Mr. YANOBE Kenji is a contemporary artist active both in Japan and abroad, creating giant sculptures that combine humorous forms with strong messages. He has been at the forefront of contemporary art by incorporating elements of subcultures such as anime and manga into his works. We interviewed Mr. YANOBE, who is also a recipient of the 9th TAKIFUJI Art Award (1988, now the International TAKIFUJI Art Award), about the origin of his creations and the trajectory of his activities.（Interviewer: NAGATA Akiko, Date of interview: August 2019, First appearance “The International Takifuji Art Awards 40 year’s Anniversary (published in 2020)”）
Imagination stimulated by “the ruins of the future,” the site of the Osaka Expo
——I heard that the “starting point” of your creative work was the Osaka Expo in 1970.
Looking back on how I became interested in manufacturing, the Osaka Expo was a major factor. At a time when the economy was growing steadily, an international exposition was to be held in my hometown, Osaka, under the slogan “Progress and Harmony of Mankind. I was five years old at the time, and I felt that enthusiasm, but after the opening of the festival, I never had a chance to go to the venue.
The following year, in 1971, I moved to Ibaraki City near the Expo site. The site of the former venue was just a short bike ride away, and when my friends and I went to explore it, we found it in the middle of demolition. The pavilion was crushed by a huge iron ball, and the giant robot “Deme” designed by Mr. ISOZAKI Arata*¹ was left in the closed festival plaza, and it was like looking at a scene of a future world where everything had ended. In other words, my experience at the Expo was not the glorious future that many children had imagined, but rather an experience like time traveling to “the ruins of the future”. From that time on, I think I developed a creative mind and imagination that I could build something and do anything.
——When did you decide to become an artist?
I have loved drawing pictures and making crafts since I was a child, and I was also fascinated by science fiction movies, anime, and manga. When I was in elementary school, I made my own manga magazines and passed them around with my friends, and when I was in high school, I made monsters and other characters costume and cosplayed. I was what is now called an “Otaku.” I was also interested in apocalyptic thought because “The Prophecies of Nostradamus” was popular. When I was in high school, I wanted to become someone who make props for sci-fi special effects movies, and for that I needed to study art and modeling, I got into the sculpture department of Kyoto City University of Arts after a year of study. So my initial motivation was impure.
——What kind of student were you?
After entering the school, I studied art history, contemporary art theory, and various techniques of sculpture such as iron welding, wood carving, and stone carving, and gradually began to think hard about “what expression means”. There was a path to the world of film, which was my initial hope, but I thought it would be better to pursue originality rather than relying on someone else’s worldview. I began to think that it was in the art world that I could expand my own expression, identity, and sensitivity to the times.
——At the time when you were in school, weren’t the stoic art trends such as “Mono-ha“*² and Minimalism*³ mainstream?
My motivation for entering the school was to “make monsters” in the first place, so when I showed my work, the teacher would say, “This is not art”. But what moved me was not stoic works that needed to be read in the context of art. Even then, as now,” I wanted to create works that would please everyone”, and I was desperately searching for the answer to that question.
*1 Architect representing Japan. He has worked on more than 100 architectural works in Japan and overseas, and in 2019 won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, which is called the Nobel Prize of architecture. His representative works include Art Tower Mito, Oita Prefectural Oita Library, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
*2 “Mono-ha（School of Things）” A trend in Japanese contemporary art that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Create works by combining materials that are hardly processed either singly or in combination. Representative artists include Lee U-Fan, SUGA Kishio and SEKINE Nobuo.
*3 A trend of expression that emerged in the U.S. in the 1960s that attempted to purify form and color to the minimum. Also called Minimal Art.
Subculture is the source of aesthetics
——You applied for the 9th TAKIFUJI Art Award when you were a senior in university.
My father was opposed to my going on to an art university, telling me to go to a regular university and become a salaried worker. I wanted to get results by the time I graduated, so I applied for the Art Award after seeing the application notice posted on the bulletin board at the university. I also felt that it was a touchstone to see if I could become an artist. Winning the award was material to persuade my father, and it also helped me to make up my mind to go on to graduate school. I remember that the scholarship money was used to pay for production expenses which was very helpful because I had been showing my work off campus since my junior year and working part-time to pay for the production.
