No Ending, Only Process — A conversation about the artistic practice of Tadashi Kawamata

In February 2022, three months before the opening of The Nest at Amos Rex, Senior curator Itha O’Neill and the artist Tadashi Kawamata sat down to discuss his artistic work and the upcoming outdoor exhibition.

The discussion was recorded via video call for the podcast episode “No ending, only process”. Join us by either listening to the podcast (in English) or reading this edited transcript.

Itha O’Neill [IO]: Hello Tadashi! Welcome to the podcast! How are you, and where are you? 

Tadashi Kawamata [TK]: Yes, I’m okay, and I still don’t have Covid. I’m in Paris where I have been living the past fourteen years.  

[IO]: Okay, you’re in your studio in Paris. I can see you have some of your sketches and maquettes in the background. You’re best known for temporary outdoor sculptural installations and your work with reclaimed materials, often wood. When did you find your voice as an artist because you started as a painter, am I correct? Can you tell us about that journey from painting to sculpture?   

[TK]: Yes, it was a long time ago, when I was a student at Tokyo University of the Arts. I took painting courses. I had serious skin problems because I was allergic to the oils used in oil paints. So, from time to time just to get out from painting with oil, I used acrylic paint and water colours, but at times my allergy was so bad that I had no image to work with. I often stood in front of the white canvas without painting anything; I was drawing but not painting. One day, as I stood in front of my canvases [stretchers], I began to arrange them, up to ten of them, in the art school studio. At the time, I didn’t think of it as an installation. I thought of it as a different mode of presentation. So, this was my first attempt at using the canvas in the space.  

[IO]: So, more space-oriented, you started using the frames instead of painting on canvas.  

[TK]: Yes, exactly. 

[IO]:  You have described your participation in the 40th Venice Biennale as a paradigm shift in your artistic practice. Can you tell me a little bit about that shift?  

[TK]: It was 1982, I was still a doctoral student in Japan. I was 28 years old and very much an art student. That was when they invited me to the Venice Biennale. For me, this was the first huge international exhibition I participated in. And I was very ambitious. I stayed two months in Venice and worked on a wooden construction inside and outside of the Japan Pavilion. But in 1982 the Venice Biennale didn’t have a lot of installations or anything. It showed mostly painting and figurative sculpture, like Barry Flanagan with the rabbit sculpture, and Julian Schnabel and the Bad Painting -movement.

So, I was totally disappointed. I thought that it wasn’t a good time for my work. After the Biennale I stayed in Europe for 6 months just travelling and really thinking about what I should do. At the time, I felt that I couldn’t be in the art world and that I shouldn’t be in the mainstream of art because my work was not really in the moment. So, I needed to figure out how I was going to work outside of the museum and gallery setting and the art-oriented institution. Then I went back to Japan, and I started working on the Apartment Projects. This was a totally privately funded project that I produced myself. This is the starting point for me, outdoor installations that were totally local and very private projects. 

[IO]: There was disappointment from the Venice experience that had been so painting-oriented. Then you started shaping your own place in the art world, outside the art world. You moved to New York city [in 1983] on a grant, and that also led you forward in your artistic practice. Tell me about that. 

[TK]: Just so you know, at the opening of the Venice Biennale, I had briefly met Alana Heiss, the director of [MoMa’s] PS1 in New York. I knew that PS1 was an interesting alternative space, and that it had produced many very good projects. In the mid-1980s in New York, there was so much graffiti and a lot going on in the East Village. There were still quite a lot of abandoned buildings. There was a lot of drugs, and the mafia was everywhere. It was very scary and very dangerous, but I was really excited about the graffiti movement in particular. I was not interested in graffiti [tags] on the subway or anything. I really liked the illegal aspect of painting on the street, you know, the action. I met a couple of these artists, and they were really working outside of the gallery setting, totally outside of the museum, outside of the art institution. They really wanted to shape the public space. So, I was fascinated by this illegal thing. *laughs 

This really connected to my work at that time. I met many artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat over there. A lot of the famous artists were still alive and working there. So, for me this was New York in the 1980s. I stayed there for almost three years. I was also really inspired by homeless people and the shelters they build for themselves, because I had an earlier interest in favelas in Brazil. After Venice, I participated in the São Paulo Art BiennialI saw favelas being built over there. You know, the favela is also totally illegal. They build them and steal electricity, water, everything. This is really like “my way”. you know. *laughs
I saw myself as a favela builder or a builder of shelters for homeless people, something like that.  

