Pace Live

On Yoshitomo Nara

A Conversation with Yeewan Koon and Mika Yoshitake

Conversation recorded on October 15, 2020

This online event, hosted by Pace Gallery in collaboration with Blum & Poe, brought together author Yeewan Koon and LACMA curator Mika Yoshitake for a conversation on Yoshitomo Nara's life and practice, presented on the occasion of Nara's solo exhibitions at Pace Gallery in New York and LACMA.

Learn more about Yoshitomo Nara

Yeewan Koon (YK): I'm here.

Mika Yoshitake (MY): Hi, finally!

YK: Ok, so we are live.

MY: Hello, everyone.

YK: Can you hear me?

MY: Yes.

YK: Awesome. Hello, everyone. Let me quickly introduce our program today. I hope you all can hear me very clearly. So, today's event is on the occasion of Yoshitomo Nara's exhibition, (opens in a new window) After all I’m cosmic dust... Pace Online is pleased to present a conversation between myself, (opens in a new window) Yeewan Koon, I'm a professor and author of the first major (opens in a new window) monograph on the artist, which is published by Phaidon Press in 2020, so this year, and also with independent curator, (opens in a new window) Mika Yoshitake, curator of the current exhibition, (opens in a new window) Yoshitomo Nara at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Nara’s After all I’m cosmic dust... is at 540 West 25th Street, New York, and it presents the never-been-seen before drawings alongside some of Nara’s personal items related to his artistic process, but also his inspiration and is open to the public online scheduled visits between now and October 24th. So do go and try and catch that if you are in the city. But I'm going to pass this over now to Mika, who is going to kick off our conversation.

MY: Great. Thanks, Yeewan. Hi, everyone. I am pleased to present the two... the Phaidon book that Yeewan has beautifully written, which came out this year, and the LACMA retrospective, which is installed but hasn't... The museum is still waiting to reopen, and so I'm showing the catalogue as well as we created a (opens in a new window) deluxe edition with the vinyl record that includes songs that were personally selected by Nara from the ‘60s and ‘70s, folk music, as well as Yo La Tengo’s covers of some of the songs that Nara selected. The book also includes music liner notes that Nara has written about. I just wanted to kind of introduce the... We both wanted to talk about what we've learned from working with Nara and also the works, some of his most favorite works that are both in the final publication as well as in the exhibition, and kind of focus on three main areas of his practice: music, as well as the girls that are so iconic, and also, in the end if we have time, the kind of spiritual, mystical, political side of his work as well. So, I'm going to be showing some images of the installation, which is at LACMA at the moment, this is the entrance to the exhibition, and we have a whole wall of vinyl records that the artist has collected over the last thirty years.

This exhibition is quite unique in the sense that it focuses really on the earliest music that he listed to, basically since he was nine, and it was during the Vietnam War. He has a kind of unorthodox art education in the sense that he fell in love with the album covers. So, for example, the kind of hand- sewn, hand-painted, very detail-oriented aspect of some of the folk music covers like (opens in a new window) Luke Gibson on the left here, as well as (opens in a new window) Joni Mitchell, who painted some of her own portraits that appeared on the covers. Nara would actually go really deep. Even if he didn't understand the lyrics, he really understood some of these... or would learn about the music through these images.

YK: I think it's really interesting what you say, how he goes from very early on, because, I mean, he made his own radio when he was eight years old and has been listening to music ever since then. I mean, he still recalls the first time he collected, saved, all his pennies and went to the record store to buy the record and how it was this elicit pleasure of going to this grown up world. It's such a fond and embedded memory, I mean, music, just the whole idea. It's not just listening to music, it's the whole experience of it to him.

MY: Yeah. And when you read his writings, you can see that he knows about all of the back stories like this (opens in a new window) Discover America cover it, it's actually designed by a Japanese designer, but it's to him this kind of iconic American pop, with this perspective of the two Greyhound buses. Also, this (opens in a new window) Chris Smither album, when he saw (opens in a new window) John Baldessari’s work, he immediately thought of this album. So, it's kind of like music really teaches him how to look at art and to really understand visual language. I'm just going to scroll through some of the more didactic examples. There are some motifs throughout his practice, like the girl submerged, half submerged in water. Here you see In the Deepest Puddle from 1995, middle, and In the Milky Lake, and Shadow Puddles, which has this kind of disc-shaped bandage technique. For these, he actually was looking at this album by (opens in a new window) John Hiatt. I mean, it's loosely related, but you can kind of see how he transforms the motifs into his own.

