Operation Concrete

Japan:Creative – Interview #1 – Hiroyuki Hamada

How do you identify yourself? What makes you so, ‘You?’ It's hard enough for even the most reassured of us to answer, so, how does a country with a powerfully rich Eastern history combined with a heavily influenced Western modernity deal with finding its own identity? How do its people identify themselves? And how does art and creativity help the search for this? For Japan this is the ongoing journey, one to truly establish a national and individual character that ties into and unifies everything from the evolution of its working and artisan culture to its ancient tradition and history of war, both as the victor and as the defeated.

Western post modernity has driven creative output and the identification of self for decades now. The subjective reality that we experience as individuals has helped everyone from artists to architects find their way and produce masterpieces from Rene Margrite’s ‘Son of Man’ to Jackson Pollock’s, No. 5; all this has assisted us in embracing our past, present and future. Such a driving force never took hold in Japan as it struggled with the influence of, and in part continues to resist, the hegemony of Western modernity and the legacy left by post WW2 US occupancy. Now, more than ever, there is the requirement and drive for the Japanese to create their own modern identity and cultural zeitgeist, one that embraces and unites their rich tradition and history with Western influence and occupation and engages their cultural future in a healthy and meaningful way.

In the West, understanding what the world means to us individually and building an identity around what we find is ubiquitous. Today, given the ongoing advance of social media on our lives, it could be argued that (Western) people hold the ideal of personal identity and individuality higher than ever. The exponential growth of content catalyses the concept of self. Users – individuals continually highlighting, ‘this is my soap box, and I’ll shout as loud as I like,’ drive words, art, music, film, and everything in between on and offline. In stark contrast, Japan’s long established problem with homogeneity continues. It is a problem that finds its roots in strong traditional ties with a hierarchical society, a powerful sense of social conscience, ridged educational establishments, and collectivism alongside – to some degree – Buddhist and Shinto ideals of the removal of self entirely. All of these contribute to uniformity within the nation and hamper the process of finding and establishing personal and national identity.

Of course, this has an effect on the creative output of Japan, and understanding that creativity is a leading driving force behind innovation and economic growth, the Japanese government sought to combat the problem of stagnation by developing a new direction and mission for the nation to help drive creativity in all areas. From education to the arts and entrepreneurial spirit this experiment is ongoing and there’s evidence emerging that, from an outsider perspective at least, it has worked. Though even now, as the world looks to Japanese art, architecture, food, music and fashion for inspiration, the opinion of the Japanese themselves, that they’re sluggish when it comes to creativity, is indicative of the nation as a whole.

The question here though, is: have these new reforms helped build a cultural identity for Japan that the nation and individuals can connect with? Perhaps the mere notion that it is the government that is ‘forcing’ creativity on a nation, through educational reforms, is the wrong way of going about it. Shouldn’t art at its base form be something natural, something that helps us develop our own understanding of the human condition? This is the ongoing battle I’m intrigued by, one fought in order to help Japan understand its own character and take it into a healthy future.

The evolution of Japanese culture continues to sweep in a tidal fashion between holding traditional Japanese values and ‘Eastern spirit’ highly, to removing the trapping’s of these old philosophies and embracing the West and the influence that has been somewhat imposed during the last 150 years. Interviewing Japanese born, now permanent American resident, and internationally celebrated sculptor Hiroyuki Hamada, I asked him a series of questions to open up this project, and to start to try and understand how art and creativity within Japan is helping develop and evolve the nation’s culture and identity, as well as the ethos and personality of the individual.

“There is the stereotypical view of being geeky with technological gadgets or just simply being weird, as the Internet is filled with bits and pieces of exotic Japanese ads, music and various mainstream/underground cultural weirdness.” He opines when asked what being Japanese means to him. “I live in the US now and locally, where I live, people are very receptive. It's quite amazing how tolerant and understanding people are considering the history and how people can be exclusive and narrow minded.” The relationship between Japan and the USA is pivotal in helping understand the cultural context of identity for Japan.

