Yoshitomo Nara

The Japanese 'Kawaii' artist talks about the importance of personal narrative in his art, and why he never set out to make artworks – from the ArtReview Asia archive

By Aimee Lin

HELP, 2011, acrylic and pen on wood, 31 × 21 cm. © the artist. Courtesy Pace Hong Kong Ten stars, 2014, 181 × 161 × 5 cm, acrylic on jute mounted on wood. © the artist. Courtesy Pace Hong Kong Yoshitomo Nara as a child. Courtesy the artist Fountain of Life, 2001–14, FRP, lacquer, urethane, motor and water, 175 × 180 cm, edition of 3, AP1/2. Courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

One of the star figures in the generation of Japanese artists brought together under the banner of ‘Superflat’ (the term coined by fellow artist Takashi Murakami at the end of the 1990s), Yoshitomo Nara is an artist whose imagery of bigeyed adolescent girls and little dogs is appreciated by people of all ages, from two to seventy. His most popular images, and their proliferation in all forms of merchandising, have made his art a component element in contemporary visual culture, especially in the Japanese-gone-global phenomenon called ‘Kawaii’. In Stars, his recent gallery show at Pace Hong Kong, Nara paints his young girls interacting with or surrounded by sequences of golden four-point stars. In Life Is Only One, Nara’s institutional retrospective at Asia Society Hong Kong Center, curated by Fumio Nanjo, the artist is showing a body of works ranging from the 1980s to more recent pieces, featuring a rich selection of paintings, sketches, photographs, sculptures and mixed-media installations, including a slide presentation of photographs from his recent trip to Karafuto, or Sakhalin Island (the island where his father once worked, when it was held by Japan, until Russia occupied it after the Second World War). ArtReview talks to Nara about an artist’s work and its relation to ‘life’, and how his life experiences, among them travelling to Afghanistan and liking Neil Young, feed his work.

ARTREVIEW ASIA When did you realise that you wanted to be a painter?

YOSHITOMO NARA I never thought of being a painter before I went to study art during the late 1970s, age eighteen. Even when I was studying art in school, I was still not sure if I would become a painter. But I started to participate in some exhibitions, then slowly I knew I wanted to be an artist.

Did your early experiences – in your hometown of Hirosaki and then studying at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf from 1988 – play a certain part in that process of ‘being Yoshitomo Nara’?

YN I grew up in a small town in Aomori, Northern Japan. It is in an agriculture area, not like your normal vision of Japan, of a massive city like Tokyo. There was neither art nor friends who you could talk to about art. I was so lonely and only surrounded by apple trees… I could talk to nobody except nature. So I talked to the trees, the dog and the pigs… so I got this special sensibility to nature, which I thought many years later was a good thing. When I went to the school in Germany, I found myself again feeling alone, facing my canvas. Again, the inadequacy of the outer world enriched my inner world. Compared with the techniques or the methodology of painting, what is more important to me is the sensibility to nature and the ways to express it. This is something that doesn’t get taught in school. I get lots of inspiration from music. When I was a teenager, music and LP covers were very important to me. But at that time I had no idea that actually some of those covers were made by people like Andy Warhol. And because my English was poor, I couldn’t understand the lyrics, so I looked at the covers and imagined the meaning of the songs; it was quite a good training.

Do you still listen to the same music as you did in your teens?

YN Yes, I still do.

How could you get all those records in a town that so lacked access to culture?

YN I purchased them by mail, and spent all my earnings from a part-time job on them. When I left high school and went to Tokyo to study, I met the guy who sold me all the music. He was surprised to find that I was a young student. He thought I was an old man.

So apart from your own experience, did you learn anything from the art education in school?

YN You can learn technique anywhere… The sensibility that you learn from where you are from and your own experience is more important. I only started to study painting at eighteen, but at sixteen, when I was in high school, encouraged by my neighbours, I copied a two-metre-long line-drawing of a classical literary figure for a local festival in my hometown. I even opened a café with an older student, and worked there as a DJ so I could decide the selection and purchase of LPs.

Japan during the 1960s and 70s: that was the time of student movements, the time for the anarchists…

YN That was true.

That’s why the narrative of personal history is so important to your art. The spirit remains.

