About two weeks ago I was just on time to see the exhibition of Tomoko Kawachi (Chiba, Japan, 1974) at Art Singel 100, an unknown (more or less hidden) gallery space to me. It was the first time I saw her work again since we both left the Rijksakademie in 2006. She usually paints big canvases, twice her size at least, but there’s also small sculptures and a big output of drawings that work more or less like a diary. Her work is very powerfull but modest at the same time, mysterious but playfull, probably that’s why it reminds me also of the work of René Daniëls. I emailed Tomoko some questions about the show and last week everyday another question got answered. Sometimes they read like riddles, quite similar to some of her works actually, but by emailing back and forth, Tomoko and I managed to put things together…
I see what you’re saying.
I get the picture.
You can’t see the forest for the trees.
Do I have to draw you a picture?
Don’t keep me in the dark.
(‘Everyday metaphors for understanding’ quoted by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson: Philosophy in the flesh, the embodied mind and its challenge to western thought)
M: Though it always have been quite personal (private?) subjects and thoughts you’ve exposed in your paintings and drawings, I think the show at Art Singel was even more focussed on your daily experience with objects. To me it seems as if you adjust some sort of mystical or mythical role to these objects. As if they become storytellers on their own. A lot of stuff re-appears in your works again and again. Can you tell about how (or why) you started working like this?
T: My works might seem obsessive, megalomaniac even… I used to feel ashamed about this, but I like this way of working because the works are somehow still charming. Maybe because I try to model (visualize) something invisible. All objects become visible after I ‘model’ them (in a drawing), but before that they are invisible. This not complicated, but a simple and primitive issue. All drawings are invisible before you draw the line, aren’t they?
M: But what exactly do you think makes your work being (as you say) megalomaniac, the choice of subjects is rather humble, isn’t it?
T: Perhaps, because I try to animate the objects. Especially when I work on paintings.
I choose the objects carefully, but sometimes it’s also a matter of chance.
M: What about the sculpture, that kind of functioned as the centre-piece of your exhibition, with the bed-structure and circle cut out, and those paper objects: cloths, pencils, a hanging bell? And the eye-masks, what about sleeping?
T: I have chosen a bedframe as a platform to show the different pieces (the small sculptures on the bedframe) but they are not about ‘sleeping’.
They are all sort of hitched matter from an unknown state within me, in between being awake and sleeping. Let’s say each piece is a kind of crossover of two worlds.
If you take a bit of distance from the sculpture and see the whole scenery, it also looks a bit like a ‘crane game’.
As for the eye-masks, I placed those a bit far from the centre-piece because the eye-masks have been made for a more physical study of sleeping/awaking or visible/invisible.
M: I remember you were kind of struggling with your paintings when we were finishing the Rijksakademie (in 2006), still you can feel somehow your paintings don’t come easily. They are like a battlefield of both applied paint and meaning. It seems to me you are making less paintings now. Can you explain about your ‘problems’ with painting?
T: Basically all works don’t come easily. It not only accounts for paintings, but also for sculptures and drawings. The difficulty is to catch good subjects but fortunately drawings have a different time and scale to work with, compared to both paintings and sculptures. In every work, I try to catch a moment. The moment means catching an answer. Answers mean I have solved a ‘problem’, I should have ‘questions’ before I start. All actions during the process are paths in search for an answer.
Sometimes ‘problems’ come to me, before I realize what the question is. I feel uncomfortable and sense some ‘questions’ before I start but it’s more unconscious. Then anyway I start working to figure out my questions first.
Maybe this being blind for both the questions and answers: having no idea about the subject or result (what and how), creates the big problem while working. It makes me feel I am ‘double’-blind as a painter… I hope it doesn’t become ‘triple’. (I am just joking!)
Searching invisible subjects and invisible ‘results’ at the same time is why it takes sometimes a lot of time to make an artwork. Things are invisible but also should be ‘painterly’. When I was struggling at the Rijks, I worked hard to figure out something but it was too much focused on ‘answers’, I should’ve visualized the ‘questions’ also.
