A Walkthrough with Tabaimo

A walkthrough on September 15 2011 with artist Tabaimo and Chair of Asia Art Archive Jane DeBevoise on the occasion of Tabaimo’s exhibition ‘DanDAN’ at James Cohan Gallery (September 15 – October 29 2011).

Walkthrough translated by Sumiko Takeda
Transcribed and revised by Ali Van

Jane DeBevoise (JD): Tabaimo, it is a pleasure for us to have the opportunity to walk through your exhibition with you.


Still image from guignorama, 2006, video installation, 2 min, 3 sec loop

Original drawing from guignorama, 2006, video installation, 2 min, 3 sec loop

Tabaimo (T): Thank you. I think I would like to start here, with guignorama. I have episodes of eczema and this work takes this condition as a point of departure. It is more abstract than works I have made in the past. There is no narrative, but it details the fears, emotions, and feelings I have under my skin, both literally and figuratively. These may be issues that we all bear – issues to which we can all relate. The palette for this work is also quite different from the other works, as you will see when we walk through the exhibition. In this show, each of the works uses a different method for coloring.

JD: This looks like a watercolor.

T: Yes. I have also used Japanese calligraphy to help make the work more textural.

JD: It is interesting the way in which the fingers penetrate the surface, and then disappear under the skin, as if you have been inhabited.

T: That represents the transformative feeling I have between my fingertips to my ankles and then to the tips of my toes –

JD: Forming the patches of eczema?

T: Yes. They take on a life of their own.

JD: You mentioned you created this on Japanese paper and used a soft tip calligraphy brush to outline the fingers in black.

T: I used what’s called an automatic calligraphy brush – like a fountain pen – you don’t need to replenish the ink.  There are hairs on the tip too.  I use it for many of my works.  I also like the way this Japanese calligraphy paper absorbs watercolor.  It absorbs colors like skin does.

JD: I recently interviewed a traditional-style Chinese artist who said he enjoys using Chinese xuan (rice) paper because of its absorbency. He feels that xuan paper is less controlling, or rather less resistant, than Western paper. Therefore, there is more of a merging between material and medium, which creates a more natural, balanced co-existence.

T: In my case, I want to have control over that natural process as well – as the ink is being absorbed. If I continually draw with the brush, my line becomes more and more ambiguous, through the process of absorbency. I use overlays to prevent over-blurring.

JD: So you are engaging with the uncontrollability of the paper, too.

T: Yes, but I also deal with these issues, intentionally.

JD: So in some way you are limiting the spontaneity to your own purpose. Do you paint the outlines in black first, and then the figures?

T: After it has been scanned, yes. I then print it out on more rice paper to keep the lines fresh and un-blurred.

JD: The palette is brighter than your other works, with more primary colors I feel.

T: Yes. There are areas where the original color is still visible.

JD: I am curious about the opening of the video, and the decision to open the video with those portals, which appear and then disappear. The soundtrack also makes me think of horror movies. Can you talk a little bit about your choice of sound?

T: It is the sound of breathing, of someone who has had a tracheotomy. I was looking for a specific abstract sound – and this one, the sound of someone with a tube in his throat, greatly interested me. I didn’t know this was what I wanted at the time, but it fit so well with the images as I was completing them.

JD: Sound has an interesting place in your work. Perhaps we can talk about it more as we engage your next work.

Still image from BLOW, 2009, video installation, 3 min, 42 sec loop

T: This piece is called BLOW. It illustrates a situation where things from inside one’s body make their way out. It is like the air you exhale or excrement you excrete, or, like the emotions, feelings, and words that don’t have shape. When things inside make their way out – their smell, shape, and feelings change too.

The water under our feet represents the inside of the body. I used plants too, in this work. I used to live in urban areas. When I moved to the country, into the deep woods, I was struck by the beauty of plants, and felt their beauty existed so far from my familiar mode of expression. Being surrounded by nature also made me aware of certain types of vegetation, and of the relationships between different plants. There was something very raw about the experience.

JD: I would like to ask you about the recurrence of water in your work.