The massive impact of the USA on Japanese culture has been embraced and fought against in equal measures since Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in the early 1800’s with a message to Japan ‘requesting’ they open their boarders and thus kick starting the end of the Sakoku – closed nation – policy that had stood for almost 200 years.

It is because of this I wanted to start these interviews with Hiroyuki. Aside from being a creative artist, a sculptor, he was born and raised in Japan, and moved at the age of 18 to the USA; he’s now 44. This provides a unique perspective in that he has seen both sides of the coin. Interestingly, when pondering the question of what it means to be Japanese, he struggles slightly. “To be honest, I am having a very hard time answering your question...I really haven't thought of it. This is actually a good opportunity for me to think about being Japanese.” From the first question in the first interview of this project, it would seem trying to understand what it is to be Japanese is indeed a difficult undertaking.

Moving on, I ask him what it means being creative in Japan, and whilst I know he no longer lives there, this is a fixed question in this series of interviews, and in part, I wanted to know more about what it was like as he grew up. The thought occurred to me that creative forces he felt within may have been suppressed by his environment, his upbringing being long before the ‘creativity crisis’ was identified and tackled by the Japanese government bringing in new reforms for education. “When I was a kid, I was fairly good at making things, drawing and such, but I didn't understand what it was to really make something until I got to the US.” Once settled in the US and enrolled in a community college, he was hit ‘like magic’  by an art teacher's  drawings. Whilst he cares to highlight that there wasn't anything inherently creative about the community college itself, the combination of him losing the ability to communicate in Japanese and being exposed to a working artist in his art teacher, Karl Jacobson, showed him a new form of communication and gave him renewed purpose. This was his true beginning, the light bulb moment when he came to understand the power of art as a tool for expression and communication.

“I think any meaningful creation requires a special process; it's like making a good story with its beginning and ending. We use our real life essence, we draw from inside and outside of ourselves. It must be the same in Japan. But I don't remember learning anything about that when I was in Japan. Nor had I gotten much encouragement in tapping into that magic mode. I think I was overwhelmed and very confused by the dehumanizing aspect of the economic machine – 80’s in Japan, you know – and the social structure that was geared toward maximizing the abundance. I was just feeling very angry and self-destructive: a typical good for nothing teenage delinquent, I guess.” The height of Japan's economic boom of the 80’s saw the world opening its eyes to the small island nation that had for decades been playing catch-up and was associated with cheap mass produced goods. Quickly running up the ladder, Japan became the world’s second biggest economy and fell under the gaze of the globe as both a technological haven and business power. How this happened became a significant question, despite the obvious benefits to Japan through the US’s Korean and Vietnam wars, utilizing Japan as a manufacturing base for arms, spending hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as a fixed dollar:yen exchange rate post WW2 – 360:1 – to promote exports, in more modern times people began to question whether traditionally held Japanese ideals of servitude, loyalty and piety were largely responsible for the meteoric economic rise. In part, the question again was: were Eastern Japanese traditions or Western intervention and influence more pivotal in this growth, and which should be embraced moving forward?

The late 80’s, aside from being perhaps the beginning of the end for the business boom, also brought on a huge time of reflection for the nation. The post WW2 occupation was gone, the drive to generate abundance, high-standards of living and economic wealth began to subside, the social conscience that defined the generation before, pulling them from the defeat of WW2, declined and a country emerged questioning who it was and where it resided within the world on a global scale.

“All this is sort of ironic, because that's also when we saw lots of creative stuffs emerging from Japan. For me, I needed to have a very distinct sense of self, a total reorganization of perspectives by being removed from my own culture. Only then, I could allow myself to see the fertile ground in myself where new lives could emerge. So, I have a huge respect and fascination for people who are creative in Japan, sort of like the respect I have for the minorities in the US for rising up from where they were.”

Even within the space of a couple of questions, it becomes clear that the position of a creative within Japan was, and perhaps still is, not an easy place to reside. Moving onto his work and the third of the four set questions, I ask him how, if at all, he is influenced by traditional Japanese culture?

