Ei Arakawa: Pt II

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Cologne of the Maghreb (Bodyphilia Song) (2016), performance and exhibition view in "We Call it Ludwig, The Museum Is Turning 40!," Museum Ludwig Cologne, 2016. Photo Mike Schlomer, courtesy and © Ei Arakawa and Museum Ludwig, Cologne. All images: Unless otherwise noted, courtesy Ei Arakawa and Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo.

ART iT: We were just talking about how you incorporate other people's art production into your performances – painting in particular. But when you work with other people in a performance, you necessarily take control over them or direct them in some way. How do you see your role as the organizer of a performance?

EA: Well, in a lot of the early performances I would write the scenarios on my own, and now with the more recent musicals I would say I put myself more in the position of a traditional theatre director. On the other hand, there's a different relationship when I do projects with the members of Grand Openings or with collaborators like in Gwangju - more like a co-director situation. So I like to switch back and forth between them. In art when you do something under your own name, it gives you an agency, and you need that agency to do other types of practice such as collaboration. You can't exist without that agency, so I'm always careful about that balance. Doing performance, I do think about sustainability - like, how much further could I take these collaborative performance works within the art system? Gutai also operated as a group, but it soon shifted to being more about individual work, as Kazuo Shiraga became more commercially successful than the others, or Atsuko Tanaka dropped out to focus on her solo activity, and I wonder the way things are now if it wouldn't have been possible to have it both ways – to be solo and be a group at the same time. You have to think about the mode of artist that works for you. It's clear to me that it won't work if you only rely on collaboration all the time.

ART iT: I read some write-ups by people who participated in your Singles Night events. It seemed like they enjoyed the experience, but there's also this subtext that it's a little silly or humiliating – they're doing something outside of their comfort zones. How do you view your relationship to those kinds of participants?

EA: In those cases, it's like people come to the museum with the expectation that they will get something from the artist as "service provider." I don't think it's necessarily the artist's responsibility to answer to that, as the decision about how to treat the audience changes with each situation. Whether the artist provides what the audience is looking for is another question. But I think there's some potential for art to be found there. We can "use" the audience sometimes, and we can also reposition them. Embarrassment is a tool that can be used to create that sort of relationship with the audience.

Above: Ei Arakawa with Sergei Tcherepnin - Single's Night (2012) at Tate Modern, London, 2012. Below: Ei Arakawa with Simone Forti, Jutta Koether, Andrew Lampert, Caitlin MacBride - Concrete Escort I. II. (2013), presented as part of the exhibition "Gutai: Splendid Playground" at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2013.

ART iT: Since you often work with collaborators, do you see these recent works on Gutai as an opportunity to reconsider how groups behave? Is it an attempt to put your own working method in contrast to the relationships between Jiro Yoshihara and the other artists in Gutai?

EA: I'm not sure. In that sense maybe the way the group functioned in the production of the musical was not so different from the traditional production model.
But when I was asked to make a performance for the Gutai exhibition held at the Guggenheim in 2013, "Gutai: Splendid Playground," it was more like a curatorial situation. I was very conscious of how the group would come together. There were people from different generations, and I had each of them come up with their own scenarios about Gutai. It was great to work with Simone Forti, for instance. When I was working a lot in New York it was easy to view the group within the context of everyday social networks and life. The group emerged naturally. Now that I'm doing more projects outside of New York, I don't always know the local context when I form a group, and that is a risk I have to take.

ART iT: With Grand Openings was everyone consciously trying to discover a new approach to group activity?

EA: Somehow with Grand Openings we had a really balanced relationship among the members, and it was really interesting because each of us had our own position but we also shared the same context in New York. But then after a certain point audiences got used to seeing performances at galleries, and especially in places like New York and Berlin they knew what to expect from the performance artist in the gallery, so then it became more interesting to bring the working mode of theatre into that context, even if only temporarily. I guess I always have to do a reality check about whether the current form of collaboration is working or not. Then, if not, I have to keep changing it.

