Ryuta Ushiro (Chim↑Pom): Pt I

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By Andrew Maerkle and Natsuko Odate

Chim↑Pom - USA Visitor Center (2016). Photo Osamu Matsuda. All images: Unless otherwise noted © Chim↑Pom, courtesy of the artist and Mujin-to Production.

Formed in 2005, the artist group Chim↑Pom have entered their second decade of activity with a flurry of ambitious projects: the international group show they organized in the exclusion zone around the TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, “Don't Follow the Wind,” in 2015; the large-scale site-specific installation in the Kabukicho Promotion Association Building, “So see you again tomorrow, too?,” in 2016; and their most recent solo exhibition at gallery Mujin-to Production in Tokyo, “The other side,” featuring works made along the Mexico-US border in Tijuana, in 2017. Remarkably, all these projects have been completed outside of typical institutional frameworks - and restrictions. This independent attitude is further reflected in the group’s artist-run space, Garter, the venue for the “10th Anniversary” exhibition held in 2015, which reviewed their run-ins with censorship of both political and corporate varieties. In January of this year, as the group were making final preparations for their lecture performance commissioned by Theater Commons, Chim↑Pom Theater (2017), ART iT met with Ryuta Ushiro of Chim↑Pom to reflect on their achievements to date.

Chim↑Pom's "The other side" continues at Mujin-to Production through April 9. Commissioned by Theater Commons, Chim↑Pom Theater was presented February 2-5 at Shibaura House, Tokyo.


ART iT: The past few months have been particularly active for Chim↑Pom: last October you took over the Kabukicho Promotion Association Building for the first stage of your large-scale project, "So see you again tomorrow, too?," with the second stage to be held later this year at your artist-run space Garter in Koenji; in February you presented the lecture performance Chim↑Pom Theater for Theater Commons; and in March you opened a solo exhibition at Mujin-to Production. Taking the disasters of March 11, 2011, as a turning point between the group's foundation in 2005 and the present, this is an interesting moment to reflect on Chim↑Pom's development. How would you say your approach to art has changed over this time?

RU: More than anything to do with how we think about art, I would say we change our approach with every project - and that has been consistent throughout, regardless of March 11. There aren't many artists who do that. We try so many new things every time that it's actually hard to keep up. But of course over a period of 10 years there are social changes and changes in our personal circumstances, so it's natural there would be changes in our works, too. Basically, we're a group of six highly impulsive people, so it is what it is. And all kinds of things have been happening, like Ellie getting married and then being barred from entering the US, and Donald Trump becoming president, so it's not just March 11. But there has to be something consistent, and maybe the "approach to art" is one of those things for us. I think if you viewed everything we've done all together, you'd realize that even amid the constant changes we've kept a consistent attitude in making and presenting our works. So what changed with March 11 was probably more the audience than anything else. I feel a shift happened then in how people viewed Chim↑Pom, and how they viewed art and society. This was an event that had the power to affect all of Japan - and all the more so since it came after the 2008 financial crisis.
Normally people assume with collectives that it's about people with similar tastes coming together. You form a group and start a movement to promote a new phenomenon. But with Chim↑Pom it's more complex - or it's just a mess altogether! Our interests and personal sensibilities are completely different. Since we have so many different ideas and inspirations, and it's hard for us to focus because we're not cooperative types to begin with, we wouldn't be able to keep making projects if there weren't some kind of core principle that we shared. And I would say that there are two core things driving us: one is art, or "artness," and the other is the artistic image of Chim↑Pom itself. We can do anything as long as those two elements are there, and this belief that it's good as long as we feel it's interesting and reflects our reality has been there from the start. But if you ask me to describe this "artness," then it's something I've never analyzed. It's like it can't really be articulated, or it's both intimate and disturbing, like something that you can accept precisely because you don't know it's true form.

Chim↑Pom - VENUS (2007). Photo Kenji Morita.

ART iT: So what were your expectations for art when you formed Chim↑Pom?