YK: And he really likes picking up certain just lyrics from a line and just playing around with it. I mean, even when, not necessarily to do with art practice, he himself would just sometimes doodle some lines from the lines. He's even translated lines from English through German to Japanese to German and English cause you know, he can play around with all these languages. It's just really interesting how he's constantly obsessed about this music in a very different way. And it does inform his art practice. But he also has this side, I mean, I think it was until last year for a very short period of time, he had his own radio show in Japan. And it was dedicated only to––and it was very strict––it was only dedicated to talking about music. He did it for about a year, on top of everything else he's doing.

MY: Yeah, I think a lot of people don't realize he has such a big aspect of, he's not just an artist, but also, he devotes so much time to traveling and really kind of working with different communities, especially in the north of Japan.

YK: That’s a great drawing that you’re showing.

MY: Yeah. This is what Nara calls "roots,” like the root of a tree, but this is his personal genealogy of music, kind of like (opens in a new window) Alfred Barr's diagram, but what he really started to listen to and the root of his being basically, it is the formation of himself. We actually have this as the cover of the vinyl record.

YK: Yeah. I mean, I'm glad you brought up drawing because drawing is so important to Nara. I think one of the things people when they look at to his paintings, they don't realize, especially the image of the girl which he is most famous for. I mean, the painting that really in some ways established that path that he's on and he took started in 1991 when he did Girl with the Knife In Her Hand, which is an iconic painting, which I hope... yeah, this is the one. But the story behind all of this is that he was in Dusseldorf when he did his painting and it was actually for his graduation show. And it was for his graduation show that it was actually picked up by a gallery there who saw this, and actually it was the whole installation. They didn’t even realize when they were looking at this painting that he was a Japanese artist, they weren’t thinking about manga, they weren't thinking about anime, because that wasn't really that presence in the popular sphere in 1991 in Dusseldorf at that moment in time. But one of the things was that he was heavily influenced by his teacher, (opens in a new window) A.R. Penck.

MY: There he is.

YK: Oh, great. He still has little slips, of a couple of slips of paper that Penck gave him from their discussions. And it was Penck who said to him, you need to bring your drawings and your painting together. and it was really because based on those words that he started exploring the big, thick outlines. Right.

MY: I have a drawing here.

YK: Yes, you can see that it's one of the early drawings, that Nara did, and you can see it's a very painterly line. It's not a drawn line in that same sense. But he starts removing all the background. Right. He simplifies it so it’s just about the figure. Once he gets that, once he cracks that, that's how the Girl with the Knife was born, and he carries on working with that. Oh, you've got some great... You can see through his drawings how he develops these ideas, which I think is, the drawings are just so at the crux of his craft. The way he thinks, how he thinks through things, and it's all there you’ve just got to tease it out. I mean, how many drawings do you have in the show? There’s so many.

MY: We have 700 drawings. 400 of the drawings are framed, and so what you're seeing here is the first wall. So, from 1984 to 1987 or so and here and if you look actually in this wall, as well as the zero-fighter jet plane imagery, and it's quite dark. I mean prior to The Girl, but yeah. It was like German iconoclasm.

YK: Yeah. I mean he was definitely very, before the girl, he was expressing a lot of things. But once he established that Girl with the Knife you see that developing and he tries to move away from that black line, because you can see it's got that incredible, really striking color palette, his early work has a lot of that as well.

MY: Talk about the change from that angle. Right. The stare. It becomes directly right at you instead of the side view. It's very different, there’s intensity.

YK: There's much more connection with the viewer and I think that's something that he really establishes. I think one of the things that he does, I always think of these paintings as really trying to connect with people on the margins of society, whether it's children, refugees, the elderly, the people from the north. He's really trying to get us to connect with them in these ways. He does this by doing these ways that we will actually read into the painting easily, right. So, we literally stand above the girl as if we, the adults, are looking down at her, communicating with her. I think it's very successful. I mean, we’re put in a position where we have to at the same time take care of her, but also maybe not, because although he wants to connect that empathy, the people that he paints or the people he takes photographs of, they're also survivors. Right. They're strong characters. I think that balance between the person who is a survivor, who is strong, and the person as us as viewers having that sort of connection is kind of what is the power of why we keep getting drawn to his artwork so often.

MY: I think everyone sees something about themselves in the work. I mean, there’s that psychological...

YK: You see a friend or your sister, right. You see some sort of personal connection. I think it's also partly achieved by how simple it is. Oh, that's... so (opens in a new window) The Longest Night, which you also have. I mean, that's the color palette he was doing. But the next stage that, one of the things he then explores, is that he tries to take away the outlines, he erases the outlines. He kind of blurs them out a little bit as well.