“When I make my work, I don't start from specific stories, symbols, theories and so on. I sort of let my mind swim where everything merges and reconstitute without our everyday limitations, values, perspectives and so on. It's a blind process to slowly feel through the entire piece with myself being like a window to the open universe in and out of myself. And although it's not intentional, more than a few people have mentioned that there is something Japanese about the work. So I'm sure that my upbringing in Japan has some relevance to the work but the detailed mechanism is buried in the mystery of the making process.”

There’s no doubt that traditional Japanese culture, symbolism, imagery and story is prevalent across the globe, from the Sumo wrestler and Geisha to the Samurai and Ninja. Japan's mysticism and past is as romantic and powerful as any Western counterpart. Perhaps it’s in this strength that it penetrates artists today, inadvertently helping evolve Japan's culture and identity whilst not overpowering and compromising the evolution.

“I think a good part of Japan's development has to do with its long history of urban life and the birth of the creative force within it,” Hiroyuki suggests when being asked how the creative output of the nation is helping drive its culture and identity.

“Big population centers like Tokyo (Edo) with their commercialism and frivolous chores – as we face today – can grind us down with the monotony and the repetitive routines, but these have given opportunities for the people to create art to fill the void, to bring back the richness, depth, awe, and our humanity into the context. I think a city needs serenity and profound experiences just like the nature in the countryside can provide. We need the real, big perspective to ensure our minds are developing, enriched and fulfilled. So, as the nation gets driven by various requirements of the time, there is always the creative force of art to keep us grounded in the mystery of the universe.”

Hiroyuki is plain when it comes to the need for creativity, for art to help us all, not just the Japanese, to connect with our humanity, ourselves and those around us and indeed, to help us connect with the world we live in. It would seem clear from this first interview that Japan has struggled with this in the past and is only now beginning to emerge from its shell to help drive the identity of the nation and its individuals. The future is going to be extremely interesting for Japan, as the reform the government has been pushing for begins to bare fruit in its first generation, who will have to work against the ideals held by the massive population of old and aging citizens with different ideals. Japan is a hugely creative nation, there is no doubt in that, but being creative, being an artist in Japan is sometimes a hard road to walk down and despite all this creativity, evidences still shows marrying Japan's modernity with its history to create a healthy cultural future for the nation and its people is still a challenge. Artists, creatives, risk takers, and individuals alike are going to have to continue their fight to discover their own identity to help with the ongoing formulation of an old nation's new character.

Below is the original four question interview in question and answer form, followed by  a five-question interview with Hiroyuki about his art, the process, his influences, and beyond:

Japan

What does being Japanese mean to you?

I live in the US so people look at me with how they see the Japanese--or simply an Asian--which certainly affects my perception to a certain degree. Like in the movies, we would be the first to get shot or we'd be just making sushi. Not that making sushi is bad but there is a stereotypical, somewhat dehumanized cast to who we are. But in the field of art, being different sometimes gives us an edge or we might be associated to well known Japanese figures in arts: or not, again we might be just bunched up together in some stereotypical traditional art stuffs. Also, there is the stereotypical view of being geeky with technological gadgets or just simply being weird as the internet is filled with bits and pieces of exotic Japanese ads, music and various mainstream/underground cultural weirdness. And locally, where I live, people are very receptive and I don't really feel being a Japanese. Actually, it's quite amazing how tolerant and understanding people are considering the history and how people can be exclusive and narrow minded. Then there are those who think we are a smart, quiet and very civilized people with politeness but of course they've been told not to forget Pearl Harbor so the endorsement can be halfhearted. And so, you know what, to be honest, I am having a very hard time answering your question... I really haven't thought of it. I think I've been really struggling to go beyond being a Japanese or an American for that matter. This is actually a good opportunity for me to think about being Japanese.

What does being creative in Japan mean to you?