RU: The first thing was the breadth of art's potential and capacity for continuous engagement. After I dropped out of high school I was in a punk band while also dabbling in other things, from politics to the sex industry and being a backpacker. It was all really extreme, but not sustainable – although maybe no different from relationships with friends and lovers. In any case, to put it exactly, I had a strong interest in "punk" as a concept only. I thought that making punk rock like a punk band contradicted the concept of punk, so I got into bands like the Boredoms, and then when I found out about Makoto Aida, I thought I had discovered a punk star. I slowly came to realize that maybe more than punk, it was art that I was looking for, and that through art I could connect with humanity in a more direct and hardcore way. The other members of the group came to art through similar paths, pursuing different aspects of the broader culture, from music to comedy to motorcycle gangs and literature or manga. Ultimately, if there was still something interesting that we truly believed in after failing in those pursuits, then the only thing we could possibly share was "artness."
So we were never educated in art. More than studying it at school, it's like art was just the only thing left for us after all those failures. Although maybe Ellie is different, because she says she's always been "in love with art." But that was basically our start, and then we've picked up the context and history of art as we go along.

ART iT: In the beginning you made works on subjects ranging from crows and "super rats" to the Aokigahara suicide forest, and Chim↑Pom came to be seen as the "punks" of the Japanese art scene, but since March 11 it seems your works have focused more deliberately on society, politics and ethical questions.

RU: We were the only artists who responded to March 11 in real time, so maybe it appears that way in terms of subject matter, but even before then we made projects in places like Hiroshima, Cambodia and Indonesia, which people said expressed strong ideas about politics and ethics. In fact, curators from outside Japan often say they find Making the sky of Hiroshima "PIKA!" (2009) to be a more interesting and complex political work than our direct actions after March 11.
But I don't get why society and politics are so fetishized in Japanese art now in the first place. There's no one who is not implicated in society and politics. And actually there are a lot of people who would be easily satisfied by that statement. People even say that our works using rats and crows are political, although we never felt the need to analyze what was political or social every time we made a work. It's the same with March 11. Even if there is an already existing framework for political art or social art, we would lose all sense of reality the moment we looked for our motivation there. It's a fact that we are social animals. That's already a given for us. We never once felt that being political should be our identity.

ART iT: One interesting part of your work is the way it makes visible things that are ignored or overlooked in society. This can take place on a figurative or symbolic level, as with the rats in Super Rat (2006), but also on a more abstract level, as with the "difficult-to-return zone" in Fukushima in the "Don't Follow the Wind" project (2015- ), or the potential for repurposing space in "So see you again tomorrow, too?" (2016). Is this abstraction something you have consciously pursued in recent years?

RU: Whether a work is more figurative or abstract depends on what kind of output we feel makes sense for it. But when you talk about making things visible - it's like with the rats. Most people don't want to see the rats, but it doesn't mean they aren't there. They're not actually invisible. It's just that people refuse to see them. So what we want to expose is really that mentality of "not seeing." That's exactly where you can find the slippery reality of human society. It's not like we do it to study the rats' behavior, and we're not doing anything in particular to make the rats visible. They're already all over the place! But at the same time the living conditions of these "super rats" that have evolved a resistance to poison and traps is also at the core of the work. The existence of these rats and crows accurately reflects the essence of the city we live in. Most people are conscious of the city only as something that has been zoned and regulated according to who owns what building or which municipality starts where. But it's actually enriched by the fact that we all share it, along with the rats and the crows. Well, we have a strong affinity for these animals, so maybe it's just us who feel that way!
But anything can appear completely different depending on how you view it. Think about the hype around the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. If that's all you see then it's really exciting, but the "difficult-to-return zone" is right there off to the side. All it takes is a slight change in perspective. It's not that the "difficult-to-return zone" is "invisible." People are excited because they are viewing society from an angle that just doesn't include it. But a society with nothing but happy perspectives is not the reality. It's a fantasy. A dreamland.
So artists change the perspective because it's impossible to go through life stuck in one place all the time. It's something art people know from drawing class – changing your view of the model as you sketch it, right? But it's not like you have to be an artist to make visible something that has been overlooked or ignored. That's also the job of journalists, too. So if you're going to do art, then you should try to go beyond the obvious. Maybe we could turn that reality into a new reality for ourselves and for future generations. I think making visible something that has been overlooked and then not just acknowledging it but also presenting it as a new value is one of the key elements of art – if only because art can never be divorced from "value."

