Restless preoccupations

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Glass Interviews Yutaka Inagawa on his Malaysian solo show and His restless preoccupation with intersecting mediums, cultural identities

Japanese photomontage artist Yutaka Inagawa’s solo show in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s glorious metropolitan capital, has gotten to our heads. Much more than a body of art that captivates us on a level of pure visual entertainment, Inagawa’s contribution to kick off the ongoing art series, wholly titled Otak Japun (“Thinking Japanese”), engages the mind with its curious use of photography and digital editing tools, and with its skillful manipulation of the seemingly trite “everyday”.

The resulting artworks are sly satires of notions of technology – the intersections of Japanese and western identities, art, and human nature – simultaneously celebrating those same thematic mainstays.

Glass speaks with Inagawa about his show and his art, his techniques and his inspirations, and his restless engagement with the landscape of contemporary Japanese culture.

You’ve stated that the starting point of your work is with images whose origins you’re certain of, in relation to yourself. How does beginning from such a personal tactile place (as opposed to an impersonal, less intrinsically experiential place) affect your process of art-making?
The use of private photos enables me to deal with a sense of parallel entity, one which parallels my private life. The way I use the digital camera is very particular, focusing on one side of an aspect that digital cameras have obtained.

In general, we see it as a developed and up-to-date form of film camera. However, it can also be conceived as a simple device to create digital data. So in the sense, it is detached from the film camera. To me, the digital camera was given the look of a film camera in order to inherit an identity as a “pre-existing idea of camera”.

I started using digital without experiencing film properly. Therefore, what I do with digital is just pushing buttons to make a digital mirage of everyday – I mean, my “everyday”.  So basically I understand the digital photos as pseudo-photographs.

The pseudo-photographs/digital mirages are then cut out and combined in cyberspace.  I don’t consider my act a collage. To me, it is more like a manipulation of mirage, or “pseudo-collage”. It looks like collage, but quite often each layer of mirage is tangled and intertwined by overlapping, partially crisscross-like patterns. It consists of more layered and cut-and-pasted processes than it actually seems. In a way, it is similar to the relationship between putting make-up on a face and airbrushing it through Photoshop. Make-up with cosmetic products involves material limitation; like, the thicker the make-up you apply, the accumulation of the make-up and the fact that you are hiding the face’s original condition are more noticeable.

But in the case of Photoshop or any digital manipulation of photographic images, there is freedom from materials and its limits. It triggers a sense of parallel reality. The gap between mirage and reality is manifested and it becomes parallel.

You cite the Galapagos Syndrome  the Japan-derived term associated with the isolated geographic growth of a certain product or phenomenon – as an inspiration behind your work, declaring it rampant in contemporary Japanese culture. How is this concept literalized in your artworks? And how do you consider your artworks at play in the conceptually parallel dialogues of contemporary Japanese culture of which you speak?
I think my attitude towards contemporary Japanese culture is sort of ambivalent.  I found it intriguing, the idea of Japanese contemporary culture having been built to convert unfamiliar foreign culture into familiar domestic culture. The converter functions to decrease the information attached to it  in order to make that information easy to handle, like a “jpg compression”. That is quite a violent act, in a way, when we talk about borrowing other cultural heritage. Most of the time, the “unfamiliar” are fragmented, detached from their chain of cultural backgrounds and histories.  As a  result, they become disoriented and rootless entities, like space debris .

To me, it’s parallel to the role of the digital camera. Digitalising the everyday is a phantom-like mirage that exists without materials, in a world where most senses comes from materials such as tactile stimuli/smell/ gravity/ durability and so on.

I found that some cultural productions in Japan are in fact bizarre manifestations of the negative side of distorting and converting acts of other cultural heritages.

The Galapagos Syndrome-like confusion in Japan is a certain degree of disturbing — [Things subject to the Galapagos Syndrome] don’t develop under controlled morality and decent respectful attitudes toward integrity of other cultures. [Instead,] they happen to attain far-fetched and ridiculous appearances.

What I have been trying to do is to let myself experience the tension of crossing the boundary between ubiquitous and far-fetched, or decent and indecent. And [my work] is an act of magnifying the tension in order to both lampoon and celebrate the unique development.

The work featured in your upcoming show has a heavy reliance on curio of the advanced technological and digital age: CCTV cameras, digital cameras, power tools, electric lighting, etcetera. In fact, many of the artworks are montaged to the effect of a machine-like contraption, stacked, contrived, or morphed to resemble functioning or purposeful machinery. Describe your preoccupation with digitisation as a characteristic of the contemporary age. In what ways, beyond the aforementioned, do you feel that it informs your work?
I want to include tools and other machinery which function as extensions of human physical function, like, CCTV is for an eye, power tools for your hands, etcetera. So my montage has a sense of animism. In our contemporary age, we are surrounded by those technologies and man-made living environments. If we conceive those man-made environments surrounding us as also natural, rather than dividing things into natural and artificial, the boundary between those polarized understandings become blurred and more ambiguous. In this sense, cyberspace can be also as solid as a material world.