T: I had no intention of using traditional themes or concepts. But the qualities of water are important to me. If you put water in a container, the water will look like its container. If there is a hole in the container, the water will drain out. The direction water travels is dependent on gravity, and often moves from a smaller place to a larger source. The movement and shape of water reflects the water, and also reflects the world in which the water is contained. The quality of water and the characteristics it imbues are important to me. If the viewer can feel that importance, then perhaps they can better understand my work.

I think of the world I am in as a world within a world within a world. I exist, my environment exists, a larger community, society and country exists, and then the world exists. BLOW is the water that is contained in my body. If water were to flow out of my body, it is possible to explain the world outside of my body through the water’s flow. I am only explaining my own world, what is in me and what may emerge from it. Some of my other works (not shown in this exhibition) may better explain the various layers of these different worlds. I think often in my work, water acts as the vehicle to explain existence.

JD: Your piece, teleco-soup, at the 54th Venice Biennale also explores water, the process of looking down and having bubbles rise. I see that in teleco-soup as well that water fills an urban abandoned environment. In both, the viewer never knows where one is.  You could be underwater or above water.















Installation view of teleco-soup, 2011 at 54th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Photo by Ufer! Art Documentary

Still image from teleco-soup, 2011, video installation, 5 min, 27 sec loop

T: That was the purpose of teleco-soup. I am questioning where is it I am, where is it I am standing, and doubting what it is that I am standing on, whether it be ground, water or something else. I may be standing right side up or upside down. That is something I often feel, and that I would like my viewers to feel too. By doubting what is already known, or by using our common sense, I believe it is possible to begin to see another world.

JD: And to see oneself differently.

T: For teleco-soup, I also used mirrors, to reflect the viewer, to reflect the self, in the space. I think it is important to doubt the reasons why we exist.

JD: What about the sound here?

T: I found these sounds in the sound bank too. (laughter)

JD: Has sound always been a part of your practice?

T: For me, it is common sense for sound to be a part of my work. I never thought of it as a different entity. I am often confused when asked about the sound. (laughter)

JD: There was an exhibition curated by Yuko Hasegawa at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo that included smells. We had the opportunity to smell nostalgia and love and other scents.

T: For me, the coming together of sound, image, and space makes me hope that there is already a smell associated with it too, and this is left up to the imagination of the viewer. I create 50%, and I leave 50% up to the viewer, to fill in the gaps. I am not really interested in controlling the viewer in what they see or feel or smell. I think it is possible for people to come up with more interesting smells through its absence in my part.

JD: Can you talk a little about the difference in audience reception, let’s say between what you have found in New York and elsewhere.

T: There are definitely differences, but there is a foundation of common responses. I think it is a question of how far a viewer gets into the work, and that is important to me. In New York, there is an awareness of Japanese culture that has been absorbed into this culture, so people understand my work through that former knowledge. When I had a show in Paris, there was another kind of response, but also through an understanding of Japanese culture. The response was empathetic, and thus understanding. In Japan, people have a different perspective about Japanese culture, so I often receive many weird questions back home.

JD: What kinds of questions?

T: I mentioned I create 50%, and that the viewer creates 50%. There are viewers in Japan who have indulged so deeply into the work that they have entered places I have not even been able to access myself. Sometimes I don’t know what they are talking about!

Still image from danDAN, 2009, video Installation, 4 min, 31 sec loop

T: danDAN shows the interiors of a lower income apartment-housing complex in Japan. There are only a handful of these in Japan today. The building and its interior were designed to reflect the living habits of the time when they were first built, but now they are occupied by people of my generation. The size and layout of each apartment is the same, so it is a set vessel or container made specific only through the individual living in the space. The spaces themselves are thus made unique through the arrangement of material things, such as furniture and the like. In my generation, there are people who are extremely individualistic, but oftentimes, the differences are only made apparent when they are placed within the same space. It is only then you begin to see their individuality. There is something that happens in these spaces, different from the moments constructed in my past work. Here, all I am doing is showing a slight warping, a slight difference, a slight paradox in what is already going on.

JD: This is even spookier than some of the other works. Its outer appearance is so quiet and stable, but upon closer reading, the little movements and moments of disruption make the whole structure feel as though it is in peril.

