The artist, UCHIUMI Satoshi has created artworks for many public spaces such as Toranomon Hills and the Palace Hotel, Tokyo. Moreover, he is a young artist gaining much attention for paintings on a scale that uses whole spaces, and experimental pieces which extend beyond the two-dimensional frame. We asked Mr. Uchiumi, who was awarded 20th International Takifuji Art Award in 1999, about the thought process behind his work. (Interviewer – Megumi Nishikawa, Executive Director)
Becoming an artist
I thought that it was wonderful that if I could make the choice to live a life devoted to my art, rather than relying on my fame as an author.
——What first prompted you to think of becoming an artist?
I didn’t decide to become an artist until quite some time after graduating from university, but when I was still in high school, I thought that I would like to do something that wouldn’t cause problems for people. If, for example, you become a doctor and you make a mistake, it could affect that patient for their whole life. But art doesn’t cause problems for people, and any problems that do arise, you can sort out by yourself. These days I believe that artists have a responsibility in their work that extends across the sensory, visual and social, but back then I chose to be an artist for the negative reason that I didn’t have confidence in myself.
——Did you go to an ordinary High School?
It was an ordinary high school in my area, but there was a teacher there called Mr. Nozawa Jiro from Ibaraki Prefecture, who was an advisor on art, and it was he who influenced me. Nowadays he is seen as one of the top abstract artists of his generation, with work regularly selected for the VOCA exhibitions and for display in galleries, but back then he was just painting pictures in the art club after school. In the run up to his solo exhibitions, you could see him getting thinner and thinner as he worked away. I learned how to set myself to the task of making pieces of art by watching his intense dedication to his work.
——What did he think about your work?
I was reasonably talented, but when I used to bring him the initial design and show him what I had painted, he would take a cloth and rub it out, saying “Paint it again from here tomorrow”. The following day I’d repaint it, bring it to him and he’d rub it out again. That could go on for a whole month. Looking back on it, by rubbing it out he was leaving me with an appreciation for how much work goes into art, and he was telling me that if you paint it from here it will be better, but back then I didn’t know what was wrong with the work and I just felt that it was so hard to be an artist. Up to that point in time, I had thought that a picture was something that you painted in two or three hours, so it was so interesting and inspiring to learn that a picture is actually something that you make with long hours of thought and consideration.
——I believe that you studied at Tama Art University? Did you go there to study nature and oil paintings?
I chose to study oils by chance, as I didn’t really know about anything else. During my time at university, I tried many different things like performance art and making three-dimensional pieces, but I am not so good at making lifelike representations of things. I discovered that I like to do as much preparation as possible, think things out as much as possible and only then make the artwork.
——You were at Tama Art University for 4 years and then you continued as a post-graduate for a further 2 years. Did you have to balance your study with a part-time job?
I basically just considered how I could live off my stipend. My only thought was that as long as I can get by, I can make art. If I didn’t have enough money, I just had to buy cheaper materials and cheaper paints. I did realise, however, that unless I did solo exhibitions while I was still at university, there wouldn’t be anything for me in the future, so I made some money from those. From my third year at university, right through until completing my post-graduate studies I put on four solo exhibitions every year. Apart from that, I tried to take part in every exhibition I was invited to and tried to enter as many art competitions as I could. Having said that, even if I got an invitation from a gallery or art museum to exhibit, it didn’t mean that I could sell my paintings, so I did struggle financially.
——So your entry into the 20th International Takifuji Art Award in 1999 was part of that?
I entered after seeing a poster that was stuck up in my university. I used the prize money to buy a 100,000 Yen ($1000 USD) suit for the award ceremony, and I spent the rest on paints for my artwork. I remember having absolutely delicious food at the award ceremony and being impressed that it was such a huge event.
——What kind of an artist do you ultimately see yourself as?
In the Doraemon comic books, there is an artist who can’t make it but sell his work on the street. He was my role model as an artist. He can’t sell his work, he’s shabby, and he’s a bit of a nobody, right? So you see, I chose art for negative reasons.