ART iT: How important is the audience for you in creating your works?

EA: Before considering the audience, it's more important for me to realize a certain scenario or diagram within the work. With an installation I don't really get to see the audience, but in a live performance I do want to activate their engagement somehow. I want to change their viewership by making them move from one situation to another situation, or repositioning them, as I said.

ART iT: It seems like you deliberately try to avoid spectacularity in your works. Does this emerge from a kind of anti-image sensibility?

EA: Image making is also important, so I wouldn't say I'm running away from it, but performance is not only about that. It seems Anne Imhof's performances benefit from this aspect at the same time that they suffer from it. On the other hand, the dance work of someone like Sarah Michelson is really physical and sculptural. I want to play those different approaches off against each other.

Above: Ei Arakawa with Dan Poston and Stefan Tcherepnin - How to DISappear in America: The Musical (2016), presented as part of the 9th Berlin Biennale, 2016. Photo Gayla Fierman. Below: Ei Arakawa with Dan Poston and Stefan Tcherepnin - Paris & Wizard: The Musical (2013), at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

ART iT: What about your use of "amateur" performers in your musicals and other performances? Generally, they look really ordinary, they move awkwardly and they are not the best singers, and the idea of professionalism is further upstaged because they are lip-synching to a pre-recorded soundtrack. Are you trying to suppress the exceptionality of the performer?

EA: Maybe it's there as a form, I would say. But the moment you recognize it as a form, then it can get repackaged. In theatre there is such an emphasis on things like timing and perfection, and the nice thing about performance art is that you don't have to worry about that. I don't like the expectations of theatre. Anyone from the art world can participate in a performance even though they are not an actor. Since performance is not as important in the art world there is some freedom in it. I like this moment of rupture within the system. Or at least I like having the focus of the audience spread out. They should not focus only on the singular moment.

ART iT: And that's also about challenging the normative image?

EA: Maybe it's just the genealogy of performance art.

ART iT: Take Chris Burden shooting himself in the arm. Although you don't need any talent to be shot in the arm, it does require a special commitment. But in your case it seems like anybody could casually participate in the performance. Would you still say you are not trying to reject or challenge the exceptionality of the performer?

EA: There are certainly some people who dislike performance art, and I think that really has to do with the tediousness of some historical performance art. Even when doing banal things in order to avoid spectacle, once you become conscious of it then that ambiguous border between the work and the not work starts to get defined, and maybe I'm trying to resist that definition a bit. And maybe as a device for resisting it, I might do something like speak to the audience in a really casual way or something – it's almost like a technique, which I think is interesting when it becomes like a form.

ART iT: In a previous interview with Reiko Tomii and Hiroko Ikegami for the Oral History Archives of Japanese Art, you talked about the dynamic between identification and disidentification in your work, mentioning specifically the factors of: performance art, Japan, gay, non-West, and migration. It was interesting to read that because I find your works tend to be one step removed from issues of identity, whether it's notions of "Japaneseness" or "gayness," for example.

EA: It's because I am constantly shifting toward another identity in my work. But I did a performance last year at Museum Ludwig which centered on the Cologne-based painter, Michael Buthe [1944-1994], who was part of the same generation as Sigmar Polke but is a little forgotten these days. He was obsessed with Morocco and had several Moroccan boyfriends. His works were also heavily influenced by Moroccan culture, so to some people he could be considered an Orientalist, whereas others could say that he showed a commitment that goes way beyond Orientalism. I felt there's a conceptual relationship in his relationships with his Moroccan lovers, like he was literally able to internalize the culture of the other, so I made an installation with singing LED paintings speculating about that, although maybe the body politics was a bit obscured because of the LED installation. But identification is always there at the start when I think about how to engage with a work. In this case, it is gay, but it also critiques in a way the Western definition of gay.

Both: RIOT THE BAR (2005), Bard College, New York.

ART iT: So does the process of making the work lead you toward disidentification? For example, in revisiting the Stonewall Riots, RIOT THE BAR (2005) dealt with a formative moment for contemporary gay identity in the West, but at the same time the work was a vehicle for moving beyond identity as such.

