A Conversation with Ei Arakawa and Barbara London
February 25, 2014
AAA in A, '09-'21
43 Remsen St. Brooklyn, NY
Jane DeBevoise (JD): This is Asia Art Archive in New York and tonight, we’re delighted to welcome Barbara London and Ei Arakawa who are going to have a conversation, lead by Barbara. As many of you know, Barbara has recently retired from MoMA, after, it’s hard to believe, 42 years, but we continue to expect wonderful things from you post-MoMA. Thank you both for coming.
Barbara London (BL): Thank you. As Jane said, I was at MoMA for a long time and I went to Japan for the first time in the mid 1970s and studied Japanese at Middlebury, so my career has had a lot to do with Asia over those forty years. I met Ei Arakawa soon after his performance at Green Naftali in 2004 and I was quite excited by his approach to things and how he studied dance at a local dance school and went on to do an MFA at Bard after a BA at SVA [School of Visual Arts]. There’s always this fluid movement between mediums in the way he worked. Working collaboratively is the new normal, but in my generation that was a rare and very specialized kind of a thing.
Ei Arakawa (EA): Wasn’t it that you were more interested in media art and I was more of a performance artist? Until recently we weren’t really overlapping.
BL: Except that a lot of people involved in media had their foot in music or in performance, although I think this cross-platforming is [hard to reflect institutionally].
EA: Because of the exhibition of Japanese art from 1955-1970 at the MoMA, I did a project about video art in Japan in the late 70s and I made a musical with a character called Paris, which is in fact a nickname for ‘Barbara London’ used by Nam June Paik. Recently we have had more conversations around that.
BL: This was clever. I was close to Paik Nam June and Nam June always used to call me ‘Barbara Paris’ and I would always call Nam June the Wizard so what did Ei do? He wrote an opera called Paris and the Wizard. And Sergei Tcherepnin’s brother, Stefan, did the music and it was a very exciting process and very much a part of Ei’s practice. So now we’re going to talk about four or so pieces…
EA: Yes, we’re going to show some videos. I’ll start with the collaboration between Sergei and me from 2010. This actually took place at a gallery in Tokyo, Taka Ishii Gallery. I wanted to see how the objects in the gallery were operated by this group of people.
Ei Arakawa & Sergei Tcherepnin, Untitled (excerpt), Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo, 2011.
BL: Whom did you perform with? Mostly people you knew or just you and Sergei?
EA: Mostly visitors I didn’t know, except a few. So there’s a metal plate in the gallery that has an image of people listening attentively and behind was a piece of cardboard with a transducer attached. The transducer generated sound through the cardboard. So if you bend or move the metal piece, the distribution of sound becomes more distorted or distributed with physical presence. This exhibition lasted over three weeks and Sergei and I would collaborate with whoever came into the gallery; they would operate the artwork. I wanted the audience to participate as much as they could.
JD: How are they operating the artwork with these metal sheets?
EA: The transducer makes the cardboard act as a speaker.
BL: He’s driving sound through the cardboard through the speaker in the same way that in my MoMA sound show Sergei’s bench had transducers which ran the sound through your body. But here the medium is cardboard and metal.
EA: Sergei came up with this transducer structure and we decided to make a print on the metal, which affects the sound and changes when you bend the metal. The sound itself is pre-recorded. It’s the sound of a past performance. They are almost forgotten. So we wanted to revitalize past performance sound through the physical material. So even though what we played was documentation, it became present in the space.
Audience Member: I think it’s important to understand that Sergei can make anything into speakers actually.
EA: Let’s move onto the next video.
BL: This is your Grand Openings exhibition, which is a collaborative project with a team of about five people.
EA: Yes, Stefan was a composer; I did performance; and there was the Emily Sundblad, a gallerist and singer and Jutta Koether, a painter. Jay Sanders was a curator. These paintings are by Jutta in collaboration with Grand Openings, now in the collection of MoMA. It’s about how to extend the possibility of paintings. We asked singles in the audience for volunteers to perform with us. The museum has a lot of family events, but I wanted to organize a more erotic event.
EA: This event was in Toulouse in France. This is another example of how I work with paintings made by someone else. These are a group of historical paintings made by the Gutai group. We organized a dance sequence of paintings. In between the dance, I made a play based on the interviews of Gutai artists about the dynamics of the group and working in a group, about some complaints or some problems with money. The music is actually by a Japanese composer in the 30s and played by Sergei’s grandfather.
