Ms. Aoki Noe, a sculptor well known both in Japan and in abroad, is the first recipient of Takifuji Art Award (now International TAKIFUJI Art Award), which was founded in 1980. Started from sculpture, she has expanded the activities to the other fields such as engraving. Also she records through hearings the experience of the elderly people who live in rural area to whom she got to know by art activities. She is an artist supple and natural with a worldwide viewpoint.
(Interviewer: Megumi Nishikawa, Executive Director)
Born in Tokyo in 1958. Got Prize for Excellence at the 1st TAKIFUJI Art Award in 1980. Graduated from Sculpture department at Musashino Art University in 1981, and finished graduate courses (sculpture course) in 1983. She got many Prize as Minister of Education Award for Fine Arts (2000), Excellent Prize of Hara Teijiro Award (2003), Mainichi Art Award (2014).
——Have you always wanted to be an artist since you were small?
When I was a little girl, I did not have any idea even if I was asked what I wanted to be in the future. Usually the child says “ I want to be a driver” or “I want to be a nurse”, but I did not have any idea in occupation basis. I could not believe that I would be happy even if I entered a good company by studying hard. Simply, I wanted to be a nice person, but I did not know how to be. I wanted to go, while pursuing what I want to do. For example, as a useful person for people, I wanted to be a doctor of “Medecins Sans Frontieres” if say in now.
——You went to art direction at high school, didn’t you?
Art was not the sole option for me. I lived in Shakujii-koen (western Tokyo), a place with a lot of nature, and my father liked gardening. There are three options; municipal agricultural high school, horticulture high school, and art high school. And I chose art high school in which I was somehow interested. Since I had to decide the course at the time of passing the high school entrance examination, I omitted design, Japanese painting and oil painting one by one, and finally sculpture remained at the end. If I went to agriculture, I think that was also quite fun.
——How was it at high school?
I was bad at drawing. When I made a sketch of plaster, It did not fit in the drawing paper. In spite of my desperate effort, I did not become good at all. Students in the sculpture department can make three-dimensional art works, but they are quite poor at a drawing. Just to carve a stone can be proceeded steadily without any technical convention as painting. That was interesting for me.
——There might be few women sculptors in the university at that time.
Sure. It was an absolute male-dominated society. The professor said “ Once graduate, women should married”. It was such a world. There were Women’s Liberation and Feminism movement in a little bit elder generations, but I did not want to fight in the same field. Sculpture and art are more private issues, and it is human beings that make them whether it is a man or a woman. I thought sculpture is nice in that sense.
——You applied Takifuji Art Award in 1980, which was just founded. At the time you were 4th grade. What made you to apply to the Award?
Since I had specialized in iron from my 3rd grade, I would like to buy a lot of iron for the material. When I happened to go to the student affairs office, there were poster which showed that the award winners would get a scholarship of 300,000 yen (around 1330 us dollar at that time). Moreover, the condition of the prize winner was only to submit a report, and you could use the scholarship for anything without restrictions. I did not expect to be accepted, so when I was awarded I was so happy. I bought an iron plate with the scholarship and it was a great help.
——When was a turning point for you ?
I traveled to Europe about a month and a half, when I was 20 years old in 1980. It was an era of 360 yen a dollar and with the money that I made by a part-time job, I really enjoyed budget travel. I went to Switzerland, England, France and Spain, and there were a lot of genuine things such as Minimal Art of Donald Clarence Judd*1, and I saw so many things that I could not see in Japan. What I felt was that the art history is made by male and each person did whatever he or she wanted.For example Gaudi*2 were popping out from the art history. I made up my mind that I should also do whatever I wanted without being bound by the concept.
Donald Judd (1923-1994) was an American painter, sculptor and art critic, he was one of artists representing minimalism.
Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) was an architect from Catalonia, Spain. The works such as the Sagrada Familia basilica are registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
——When did you find out what you wanted to do?
In the graduation work at 1981, I made a conceptual artwork and I covered the front gate of the university with a square box. A sort of a minimal art, and through a gap the opposite side can be seen. But I felt it was not me. At that time, to enter the universities, spending 4 years were normal. And very few female students were in the universities. I entered directly from high school and relatively younger than other classmates. So I was flouted by them. I was told, “What do you think of the minimal art”, “What about Mono-ha*3”, or “What! Don’t you know Lee Ufan*4“. I desperately tried to be armed with theoretical backing in such a world, but it was not suitable for me. Although in the graduation work I made such a artwork, I felt that it did not fit to me.
But two years later, in the completion work, I made a structure of the iron bar which had a space inside. At that time, I was interested in towers,like those of pagoda. For example, in the world of the Buddhism, a tall Buddhist pagoda was made just to put small things like Buddha’s ashes, and it seemed quite interesting for me. It was architecture, but it looked like sculpture to me. I wanted to make something with a space inside, which I could walk around and go through. In those days sculpture was a lump, but I wanted to create a thing that wind could pass through. I felt that I found out what I wanted to do in this completion work.
“Mono-ha” is a major movement of Japanese contemporary art that began in the late 1960s and continued until the mid-1970s. “Mono-ha” artists present works made by “Mono ( materials )” such as stone, wood or paper on individually or combination. They aimed at the reinvention of the art, reducing it to an elements of Mono( materials).”
Lee U-Fan (1936-) is a Korean artist based in Japan. He plays a leading role in “Mono-ha” theoretically.
——When did you start thinking of art as a lifetime job?
