In September, Japanese pop art legend Yoshimoto Nara visited Iceland to open his exhibit “Crated Rooms.” Heavily influenced by the anime and manga movements of the 60s, Nara made a definitive name for himself during the J-pop movement of the 90s. Nara’s work is deceptive—it draws viewers in with adorably wide-eyed children before stabbing them in the back with devilish surprises like knives, skulls and disturbing texts.
This interview was conducted by Grapevine’s resident comic artist Lóa Hlín Hjálmtýsdóttir. We cleaned it up a little, because the interviewer sometimes lost her ability to speak properly due to the stress of interviewing her long-time hero.
Lóa Hlín Hjálmtýsdóttir: I’ve been reading intellectual interviews with you, but I wanted to do a more “how you feel” kind of one, because your work has much to do with one feelings. When you see it, it connects with you emotionally. Does a big and complicated professional life like yours affect your work?
Yoshimoto Nara: No.
LHH: It changes nothing?
YN: No, nothing. But sometimes I’ll feel pressure from the audience.
LHH: I see… but if you do create something really good, are you worried that your next piece will be awful?
YN: Ah…yes. But even if I make a good one, the next day when I wake up and see my painting I’m like ‘hmm…’ [makes a doubtful face] and that’s why it’s no problem. And anyway, I like making paintings—It’s not that I want satisfy anyone in particular by doing them.
Haukur SM: Does your success make it harder for you to accomplish your goals? And if so, how so?
YN: Definitely harder. When I was totally unknown, I could use all of my time to paint. Now, for example, I have to do this interview. I sometimes feel a kind of a pressure from the audience, they who love my artwork. I never felt pressure when I was starting. And the pressure I feel now is not from gallerist or the critics, just from the audience. Because they love my works.
LHH: Where did you two find each other [Nara’s main collaborator, designer Hideki Toyoshima, was present during the interview. He often oversees the installation of Nara’s work and collaborates with him on setting up the plateau (i.e. the containers and huts that house the work)]?
YN: It was six years ago, in Osaka, his hometown. He is one of the founders of Graf, which is a kind of a company that…
Hideki Toyoshima: It’s of group of people I used to work with. My friends, basically. We did different things: furniture and interior design… we even had a chef in our group. We operated an art gallery and furniture shop, a café, a restaurant in Osaka… and then we had a studio space in the gallery too.
One day, he came to the space with a mutual friend who introduced us and we wound up making an exhibition in our gallery space. He had the idea of constructing rooms and houses in the gallery… That’s the beginning of our collaboration. We called the exhibition S/M/L, so we made a small room and a medium sized one and a large one.
It was supposed to be one project, we had no contract or plan for the future or anything. But when we were finished making it, we had a lot of beer to celebrate and we started wondering if we not only needed S/M/L, but also C and B and Q… or something, from A to Z… a lot of houses. You know, ‘let’s create, like, a whole town or something!’ and it was just completely like a drunken talk. So after a while we collaborated on more projects and made more houses. And after three years we had a chance to do a quite huge exhibition in a town called Hirosaki, Nara’s hometown.
YN: I was born there.
HT: It’s a northern town in Japan. And it has this huge warehouse. We filled up more than A to Z; we had 44 houses and space, and some big installations. We literally created a village in the exhibition. So that’s how it evolved. Then we started making more projects together, mostly in Europe.
HSM: You two create big spectacles with your collaborations, a combination of design and sculpture and drawing and architecture – it’s a great way to view art. By bringing your talents together, do you have a clear object in mind? Is there something you want to accomplish by it, or is it merely a way to make the show more fun?
YN: I like to make paintings by myself, and I like to work by myself. However, showing with other people makes things much more fun. That’s another thing: I’ve never thought that an exhibition must be serious or the installation must be serious… and after the collaboration, I thought that the exhibition should be fun for me, not just for the people. Maybe for the people too, but first for me.
HT: We have to enjoy it.
YN: Yeah, we have to enjoy it. Otherwise the audience can’t feel the fun.
LHH: What brings you to Iceland?
YN: What… I don’t know (laughs). My gallerist from Berlin introduced me to this museum. Yeah, that’s why… yeah. Why not? Anyway, I love Björk and Sigur rós.
LHH: Have you been a long time here?
HT: Just for three or four days. Since Friday night.
YN: And tomorrow, we’ll tour the country. In a minibus.
LHH: What was is the first thing you guys noticed about Iceland?
YN: I was born in the North of Japan, in a pretty small town. Smaller than Reykjavik. The landscape here is very similar. It wasn’t a typical Japanese town. You didn’t see so many billboards, especially when I was young. Like here. Nothing, just the houses. I remember so many childhood experiences I’m reminded of here. The sky is same as above my hometown.
Yoshimoto Nara’s exhibit, The Crated Rooms, is ongoing at Listasafn Reykjavíkur: Hafnarhús. It will be open until January 3rd. Lóa Hlín recently published the book Alhæft um þjóðir (“Generalizing About Nations”) on the OKBÆ(!)KUR imprint. Find it at quality bookstores in Reykjavík.