T: I am extremely interested in these slight changes, gaps, and differences. There are many rooms in this housing complex and one often knows little of his/her neighbor; sometimes you’ll say ‘hello’, and everything will be fine, but rarely do you know how he/she lives life. In this Internet world we live in, it is hard to tell whether the people you are communicating with (through the Internet) are who they say they are. People now google each other before they meet! I don’t think people do these things consciously anymore; it is so much a part of communication today. It is also hard to know whether we are safe anymore. That is the kind of feeling, or the kind of questioning, I wanted to convey here.

Still image from danDAN, 2009, video installation, 4 min, 31 sec loop

For example, the woman who moves up the stairs – she was taking garbage upstairs, not downstairs. It could happen, I suppose, but is she really taking out the garbage? Once you notice it, it can be quite disturbing.

JD: Living in an urban environment comes with a certain kind of anonymity. Even the Internet will reveal only basic information about well-known individuals, but you still don’t know their secrets. That unrevealed aspect of our own existence is conveyed in this piece through disorienting details and a sense of unfamiliar familiarity, like a bad dream where you can’t walk away fast enough from the strange unknown hovering behind you.

T: Yes. And, there should be something placed in the center of this constructed space, but there is nothing there. So the viewer is left to imagine what sits in that space by building relationships between the left and right screens. If the viewer has something stored deep inside, this viewing may help pull it out. Or, some may not see anything!

Regarding the sound for this piece, I recorded myself playing the guitar.

JD: Perhaps we can hear a little bit about how you made this piece. It is different from your other works in this show, especially the colors and textures.

T: I scanned ukiyo-e prints to construct this work. Some people think it feels very Japanese, because of their familiarity with the gradations of color in traditional ukiyo-e prints. I also used the automatic calligraphy brush to outline the forms, like previous works.

JD: When I lived in Japan in the 1980s, I saw an exhibition [organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art] of Meiji period prints. The prints show people wearing Western style clothing, living in what was imagined to be Western style buildings. While some may say your work is derived from ukiyo-e prints, I think they are reminiscent of Meiji prints, because of the coming together of traditional aesthetics and contemporary households. There is a strange tension between a traditional style and contemporary subject matter.

Julia Meech-Pekarik, The World of the Meiji Print: Impressions of a New Civilization, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Weatherhill, New York, 1986

T: This project would not have been possible without the help of computers. They help to reduce cost and time spent on certain parts of the project, but I also didn’t want the work to feel bound by the efficiency of technology either, so the hand-made element was equally important.

JD: There are many sources from which an artist can pull ideas, what is it about ukiyo-e prints that attracts you?

T: A lot of people recognize ukiyo-e prints, and are also aware that these traditional prints are not moving images. By animating ukiyo-e, I was able to make images that surprised me. At the center of it all, I didn’t use the ukiyo-e aesthetic to show-off a Japanese tradition, but rather to engage the surprise I felt when they are animated.

JD: Did you study traditional printmaking in school?

T: I took a class in silkscreen printing.

Still image from danDAN, 2009. video installation, 4 min, 31 sec loop

JD: I was wondering if you could talk about the doves. They seem to break through the window. What are they doing there?

T: The doves reference an incident that took place in the late 1980s. For my generation, it was probably the most sensational incident that occurred and was readily circulated. It involved Toyota Shoji, an investment group that traded gold, but was later found to be a fraudulent company, defrauding investors of 202.5 billion yen. The president was murdered, and we watched his murder live on TV. The murderers tipped off cameramen and broke into the president’s home through his window, or so they say. The president’s neighbors only learned of his death through the news, like me, as it was broadcast live. They didn’t even know it was all happening right beyond their wall, right next door.

JD: Was the TV crew inside the president’s apartment?

T: They stuffed the camera into the apartment through the break in the window. After the company president was murdered, several people entered his apartment and took pictures of the scene. The relationship between the media and the observer, the individual and those who surround the individual, are ideas I tried to incorporate into this piece.

JD: From what I have read, Japanese writers and Western writers have different approaches to your work, particularly the young writers. It seems young Western writers often focus on the psychology behind the work, as well as the use of Japanese ukiyo-e techniques, while young Japanese writers focus on notions of generation. You have mentioned ‘my generation’ a few times today. Would you talk about this issue of generation, which to me is somewhat unclear?