[IO]: It is interesting how you, by using a very simple method, are very on point. By building these structures that attach to existing structures, you contrast surfaces and make us think about what is valuable, what should be, what should not be. It is a very simple yet highly effective method. Was it in New York that you discovered this? 

[TK]: I had already started these types of projects in Japan before that. But it links to the illegal scene on the street or public space [Street art], also they were very spontaneously constructed, out of scrap material, trash. So, this is a similar idea. I was always taking walks, picking up pieces of material, and building things. It’s like making sketches.  

[IO]: Quick sketches, like interventions into the urban space. 

[TK]: It’s not like New York was a starting point. I had already started taking this direction after Venice. In 1983, I started working on the Apartment Projects. That was my starting point, then I decided to continue on that path. When I was in New York, I saw the graffiti scene and the illegal [Street art] action in the public space. I really connected with that.  

[IO]: We can return to this use of reclaimed materials later, but let us first talk about The Nest, Amos Rex's outdoor exhibition for the summer of 2022. Two years ago, Amos Rex invited you to create a public artwork. Tell me about that process; why build a nest? 

[TK]: The shape looks like a nest, but it isn’t really like a nest at all. I thought about attaching scrap material to the chimney [in the Lasipalatsi square] because this object, the chimney, is a symbol of Amos Rex, the building. Also, the Lasipalatsi square has a very strange and alien landscape, and its architecture is very distinct. I always begin with the site, and then the idea comes. So, the chimney and landscape are very distinct, and something that I can attach things to. Later it became like a nest, but the initial idea was to attach the scrap material to this chimney. I thought it would be easier to collect wood in Finland because your country is like a wood country, I thought. *laughs 

[IO]: We’re pretty wood-based, that’s true. Also, the square itself is like a nest, did you think of it? When you walk into the Lasipalatsi square, you feel like you are separated from the busy streets that surround it and it’s like a shelter. Did you have those kinds of thoughts? 

[TK]: I mean, birds make nests in the urban space, on chimneys, on rooftops. It is very symbolical for me; a nest in a very rigid urban space creates a huge contrast. It is also sort of suggestive, of nature, of artificial things, of human beings, of many things. So, the nest is very symbolic for me; the nest as a shape is very organic and it is also very biological. It is like a parasite, how it behaves, you know.  

[IO]: We’ll return to this idea of the parasite. I was thinking about nest building because nests are the most primary of shelters and nest building is a form of improvised construction. What role does improvisation play in your work? How did improvisation become a key aspect of your work? 

[TK]: In fact, I am not really an improvisation artist. I prepare a lot. I always make a model, maquette, or sketch. But I use scrap material, and with scrap material you cannot plan in detail. You’re always dependent on how much material you can get. I need to think about how to arrange the scrap material because if I’m planning work based on 2-metre-long planks, and I only have 50-centimetre planks, what do I do? I always make decisions on the spot during the installation of the work. This is called improvisation, but it’s not really improvisation, it is more about chance and the availability of materials.

[IO]: It is like controlled improvisation, and by using the reclaimed materials, the randomness becomes embedded in your process. How come you use reclaimed materials? Does the use of these materials have more to do with commenting on architectural space, economic aspects or are there any environmental issues? Or are they intertwined? 

[TK]: Everything is connected, even the economic aspects, of course, this is recycled material. Most of it is wood because I have no technique for metal or stone or anything else because of my background in painting. So, hammering and screwing is easier for me. I collect material like used furniture because it has the taste and feel of human activity. It’s not like new, totally fresh wood. Used materials carry with them the history of the people. So, each time I go to the site and collect the material, I am collecting the history of the people that inhabit that particular city. Because I don’t know anything about the site, I don’t know anybody. So, I must get to know the city and the people who live there. All this I can read from this scrap material. For sure.  

[IO]: The material often reveals its former functions. You don’t seem to want to hide their function. You can see chairs, apple crates etc. Also, I like the fact that you talk about a human presence imbued in the material. The works that attach to existing structures you have described as parasites. The word parasite would suggest something dangerous, malicious and like a cancer on a host body. I don’t really see that maliciousness. In your world the parasite is the hero - nimble and crafty. Does The Nest fall into this category? For me, the nest seems like a much more comforting metaphor. 

