You were also a teacher at Japanese Universities. What did you teach and how do you remember that time?
I taught English as a foreign language at a university in Japan. I thoroughly enjoyed working there. The students were (generally) enthusiastic and a pleasure to teach. It’s strange when I look back - at that time, I had no qualms entering a classroom of 30 students and creating what I would like to think of as an enjoyable learning environment. Now I spend my time alone in my studio and can go weeks without speaking to anyone other than my wife. At this point the idea of teaching a class of 30 students is quite terrifying.
I have read short information on Saatchi Art about and collaboration with your old friend. How it was born and what challenges it brought, cause as far as I understand this project has been done fully remote.
Ah, Yes! Extraordinary Ladder. Tommy and I have known each other since ‘98. We were roommates when we studied at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen and at the Maastricht Academy of Fine Arts in The Netherlands. While studying together we worked on a few collaborative projects. We have only met in person a handful of times since I moved to Japan in 2005. The project came about as I approached Tommy with a half-assed, whisky-fueled idea that he should Remix or Destroy my paintings digitally. To my surprise, he was up for the challenge. However, we soon decided that we should make completely new work together rather than my initial suggestion. We have developed various digital and analogue techniques, including a Random Image Generator, created our own 30+ character alphabet, projected photos of artworks onto flowers and trees which were then re-photographed, made music from our images and images from music, used satellite views of locations connected to our lives as compositional containers for our artworks, to name but a few. The title was taken from a photograph I had taken years ago somewhere in Japan of a hotel fire escape sign. The emergency staircase had been translated as an Extraordinary Ladder. I found it quite an interesting and humorous collocation. As our project developed we noted how our process had become quite complicated due to the number of steps we were using to create images. Extraordinary Ladder seemed to fit quite well. This project has been done entirely remotely as Tommy is based in Scotland. I look forward to what will come next as we have a number of ideas that we are currently working on with possible shows in Aberdeen and Seoul next year (ed. 2021 TBC).
In your art, you are investigating languages and symbols. How it happened that you have started to look into those topics?
It must be influenced by my experience of learning languages, my previous studies of the English language and consequent teaching of it. Plus, it is probably a reaction to all the times that I have looked around the neon-lit streets of Tokyo and seen characters which I knew held meaning but (at that time) I didn’t know what they said. The characters would take on an aesthetic beauty absent of linguistic meaning. I enjoy manipulating our recognition of the known vs. unknown, familiar and foreign. The graphic elements of our alphabets (Roman / Hiragana / Katakana) are a wonderful resource for image-making.
In my opinion, the modern world is giving a vast inspirational material: emojis, abbreviations, new words, memes. Don’t you think it is too much?
I rarely use emoji’s. I find them annoying. I prefer to use words. The English language is such a great mishmash of different languages and it keeps on being added to, it feels like a waste not to use it. I don’t really have anything specifically to say about (social media) memes. However, I guess the thrust behind your question is to raise concerns about the possible problems of the constant stream of information we have at our fingertips. This relentless temporary acquisition of information is a bigger question than I have time to comment upon here, other than to say that we are engaged in a social experiment and we don’t know what effects it may have on us, for better or worse.
Do you have a symbol or marks, that has stuck with you and keep coming back?
Yes, I have recurring motifs in my artwork. Besides characters (Roman / Katakana / Hiragana) you will see geometric forms / pottery-like vessels / flowers / every-day objects etc. They provide me with a mark-making language to explore ideas which are of great interest to me. I was first introduced to concepts of wabi-sabi when researching the life & work of Antonio Tapies back when I was a student (circa 2000). Tapies was inspired by Okakura Kakuzo’s The Book of Tea. To make a long story short - I bought this book which started me on the road to learn more about the philosophy of wabi-sabi which in part, involved me spending over 10 years living in Japan.
I think that the concepts of wabi-sabi are best personified in traditional Japanese pottery (raku-yaki) which is used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Unlike in western art, notions of beauty in wabi-sabi are to be found in the imperfections and asymmetry of objects such as pots and cups (you will often see the fingerprints or marks where the item was molded by hand). Moreover, if an item is damaged the mark or scar is not hidden when repaired (like we aim to do in Western cultures) rather it is embraced this is a process called Kintsugi. I find all of this fascinating and is why these vessel-like forms are repeated in a lot of my work.
These forms also could be seen as representing mountain silhouettes, specifically Mt.Fuji. In Japan, I discovered that for many people Mt.Fuji is really quite a special place. It seems to hold an almost (for want of a better word) numinous quality. I remember one afternoon I had gone for a walk to a nearby Shinto shrine. From the shrine, you could see Mt. Fuji which was rare. An old lady came up to me and was quite excited about being able to see Mt.Fuji. She started talking about how beautiful the mountain looked and that we were lucky to be able to see it. This experience was really nice and made me wonder what it is about this mountain that affects people in this way. I don’t think this exchange would happen in Scotland (where I’m from) Because of this, I like the idea of making forms that echo the iconic image of Mt.Fuji.