MY: It starts getting more pale. Like this one, Abandoned Puppy.

YK: This is such a lovely, sweet painting. You can see it's no longer that dark, in your face sort of black, bold painter. Right. But he's also put, I mean, that's got bandages on it. Right. So, it's very textured as well.

MY: Yeah. So, what he said was he would have leftover strips of canvas in his studio and he just started to use them because he didn't want to throw them away. So, he would recycle them and put them on the on the surface of his canvas and then paint over it. But then it creates such a textural emotional quality.

YK: I think we should talk about, yeah, because the way he paints is also really interesting for such an established artist I think something that people should know is that he paints on his own. He doesn't have assistance. He kind of just goes into his studio, turns on the music really loud and paints through the night, and he wakes up in the morning and depending on how successful it is, he would even treat himself to a cup of tea or just relax. But he basically has been doing this since he first started. Even at his studio, I was talking to some of his earlier friends from his school days and have said he's always just been there. He just, he seems to be this fun... He's very lively. He's very charismatic, but when it comes to his work, he will just shut it out. He would just do it and then he would just get into his zone. So, he also has that side to him as well, which I think is also interesting.

MY: Yeah. So, in the show, he really just created his own... He treated the space of the museum like it was his own studio or space and so central lines, it didn't matter. He actually just installed really low or really high and created this kind of interiority.

YK: Why did he do that? Because that's really interesting, that high-low effect.

MY: I think it just creates an intimate space for some of the viewers. Of course, looking at here, let me see. I have (opens in a new window) Princess of Snooze and Sprout the Ambassador and the one on the left is (opens in a new window) Missing in Action. But this room, it comes after a whole series of rooms where there's The Drawing House and then the (opens in a new window) vases and then all of a sudden, it's just this beautiful, it feels like you're floating on a cloud.

YK: He's someone who thinks very spatially. I mean, he really thinks very carefully about how he wants his paintings to be seen as well. He does pay a lot of attention to the viewer's experience of his work, which I really like. And that's also, Princess Snooze, if we just look back, that’s his next stage. He experiments with bigger, once he's done the erasing of the background of the lines, his next stage is, he really goes into these large scale, very pale palette works.

MY: Right, and then the compositions are also a little off.

YK: Yeah, and they kind of have this sense of presence about them. But again, he's always pushing himself, he sort of like, he figures out, all right, I've done this. We've figured out how to do it without the lines, figured out how to erase outlines, we now have these large-scale works. He keeps experimenting with different things. And so after he does this, he starts moving the girl, the girl, I say is the girl growing up. But it's really just Nara exploring, because they kind of seem like they're growing up as well, but then he moves to the torso. Just a half torso look. Right. And he also plays with the eyes, and I think that's such an important transition to his paintings and you see it in his drawings more. And that’s why the drawings are so important.

MY: Yeah, this is from 1990, sorry, 2005. It's called (opens in a new window) Missing in Action Girl Meets Boy and it actually is a girl witnessing the dropping of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima. So, what you see in the right eye of the girl is the flame of the mushroom bomb, and then, of course, the left eye remains intact.

YK: I like how he plays with the title in this, because “Little Boy” is the name of the bomb. The bomb that dropped. Girl meets boy, which is, you know, and he's really good with titles as well. And I've always wondered, I've never asked, and maybe I should ask him how much of his title play is also his interest in lyrics and music.

MY: I think so. Yeah, for sure. There's a definite intuition between the titles of the music.

YK: And this one is in your show, right?

MY: Yes, right, mhm.

YK: This is also a really important painting in his transition, with that half-submerged torso and the big eyes. But you can also see the eyes are slightly different. So, he paints them differently, but they're more spread out now and I think that's an important shift for when he starts doing the full-frontal portraits. But this one is interesting because behind it is another painting, and you can just see it, I don’t know how well you can see it on the screen, but in the top, I suppose it's the top left is the original. You can just about see the original painting and he painted it and he was like, no, this isn’t what I want to do, because in some ways the girl comes out instinctively to him because he doesn't really think what I'm going to do. He doesn't plan it. He just paints. Right. He just paints from whatever is driving him at that moment in time. And then he didn't like it and he just erased it. Actually, that erasure is what helped him get to that stage of the girl...

MY: The erasures are so interesting, and I like how in your book you have some of the transitions from completely different, figure to I mean... Even the expression, you know, is absolutely, but I think that that's... and then the quality of the colors, that kind of prismatic effect that you see here in the background and also that around the water, I know he adopts that into more and more, the richly kind of layered into the hair and also in the eyes as we get, as these portraits kind of mature.