BL: Sergei and Stefan Tcherepnin are fourth or fifth generation composers and musicians so they have a very long lineage and wanted to honor their grandfather.
EA: I wanted to use this music because Gutai was somehow misunderstood as a tabula rasa of Japanese modern art history. I wanted to connect the 1950s to the prewar period, so this music from 1930s made sense. What you see behind is Picasso’s paintings from the 1930s and on the right are Josh Smith’s paintings from 2011.
BL: So those are actual Gutai paintings? Because at MoMA you’d never be able to move them around like that. You’d have to have an art handler doing that!
EA: Because it is in Toulouse, France and they have a lot of Gutai paintings in the collection.
BL: There was a Gutai show in Italy in the 1950s.
EA: A lot of paintings were from 1959. Now I’ll show you ten seconds of this video I made with a contemporary painter.
BL: And what was this for?
EA: This was a video Shimon Minamikawa and I made for the exhibition ‘Roppongi Crossing’ in Japan. This is another exercise with paintings, using Shimon’s paintings. It’s not his new work. We used his paintings from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. In this collaboration we wanted his paintings to encounter each other.
BL: And how did you collaborate? Did he show you the paintings and you talked about the performance?
EA: How did we collaborate, Shimon?
Shimon Minamikawa: I got an offer from a curator to work on ‘Roppongi Crossing’. And I wanted to work with him.
EA: I think somehow we didn’t want to organize a conventional display of paintings.
This is another work. I’m from Fukushima Japan where we had the earthquake and nuclear crisis in 2011. Since then I started to invite American or European artists to Japan to collaborate on new work. This one I worked with Henning Bohl who is a German artist on this one. We made a sci-fi film with my mother and his daughter who were travelling around different historical playgrounds in Japan. This is one of the playgrounds in my hometown. His style was very influential in Japan, but somehow not historicized enough.
BL: When you were a teenager in Fukushima, did you go to Tokyo or to see contemporary art? Was that something you read about?
EA: No. I started to know more about contemporary art only after I moved to New York.
BL: And how did you make that jump from Fukushima to New York?
EA: I came because I participated in the naïve leftist social group called Peaceboat which travelled around 20 countries for three months. After that I wanted to stay in one country for a longer period and my friend just happened to be in New York, so I ended up here.
JD: Were you doing art before you arrived in the U.S.?
EA: I was doing a little bit of painting. I was going to study cartoons, comic drawing at SVA.
BL: Now we come to the Whitney.
EA: This is a photo from today. I’m [currently] being exhibited in the Whitney Biennial and I somehow wanted to insert a Hawaiian presence into the show. I spent two months there with my mother this summer and enjoyed it very much, so I started thinking about how I could make an installation about the place. Long story short, I invited my friend Carissa Rodriguez, who was also in Hawaii, and we made this work.
BL: It’s called ‘Three Islands’ or is it untitled? Could you talk about ‘Three Islands’?
EA: It’s called ‘Hawaiian Presence’. For this installation I made three hats. It uses shapes of Big Island, Kauai, and Manhattan to go on multiple people’s heads. And I’m making Big Island right now and it will be used for a performance in May. The performance will involve the public. For it I’m learning a Hawaiian chant and dance, so we’ll see.
BL: Does Hawaii have to do with proximity to Japan? A lot of Japanese go on holiday to Hawaii.
EA: Hawaii is in between Japan and the USA. It is USA, but it is something else. Japan also has the largest population of hula dancers outside of Hawaii, so we have somehow assimilated Hawaii in a very strong way. Also in my hometown we have a fake Hawaiian theme park which has become a symbol of reconstruction after the earthquake.
BL: I understand that you have installed Franklin Roosevelt’s Cartier clock with five time zones at the Whitney Biennale. What does the clock have to do with the piece?
EA: That is a work by Carissa. It’s a symbolic cultural material of how Hawaii’s historical position is complicated. We have the clock on loan from an anonymous donor. For the hats I wanted to make it consistent with how the audience of my performance can be repositioned by their experience of my work, how the artwork itself can shift the audience.
BL: I’ll just interject here that Sergei’s work is also in the Whitney, in the lobby. It’s an ambient sound piece that he composed, using some of the light fixtures in the lobby which become the speakers of some sort. It is a very beautiful composition that you have to walk around to hear.
