ODANI Motohiko, an artist and sculptor who has continued to exhibit at museums and biennales both domestically and internationally after graduating from the Department of Sculpture at Tokyo University of the Arts, is the recipient of the 15th (1994) International TAKIFUJI Art Award. His highly accomplished works, which are based on his sculptures and use a variety of media such as photography, video, and installation, have received high praise internationally. （Interviewer: NAGAI Yuko, Date of interview: July 2019, First appearance “The International Takifuji Art Awards 40 year’s Anniversary (published in 2020)”）
The path to sculpture that began with Buddhist statues
——What inspired you to become an artist?
I never intended to be an artist. I had always lived in Kyoto and loved Buddhist statues, so I thought it would be interesting to create original Buddhist sculptures. When I was in my first year of high school, my parents took me to a Buddhist sculptor’s class in my neighborhood, and the first thing they made me do was “jimonbori*¹” which was a hardship for me. When I showed him a picture, I had drawn of a Buddha statue, saying that this is what I really wanted to create, he admonished me, “you should go to an art universities and learn various things before carving Buddha statues”. It was there that I first learned about art universities and started attending an art prep school.
——So that’s how you went on to Tokyo University of the Arts.
The entrance examination system for the Faculty of Fine Arts at Kyoto City University of Arts is like a sensory test, with wide-ranging subjects such as two-dimensional composition and three-dimensional composition. In contrast, art universities in the Kanto region require specialized entrance exams, and I came to Tokyo because I was interested in the fact that the entrance exam preparation for the sculpture department is made of clay, and I thought the exam period might be fun.
——What was your student life like?
I was not interested in becoming an artist after I entered the university, but rather I was hoping to make some good sculptures while I was in the university. For a while, I was in a slightly rotten state, thinking that I couldn’t do much, and wondered idly if I would eventually find a job at an advertising agency. However, in my sophomore year of college, I was able to create something interesting during my first woodcarving exercise, in which I chose the materials by myself. When the work was finished, it seemed to stand on its own, even though I had created it myself, I had the feeling that the work had become detached from my hands for the first time.
It was a strange thing, that at the same time, I began to feel that my work was being “seen”. I was making them in the open, in my studio at the university. The human eye is honest, that everyone sees what bothers them. As I got attention and felt the surrounding landscape and environment gradually changing, I thought, “I might be able to make it.
The work gave me confidence and made me want to go to graduate school, and I felt that whether I could get results or not, I should just work hard and break out into the world.
*1 Carving geometric patterns on wooden boards.
A work of art that surpasses the images in your brain
——How did you go about creating the work?
To be honest, I did not have a specific image in mind. I was curious about the shape I drew in the drawing and decided to try carving it, anyway. I started carving around the protrusion left accidently when the tree was roughed out. It was not bad so I continued carving, then I was starting to feel uplifted. I had a hunch and inserted some icicle like wood into it, which created depth and space……it was like this.
I always use two techniques in any work that are carving*² and modeling*³. When working with carving alone on detailed drawings that are directly from my own image, I feel the limitations of sculpture. Combine carving and modeling allows me to do both positive and negative work. I really like that interaction. I thought the videos was interesting because it could be taken away or added to by editing.
I want my work to betray and surpass my own image. There is a limit to what can be imagined in the brain, bound by the real world. The reason I started using computers is to renew the images in my brain. By coincidence, unexpected results can happen. I feel that when the work goes well, the catalyst is well placed to stimulate the subconscious.
——You entered the International TAKIFUJI Art Award with that monumental work. Why did you apply for the Award?
A senior at university recommended it to me, saying, “You can get money, and it will make creation much easier.” Students are always looking for money for creation. From a rather early stage, I had been trying to have my work seen outside the university as much as possible, rather than on campus, so applying for the competition was like trying my luck.
It was like a miraculous misunderstanding, and I assumed I could make it, but when the award was given to me, I remember being happier that I had been recognized outside the world than my initial goal of the money.
——How is the scholarship money used?
I believe we received at once 300,000 yen, and all went for materials. I tend to buy materials, try things out, and fail. I started my graduation project at the beginning of April and had made a lot of progress by the end of the first semester, but my feelings suddenly cooled down and I changed it to something else at once in late September, so the scholarship helped me more than I could have ever imagined.
One of my graduation projects, “When I go to see my docter,” is now in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, so you never know what the future is.
*2 To carve out wood, etc.
*3 Taking or attaching clay or other materials.
Making binding of the “body” conscious
——You made your debut in 1997 with your solo exhibition “Phantom-Limb” at P-House Gallery in Daikanyama, Tokyo. That was a very early debut.
Right after entering graduate school, I went to a gallery to give a presentation, and it caught their attention, and the path opened up on its own. I believe that people who become writers and artists are automatic doors that open when they stand there. I felt like I was moving forward on my own like a conveyor belt, even though I wasn’t doing anything myself, and I suddenly realized that I had become an artist.
I made my debut when I was about 25 years old and was featured in a magazine, so I entered the art world in a rather flashy way. Conversely, I was pushed out before I establish a foothold in my career. Even though I may have looked lucky to those around me, I think there was a part of me that was mentally and physically drained because of that. I don’t think that not everything is about being young.
——What has been your theme since “Phantom-Limb”?
“Phantom limb” is the phenomena that make you feel as if your limb still exist, even though they were lost due to accident or disease. At the core of my interest is such a thing that does not exist but does exist, or its own transformation into something different, or the process of change. I am fascinated by the process of rearranging the senses in the brain. I feel it is a possibility of the human body.