YK: Yeah, I agree. That's why I think paintings from this period are so important, because it's the painter. He's really into colors. You can really see his interest in bringing colors to the fore. And so, this one is a more recent painting and a really important painting. I'm really just, side note, I'm really glad to see so many really important paintings of Nara's that you've included, it’s like, well done, Mika.

MY: Well, it’s Nara.

YK: Well, clearly it wants to show... I mean, this is such an important work for him because it's the first major painting, one of the first major paintings that he did after Fukushima, and Fukushima really affected him. Well it affected everyone in Japan and outside of Japan. But for Nara, because he's from, he's actually quite close to... It's actually en route when he travels from Tokyo to his hometown when he sees his mom. And so, it actually it really affected him deeply. For a while he had a massive show coming out, but he couldn't paint. So, this has happened to him before and it took him a little while to get into it. And (opens in a new window) Miss Spring is one of those paintings where he kind of poured a lot of his emotions into that and so for him...

MY: He only made one painting, right, in 2011?

YK: He did, yeah. He went for a... Before you do something to raise funds, but in terms of these large-scale works, he didn't really make any paintings. This is really the main one that he did. Yeah.

MY: I think he really only made, it was In the Milky Lake, which that is the long one. But yes, that was in 2011. And then this is 2012.

YK: I think this is such a successful painting. And if you get a chance to go to LACMA and see this, I mean, you'll see that the eyes are two completely different colors. You kind of get mesmerized. So as a viewer, of course, one of the things he's also done with these half-torse painted girls is he’s taken away the knives. He takes away the sprout. It's just the girl. It’s very quiet. Yeah. I think he just wants the viewer to stand in front of that and just by looking at these works, kind of turn inwards and reflect because it's such a moment of deep thinking that needed to happen in Japan and elsewhere in the world as well. So, I think that's... and it's a beautiful painting, it's an absolutely gorgeous painting. And it was different strokes, right? I mean, the hair’s painted differently. The body’s painted differently.

MY: Well, to me it's like an abstraction, you know? Even though, yes, it is a portrait. But when you look at each aspect of the painting, I mean, it's like the sublime and Rothko. I think he's really looking at modern art and the light, and how the light effects... And just some of the layers that, it just seems like, it feels like the light is really emerging from the pigments of the face.

YK: Yeah. There's such a shininess, especially in the cheeks areas, the way he uses light colors there seems to be a sort of inner glow that comes out of the paint itself and then as a result, out of the person, but it’s really out of the paint. It's a wonderful color experiment as well, which, if you think about it's a very unusual, it's a beautiful painting, but it's rather unusual that it was used as... He actually allowed the people who were protesting against the return of the nuclear power plants and he actually gave them permission to use this artwork as part of their protest. So, you often see Miss Spring on these rallies as well that you can see in that photo that you've also attached.

MY: Right, so I know that Ryuichi Sakamoto actually published a book about the Fukushima, the nuclear protests and (opens in a new window) this was on the cover. This image [Miss Spring] was on the cover of the book. This is an installation shot from the LACMA show with Miss Spring and Emergency, which is also a personal favorite. Right? Of Nara’s.

YK: Yeah. And it's an interesting painting, and part of the reason why it's so important to him is that he's returned to billboard paintings. Because he stopped doing billboards after 2010... So, billboard paintings are paintings that stand on the large structures...

MY: Like the one, (opens in a new window) One Foot in the Groove. It's the first image that I showed. Let's see. This one.

YK: Yes. So, I mean, he started doing that at the time when he was building the houses as well, because he saw it as an extension of the houses. So, it's really during that period where you see the billboard paintings. But when he started making the houses, he actually stopped making billboards and it's only after 2011 he starts bringing billboards back, and it's actually really interesting because he keeps looking back at his old stuff as well. So, he's bringing back billboards, but it's also a very drawing-painting and he's combining a lot more of his drawings and paintings and other practices together now. So, I think right now he's doing really interesting stuff, exploring his own history, right? His own practices as well. So, it's kind of cool what he's doing. It's a lovely, lovely little painting and he’s very attached to it.

MY: And this is an actual experience he had, right, of a girl who was being... Kind of during the crisis, after the earthquake and tsunami, being taken away on a gurney.

YK: This was sort of a witness accounts of something he saw, which is part of why he's very attached to it as well. I mean, it really was a deeply moving moment. I mean, we are talking about how he couldn't work, or he couldn't paint and what he did do... I mean, lots of people asked him to do things––would you mind holding a show? People want to see art. And he was thinking, well, how is that going to help society? So, what he did, and he hasn't actually publicized this, but what he did was actually, he sent out on his account and went to schools and said, who would like to hear me talk about art and do things together, and he did these workshops and things. I mean, one time he went to these little... What would it be called? High school in America, when it's like children are about eight or nine?

