterious archaeological ruins. "Rubbing a Camel", too, is a parody of the gradual change that occurs in a Buddhist statue after many years of people rubbing it in hopes of their wishes being granted. The image that emerges from the interwoven elements of wishing, time, and physical change, shows us the shape of human desire.

Where Wishes Go

The theme of wish making appears again in "When I wish upon a star". Contrary to the romantic phrase "wish upon a star", in this piece we are reminded of the never-ending karma of mankind, felt with a sense of humor and fear, as Yamashita’s voice chants a constant flow of wishes as if reciting a Buddhist prayer. To alter the speed of a shooting star in order to enumerate each and every one of her personal wishes is clearly an unscrupulous act, yet I doubt that anyone can laugh at her for it. We are, after all, a contemporary people that go to great efforts to interfere with nature in our pursuit for convenience and riches, always complaining that it’s not enough. We buy water from a river in a foreign country, we abuse animals and machines, and we rub Buddhist statues to ask favors of the gods. Yamashita + Kobayashi lightly and humorously criticize mankind for its lack of principles.

In their work, Yamashita + Kobayashi have managed to make miracles happen; will their long list of wishes be granted, too? Has it always been their primary goal to "go mainstream"? Do they really want to "become big artists", as mentioned in one of their wishes upon the star? It is obvious that, in fact, the words “main” and “big” are incongruous with their style of work. The purpose of their art is, rather, to stray from the path, for example by misinterpreting the meaning of “mainstream” as they take on the Nile and Amazon rivers. It is to continue their ceaseless travels as they venture away from the mainstream, as they use lavish amounts of their personal time in their pursuit to leave behind a trace of human art in nature. That is their work, and we, too, experience their travels through the testament of the blueness of the sky, brightness of the light, and color of the water that appears in their videos.

Yamashita + Kobayashi will, I suppose, continue to stray from the mainstream, making miracles happen along the way. And so long as these two, smiling at each other as they do in their videos, continue to exude that happiness, surely the path they've chosen is the right one.


Translation: Julia Wolfson