EA: In both the Buthe work and RIOT THE BAR, I was expressing my skepticism about the normative, Western gay identity. The Japanese gay scene has already passed through this dilemma, but it was an issue at the end of the 1990s. RIOT THE BAR came out of that experience. It was sort of anti-social sculpture. It was disidentification.

ART iT: Then is it the same for you when it comes to Japan or being Japanese?

EA: I suppose so. When I make a project in a place like Shanghai, or even in Japan, it's like the work moves between the identification with Japan on the one hand and all these other identifications on the other. For the project at Taka Ishii, I made the Japanese subtitles in the Kansai dialect. Maybe you would need to understand both English and Japanese to fully appreciate it, but there is this incongruity that happens when a really local thing is introduced into a completely different context – it's like a switch in perspective. There are always different frames for each category. Sometimes I perceive this constant movement between "them" and "us" in stepping out of these frames.

ART iT: Getting back to the issue of history, if we could say that artists who use history as a theme have the potential to renew the history or critically reassess it in some way, there's also the danger that they might just end up recycling it. How do you feel about this situation?

EA: When I started using LEDs to make work, I got the sense that LED is one of the materials that is most deeply connected to contemporary society, similar to the way plastic represents the 1960s. With that as a physical basis, and then through the lyrics of the songs, I think it's interesting to use history as a decoy for talking about something like WeChat, for example. So I think that's one difference between me and actual historians. It may seem like I'm referencing history but I'm actually using it to talk about the unstable and open-ended condition of painting today.

ART iT: Although we tend to associate performance with the body, you frequently use technology in a subtle way. For example, the drone is one of the central characters in Helena and Miwako (2013).

EA: Technology has always been part of art – think about Jikken Kobo, EAT, Fujiko Nakaya, Nam June Paik. But I think the situation with technology is going through another big transformation right now, so I want to focus on it or engage it through history. My friend Nikolas Gambaroff says that because of the Internet we are able to simultaneously access numerous historical references at the same instant. The use of history is really different under these conditions.

Ei Arakawa and Henning Bohl - Helena and Miwako (2013), installation view at the 2013 Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

ART iT: One last question. You have a really interesting sense of language, particularly evident in your lyrics for Paris and Wizard: The Musical (2013) and How to DISappear in America: The Musical (2016). For example, in DISappear you use the language of disclaimer clauses to come up with concepts like "communal under some circumstances" and "communal with strict protocols," while in Helena and Miwako, combining the phrase "helicopter parenting" with aerial views shot from a camera drone was really inspired. But it could also be something as simple and nonsensical as the "Da la la Dallar!" chorus in the current work. What is your approach to language as a material?

EA: Well, songs are really immediate, so even if you turn a complicated context into a song, things like rhythm and melody make it easier to communicate. And of course since I'm not trying to make a hit song I can do whatever I want in coming up with the lyrics. When I grew up in Japan I was a big fan of Yuming's songs, and I always memorized her lyrics. But then my Japanese language skills got diverted when I came to US at the age of 20. I was not young enough to acquire native-level English, so the mixture of Japanese and English became a third language in me. I can't write proper prose in English, but that is somehow good for lyrics. I always work with the American writer Dan Poston on my lyrics, and I like balancing my Japanese-English and his American-English in our writing together. Those gaps can become interesting. I also keep some of the crudeness of my word choice intact sometimes, because it can be very communicative that way.

ART iT: Language has a physical effect in your works.

EA: Yes. I don't know if physical is the right word for it, but certainly when I communicate with the audience – and also in the lyrics for the musicals – it's like I'm giving directions, telling people to go here or go there. So I think about how the audience will respond to certain words. That is part of my performances. It's also similar to a radio drama, asking people to imagine based on the sound only. That creates a different dynamic from just showing them images.

I | II

Ei Arakawa: Pastoral Hide and Seek
2017/06/16 08:24