MY: Eight or nine would be elementary school.

YK: Elementary school. So, he went to these Japanese elementary schools and started, because a lot of them he realized they lost all their photographs, and so they had no memories. What he did was he did play... He gave them these long flags, those fish flags, and he turned them into clothing with the kids.

The kids started making clothing and then he took lots of photographs of them so that he could give back to them so that they would have photographs and memories that were happy rather than sad. Yeah. I mean...

MY: It’s just kind of heart wrenching to hear.

YK: It is! It is. Well, this is another set of really billboard drawings, right?

MY: These are on jute. They're using, he's using jute bag materials. Right. So, it's not canvas and the line is very distinct, the outline. But these are actually from originally from a movie, this historical movie, (opens in a new window) Hiroshima, from 1953, some of the actual scenes. I mean it's incredible that Japan, actually they made a movie about Hiroshima so soon after using extras who had experienced the war. And so, the girl like emerging from the shelter...

YK: That one is actually based on a band, that also looks a little like Abandoned Puppy. It’s the same, it’s the same pose.

MY: The one on the right?

YK: Yeah, one on the right is, because she's emerging out of the shelter. That's also him revisiting his old works as well.

MY: And then the girl and the Hitler head, which this is what I love about him, you know. It's a very serious subject matter, but then he just kind of twists it into this... in such a minimal way, a maximal effect.

YK: You're right. The lines are really powerful. So, you really get an impact from them from really far away and as you get closer, that impact gets stronger and stronger. But you can really see these paintings from, even as a little picture in the Instagram thing, you can really see them quite clearly. They’re supposed to have that visual impact, right. And that's kind of what he's looking for with these. Really stripped down. There's barely any colors and it's just drawings, which is him moving away from that painting thing that he was doing before. So, I think these are really super important works as well.

MY: Yeah. And then going back to Fukushima and the Great East earthquake and tsunami. So, this is an installation shot from the (opens in a new window) Yokohama Museum retrospective exhibition in 2012, which is the year right after the disaster. Yeah, do you want to talk about the bronzes?

YK: First of all, they're massive. They're absolutely massive. And this was at a time when he was struggling with trying to figure out what to do, how to paint or what to draw. And he knew he had this big show coming up. So, he actually did a little... he returned back to his old school, his alma mater, and there he worked in the studio alongside with the other students. He wanted to kind of go back and hunker down in a familiar environment, but also with a community environment that was really important to him. And basically, I mean, he described it, he basically had a lump of clay and he just, like a sumo wrestler, he just threw himself at this clay.

MY: Yeah, right. This lump of earth. So, you really get his fingers, everything, every part, you know.

YK: And he wants that idea, in some ways it's a response to Fukushima.

The permanence, our own permanence, our sense of permanence on earth, how do we leave traces of ourselves. What does it even mean to leave a trace of ourself, right? But part of working in bronze is partly to do with that. But he really wanted to get I mean, you can really see in a lot of sculptures from this period, you can really see the tiny details. His thumbprints. The way he moves.

MY: This is from Blum & Poe. Yeah, and it's the oblong heads. It's very in between human and this kind of spirit.

YK: Yeah, and also, I think he's in some ways that sort of technique of throwing himself and putting his finger marks all over it, that sort of visceral impact on it. It's a lot like his paintings. He also thinks of these in some ways, you know, the kind of that blurring of using. There's something about the way he does the faces as well that almost looks like the painterly effects that you get with like, say, Miss Spring, we were talking about how there's all these different textures. You really see that on these large sculptures as well.

MY: Yeah. Well, what was interesting is that I was going to get into the pandemic as well, but we had a very, very intense period of installation and the exhibition was delayed. And so, we included a new work in the LACMA exhibition that I think relates really closely with the bronze works, and it's this piece here. It's called Light Haze Days.

YK: Is that the one he did during the pandemic?

MY: So, he completed this in mid-June of this year. Because we were installing the show and can you imagine, he installed in March, the week of the shelter-in-place when that took effect. So, he had to go back to Japan after three days and then...

YK: Crazy.

MY: And then he came back to L.A. in mid-June. So, it was between that time that he made this painting. Stylistically...

YK: He carried it with him?

MY: Well, I actually felt that it was important, since this is a retrospective exhibition that we should have the latest work. And, of course, that is responding to our time now.

YK: This is so different as well in many ways.

