Interview with Tatzu Nishi
After graduating from the Musashino Institute of Fine arts, Nishi furthered his study in Germany. Nishi, who resides in Berlin, has embarked on art projects that involve and transform historic landmarks and public property around the world. His original and imaginative 2012 project, Discovering Columbus, involved constructing a living room around the Columbus statue at Columbus Circle in New York. We asked Nishi, for whom this is the first time exhibiting in New York, about his feelings on this project, his thoughts on art in Japan as an artist living abroad, as well as an advice for the young people in Japan.
– You have exhibited your art pieces all over the world. What is your impression on New York City, the city that houses the Columbus statue that you based your public art project on?
I came to New York one and a half months ago, and as soon as I got here I fell in love with this city. My friends have taken me to gallery openings in Chelsea, famous restaurants, as well as other notable attractions, in which I felt the vibrant, dynamic nature of New York. The biggest difference between New York and Tokyo is that people in New York all look lively. The combination of New Yorkers and tourists from all over the world may contribute to this liveliness.
–Your projects tend to capture the airy feeling distinct to each space. What points do you focus on when you take a look at potential sites for your projects?
I usually do not do research on the cities in which I am going to have my exhibitions beforehand. First of all, I take a walk to get the sense of the cities. Not having any preliminary knowledge about the cities allows me to find objects and phenomena that only outsiders can find.
Even for projects where I use monuments, I do not do any preliminary research: I go see the monument by myself. So I am not aware of who the monument depicts, and why it was built. When I am searching for a spot for my project, the monument’s biography is secondary. The form, location and surroundings of the monument are more important to me.
My encounter with the Columbus statue was not an exception: I did not know about what this is commemorating. This monument has enough space around it to build scaffolding, and is twenty meters off the ground. These were main reasons that I decided to use this monument for my exhibition. I wanted to elevate the viewers to the level of this notable individual, who was previously only visible from ground level. I later found out that this is the statue of Columbus: the change in elevation allows each individual to have different insights, and discover Columbus as a person.
– Do you find any difference of the responses from the audiences to your public art projects by country?
Japanese people do not react as vigorously as people from other coutries due to their nature of not expressing their emotions openly. On the other hand, I expected the American audience to react to my installation overtly and passionately. Thus I was pleasantly surprised by the subdued reactions from American people although they have highly praised my work. According to my friends in New York, New York is very different from the rest of America: New Yorkers tend to be cool and composed. However I have received comments like “Are you the artist of this exhibition? Your work is amazing !” in New York than any other cities.
–Are you planning on having an exhibition again here in New York in the future?
At this moment, I do not have any plans to exhibit in New York. But I definitely want to come back to New York. New York is the center of the world’s economy, culture and politics, and thus houses many amazing people and resources. It would be a lie if I said I am not interested in how New Yorkers, who are known to have an eye for things, respond to my works.
– You have stated previously how the Japanese audiences’ responses could not be felt as strongly as that of other countries. As an artist who lives abroad, what are your feelings on Japanese contemporary art?
I have exhibited these kinds of public art projects in various places around the world. Yet, Japan is by far the hardest country to have these in public space. UK follows second, and probably US, the third. However, there is a huge difference between UK and Japan: there is near to none appreciation for public art in Japan. I feel that this is because the bureaucracy does not want to increase their workload, thus they are not willing to embark on projects that are new and unfamiliar to them. I have had about seven projects in Japan, but five out of the seven projects were displayed in private owned properties. For example, I had to exhibit in a private-owned building next to a famous museum.
I have travelled to many countries around the globe, and I believe Japan is by far the country that has the strongest sense of claustrophobic confinement. The people still follow traditions and norms that were set up long time ago, although the times are changing. Clinging to these abstract concepts as if they are absolute and blindly living life is definitely easy. However, countries with this sort of national trait will not be subject to any changes or have the capability to produce new things, thus will wither away. Modern and contemporary art have been developed and cultivated a new future by breaking preconceived notions of decorum and customs. Therefore I believe that Japan is a country that needs contemporary art the most right now to take in ideas that the art has.
Moreover, the audience for contemporary art in Japan is mostly female. The men are bogged down in work, thus have no time to interact with culture. In a country like Japan, in which the percentage of working women is still relatively low, it is the culturally unaware men who are in control of politics and the economy. Thus, I believe the mode of thinking of the whole country will be stagnated at this rate. I especially want Japanese businessmen to view contemporary art. I believe that will help cultivate a creative mind to produce new ideas, which could be applied to their daily work.
Around 200 media from all over the world came to cover my exhibition, yet Japanese media barely came, even though I am Japanese. I currently reside in Berlin, and from Berlin, two very famous broadcasting companies, a commercial and a state-owned, came to cover this exhibition. They even reported it on the evening news. Not only these TV companies, but also several German newspaper companies wrote articles about my exhibition. However these kinds of things have never happened to the Japanese media. The president of Columbia came to see my work after his conference with Japanese Prime Minister Noda. Yet, Mr. Noda did not show up at all. I guess he is not interested in culture or simply does not have time, which is very unfortunate in either way.
– As a well-known Japanese artist who is actively working abroad, how do you think your Japanese identity is reflected in your works?
I do not deliberately make works that reflect my nationality. I believe the fact that I am Japanese and have been raised in Japan is enough to give my works an innate Japanese quality.
– Do you have any advice for other Japanese artists or Japanese people?
Whenever I have a chance to talk to young people, I tell them to live abroad for at least a year no matter if you are artist or not. If you only live in Japan, you have the illusion that Japan and Japanese values are the norm. However, from a global perspective, Japan is anything but normal. It is a country faced with the Galápagos Syndrome. Thus, you should leave Japan, view it from an objective standpoint, and realize its abnormalities, as well as good sides. After reevaluating Japan through a different lens, you can either come back to Japan, or stay overseas. By learning about your country, you can also learn a lot more about yourself. I want the Japanese government to enact a law that makes all Japanese citizens under the age of 25 go abroad. If measures like this are not taken, Japan will inevitably collapse. A solution would be to financially support students studying abroad, and eventually let them work in the government, as the Singapore government is doing. By doing so, you can prevent the government from becoming too conservative and introduce the latest global information and technologies.
– Please tell us about your future projects.
Since I have worked on projects to create living rooms and hotels in a row this year, I am planning on doing something different next year. Unfortunately I am not able to tell what my next project is going to be at this moment because I usually have only a 50% of possibility that my installation comes out in a way as I initially planned.
Tatzu Nishi Born 1960 in Aichi, Japan. Nishi studied in the Musashino Institute of Fine Arts, and moved to Germany in 1987. After studying sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts Muenster, from 1997 Nishi embarks on art projects that involve public property, such as constructing a private space in the form of an apartment room around a weather vane of a 14th century cathedral and operating a café inside of an intermodal container hung by a crane. Based in Berlin, Nishi has exhibited around the world, which includes Museum of Contemporary Art (2005, Los Angeles), Kaldor Public Art Projects (2009, Sydney), Estuaire Nantes (2009, France) and Singapore Biennial (2011, Singapore.) Recently Nishi has also exhibited in his native Japan: Yokohama Triennale (2005), “Chéri in the Sky” at the Maison Hermes, Ginza (2006), MAM Project 006 at the Mori Art Museum (2007) and the Aichi Triennale, (2010) to name a few. His latest project, “Discover Columbus,” a public art project that involved constructing a living room around the Columbus statue at Columbus Circle, attracted significant attention from various media.