[TK]: For me, art is an action to rediscover something else. I use cancer as a metaphor because cancer grows spontaneously from an ordinary cell. Then it grows as a different body, but inside of the host body. So, The Nest is like a parasite. However, there are two types of parasites: there is the good parasite and the bad parasite. The bad parasite tries to get out of its own body, but the good parasite tries to live together, side by side with the host body. So, for me it’s a very good metaphor for the world we’re living in where people with different cultural backgrounds live together, all with a different way of thinking, with different knowledge, different history and so on. We must stay together. *laughs
We are all parasites. We need animals, we need people, food, everything. We are already parasites; bacteria eat other bacteria, and humans eat the bacteria and so on. 

[IO]: We’re all connected. There’s a generous side to your work. You often collaborate with local organizations and residents. For The Nest you teamed up with our local Reuse Centre, Kierrätyskeskuswho collected disused furniture for the installation. You’re constantly opening your artistic practice to the public and to craftsmen. There’s a communal feel to your process, you’re not an artist in an ivory tower. What do you feel is the value of collaboration? 

[TK]: I don’t know anything about the site or the people or the country or anything. I’m just like a visitor, an outsider. So, how to get to know the city and the people? Inviting locals to work together is a very easy way. I always listen to the residents and want to know what they are thinking. I really enjoy listening, talking and exchanging ideas. After this stage in the process, we can work together, so it’s like a collaboration. I really like to get to know the site, the place, the people. My work is researching the country, the history of the ground [archaeology]. I learn a lot from people, not from the art world. *laughs 

[IO]: You’ve described your work as having no ending, only process. What do you mean by that?  

[TK]: You see, I’m always processing, working. I go to the site and work with a team. Everyday just hammering and fixing. Then there is the opening day, and the next day I go to another site, and start again with the same thing: collecting materials, talking with people, and then working. So, it seems like I’ve I worked on just one project for almost 40 years. I keep building up and taking down, building up and taking down. This is like a circulation of the material. Although it takes place in a different country, different city, with different people, I’m still doing the same thing. I might construct a different shape or use a different material, but then I always take it down, and continue working on another site. So, it’s like, if you hit your head, you get a bump. Then the bump heals, and the body looks the same as before. So, there is no loss, nothing gets lost. I just collect and throw away, collect again, then throw away, then I just build up, then take it down. So, it’s like a circulation. This is total process; never finishing, never complete. It’s like a Buddhistic image, the idea of reincarnation. You are born, you die, and you are reborn, like a continuation.  

[IO]: Reincarnation is a form of permanence. Your work in many ways is more impermanent than most works of art. That’s your choice, you’re going against the grain, many artists seek permanence. You don’t necessarily do that. So, how important is it for you to leave a mark and are you perfectly content with some of your work just disappearing? 

[TK]: My installations could stay up for a hundred years, but I would still say “this is temporary”. Because the material changes, you know. Everybody hates to use wood in public sculptures, because wood is not strong enough. There is always moisture and cracking and so on. People must take care of it. So, there’s always this issue of maintenance. For one of my installations in Switzerland, local residents get together every five years and vote on whether to take it down or to keep it. If they decide to keep it, they then replace the damaged parts with new wood. It’s been on view for 20 years now, so the work has been maintained four times. This is a very interesting way to think about permanence. It is not permanent, like forever, but as much as people care about my work. So, this the best way for me, the artist to produce the artwork. Temporary, what is temporary? My life is temporary, your life is temporary, everybody must die. 

[IO]: Temporary really is a matter of perspective. Everything is temporary. Nothing is permanent. 

[TK]: This is a fantasy for the human being. Reality is temporary; everybody must die. 

[IO]: Death is the only permanent thing. So, maybe permanence isn’t such a great thing to aspire to. I wanted to ask, before we end this podcast, do you have any words for our visitors? 

[TK]: I don’t want to give an answer, I don’t want to say, "you should look at it like this or like this". Sometimes in life we need a different way of doing things. I’m a very strange guy and an outsider. I don’t really care about anything, but once you do this kind of thing, you must let others answer the questions themselves and think about things. That’s all, really.  

[IO]: In one of our meetings, we asked about your work and what you think of things, and you said, "I like ordinary but a little bit different". Do you feel that represents you? 

[TK]: This is exactly what I am; I live and work like that.  

[IO]: How wonderful that we get it just right at the end of the podcast. Tadashi, thank you so much for this wonderful talk. Listeners have certainly gained an insight into your unique artistic practice. Thanks for coming on the podcast. 

[TK]: Thank you.  

This article is a transcript from the podcast “No ending, only process” that was recorded in February 2022 three months before the opening of the exhibition. The transcript has been edited for coherence and readability.