T: Yes, it is an interesting concern. In Japan, when I talk about generation, the people who are one generation ahead of me rarely think about notions of ‘generation.’ Sometimes I wonder whether it is only people within my own generation who talk about generations! I started to focus on ideas of generation when I moved back to Japan to live with my parents. In many ways, my parents’ generation is the most famous of generations; the baby-boomers, born after the war. When people from that generation talk about their time, the issues often seem broader and larger than life. My generation does not embody the same characteristics. Some people don’t talk about our generation at all, as there is seemingly less to talk about. As mentioned, unless you put people in the same container, their differences will not become apparent. In my generation, I think differences are best expressed through these containers, or through harder observation, closer-looking. These are important ideas I strive to understand and illustrate in my work, but it is also important to note that these worlds are often imaginary and of my personal interpretation of a generation.

JD: We all know about the great Japanese miracle after World War II. How Japan became an economic force with amazing, self-sacrificing people who worked cohesively to develop and create the Japan of today. The stereotype about this period is that people wore blue suits, worked hard, and went home, cycled through this routine and had no individual life; that life meant being a part of this larger collective effort as a form of building self-identity.

In the 1980s, when I worked in Japan, I had a number of Japanese clients, and about once a month we would mark the closing of a business transaction by going out to dinner. My clients would often talk with great anxiety and excitement about the changing Japan. The conversation was always interesting but almost always returned to the same theme. That Japan was changing was an ever-present concern. Having said that, there was also something very individualistic, even eccentric, about what my Japanese colleagues did on weekends in their private time – something unexpected and very individual behind the dark blue suited exterior.

T: Whilst living with my parents, I too discovered the sense of a public face and private face. In my generation, the public and private worlds are not as separate. It’s funny though, my parents and I don’t often talk about these different faces. The flow of my generation is quite different from that of my parents.’ Generational differences are also often communication barriers, but when there is an effort made to communicate, one finds commonalities across generations. I think most people in my generation understand my work, but there are also people in my parents’ generation who evaluate my work well. If we can access the root of things, I think we realize we have quite a lot in common. Sometimes, generations that are further apart from each other are in fact closer and more similar than generations that sit next to one another.

JD: Who is included within your generation?

T: I would define my generation as those currently in their 30s. But that is still quite ambiguous.  People can be the same age as me, but may exist in other generations.

JD: When creating the work, do you feel that you are talking for a generation?

T: My works primarily consist of my own imagined worlds.

JD: Do you have works that relate directly to generations, like danDAN?

T: Yes, I have made five works that relate to notions of generation, but they still feel imaginary.

JD: There is a prevailing sense that community building now can be quite different from how it was in the past. I find that the Internet has expanded the idea of community, intertwining public and private spheres, complicating our engagements, which have become, if not anonymous, at least somewhat attenuated.

Audience member: So in some sense, perhaps your generation is the sandwich-generation between people who are wholly indulged in the language of the Internet, and those who came just before the Internet.

T: Yes, that is right.

Audience member: So you can in some ways relate to your parents well, and can also relate to the fast booming Internet generation.

T: Oh, I’m not sure I fully understand the Internet generation! (laughter) If I take the time, I feel like I can communicate with my parents’ generation well. With the younger generation, I feel I haven’t spent enough time understanding their mode of communication. These days, I think I also have more opportunities to engage the older generation. But really, by taking the time to communicate, things that once seemed complicated can be made simpler.

JD: Well on that note, I think we will conclude and let you get on with your ambitious installation. Thank you so much for taking the time to communicate about your work and thought process. We have really appreciated this opportunity.

T: Thank you so much.

All images (c) Tabaimo / Courtesy of Gallery Koyanagi and James Cohan Gallery

TABAIMO (Ayako Tabata)

Born 1975 in Hyogo, Japan. Lives and works in Nagano, Japan

TABAIMO graduated from Kyoto University of Art and Design in 1999. Her animated video installations explore the unsettling undercurrents in contemporary Japanese society, drawing inspirations from Ukiyo-e woodcut, manga and anime. She has had solo exhibitions in numerous institutions, including Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (2003), Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, Paris (2006), and Yokohama Museum of Art (2009-2010), among others. In 2011 she represented Japan at the 54th Venice Biennale.



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