I stayed in Japan till I was 18. When I was a kid, I was fairly good in making things, drawing and etc. But I really didn't understand what it was to really make something till I got to the US. I was in a community college and I saw one of the teachers draw and it totally hit me like a magic. I just didn't know that when you put together parts in certain ways, you can come up with something far more powerful than its parts, with a whole new solid presence of its own. I think any meaningful creation requires this special process; it's like making a good story with its beginning and ending with our real life essence we draw from in and outside of ourselves. It must be the same in Japan. But I don't remember learning anything about that when I was in Japan. Nor had I gotten much encouragement in tapping into that magic mode. I think I was overwhelmed and very confused by the dehumanizing aspect of the economic machine--80s in Japan, you know-- and the social structure that was geared toward maximizing the abundance. I was just feeling very angry and self-destructive: a typical no good for nothing teenage delinquent, I guess. All this is sort of ironic, because that's also when (late 80s) we saw lots of creative stuffs emerging from Japan. For me, I needed to have a very distinct sense of self and total reorganization of perspectives by being removed from my own culture. Only then, I could allow myself to see the fertile ground in myself where new lives could emerge. So I have a huge respect and fascination for people who are creative in Japan: sort of like the respect I have for the minorities in the US for rising up from where they were.

How, if at all, are you influenced by traditional Japanese culture in your work?

Well, when I make my work, I don't start from specific stories, symbols, theories and so on. I sort of let my mind swim where everything merges and reconstitute without our everyday limitations, values, perspectives and so on . It's a blind process to slowly feel through the entire piece with myself sort of being a window to the open universe in and out of myself. And although it's not intentional, more than a few people have mentioned that there is something Japanese about the work. So I'm sure that my upbringing in Japan has some relevance to the work but the detailed mechanism is buried in the mystery of the making process.

How do you feel the creative output of the nation is helping drive and develop the culture?

I think it's totally crucial to the Japanese culture. For example, I think a good part of its development has to do with its long history of urban life and the birth of the creative force within it. Big population centers like Tokyo (Edo) with its commercialism and frivolous chores--just as we face today--which can grind us down with its monotony and the repetitive routines have given opportunities for the people to create art to fill the void, to bring back the richness, depth, awe, and our humanity into the context. I think a city needs serenity and profound experiences just like the nature in the country can provide. We need the real, big perspective to ensure our minds are developing, enriched and fulfilled. So as the nation gets driven by various sorts of authorities of the time, there is always the creative force of art to keep us grounded in the mystery of the universe.

Art

Question 1: What immediately drew me to your art was what I see as it's bio-mechanical nature, the very natural organic looking sculpted forms that are wrapped in what looks like, in some instances, heat shielding on the space shuttle or one of the Apollo rockets. Would it be appropriate to suggest you draw influence from both spheres, nature and science?

Well, everything will be afterthought, you know, since I don't really guide the subject matter in the making process...But personally, science does fascinate me. It's a culmination of our curiosity in the most unhinged form. It has the raw power beyond our mundane values that might be limited by our cultural taboos, religious taboos, social taboos and so on. Although, it can carry the danger of going outside of our humanistic values which can be a threat to our healthy coexistence with our surroundings.

Interestingly, art also explores and examines ourselves and the universe in its own right.  It might be more limited by our values. However, it also defies our values when needed and it also keeps us grounded to what we are as humans when science and our civilization are unruly and attempt to destroy the balance.

Nature on the other hand might be easier to be explained in the work. After all that's where we came from and we are a part of it.  It gives us the necessary nourishment physically and mentally. And we continue to long for the awe, the vastness and the mystery from it as most of us tend to be consumed with our daily routines and social obligations. The tension and the contrast between the nature and the science can certainly be an interesting focus.

Question 2: Regarding your influences, could you possibly talk about some of your artistic influences, whether other artists, musicians, writers, films, photographs, architects, whomever you draw inspiration from?

Well, I like the kind of work that reminds me of the vastness of the space and the intricacy of the micro-cosmos within us and all the mystery and the weirdness that's stuck in between; I want to feel connected and be comfortable with that deep, rich and profound place where we sense the awe without being scared and feeling lonely.