The thing is, that I didn’t realise until later on, that in order to be able to paint every day, you have to really get your art into circulation. I finally set my sights on becoming a professional artist a long time after graduating. I think that it was only in 2004 when a few people bought my work at a solo exhibition that I thought “Maybe if I think about this properly and do things properly, I might be able to make a living out of it”, and I set myself on course to become an artist. Around that time, I heard about an artist making large sculptures. Although he was hardly known at all in the art world, he got by as an author. I thought that it was wonderful that if I could make the choice to live a life devoted to my art, rather than relying on my fame as an author.
——Was there ever a particular turning point for you?
8） I don’t feel that there was a specific turning point, more that the right challenges were presented to me at the right time. During my time at university I participated in group exhibitions and held my own solo exhibitions; it was good timing that I had the opportunity to apprehensively put together my solo exhibitions and good luck that it was at times when I had to be strong I received major commissions. I believe that it is only because I always get commissions that stretch my ability that I am now able to work as an artist.
Artwork using pieces of stained glass
This time I am bringing together glasswork and oil painting. It’s good if as the observer you can feel at the same time both that it is made from a collection of shards, whilst appreciating the special brittleness that the glass brings to the piece.
——For the 2018 Japan Traffic Culture Association Exhibition (*1), you were asked to design a piece using stained glass, but there were restrictions on the exhibition space, and I believe that there was a lot that you had to take into consideration. Many artists would have refused, saying that their concepts were not something that could be shoehorned to fit into a specific framework, but you were able to be flexible with your work, weren’t you?
My first proper exposure to art was in high school, so I am aware that it was a late start. That is to say that there was a time when I carried on my day-to-day life without any problems and without having any art around me. Conversely, therefore, I am fascinated by the vistas that come into view through art. Also, because I entered the artwork from a position of knowing nothing about it, I knew that I could only find out by trying. So I try to take on any kind of work that I am asked to, as long as I have enough time.
With the stained glass artwork too, I decided that I won’t refuse the job because it is not a painting, but I’ll give it a try, I’ll give it a lot of thought and if it becomes impossible I will know not to take it on again the next time.
*1 This is the cultural exhibition organised every October by The Japan Traffic Culture Association in Ueno station. The exhibition will be held over 6 days from the 14th October to celebrate National Railways Day.
——Was there something that you discovered using glass as a medium for the first time?
With oils, they are basically ready to paint with as soon as you squeeze them out of the tube, but the rough drafts and the preparations that you need to do before working with glass are very time-consuming. The timescales for making the pieces are completely different. Another huge difference is that with oils you can wipe out the layers of color below by painting over them, whereas with glass, once you’ve finished the draft and started work there is pretty much nothing that you can change. Because of this, I rediscovered that the thought process behind my creation of the work was heavily dependent on the material being used. This time I am bringing together glasswork and oil painting. It’s good if as the observer you can feel at the same time both that it is made from a collection of shards, whilst appreciating the special brittleness that the glass brings to the piece.
Between Artwork and Space
By making it on large screens, I was able to reduce the feeling of “viewing a piece of art” and instead bring the artwork closer to being a space in its own right. I feel more comfortable with this.
——I believe that there are two types of artist: Artists who want to convey a message to people looking at their work and artists who want the people looking at their work to form their own feelings freely. Which category do you feel that you fall into?
I do not try to project myself through the artwork; on the contrary, I try to see how much of myself I can erase from the pictures. I want to work so that it is not my touch that is in the piece, but the touch of, well, anyone; as if it were the touch of all humanity, so to speak. I don’t believe that I was born with some special talent and I believe that if I can erase my own mediocrity from the piece I can actually make something better. What I am trying to achieve, is to show that it is because of the nature of the glass or the nature of the oils that the piece is what it is, not because of me. More than anything, it’s to say to the viewer that it is okay to forget that I am the artist. It’s okay to not look at it as a piece of my work, but to look at it only as a picture.
——That’s a rather unobtrusive stance isn’t it?
Well, for example, if you go to a restaurant where my art is on display, the main motivation for going to the restaurant should be the food and the conversation. You don’t have to look at my pictures; it’s fine for me if they are just background scenery. When I was at university doing solo exhibitions, I often gave my pieces titles suggesting the idea of a backdrop, such as “The Background Behind Him” or “Where He Is”.