Advances in technology and medicine are expanding the possibilities of creating cells, bringing dead ones back to life, and changing yourself into a different form. It will be an activity that can continue as long as human beings have bodies. Sculpture, on the other hand, placing the physical senses at the center, and interacting the weight of the material through five senses, and making binding of the body conscious in a real space.
——Why did you expand your expression methods beyond wood sculpture to include installations, photography and video works?
Sculpture was basically a slow media that took longer physically than other media. A short time after my debut, I was suddenly offered a job by a famous curator from overseas, but when I was exposed to their quick decision-making and sense of speed, I realized that I could not keep up with them just by dealing with such a slow media.
I had always been interested in video, and in the early 2000s I sensed that we were approaching an era in which the general public could also use video through digital editing. I began to think that this was a big change coming, and that if we did not move away from the analog, manual environment once, we might be in danger from the evolution of technology. So, after working as an assistant at Tokyo University of the Arts for three years, I went to school for video. Studying abroad was an option at that time, but I think that choosing video was one of the crossroads for me. By adding video to my arsenal, I am now able to transfer the basic sculptural ideas that I have cultivated to different media.
I want to get closer to what borders on death
——In your solo exhibition “Tulpa -Here is me” held in April 2019, you presented a human figure formed by superimposing your own head on others and fusing parts of its body with animals and plants. I understand that this is due to your experience of being on the verge of life and death after a serious illness.
I had a sudden myocardial infarction in 2017 and was rushed to the emergency room. When I came back to the studio, I realized that these might not have existed if I had died. The plan was to create a kind of self-portrait of my body, but if death passes over the body, and if there is a future time and a past time after death, I thought I had no choice but to connect them. Normally, I would not want to create a work based on personal emotions, but at that time, I felt that I could not move forward without incorporating my own experiences.
Sculpture was originally near death. The creation of the genre of sculpture, such as burial goods, objects for the resurrection of the dead, and human figure as “yorishiro*⁴” must have been on the borderline of death itself, I wanted to get closer to something on the borderline, like an Egyptian sculpture full of things that are neither human nor animal.
——In the past, you have used many realistic materials such as animal fur and hair, but this time, too, the snakeskin pasted on the surface of the human figure was impressive.
When I am carving wood, I sometimes feel a splash of water and realize that this was alive and feel the awesomeness of real materials. Originally, what I was doing was to take a tree that was artificially harvested and dead and replace it with something of different value by remaking it into a work of art, like processing a corpse. It’s almost like resuscitating. The idea is the same whether the texture of the real, non-fake material is wood, fur, or a corpse-like material. I think there is an amount of information that can only be found in the real thing. Also, when dealing with natural objects, there are moments when I feel a connection with ancient humans.
——The venue was filled with sounds based on your own heartbeat, which made me very conscious of the concept of time.
I had a myocardial infarction that necrosed half my heart muscle, and since then I have been afraid of my own heartbeat.
I felt like I was monitoring myself with sound, wondering if it was really working. In the past, have you ever had the sensation of hearing the sound of a clock gradually magnified when you couldn’t fall asleep? Maybe it was that anxious state of mind, something close to a sense of urgency. Therefore, I think there was a kind of fear of the finiteness of the body that resided in that space itself.
I also used old media such as black phones because, unlike digital media that suddenly stop working, they become old and broken over time, and I saw them as an extension of the body. Although the receiver is held in the hand, it is an image of bodily functions, including itself.
——Has going through death change your mindset in any way?
It’s hard to understand for people when you have a style like mine, where I do something different every time. And of course, there are ups and downs, and when you get a hit, you also get a miss. I thought I was afraid of that more than I should have been, and now I really don’t care of that. If I die, the activity is over. Since the works and achievements of making things remain, what people say about the works is proof that I am alive and active, and it is like an effect (result), I think.
*4 Object representative of a divine spirit.
Express complex things lightly
——What are your future plans?
Since I came into the world quite early, the axis of creation has been moving. After the end of my solo exhibition “Phantom-Limb” at the Mori Art Museum in 2010, and through the unfortunate happening of 3/11 and my residency in New York, I feel that I am finally getting closer to my core, little by little.
I believe I was able to reflect my life-size in this exhibition as well. I have always been interested in unnatural, absurd and irrational happening and things. In the early days, I had to keep things simple and minimalistic in my work, and I did not want to mix in anything that was out of order. But when I wondered who decides what is rational or irrational, necessary or unnecessary, and if it is up to human sensibilities and common sense, I wanted to get away from such thinking.
I have a wide range of thinking about expression, and sometimes I feel that it is too narrow to be confined within the logic of art. Because I am such a person, I have come to think that I want to create work that highlights myself as an outlier. Now I want to continue to express complex things in a lighthearted way.
Born in Kyoto in 1972, he received the 15th International TAKIFUJI Art Award in 1994. M.F.A. in Sculpture, Tokyo University of the Arts, 1997. Currently, he is an associate professor of sculpture at the same university. Known for works in a variety of media including sculpture, photography, video, and installation. He has participated in many international exhibitions, including the Japanese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2003. Major solo exhibitions include “Phantom Limb” (Mori Art Museum, etc., 2010-11), “Terminal Moment” (2014), “DEPTH OF THE BODY” (New York, 2016), “Tulpa -Here is me” (ANOMALY, Tokyo, 2019). 25th Hirakushi Denchu Award in 2011, and The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s Art Encouragement Prize for New Artist of Fine Art in 2012.