Above: Don't Follow the Wind Flag (2015), designed by Naohiro Ukawa, courtesy of Don't Follow the Wind Committee. Below: Chim↑Pom - REAL TIMES (2011).

ART iT: How do you feel about being described as activist artists?

RU: People can call us whatever they like. We don't think of ourselves that way, although we do find artists who are labeled that way to be interesting. But there's a slight difference between an activist artist and art activist, right? In any case, the reason I don't consider myself to be an activist artist is firstly out of respect for the people who are dedicated activists. They have a different mindset, or they do things I can't.
Activists operate with clear, specific objectives and demands. Whether it's the anti-TPP movement or the anti-nuclear movement or the anti-US base movement, it doesn't make sense if you don't have a clear objective. That's why it's effective. But the moment art has an objective it risks limiting its longevity, which is why it tends to think about things from a broader perspective. In other words, art lacks effectiveness. Of course, sometimes there are artists who can turn that gap into something interesting – and those are the works I respond to. But it doesn't stand up to what real activists are doing. That's why I hesitate to call myself an activist artist.

ART iT: So what was the motivation for making "Real Times" (2011)?

RU: That project was a real-time response to March 11, which is one reason why we called it "Real Times." I've given the explanation so many times now that it's already become a bit rote, but it seems like we have to repeat it at every turn. I would say it's because the events of March 11 revealed to so many people in the Japanese art scene just how vulnerable the "art" they had been advocating actually was. You said you saw a change in Chim↑Pom's approach to art after March 11, but the same could be said for Japanese art as a whole. As many symposiums as were held on topics like "art and society" and "art and politics" to that point, the fact is nobody could do a thing. It was like the basis of the "art" they had believed in was reset all at once. Under those conditions, art was superfluous and powerless. So I'm sorry if I upset anyone, but I just can't get on board with all those symposiums being held now and that strain of the Western art world that blindly believes in art's social significance without ever having experienced that "despair toward art." No matter how pure or considered it may be, there is nothing so pathetic for me as discourse that does not lead to action. So we set off for TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant with all these things going through our heads, including our sense of "art's powerlessness" and our interest in the disaster zone.
Another big factor was the fax sent to us by Sunao Tsuboi, one of the leaders of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations, with the message "Futou Fukutsu Never Give Up" written upon it. In the end I think context is like a relay race. If there are times when the baton comes from the history of contemporary art, there are also times when it comes from somewhere else, like Tsuboi-san. We felt that if we didn't do something in that moment, then the next time there would be no baton to pass to the next generation of artists. There would be nothing at all, just an even bigger sense of powerlessness. Of course it was difficult to make judgments under those conditions, and we were conflicted about what we could do, but we thought that before worrying about what to do, and no matter the situation, the minimum obligation of the artist toward art is to recognize what needs to be expressed and to show it to other people. So we thought a lot about the artists of the past. How did they respond to what they saw after the end of World War II? Maybe Picasso made paintings on the ruins of the devastated city, while Taro Okamoto might have done something else. So when we had the idea of adding our own modification to Okamoto's Myth of Tomorrow mural in Shibuya [Level 7 feat. "Myth of Tomorrow" (2011)], we saw it clearly as taking the baton from the past. And since there were still blank areas after we added our piece to the mural, we also saw it as a baton for the future. We're not art fanatics, but we're definitely inspired by the art that has been passed down from the distant past through human expression, and the history of that drive for expression.

I | II | III (coming soon)

Ryuta Ushiro (Chim↑Pom): Art from the Other Side
2017/04/05 09:50