YN I haven’t really thought of that. I don’t paint when I am happy. I only paint when I am angry, lonely, sad, when I am able to talk to the work. So there is a need for storytelling before I paint.

Are those stories told to a certain person? Or an ideal person?

I don’t paint when I am happy. I only paint when I am angry, lonely, sad, when I am able to talk to the work. So there is a need for storytelling before I paint

YN There should be someone to talk to. But because such a person is not there in our life, that’s why we need to paint. 

The female figures in your paintings always have a kid’s face. But through their eyes we can see loneliness, anger, sadness, depression, thoughts of revenge… Most of the time the emotion is negative, although there was a short time when your girl looked like more of a dreamer. It looks as if she has an old soul. Moreover, she looks like she is getting old through the years after experiencing crises like the Fukushima disaster.

YN I don’t know how to describe that in words. I guess artists would see techniques in my work and old people would see the ‘old soul’. If it is the very personal emotion that I am expressing, then it is too trivial or insignificant to mention. But for those who can understand, they will see some serious issues, more than just, “Wow, it’s Kawaii”.

You paint on canvas, wood board, cardboard, letter-paper or even envelopes, but you don’t really emphasise the painterly difference between materials.

YN This is like when I was in school, I painted on anything I could find, anything around. Painting is something that happens naturally.

However, the wood on which you painted a girl pointing at a star or carrying flowers doesn’t look like wood you can buy in a material store. It looks more like something found in a forest. There are scars, etched lines, marks of imperfection and traces of time on it, as if the wood has lived a life. Where did you find it?

YN Indeed I collect the wood. As a country boy, I never intend to make an artwork, I want to make art from nature or from real life. So I once used the bike that I rode when I was in high school. And I always paint on what I find in my life, or collect things that I find that have been thrown away. Spirituality is the most important thing. I never wanted to create imagery. What I want to make, or what pushes me, is the moment of “I don’t know what it is, but I am keen to present it through art”. It could be triggered by sound, by music, by what I feel about the world.

Spirituality is the most important thing. I never wanted to create imagery. What I want to make, or what pushes me, is the moment of “I don’t know what it is, but I am keen to present it through art”

Your generation of artists grew up at a time when society and history was in the process of rapid change. And this generation was very rebellious. On one side you have your very social and political concerns, on the other side your work also leads to a personal, inward-looking world. But today in the younger generation, very few artists feature both. Why?

YN I guess maybe because most of them only study art and then make art. I also studied art and make art. But what I learned from other things has become what feeds my art.

So what are the other things that feed you besides life and music?

YN I travel a lot. I always meet people and different things when I am travelling.

You went to Afghanistan in 2002. Do you have a special interest in remote areas?

YN Afghanistan today is quite like my hometown when I was a kid during the 1960s and 70s. And I guess some remote mountain areas in China are probably the same. Today people in Afghanistan still wear traditional clothes with beautiful patterns. For many people, Japan is Zen, the simplistic beauty, but my memory of Japan in my childhood was people wearing traditional clothes with those beautiful folk pattern prints. It was a very rich visual environment that might surprise today’s Japanese people. I was lucky that I lived through a transition period in Japanese society; a time when, for example, I saw the packaging of apples change from wooden boxes to paper bags, or the way miso-making changed from traditional handwork to modern manufacture.

Your little girl and small doggy characters somehow indicate that we need to take care of our inner world. How do you balance it with your travel and other ‘worldly’ experience?

YN I always keep my studio the same. No matter whether I am in Germany or in Nasu, where my current studio is located, my studio’s interior settings are always arranged in the same way – so I only find out where I am when I open the curtain.

Is there any artist in Japan that you feel very close to you?

YN Takashi Murakami. Although our personalities are totally opposite, we are both so serious about art that we can share a lot of conversations.

Is there someone that is of a great importance to you, perhaps in the way that Raymond Carver is to the writer Haruki Murakami?

YN Neil Young. He is my all-time favourite.

Yoshitomo Nara will be on show at Johnen Galerie, Berlin, 16 September – 24 October 2015.

Translated from the Japanese by Kwanyi Pan. This article was first published in the Summer 2015 issue of ArtReview Asia.