—— In 1990, while you were still in graduate school, you attracted attention with your “Tanking Machine”.
The “Tanking Machine” is a device that allows the viewer to enter a tank filled with saline solution and meditate. At first glance, the futuristic form looks like it could be seen in a science fiction movie, and the experience is like being reborn through regression in the womb. It was just at the time when young artists of the same generation, such as Mr. MURAKAMI Takashi*⁴ and Mr. NARA Yoshitomo, who cited subcultures, were beginning to appear in the world, and I think I was one of the pioneers of this era. In the early 1990s, I thought that subculture was the source of our sense of beauty, and that presenting this subculture was the expression of pure beauty and would become a new trend in art.
——You have also been abroad.
When I was a first-year graduate student, I stayed in London for three months as an exchange student. One day, I saw Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery in London. I thought it was wonderful, but next to me, a local elementary school student is receiving appreciation education in front of the real thing. I thought, “This is nothing compared to that,” but at the same time, it was an opportunity for me to reevaluate the Japanese culture that has moved us and nurtured our sensibilities. I was convinced that anime characters and the monster GOZILLA had beauty comparable to Venus de Milo, and that there was no need to hesitate in digging it out. In London, I built a work that was a kind of template for the “Tanking Machine.” It is a three-dimensional eggshell-like work made of a wooden frame that people can put inside, and the British army gas mask installed on top was purchased at a flea market. It is a bit of a reclusive device. The “Tanking Machine” is currently in the collection of 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, but I reworked it again in 2019 and presented it at a gallery in Los Angeles.
——Looking back at your later works, the threat of nuclear power and radiation seems to be a major theme, when did you become aware of this theme?
In 1991, when a small pipe rupture accident occurred at the Mihama Nuclear Power Plant in Fukui Prefecture, I felt a great sense of crisis and created the “Yellow Suit,” a radiation protective suit made of steel and lead. I strongly feel that nuclear power is an issue that is inseparable from our society and our daily lives. “Yellow Suit” is a pop figure, but it contains a serious problem. In 1992, I held a solo exhibition at Art Tower Mito, where I created futuristic devices such as radiation suits and oxygen generators in a venue that resembled a laboratory of the future. Although I created a work called “Tanking Machine,” which was a reference to subculture, I gradually shifted my focus to social issues and presented futuristic devices as sculptures under the theme of “survival” to survive the end of the century.
*4 Japanese contemporary artist. Known worldwide for his paintings and sculptures that incorporate expressions from anime and manga.
Imagination and determination born from a heavy reality
——You stayed in Berlin, Germany for three years from 1994.
At that time, Berlin was a place where there was a void caused by the collapse of the “Wall,” reminiscent of “the ruins of the future” where the delusions of the East and West collided. In 1995, while I was away from Japan, I was shocked by Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. I was devastated that my creation was of no use in a situation that really needed survival, followed by Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks. I titled my solo exhibition at Art Tower Mito in 1992 “Yanobe Kenji Paranoia Fortress” because I wanted to affirm that we are the “delusional generation,” so to speak, living in a fluffy reality, having experienced neither war nor the student movement. However, the followers of Aum Shinrikyo, who were of the same generation, released sarin gas on the subway. I was shocked to find that the work I had created as an expression of my affirmation seemed to have no meaning. I was forced to rethink what reality was in my mind. Then the nuclear issue became unavoidable. Japan is the only country to have been exposed to the atomic bombings of war, and I was strongly feeling the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident (1986) in Berlin, where I was living at the time.
——That is how you started the “Atom Suit project” in 1997.