I could not believe that I could live with art even when I went to graduate school. Especially with sculpture. But I wanted to continue. It was such a light feeling. After I left the university, I held private exhibitions several times a year, and some projects were offered to me. However, art could not make me live by itself, and I earned cost of living by a part-time job. I did not expect to do sculpture throughout my life, and I even thought that if I found any other interesting thing, I would go there. However, when I was 35 or 6 years old, I realized that I like to think with my hands. Going forward with welding and cutting the iron repeatedly – that is suitable for me.
——What do you think about when you are cutting iron?
From 9 am to 6 pm, wearing a mask I weld and cut the iron with gas, and at that time I just cut the iron without thinking anything. I become nothing. I feel like I can go somewhere different by repeating the same thing. I used a former poultry farm as an atelier. Just the parts of iron can be seen at the atelier, and they will become an art only after assembled at a museum. Regardless of mistake or success, I feel a solid comfort that I could achieve something if I work sincerely towards iron.
——Is there any time when ideas spring out while cutting iron?
Quite a few. After I draw a sketch roughly, I just cut. Even though I think something, it is desultory thoughts like ‘What should I eat?’ Maybe it is better not to think about artwork seriously. A project was brought in from a well-known gallery once. I got excited, “I can do my exhibition with such a great gallery”, and I carefully consider various things. However, when I saw the work completed, I did not find any appeal in it, which I already have in my head and feel like “ I know this.” I want to see what amazes me. So when I assemble the parts at a museum, I often change the original idea and add the other parts talking to myself “something might be good”. Persons who know me are watching with the feeling like “Oh, again?” (with laughter)
——It means you add something that is not in the first sketch, don’t you?
Quite often I put the parts in the place that is not an original place. In that case, I bring it to the basement and weld it instantly. It depends on the moment.
——What is the reason why you’ve held private exhibitions every year?
Rather than I want to show my work to the people, I want expose them to the wind of society. You must not hold your works only by yourself, I think. In a sense, art is a shrinking world, and it becomes narrower and narrower if you withdraw into your shell. It is important to expose them to the wind of society and show them to the world even at a glance. “I am doing this kind of work”. If I do not do it, I cannot make next. When I do it, I will be able to see something to do next and go further. That is why I have held private exhibitions twice a year, while borrowing money from my mother or even postponed payment of the rent to the owner of the atelier.
—— I heard that you interview the elderly people in Niigata prefecture and Toshima in Setouchi.
It is not so active recently. When I went to Tokamachi in Niigata prefecture for Triennale ten years ago, there was a pool that the water was collected from mountain. I wanted to place my work on it. To get permission, I took a bottle of sake and Japanese sweets to the villagers, and at a local gathering, I explained them that I would like to do a workshop with children. I said “I will never cause you inconvenience”. While everyone was silent, one person said “If you won’t cause trouble, you could try.” Since then, I have been there at the time of harvest and rice planting, and got along with the villagers. They are so wonderful. A man in his 80’s told me about the story of old days such as horse dealers or he went to the mountains to put a cow out to pasture. I also go to Teshima in Setouchi for Triennale, and there are many people who know the pain of life with self-confidence that they have overturned the illegal dumping of garbage. On the other hand, they do not complain, and their standing figures are also beautiful. There are many people who look ordinary old men but respectable. I am impressed that Japan is made up of these people. However, due to the ageing population the village is going to disappear. Since the grandchildren will not listen to these grandfathers and grandmothers’ stories, I thought that a third person should listen to them.
——How about exhibitions in foreign countries?
Not so much. I did it in Zurich (Switzerland), Krakow (Poland) and Halle (Germany) from 2014 to 2015. The contemporary art museum in Krakow, near to Auschwitz, was made by renovating factory that used in the movie “Schindler’s List”. There, I piled used soaps up and made one of my artworks. I got a hint from the story of Nazi’s soap.
——Did you get any impressive comments in foreign countries?
When I held an exhibition in London, I was told that it was a very Japanese work, in which materials are major. I was surprised of that comment.
——How do you see the current state of the art world in Japan?
Some artists deeply understand the situation. Their works are linked to the world situations, and they often go to foreign countries. But the others do not read the newspapers and only see where they like. Polarized. I think, even through the newspapers or television, it is important to be keep informed of the events taking place in the world while creating the arts.
Also, I think there is some difficulties for young artists in this era. It was obvious that when I was young my artworks weren’t selling at all and I lived from hand-to-mouth. Now, some young artists sell their artworks well, and become stars. Due to that, they believe blindly that it should be a planning exhibition or they wanted to be stars from the beginning, so they cannot tackle in their works seriously. In many cases they are used for the benefit of galleries or curators. A student who I know, does sculptures. He rent an apartment and an atelier while making money by a temporary job. Life is very hard and often he says “I did not eat breakfast today.” Since sculpture costs a lot of expenses, it does not last in such a situation.
Korean and Chinese wealthy people even they do not know how the young artists in their own country will grow in the future, they don’t hesitate to buy the young artists works. They invest because they believe there will be a big return to their own country later. There is no such behavior in Japanese rich people. If a worldwide artist comes out in Japan, it will be a power of Japan and the country becomes stronger. But they cannot have such an image.
——If you have any advice to our association about how to develop young artists talents.
Since the association has a studio and related facilities in the area spanning Atami and Yugawara, it is interesting for young artists to use it as an atelier and to hold exhibitions together with people in Yugawara. Since young artists have sociability, I guess they can live in the area successfully.
Photographs taken by YAMAMOTO Tadasu
Cooperation with Hashimoto Art Office: