Tomoko Takahashi interview: Staging controlled chaos (1999)

R.J. Preece (ADP)
artdesigncafé - art | 13 March 2011
This interview was previously published in ART AsiaPacific, 25, pp. 50-5 in 2000, but conducted in 1999.

Tomoko Takahashi interview

Lights, camera, Tomoko Takahashi. How many artists can claim to have experienced the launch of a media and critical frenzy in the space of little over a year; hip-hopping back and forth from London to New York, Lisbon and Antwerp, and being splashed throughout London’s newspapers? Takahashi can.

Born in 1966 and raised in Tokyo, Takahashi received a BA in Fine Art (oil painting) from Tama Art University in 1989. Later, she moved to England and received another BA at Goldsmiths College, a Higher Diploma from the Slade School of Art in 1996, and pursued part-time studies in ethnomusicology. A London-based artist, Takahashi has shown her installations in a variety of urban spaces in London and over the Atlantic in New York— venues such as an old police station, an advertising office, a fashion showroom and offices, and in a pristine, white-cube gallery.

Takahashi has gained critical acclaim for her improvisations and accumulations of debris, whether it be the poetics of clicking slide projectors, deconstructed clocks, or her very own sleeping bag and cigarette butts. With her compositions of “controlled chaos”— where objects and relationships appear chaotic, but are carefully manipulated— Takahashi repositions and demystifies objects and gives them a new lease on life.

I interviewed Takahashi in February 1999, shortly after the media frenzy over the New Neurotic Realism exhibition at the high-profile Saatchi Gallery in London, which highlighted her mega-monumental installation Line-Out, 1998.

R. J. Preece: I have to ask this question— so how neurotic are you?

Tomoko Takahashi: (laughs). I didn’t know that the title [of the exhibition] was going to be so eccentric, because it was so vague until the last minute. I would be very hesitant to refer to myself as a “neurotic artist”. It’s just a title— right?

R. J. Preece: How do you feel, then, about being in the New Neurotic Realism show?

Tomoko Takahashi: I feel really alienated from that title. People talk about it all the time. In fact, I can’t understand why people make such a fuss over it because it’s just a name for an exhibition. For other shows with strange names it’s not talked about so much. They mention the title and then talk about the work. But this thing really started from outside.

In fact, when they published the [pre-exhibition] book, I didn’t even know I was in it. It was completely unknown to the artists— it wasn’t artist-led at all. We didn’t choose the grouping. It was Charles Saatchi’s choice and we didn’t have any control over it. I think he is the curator anyway— I mean I was with people called “curators” but they always had to refer to Saatchi, so it must be that he is the one.

R. J. Preece: How do you go about creating an installation?

Tomoko Takahashi: It’s improvisation based. I see the site and then I think of what I can do— what would be appropriate to do— and then I start from that. Then I usually gather things— it depends on the venue and what sorts of things would be appropriate. So theme first, and then objects next, and then composition. They’re the three steps.

I have two types of work— one is very much site-specific and the other is my own stuff. At Hales Gallery in London, I constructed the installation in relation to the space, and used dishes inspired by the gallery’s café. With [the installations] at Hales, and at Mary Boone Gallery and the Drawing Center [in New York], the work is particular to the site, but my personal view comes out, and it’s more focused on what I’m thinking.

R. J. Preece: Which is more important in your work—the process or the product?

Tomoko Takahashi: It’s the same thing for me. That’s why I always try to put all the processes in the finished work. You can see what happened while I was working, because I think it’s the same thing. Whether you are conscious [of it] at the end of the day, it’s always the finished product. Every day the installation changes, but my deadline is very important.

R. J. Preece: With Line-Out, were you concerned about safety issues regarding the electricity and hanging wires? I’m particularly thinking about the boiling beaker on the hotplate.

Tomoko Takahashi: It’s not boiling. In fact, there’s an air pump and the tube in the beaker, so it’s quite funny. It does look like it’s boiling because it’s on a cooking table [hotplate]. (Laughs) I am concerned because I don’t want to burn down other people’s works.

R. J. Preece: Or the gallery.

Tomoko Takahashi: (Laughs) The gallery as well, but I’m more concerned with other people’s works.

R. J. Preece: With your installations being improvisation-based and with things changing up until the last moment, was there pressure on you to have pre-opening interviews— even when you were working at crucial times?

Tomoko Takahashi: I said “no” at times. Maybe I was a bit rude to the press, but I couldn’t help it— I’m not used to it—and it’s not my aim at all. And so it was strange—all of these things being done beforehand. Sometimes they asked me about things which I hadn’t finished and I felt I had to bullshit— I didn’t but I felt I had to— so it was really odd.

R. J. Preece: During the opening, the crowd was massive and the narrow paths through your installation constricted the flow of viewers into other rooms at the Saatchi Gallery. It created a remarkable, interactive performance, with objects controlling the crowd. Some material crashed to the floor, and people hopped over the installation. Was that intentional?

Tomoko Takahashi: When I make my work, I always keep the viewing time in mind, and I usually think of five to ten people, maximum, at the site. There are so many people at the Saatchi Gallery normally, but I didn’t realise what was going to happen— at all— during the opening.

It was a quite funny phenomenon— it was nice because objects dominated the people somehow, and the viewers didn’t know how to behave. Maybe my work is always in confrontation with the viewer; it’s kind of fight against the viewer.

R. J. Preece: Before this Saatchi show you were in New York— in a group show at Mary Boone Gallery, a show at the Drawing Center, and an installation at Staff USA.

Tomoko Takahashi: Staff USA is a newly styled project room in a kind of unknown place and next door to my [installation] is a fashion clothing area. So there are lots of clothes hangers and people storing stuff— and then my stuff is just next to it—so it’s kind of nice.

R. J. Preece: And you did a stint at the Holiday Inn— is that right?

Tomoko Takahashi: Yes! Holiday Inn was a one-night stand— a group called “No Surprise is the Best Surprise”. It was done by Mayday Productions at the Chinatown Holiday Inn in New York. We hired a suite for the night and invited people to come from 10 p.m. until 10 a.m.— a 12-hour opening. The funniest thing was that we didn’t tell the hotel that we were going to have an art exhibition. Instead, we told them we were a movie production company and we were doing the casting.

We sent all of the invitations out and it ended up in the Village Voice— we freaked out [worrying] that the hotel would find out, but they didn’t. Many people queued up to get in. It was a fantastic show.

R. J. Preece: Do you see any art historical or cultural influences in your work?

Tomoko Takahashi: Maybe; I don’t intend to push it, but everyone has their own culture and their own upbringing, and maybe a couple of birthmarks. But it’s really a mixture of a lot of cultural things. I get my influences from British artists and music— American and South Asian music. Of course one of [the influences] is Japan because I grew up there.

My grandmother was a tea ceremony teacher and I loved and still deeply respect her— she died last year. She really loved me and she taught me many things and we went to tea ceremonies, which are whole installations. It’s so immaculately done. Drinking cups of tea is a beautiful activity— so maybe that was the first fine art for me. That’s really early “contemporary art” for me because I was really so fascinated.

R. J. Preece: How was studying at Tama different from your education in London?

Tomoko Takahashi: At Tama, when I chose painting, I just had to stick to it— I didn’t see other possibilities because they didn’t encourage you. But when I came over for the foundation course [at Goldsmiths College], there were so many possibilities. I could do anything. That’s why I discovered three-dimensional things and went on. [In Japan] I used to paint surrealistic landscapes, which is very connected to my current work. It’s kind of similar.

R. J. Preece: You seem concerned about nationalistic and cultural “slotting”. In fact, you mentioned that you turned down a show in Germany which was what you called a “Japanese show”.

Tomoko Takahashi: Yes, I didn’t do that in the end. That show was different— it really wasn’t about art anyway— it was more about culture. Art is cultural phenomena, but if there is a nationalistic approach towards culture, it’s really problematic. I think it is a stupid way of categorising art.

A nationalistic attitude in art is very backward [when compared with] other fields like science, where they never talk about it. Why is where someone was born so important?

I hate the “female artist” thing as well, and I don’t want to be in that sort of show. That kind of strange categorisation of people— female, heterosexual, Japanese artist. I didn’t choose it (laughs). That’s the thing— it’s without choice. Artist “in Britain” is all right. I choose to be in Britain.

R. J. Preece: With your media success, hitting all of the major western art publications and the London newspapers, how are things financially?

Tomoko Takahashi: Not very good (smiles). My things don’t sell that often and I don’t make many saleable works. Occasionally, when I do sell, the commissions are always small amounts. You can’t make very much, so I have to do other jobs sometimes.

R. J. Preece: How has your view of the art system changed— you are now more knowledgeable about it— do you think you understand it?

Tomoko Takahashi: I never understand it, but it’s really odd— [there are] lots of things to find out— some are very pleasing, some are encouraging, and some are disturbing.

[Comparing] big organisations and really small ones, there are very different attitudes. It’s a bit scary. I prefer the smaller organisations because they are more heart-oriented, they don’t care about profit. There are lots of hidden places or small organisations that are active and doing more interesting and adventurous things— so I wish more people would visit these places.

R. J. Preece: Lastly, in order to understand your work— your intentions— what do we need to know?

Tomoko Takahashi: I don’t know, I really don’t. It’s shameless and irresponsible— I’m sorry (laughs). I really want to leave it up to the viewer—I don’t want to manipulate. I think if we let the viewer decide, it’s the fairest way because if you make it, it’s public. If I could say it in one sentence, I wouldn’t have to make a work.