This project is to visit the off-limits zone called “zone” within a 30-kilometer radius of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant wearing a self-made radiation-sensing suit called the “Atom Suit”. The aim was to connect my inner fantasy with reality through actual experience. The suit is an homage to “Atom*⁵,” but with a Geiger counter (radiation counter), it works realistically. When we visited the town that had become a ghost town after the accident, we met children and elderly people who continue to live there for various reasons despite the government’s ban on their residency. Coming in contact with the raw reality of the situation, I was reminded once again that “human has done a terrible thing”. I felt that if I could not contribute to changing the situation as a person of expression, it would be mere complacency, and I carried a sense of redemption on my back. Through my experience at Chernobyl, I was reminded that I should be prepared if I am to face the heavy reality and the imagination that emerges from it.
——Since 2000, you have released a series of topical works such as “Torayan,” a ventriloquist doll character, and “Lucky Dragon,” inspired by the Daigo Fukuryu Maru*⁶. Your themes may be serious, but your figures are sometimes cute or humorous. Is this consciously?
Of course. Art is not something that only specialists appreciate, but rather something that is more open to society. While encompassing serious issues, it is necessary to throw a pitch that is easy for viewers to receive and understand, and I think this is my originality. I am the Kansai people, so I have an axis of evaluation that says, “I am only interested in making people laugh”. My works are pop and contain elements of comedy and humor, but behind “Lucky Dragon” and “Torayan” lies a nuclear problem.
*5 A boy robot character created by manga artist TEZUKA Osamu. He is the main character in the “Astro Boy” manga and anime series.
*6 The Daigo Fukuryu Maru was a longline tuna fishing boat that was exposed to radiation from a U.S. hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands on March 1, 1954.
Thoughts on the “Sun Child” statue
——How did you respond to the Great East Japan Earthquake and the nuclear power plant accident in 2011?
I was greatly shocked and I felt like I was confronted with what art can do. I called on my acquaintances in Fukushima to “do whatever it takes” and went to Fukushima to conduct workshops for children and exhibit artworks. In the midst of this heart-breaking situation, I felt that the power of art was needed now more than ever, and I created the statue of “Sun Child” in the hope that it would become a symbol of hope. The 6.2 meter high statue of a child in yellow protective clothing, with the number “000” written on the counter on its chest, symbolizes a future without radioactive contamination.
The face was the most important part of the production process. I wanted to create a face that would be extremely adorable and give the viewer a sense of hope and “cuteness! “. I created the statue of “Sun Child” together with the students of the “ULTRA FACTORY” at Kyoto University of Art and Design (now Kyoto University of the Art), where I teach. ULTRA FACTORY is a studio established in 2008 on the campus of university, where I and other creators provide hands-on education by showing students the process of creation. After its completion, the work was exhibited at Fukushima Airport and other locations in Japan and overseas, and we heard many comments of delight, such as “I feel as if a light is shining.”
——However, in 2018, a statue of “Sun Child” was installed near Fukushima Station, but it was removed due to fears that it would amplify harmful rumors about the nuclear power plant accident.
Seven years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake, and the mayor was so determined not to let the nuclear accident fade away that he rushed the installation too quickly. Because he skipped the procedures, various discrepancies arose and the voices of the citizens were left behind. I felt very responsible for agreeing to the installation, and I realized that there were voices that I missed to hear.
——I was impressed by your words at the removal press conference when you said, “I want to hang on to Fukushima and stay involved.”
I am still visiting Fukushima and continuing discussions with the local people. I recently visited Minamisoma City, and I am also planning to conduct a workshop at a junior high school in Fukushima City. If there is anything I can do to help, I will do it steadily. I have no choice but to slowly work out in my mind what kind of relationship I can have with Fukushima in the future and how I can make the most of this experience in my production. That is what I am thinking.
Born in Osaka in 1965. Received the 9th TAKIFUJI Art Award in 1988. He graduated from the Graduate School of Kyoto City University of Arts in 1991. In 1990, “Tanking Machine” won the Grand Prix of the Kirin Plaza Osaka Contemporary Art Award. With the theme of “Survival in Contemporary Society” in the 1990s and “Revival” since the 2000s, he has created sculptures and installations with a social message in humorous forms. He has exhibited his works in solo and group exhibitions and art festivals in Japan and abroad. He is a professor at Kyoto University of the Arts, and is also the director of the “ULTRA FACTORY”, a shared studio that is open to all students.