MY: Yeah. And I have some details, too. But what you were just talking about, with the imprint, I mean, it's not the hand, but it's the like real deliberately, the kind of shift and some of the gestures, the brushstrokes that deliberately looks like it's unfinished.

YK: Yeah, I really like that he's been doing more recently, and I don't know what direction he's going to take this, because I think this is why I think it's so exciting that you're doing the show, the book is coming out at this moment n, time because I think it's actually going to change soon. He's exploring something that is the unfinished right. And I think he really comes from, you're right, I never even thought about that. That somehow the bronzes that have this sort of unfinished look to it, kind of then feed back into his painting. But the colors of this are also very different. So, yeah, I haven't seen this. I can’t wait to see it.

MY: It’s the last piece in the show, but I'm curious, what you would think, because even though it has this kind of unfinished quality around the hair area, the face is just very different as well.

YK: Yeah, the face is very different.

MY: Yeah. From the past, or even like the last two or three years. So, this is Midnight Truth, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. It's those two works on the left in the middle. As much I think they have this, like, sharpness and this kind of inscrutable face where it's almost like mask-like and the colors, there's a real clear-cut palette. Whereas here it's much more impressionistic and it has, well he calls it, kind of like this in between [Édouard] Vuillard and Matisse...

YK: Yeah. I mean, I think it's I think this is different. I think you're right about that because the thing with looking at Nara’s work, maybe I'm just spending so much time, and I don’t know whether you feel this way, because when you look at a lot of Nara’s work, what you suddenly realize is that it’s actually the little differences that he makes are actually very important. So, I think even just changing the... there is something about the face is shifting a little bit. I think then what in some ways is kind of more confrontational, or it’s more... There's something about her that seems to be more connecting.

The other ones tend to be quite ambivalent. The ones that you were showing on the walls, I mean, a lot of those he was looking back at modern Japanese wartime paintings.

MY: True, like the (opens in a new window) Foujita.

YK: Yeah, yeah, so he was really thinking about the ambivalence that those painters had. Both being people who was against war but had to participate in a war. That sort of weird space that people had about violence in general, and I think he kind of had to... that ambivalence, right, in some of these other works.

MY: The complicity.

YK: Yeah, I mean there's this one. I've seen some of his other drawings where, and Pace might have some of them as well, they are also a little more aggressive, in your face sometimes, but it’s different from the ones that he did before, like Girl with a Knife. I think these ones are much more emotionally aggressive because they're not actually doing anything, they're not carrying anything, because Girl with a Knife, you need that knife to make her feel aggressive, but with the other ones.

MY: Right, they have signifiers, whereas this one is much more gestural.

YK: Yeah. So, I think that's also one of the things that's really interesting that's happening in some...

MY: So, these are a little bit more recent. This is actually a piece from 2019, which is I think the primary image of the LACMA show, right. Sorry, I have a child.

YK: Yes, this, I love this work.

MY: Yes. I wanted to just bring up the ties between some of the more meditative aspects of his practice and how that relates to his recent, and the return to folk and the one thing that the message that I think if people could get out of the show is if the atmospheric power of music could really be understood through his paintings, especially what you think what you experience when you're listening to folk and the kind of healing quality and bringing that emotional quality to the work is something that he would love.

YK: Yeah. And this one, her eyes are down, but you can just see a little bit of her eyes.

MY: Yeah, I wish I could show a detail, but you can actually see the pupils under the eyes in this one. And this is actually a ceramic. So, it's not bronze, but it's...

YK: Painted on top.

MY: Painted, yes.

YK: I think it does have that side of him, that sort of meditative side and also the side that responds to whatever is happening in the outside world. Yeah, you really see that, I think when you put in contrast these drawings and his photography. I understand you don't have photography in your... You're focusing much less on his paintings and things, but his photography I think is an area that you see him really developing, these are more of his earlier ones that he did in Afghanistan. With these photographs, I mean, there’s full of life about the people. Some of them that they're incredibly powerful as well. But if you contrast his photographs from this particular period next to his drawings, the drawings are quite dark.

MY: So, this is also drawings from his trips, right, to Afghanistan.

YK: Yeah, and I think you have some of the drawings in your show.

MY: We have the drawings, but not the photographs.

YK: And if you get a chance, you know, if people put them side by side you can just see that two sides of him, because when he's taking these photographs of these people, he was always, he wrote in his diary how he was so affected by how positive they were. About how they were so open, they opened him to their homes and offered him things when they had nothing. So, in some ways, he also wanted to give some of that strength back to the people that he was photographing. He recognized their agency, right. It's also in these drawings where you really see that darker side of where, or his more emotional side and he does have these two sides of Nara. And I think that's something that also I tried to bring out in my book and I'm sure you will bring it out in your in your exhibition. He does have these very two complex side that are often working side-by-side or together sometimes. But yeah, there are two very different sides of him.