I am interested in the situation of letting ourselves expand the use of cyberspace and create a sense of multi-parallel entity. For example, we carry on creating digital mirages of ourselves and multiply them limitlessly and place them in a different type of cyberspace. Imagine the amount of data we upload onto cyberspace everyday. And the age of Internet has just begun. We carry those mirages with us everywhere by storing them in iPhones, iPads, etcetera, diffusing those mirages into someone’s private cyberspace by means of various social media. It’s a kind of pandemic.

The montages demonstrate the idea that a certain type of social   malfunction can more positively exist without becoming flawless. Malfunction can be beautiful and sublime.

How do you feel this show’s particular set of artworks reflect the “mutations of identity” of a Western-entwined contemporary Japanese culture? In what ways, if any, would you consider your art contributory to the “bizarre and unorthodox way of ‘being’ in [a foreign-informed] Japanese culture,” as you describe it?
Half of [the show’s] artworks were selected by Shooshie Sulaiman, a curator of the show, and most of the installations were done by some core members of MAIX ( Malaysian Artist Intention Experiment), an independent artists collective established by Shoosie in 2014.

As the title of the show, Otak Jepun (which means “Japanese brain” in Malay), indicates, the selection and installation consist of Malaysian perspectives on my creations as a Japanese artist. Japanese society tends to be ethnocentric, and alternative view points against mainstream common sense are usually oppressed.  That is why gaining Malaysian view points on my creations (as they are  mirroring a certain Japanese-ness) can be an interesting approach to understanding “western entwined culture”.

Your informed perspective of the manipulations of photo within professional industries, as an expanded ability to the hands of laypeople consumers, is very interesting. How is your work challenging, parodying, responding to, and/or participating in these facets of the contemporary age, particularly in Japan?
Japanese culture becomes a hotbed of uncontrolled fantasy, and a distorted chain of simulacra. Young people play with their physical appearances, changing the colors of their eyes, hair, and skin in order to make themselves  parallel to the world of  “Japanimation “.

A fun, [public space] photo booth called PriCla (short for print club) has been popular for a while [in Japan], and a new function has been added recently. Interestingly, it automatically enlarges the eye size and erases all the spots and freckles on the skin to give you animated/ CG-like features. Oddly enough, the skin-smooth function has been added to the photo booth for official passport photos, as well. I found those manipulated but widely accepted images very disturbing. 

It is disturbing because it shows us the fact that people are numbed to creating multi-parallel entity of their own. It confuses us about our own identity, or, rather, give us new understandings of it. My work responds to that numbed sense of our own identity in contemporary Japanese culture.

I guess I have been trying to create a multi parallel space through my practice. So after working on the idea for more than a decade, my entire creation gradually started to [become correlated around these ideas]. But a main pillar of my practice has been a relationship between an idea of paintings (oil on canvas) and digital medium.

To me, paintings in the present day are so difficult and complex, especially as a Japanese. Dealing with “Oil on Canvas” is kind of challenging. It’s loaded with both western “genuine Art History” and a distorted vision of  “Japanised Western Art History”.

An aspect of your artistic philosophy that this show’s artworks seem to be responding to is the pseudo-realism that inherently exists in any piece of simulacra, be it in painting form, photography form, film medium form, or the like. Your work is blatantly un-real, refreshingly transparent in its non-lifelike nature. What was your intention with this deliberate approach to image-making?

I want my creation to be a form of enhanced and enriched ideas of Galapagos Syndrome and the social predicament created by the phenomenon. So my works include the idea of pseudo-realism and a system of generating distorted simulacra.

Please describe the opportunity and experience of working with the iconic Shooshie Sulaiman on this show.
I met Shooshie when she joined the micro artist-in-residence program called AIR Onomichi in Onomichi, Hiroshima in 2013. She came with her long time business partner, Fatina Alfis Zolkifli (a gallery manager at 12 Art Space Gallery and 12.1). As Fatina has described, Shooshie is the most straightforward and unpredictable artist I have ever met. Her project there is a long-term project, and it requires her to come back to Onomichi many times; she will come this October, as well.

Her work and personality are both strongly influential and many people in Onomichi, including myself, have been inspired a lot in many ways. When she came to my studio with Fatina, random A4 Size montages on the studio wall drew their attention. So she wanted to show them in her gallery in Kuala Lumpur. There is a workshop with a member of MAIX on the 13th of September, and one of the show’s aims is to provide MAIX an experience of Japanese artists’ mind patterns, and share some of their artistic working processes.

Shooshie’s knowledge and understanding of artistic identity in this multicultural, global age are honed through her international career and deep contemplation about national identity of Malaysian Artists. It is dialectic, thus the entire experience working with her and MAIX is very crucial to me. The outcome of the workshop, the exhibition, and conversations between Shooshie and me are all going to be compiled in a book. It will be out by March 2016. The editing process will be done carefully by both my side and Shooshie’s.

If possible, describe this show’s message in simplest terms.
The show demonstrates the fact that the simple and small format work can be a reflection of the complex, contemporary society.

by Emily Rae Pellerin

Images via the artist, Yutaka Inagawa