EA: He used a lot of sound from a harpsichord, which was a pre-piano piano. It’s a little bit awkward to listen to the harpsichord at the Whitney, so I think it’ll be interesting. The sound installation lasts seven hours, so every time you are there it’ll be different. It’s not a very aggressive sound so you might miss it if you don’t listen carefully, especially if the lobby is noisy and crowded.
BL: That’s one of the challenges of doing sound art, because people usually go lickity-split and look for something visual in a museum. It becomes challenging to know how to slow people down.
EA: I think [that’s an issue with] this piece especially, because it doesn’t have any visual components, because it depends on the architecture. We’ll see how successful it is. With the bench piece in the MoMA show, he experienced a very aggressive museum public. It’s like a supermarket with many people coming and going.
BL: Yes, it was crowded. MoMA has a lot of visitors, but they are also looking for a place to plop down and rest. So there was a bench and people plopped there which meant the people who wanted to hear the piece had to wait; it wasn’t soft. It was a New York subway bench, a very worn one so it stuck out. There was only a barrier for the more fragile works.
EA: Museums are trying to figure out what to do with performance, even more so with sound.
BL: I think the performative element surprises people. Performance is often [thought of as] entertainment, so it’s also a matter of slowing people down which is challenging. Contemporary art is always challenging in some way.
JD: Do you do most of your work in an enclosed indoor space, either in a museum or gallery or institutional setting, or do you work outside?
EA: I work outside as well but everywhere, any public space is regulated anyway, so I don’t think outside is freer these days.
JD: This is a recorded work, a video work, as much as it is a performance. Do you work in both ways, both as video work and as spontaneous performance? How do you feel about that relationship?
EA: I actually like live performance a lot, but with contemporary art I think it is an interesting way of working to collaborate with object makers to deal with the system of visual art. I don’t want to prioritize the ‘liveness’ of it but I want to explore the dynamic of object and performance. And video documentation is necessary but I’m still more interested in working with objects.
BL: Do you see documentation only as documentation, like the opera that you did? You gave out the DVD. Was it just the record?
EA: It was CD, not DVD. It was just the sound.
BL: You’ve got Reena Spaulings, you’ve got Taka Ishii, you’ve got so many galleries that are selling objects. But this musical we did was actually using pre-recorded sound, so the CD is both live and documentation mixed together. It’s not one way or another.
JD: Can you talk a little more about how that musical developed?
EA: Like I said, that was as part of the Japan show at MoMA that they organized.
BL: My colleagues worked to have a live performative component and worked with artists like Ei to do something new. The show was last February .
EA: Actors’ lyrics and dialogue were visible to the audience while we were doing lip-syncing. Music was composed by Stefan. One of the scenes took place in 1978, when Barbara first visited Japan.
JD: Have you written opera or musicals before? Is this a new development or something you’ve been working on for a while?
EA: This is a relatively new development. I’ve been creating more theater pieces. Doing performance in the galleries can become repetitive so it’s nice to have a different context. Somehow video art was underrepresented in the MoMA’s Japan show, so this musical was an interesting addition. Tomorrow we have an opening at the Austrian Cultural Center; I’m showing the video I made with Shimon, with his actual paintings. It’s an exhibition with many Viennese artists and it’ll be up for three months. During the first two weeks of the Whitney Biennale, [which opens to the public on March 7th], I’ll be there for two hours every day. If you happen to see me you can wear the hats with some other people. And I’m also planning to do a performance at the Whitney on May 11th, so please come. Thank you very much.
All images courtesy of Ei Arakawa, unless otherwise indicated.
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé and edited by Jane DeBevoise.
Ei Arakawa was born in 1977 in Fukushima, Japan. He studied at the School of Visual Arts (New York, 2004), Bard College (Annandale-on-Hudson, 2006), and completed the Whitney Independent Study Program (New York, 2006). His practice often involves creating uncanny situations and performances in collaboration with friends, museum staff, and strangers. Arakawa’s work has been shown internationally at venues such as the Carnegie Museum of Art (Pittsburgh, 2013), Museum of Modern Art (New York, 2012), Tate Modern (London, 2012), Galerie Neu (Berlin, 2010), among others. He has completed residencies at the Tokyo Wonder Site (Institute of Contemporary Arts and International Cultural Exchange, Tokyo, 2011) as well as the DAAD Artist-in-Residence Program (Berlin, 2009). Arakawa lives and works in New York.