MY: Yeah. And he never is overtly political, but there is one painting that he does include, which is this Queen Tamar after Niko Pirosmani, which we don't have in the show, but, yeah.

YK: I included that one, isn't it such an unusual painting because it has Article 9, which is a part of Japan's constitution about no longer participating in any sort of military campaign or war. The army cannot be used for war. The fact that he actually declared this, and this was a work that he did for a show, which was honoring Niko’s anniversary, so, he did this painting in response. I think one of the things that is happening as he is, he himself has talked about he's getting older and he's recognizing aging and he wants to make more of a statement about things he cares about as well. And I think that's coming out in some of these works and this is an example of it.

MY: We also have the latest work, which is the twenty-six-foot Miss Forest, and this is an early piece called Miss Tannen or Tannenbaum. So, this is the piece that's in the show, or outside right in front of LACMA.

YK: I don't know about you, Mika, but I always think about his Shinto roots when I see these works.

MY: Yeah. I mean, this is called Mori no ko or the “child of the forest” in Japanese. So clearly, it's in reference to these incredible trees from where he's from, the north, where you have these folktales and myths of the forest. The spirits from in the forest. But what he was talking about in terms of this piece is that he sees it more, not really as artwork per se, but more of a device, as a catalyst between humans or and kind of the outer universe. He was actually likening it to indigenous prayers. So you also have the figure here in a moment of silence with closed eyes. And actually, you can see his fingerprint on the right eye. Yeah, it's right where the crease is.

YK: I suppose just to give, for the people who are listening in, something about his Shinto background. His father was a Shinto priest although he gave up his Shinto priesthood quite early on, but his grandfather was a Shinto priest.

MY: He really grew up with it.

YK: Yeah. The mountain where he... I went to visit to his hometown just to see and get a sense of what the place was like. And of course, I went on the snowiest, blizzard-y day that could have ever been possible. I barely thought I was going to get out of there alive. Literally the snow was going across, but it gives you a sense of why the north is so different from when we think about Japan, we think about Tokyo, we think about urban cities. But the north has a very different feel. The people there are very different, and the sense of pace is very different. The area where he's from, there's these big mountains around and they're very famous mountains and in particular, they're known for their worship of Jizō, for the protection of children. I didn't make it to the temple, he really wanted me to go and see this temple that for him is very important where they have a lot of those Jizō. It’s largely for parents, particularly women who are going through childbirth or who've lost their child.

MY: Yes.

YK: And it's this incredible temple dedicated to this, and it's an absolutely gorgeous temple. As a kid, he always just wandered around on these temples. It's just been all these mountains, and I always think that although he doesn't ever write about it, talk about it in very fixed times, I think that childhood is so important to him. I often think that actually some of these dolls, even drawing the girls, the depiction of the girls, is part of what he grew up with as well.

MY: Yeah, the figurines.

YK: The figurines as well. I often think of the work that you're showing on the screen is almost like those little Shinto Jizō witnesses. They’re almost like little protectors in some ways.

MY: Yeah, protective duties for sure.

YK: Yeah, protective duties, because you have them and he wants to spread them around, he has little versions of them, right. You can get smaller ones as well. And I think he wants to spread them out.

There’s this idea that maybe we need more of these people too who is going to protect and think about protecting the world. The environments around us. Because I think that's another area that he's right now also exploring in his new works as well. Thinking about the environments, the world, where we’re going.

MY: Yeah, I mean, I think the ecological issues are so important in his practice. I think the training also, living in Germany and even through music, the ‘60s counterculture, the ecological consciousness within that history as well, is so ingrained through the music and also through his cultural upbringing that is, I think, becoming ever more present now, especially with climate change and with the pandemic, these notions of coexistence and how we are so vulnerable as.

LK: Yeah. I agree. I think these are these are some of the issues he's really looking at in his work at this moment in time. I think it's really impacted the way that he's thinking about his work as well. I think he's trying to figure out, the last time I had a conversation with him, we were talking about his work and he was just thinking about, well, I mean, it's not just about the legacy of who he is as an artist. It's also about what’s his art doing, because he does have a very large, and he is very popular on the art market and everything else, but he has an incredible fan base. He has an incredible audience.

MY: Absolutely.

YK: And there are, and he's always said that actually he paints, it's the fans that made him in many ways. His message, you know, he wants to also communicate with them through his art. And their concerns are very much about, well, what does it mean to live the way that we are living at this moment in time, which I think he's thinking and reflecting about in his works.