I think good work has the power to go beyond our daily concerns and let you go there, and let you feel our roots in solid, tangible ways. You look at the work and the time stops, and you only feel yourself and the presence of the work and nothing else matters. It might be just a moment, it might last for a whole song, or a whole chapter in a book, but some art can actually do that. It gives you the courage to go on and let you confirm that you are a part of the vast reality where you truly belong. It's very rare but sometimes it happens. I should probably give you some examples. I was very impressed with Doug Wheeler's installation in NYC earlier this year. Also, I enjoyed Anish Kapoor's shows in the city too.

Music is also very important to me: I like any kind of music. It's always great to know that we have big symphonic music from the romantic era to immerse ourselves. And there are plenty of people making great music today. So many to mention... Some are very unusual, like, I was totally blown away by a performance by Francis Haines a few months ago. Not for everyone perhaps but it certainly goes deep into where we don't usually go. In terms of books, I still remember being shocked by the depth and intricacy of drama in The Brothers Karamazov. I used to love reading Kobo Abe's strange world somehow paralleling our lives. Osamu Dazai gave me lots of insights when I was growing up. Also I should mention that there are many stand-ups, comedians and comic artists with insightful works, although they might be a bit more cerebral.

Laughing about something always involves  unresolved truth longing to be freed and exposed. I really like some of Takashi Nemoto's books in revealing human nature in unexpected places. Takeshi Kitano is great of course. Bill Cosby, Eddy Murphy, Richard Pryor, George Carlin or Bill Hicks, they all had great things to say.

Movies are great too:  Like the last scene from the Seven Samurai where the remaining Samurais reflect upon themselves as the farmers celebrate the peace: or the scene from Papillion as the prisoner disappear into the sea: or that tears in rain scene from Blade Runner and so on...A few days ago, I was watching Whale Rider with my family and the scene of the girl riding the whale was moving. I'm pretty open in terms of genre and fields I guess. And I don't really know if any of these have anything to do with my work but we certainly need those moments when we appreciate being human in a very special way.

Question 3: You've said in previous interviews that your original passion was drawing. Why and how did you make the leap into 3D pieces, and how do you 'see' a sculpture initially? Do you paint it then render it in 3D? What's your process?

Strictly speaking, it's really case-by-case how each work is made.  And I like trying new things, so I often come across new problems that I have to solve.  But usually, it starts as a drawing. Either I come up with an idea, which I put down as a visual memo, or I would brainstorm on a piece of paper till I come across something I feel strongly about. If I see it to be three dimensional in a certain size, I would proceed in actually making it.

Developing from drawings to three-dimensional objects came as I became interested in visual narratives with formal qualities as opposed to literal stories with people or symbols. Of course, the two interact and you really can't be pure about it when you are actually struggling in your studio. But I was really fascinated by the fact that you can reach out to people and share the deepest emotion without the recognizable story part. It probably has a lot to do with the fact that I was displaced to the US before I started making art. I had a hard time with English and the mysterious way of the communication just took me over.

Question 4: I see something powerfully alien in your work, other worldly -- I feel like if an excavation team dug up one of your peaces they'd be terrified and awed at the same time; I see the likes of the monolith from 2001 Space odyssey in them. Where do you feel this comes from?

I think you are feeling what I described above: the place we truly belong.  If I'm successful at all that is. But of course that's my personal take.

Question 5: I'm fascinated by the attention to detail in your work as well, especially the drilled holes, like the potted surface of the moon. Do these represent anything deeper about yourself, or about the viewer? They almost say to me, despite our appearance of looking whole, we still wear scars that run deep.

I'm coming to believe that it might be an attempt to incorporate the element of time in the work. Just as we assemble form elements to express the work in physical ways, there might be ways to capture a cohesive moment in time by suggesting layers of processes.

Perhaps we appreciate the depth, weight and the visual narrative of implied processes as an added layer of time: the history which shapes our humanity as much as our perception of the moment. But it could simply be an extension of visual possibility just as I moved on to do three dimensional work from two dimensional work.

If you would like to download the full manuscript from the interview regarding Japan, it is available here as a PDF.

If you would like to know more about Hiroyuki and his work, he has an extensive interview soon to be released in the January Biannual, available here.

If you are local to New York, he is having a solo show with new works in the fall of 2013 at Lori Bookstein Fine Art in NYC.