The thing is, however, that it is the predestined fate of pictures to be seen, so I believe it is possible to consider that unique quality that they possess and to use it to construct a space. For example, if you hang a picture where people know it’s there, but it can’t be seen, then the desire to see the picture motivates the observer to move towards it. By doing things in this way, the space that leads right up to the picture itself becomes key. To put it differently, deliberately hiding the picture showcases the space around it.
I often make largescale pieces, but the point of their size is not to make them stand out. Instead, by moving the edge of the picture out of the frame of sight, I am deliberately obscuring the boundary between the artwork and the space around it. That is to say that when a piece of art is large enough, the artwork itself becomes the space, and the feeling that there is any separation between the art and the space it is in is greatly decreased.
I used this concept in the artwork that I did for Toranomon Hills (*2). By making it on large screens, rather than small individual pieces, I was able to reduce the feeling of “viewing a piece of art” and instead bring the artwork closer to being a space in its own right. By doing this, the compulsion to “view” the work is lessened, and the eye is drawn away from the work per se and towards space as a whole. I feel more comfortable with this. Of course I paint the pictures properly, but after I’ve completely finished the artwork, the feeling should be that the presence of the artwork fades out in order to lift up the whole space.
*2 The 27-metre long, large-scale pentaptych in oils, entitled “New Water” was installed in the lobby of Toranomon Hills in 2014.
——So your pictures are eminently suitable for public art works, are they not?
I occasionally get private commissions, but having been lucky enough to have had the experience of doing publicly commissioned artworks, I suppose that you could say that the feeling behind my work is indeed one more suited to public works. Having said that, what I want to express is that the person viewing the artwork does not have to tune in to my personal way of thinking; in fact, it is better if they view the works without even thinking about me, the artist.
There is a difference, however, between making pieces for individuals and for public display. For a public piece, you have to consider the hundreds of different people who will pass by it, whereas for a private piece, if it is for someone who, for example, likes the colour green, then I directly put green colours into the work. It is a different fighting technique, if you will. What I feel is interesting is that by taking on different types of work, I can think about art in many different ways depending on the situation.
——Do you have a lot of connections in the art world?
I don’t go to official openings or anything like that, so I don’t think that I have many acquaintances who are curators or who are people connected with the art world. But as long as I carry on with my work, the feeling that people can get from it is something which comes back two or three years later. When I ask someone, who has commissioned a piece, where they saw my work, they have invariably seen it three or even five years earlier. But after that, it is rarely the case that I continue to interact with that person. I work constantly, so I don’t really go outside, but I am deeply grateful that even so I consistently get commissions.
——Is there something specific that you are hoping to do in the future?
I want to make a magnum opus. I mean that I want to do a huge picture on a huge scale. Personally, I get the feeling that making a huge pictures strengthens me. The piece in Toranomon Hills is pretty big. What’s interesting, however, is discovering the new concept that a piece of artwork can even achieve something like this. It feels like finding an untrodden mountain trail by yourself, with your own knowledge, your own experience and your own strength.
——So working is like studying for you?
What I do is simple, so it’s easy to get tired of it. But by keeping my mind active and my hands moving, I always want to be discovering new and unexpected facets of my art.
Now I’m also making artworks using glass. At the beginning of this year, I hadn’t even thought of doing this, so I want to keep picking up new things through my work. I want to do the kind of work that two or three years ago I would not have imagined myself doing.
UCHIUMI Satoshi was born in Ibaraki in 1977. In 1999 he was awarded the 20th International Takifuji Art Award, and in 2002 he completed his post-graduate study in Art Research at Tama Art University. He has participated in many group as well as solo exhibitions, recently exhibiting works such as “Moonwalk” in the Roppongi Hills A/D Gallery in 2015, exhibiting at the KENPOKU Art Festival in Ibaraki in 2016 (in Hitachiota and Hitachi-Omiya), and “Distant Painting” at YCC Yokohama Creative City Centre in 2017. He has also turned his hand to many public art projects, such as his piece in Toranomon Hills. He is the standard-bearer for a young generation of artists, leading the world of abstract painting. Satoshi also has solo exhibitions planned for October 2018 in Galerie Ando in Shibuya, and March 2019 in the Ueno Royal Museum.