I might be making less paintings now. Of course the reason includes bunch of things happening in my life: I have moved to different houses five times this year, immigration matters and so on. But also I could say, in my paintings, I am mildly changing the focus from painting (putting paint) towards drawing (making a figure) in this year.
By the way talking about ‘drawing’ to me it not only means ‘making a figure’, but also the possibility of ‘free association’: it’s like gambling, like ‘drawing’ [pulling] a card from a pile of cards. It’s like I make a pile of cards: with experiences, memories, collected materials, things in progress, that surround me in my studio. Then it’s a game of chance, I use the ‘material’ without a clear purpose. When I talk about ‘drawing’ I feel closer to the second meaning.
M: I think it is interesting your approach to painting and drawing, and also your choice to paint rather big canvases (often much bigger then you are yourself), so the gesture becomes really important, which gives the work a lot of power…
T: Recently I work with three ‘production methods’ and each has a different approach to space and scale and asks for a different viewpoint. When I work on a painting, I have to stand up in front of it and look and unconsciously I work for its relation to the space and wall. When I work on a sculpture, it is in between the floor and walls. Maybe my posititon is undetermined. When I work on my drawings, I only have to look down and also I sit on the floor or on a chair, which is rather comfortable and makes it easier to concentrate deeply and the view becomes more compact.
M: You’ve been living in Amsterdam now for some years, still you can feel your approach towards certain aspects of Amsterdam, or Dutch ‘culture’ in general, is one of a stranger. I guess this is somehow a way to make you feel at home here. I was just wondering what you miss most of Tokyo and what you like about Amsterdam?
T: ‘Tomoko in Tokyo’ is, she was very active and she also believed in her activity of working for paintings. ‘Tomoko in Amsterdam’ is, she is passive because she is doubting about her activities in Tokyo. She started to try to catch the moment of ‘looking’ and ‘being surprised’ by her own experiences in Amsterdam.
What I miss most of Tokyo is maybe the sounds. The sound of people’s buzz, sounds of trains arriving at the platform, sounds of TV, (Japanese) pop music, sounds of bug’s singing, sounds of shoes scraping the street. What I like about Amsterdam is that all things are present. However I am passive and less active, I am quite enjoying how I react to this environment.
M: And to end a bit lighthearted, what’s your favourite song at the moment?
T: Ahhh for exactly this moment, I can say ‘ Sparks – This town ain’t big enough for the both of us’.
And I listen to ‘Crazy Ken Band’ often at my studio. But it’s difficult to choose one song of them!
Coincidently I was reading this piece of text by Philip Guston, which kind of fits into what is said above. Couldn’t resist to put it here as some sort of conclusion.
Yes- I too puzzle over ‘meanings’ – I mean the linkage of images when they are together in a certain way and then how all changes when in another combination on the wall. Last month trying to select 9 or 10 painting from about 40 for [the] McKee show, I shifted pictures around for days and nights, reeling from the diverse possible meanings the pictures possess when in different image relationships. But that is the potency of image making – it’s as if we are dense –swamped- -image-ridden- we teem with ‘meaning’ constantly. So the ‘WHAT’ is never settled. Of course never can be. There are days when in a kind of half-awake state, the images of one painting move into another. I don’t myself know what is where -nothing to do with separate pictures anymore but a sort of confused swarm where everything can become everything else-in a split second. I ‘panic’ and hate it and desire it to stop fully as much as I love and need it and want to continue endlessly. The ‘curse’ of image making – as if one wants to gorge ant eat up the world – a hunger – but then also deep down is another hunger – for some ‘peace’ – detachment – for a single form which might ‘contain’ so much multiplicity. Is that possible? I comfort myself at times, with the thought that perhaps one’s whole work – I mean all the images and structures I have made – is all one image anyway. It this too much of a metaphysical ‘idea’ only? But what if it is ‘true’ …? When I am in the work I give myself over to the compulsion (no easy matter as you know) and the ‘puzzle’ subsides a little – but it is always there. Perhaps never to know.
(Philip Guston in a letter to Bill Berkson, January 19, 1976)