MY: Yeah. Well, this is the last image, actually, of our slideshow.

YK: So, did you enjoy your...? When is it, do you think it will be open soon, LACMA?

MY: Yeah. I mean, I can't say, it's really up to the county. You know? I think L.A., the rates, it needs to be stabilized, the coronavirus. Who knows when the museum really can open. But I think it's looking a little bit more optimistic and I'm hoping that the show will open at least before the end of this year.

YK: Well, I hope I get to travel out there because I have to say, when we were preparing for this and you will show me all the images of the layout, the way it's been displayed and just that whole message, that folk music message, I think it really comes through in the selection of works. That you guys have put together, the selection work. It really does have this idea of "try to think through music," but also this idea of that folk element. You know, this idea of trying to, for want of a better word, want to be inspired to be better or think/reflect back on what we are doing. And it goes back to his 90s, the music that inspired him to think along those times, too. And I think that really comes through in the show the way that you've got them, high, low. They're contemplative.

MY: Very contemplative and self-reflexive. Yeah, it's like seeing very old friends fresh, anew, you know, to get back together. And I think it was a moment of reckoning, I think, for him, seeing everything.

YK: I mean, it is tough doing a show, but I'm actually impressed that he went there to install his own show as well. And I mean, there's no way that he could do it virtually, you know, just the salon-style hang, with the drawings.

MY: And I mean, there's no way that he could do it virtually, you know, just the salon style hang with.

YK: I mean, in so many ways he is that a sort of old-fashioned artist. Where he has to do this on his own. He works on his own. He doesn't want to have any assistants to help him paint. He's not part of that workshop system. He just wants to, you know, dig deep into his whatever resource he has. And then I think that extends to how he wants his work to be seen and how he wants people to think about his work. I mean, he really cares very deeply about that experience they encounter.

MY: He's incredibly pure, I think.

YK: Yeah, and rather unusual, I think, for an artist of his status. If you think about the amount of work he makes. I'm always impressed by how quickly he can paint. And when I was interviewing his fellow students, they would always say that he... At times he would just, and this goes back to his drawing, he was always compulsively drawing on every single surface that is available. Whether it be the table, his friend's studio next door, he would just constantly draw.

MY: Yeah like the band aids, the duct tape, the envelopes.

YK: And when he’s talking to you, I don’t know whether you had this, when I was talking to him, there’s partly a language thing between us, he would often draw all the time. So he would keep drawing and drawing to explain things and there’d be little doodles on napkins. But you can also see he is trying to resolve issues through drawing. In some ways, he finds it easier to figure things out through drawings. And that compulsiveness, I think, is just part of that energy he has as well when he paints. So when he, you know, shuts the door, turns on the music, and just paints. I think it’s the same sort of… that energy inside him that needs to come out. That’s why he paints so fast. It’s always very impressive.

MY: No, it’s great that we were able to have this conversation. And to see all of his work and this kind of collective unconscious, you know, into Nara.

YK: I think I like what you said at the beginning. You know, there is something about how music, drawing, painting, it's all subliminal in some ways. It’s just all part of who he is. I think that's a really lovely way of thinking about who he is as well.

MY: Well I hope people can read your book and also come to the show.

YK: Well, read your catalog! Because you've got music in a way that I never got music. I think I really tried with music. I even tried to listen to lots of music podcast and think about how music geeks talk about music

MY: But I think, you know, for example, I listen to some of the same music that he listened to in the ‘90s when I was a teenager. And I mean, we're different in age, but like Japanese music. And then all of a sudden I see the like Blanky Jet City. The painting is called like Miss Blanky, and I'm like, oh. And the figure itself has nothing to do really with, you know. But it's just these connections.

YK: Does it make you….

MY: Nostalgic? Yeah, a little bit. Yeah. And then like the Blue Hearts, which is this band that I was in love with and he loves.

YK: He loves the Blue Hearts. It's really interesting. So, congratulations to you. Can’t wait to see the show.

MY: Thank you!

YK: Thank you, everyone for joining us. I hope you enjoyed the talk. And please go visit a show in New York as well at Pace Gallery. And please, if you have time, go to see the show at LACMA when it opens. And there's also a great LACMA YouTube video of an interview between Mika and Nara that’s great, you should also listen to that. And if you’d like, buy the book. That's great. You should also listen to that and if you'd like, by the book.

MY: Okay.

YK: Thank you, everyone.

MY: Thank you. Bye.

YK: Bye-bye.

  • Pace Live — On Yoshitomo Nara: A Conversation with Yeewan Koon & Mika Yoshitake, Oct 30, 2020