Meet Three of Tokyo’s Top Designer-Artists

October 05, 2011

Photo by Takuya Shima

With the English-speaking public’s view of Japan still stuck on underdressed schoolgirls and oversized robots, it’s been easy to miss the new generation of Japanese creatives reshaping art and design. We recently caught up with three leading Tokyoites working between design and fine art.

Sputniko! is deliberately hard to place: one moment she’s a highbrow artist and the next she’s a pop star. When she shows work at galleries, her physical creations—lately she’s been making techno-futurist devices—are displayed opposite JPop music videos. New Yorkers can catch her US debut at the MoMA’s Talk To Me exhibition, on display until November.

You’ve got a pretty wide mix of fans here in Tokyo. What sort of audience do you usually envision for your work? My audience currently is contemporary art people, but then there are a lot of other people. If the work is intriguing enough, it’s going to attract people who don’t know art too. I like the fact that people outside of contemporary art like my work. Whenever I do an event, I get a lot of college girls showing up and cheering, which is nice because I didn’t start making art just to show it to art people. I want to change people’s ideas, so I want people to see what I make.

Does anything interesting come out of sticking the high art crowd and the pop music crowd in the same room together? All the time. Sometimes people in the arts – only a few of them, not all – can say things like, “because she has mass appeal, her art is not good,” which I find ridiculous. It’s worth doing something that’s different. I really like it when people love my work, and I really like it when they hate it. I like to encourage discussion. At the MoMA opening, I heard a lot of people talking about menstruation. You don’t often get to talk about menstruation at an art opening!

I'm thinking of moving to New York sometime in the future. I’ve been based in Japan for the past year, but it’s tough being a woman in Japan in your twenties. I’m 26 and I’ve just started my life, but people have started asking me if I’ll get married soon. There’s an old saying here: “Women are Christmas cakes: you have to get married by your 25th.” After that you’re just old. But then people say I’m too young to be a “proper” artist, since I’m in my 20’s. Some people even think I’m not making my own work! I met a journalist who was surprised I could talk about my work, because she thought I was just a model with someone behind me actually making it. It’s like I’m too young to be an artist but too old to be a woman. So, New York.

Photo courtesy of Nosigner

Eisuke Tachikawa of Nosigner:
Nosigner is the studio of Eisuke Tachikawa, a hyper-versatile maker who started as an architect and now does everything. Together with a small staff at his office in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward, Tachikawa works in almost every area of contemporary design, from graphics to jewelry to large-scale structural installations.

When you’re working on a design problem, what are you thinking about? Do you have a typical creative process? I make new things by building new relationships between stuff that already exists. If I want to make, say, a new coffee cup, I can’t start by thinking about the shape of the cup. If instead I forget the cup and just think about you, the coffee, and gravity, I might come up with a totally new way to drink coffee. That can result in a lot of stupid ideas, but it also generates some awesome ones. So I’m always looking for new ways to connect things that are already out there. It’s more discovery than invention.

Some of your recent work has focused on improving conditions for survivors of the March earthquake and tsunami. How did the disaster affect your perception as a designer? It’s weird saying this, but it didn’t really. I just feel like I have to keep doing what I was already doing, more urgently. Design is often about taking unreasonable, outrageous things and adding grease and putting them together so that they can function. There’s a lot of that sort of work to be done.

Photo by Kenta Hasegawa

Shun Kawakami of Artless, Inc.:
Shun Kawakami is the founder and creative lead of the art direction firm artless Inc., with studios in seven countries producing stunning visual work for clients including Audi, Issey Miyake and FTC Skateboarding. As a fine artist, he makes prints and installations drawing on traditional Japanese painting and craftsmanship.

You’ve had an unusual career path. How did you end up doing what you do now? In high school I wanted to be a professional soccer player. I played with some top-class players – and I realized I couldn’t make it. So my next choice was to be a professional designer. I don’t have any academic credentials: after high school I went to art school for one year, then left and got a job at a small design firm. Three years later I founded artless.

That kind of bootstrap story is really rare in Japan. Do you have any advice for people trying to break into the visual arts? Pay. Invest in yourself. At the beginning I had to make whatever I wanted to make with my own money and pay for my own exhibitions. Even now, I spend most of what I earn on my shows. Rent a little gallery for a week, make your own flyers, do your own promotion. You meet people that way.

Now my brand is almost too strong and I have the opposite problem: people know my work, so they only ask me to do things that look like what I’ve already done. I want to do more different projects in different areas of design, and I want to work and collaborate in more countries.

Posted: October 05, 2011
Meet Three of Tokyo’s Top Designer-Artists