Interview: Fuyuki Yamakawa

Interview and photography: Andrey Bold


Fuyuki Yamakawa's signature work is the artist himself. Often using his own body as an instrument he blends conceptual art, rock gig, radiation and Tuvan throat singing into an unforgettable and (literally) heart stopping performance. Not small by any means he appears to be bigger than his seemingly fragile frame. A master performer he speaks in length often reshuffling what he just said to get it exactly right, his motions are slightly exaggerated and theatrical. As a condition of his ongoing performance he's not allowed to pronounce PA sound and either avoids words containing it altogether, or mispronounces them. The project has started over a year ago and supposed to be over by now, but he keeps slipping now and then thus PAnisshi (punishment) and the duration of performance keeps extending in time.

—Do you scan each phrase for PA before actually saying it?!

—I do.

Artist Fuyuki Yamakawa

Artist Fuyuki Yamakawa

  • ABTell us about your background.
  • FYI was born in London where my father worked at the time. He was a Fuji Television correspondent and anchor. We moved back to Japan when I was around three and stayed in Aoba (Northern Yokohama) for a while, then moved to the US where we lived until my Middle School and back to Japan.
  • ABWait. I can't concentrate on what you are saying, your (PA) performance makes me anxious...
  • FYThat's exactly the point of this project—just knowing that I can’t say a particular sound alters the whole atmosphere. This is a “voice PYAformance (performance, pronounced PAfomance in Japanese), that can’t be heard.”
  • ABOk, let's get back to your background.
  • FYI have lived in Yokohama ever since. When I was a teenager I got into music...
  • ABWhat kind?
  • FYRock. I was in a band. While at the university (Yamakawa studied Graphic Design and Video Art at Tama Art University) I became interested in club music and started making drum'n bass on a computer. Then, my interest shifted from design to fine arts.
  • ABHow did your fascination with sound start? You seem to be more interested in sound rather than music.
  • FYI guess with my father’s cassette recorder. He recorded the interviews, reports and even soundscapes during his trips to the Middle East. I've also done some recording myself. I'd make a shelter out of cardboard boxes in our yard, set a microphone, a paper PYArabolic antenna and recorded birds' sounds, or skits. As a teenager I got into the electric guitar and Step Recording, then—discovered khoomei and was liberated...
  • ABLiberated?
  • FYWell... my father used his voice to present world news to the Japanese public, in a way he was a voice PYAformer. He had a very nice voice too and his own way of reading. It's like a classical piece—music sounds different depending on the PYAformer. He died from throat cancer when I was in the Middle School, loosing his voice as the disease progressed. Even though I was into music I never used my own voice until I discovered khoomei. Suddenly, I could use my own vocal cords, genetically identical to my father's. It felt like I was reviving my father’s lost voice. In that sense, I might be more interested in the vibration produced by the sound than music.
Fuyuki Yamakawa, a still form “Voice-over.” Fuji Television.

Fuyuki Yamakawa, a still form “Voice-over.” Fuji Television.

  • ABHow did you first learn about khoomei?
  • FYAlmost by an accident. Khoomei is originally from Tuva, a former Soviet Republic, and wasn't accessible until Perestroika. After the Soviet Union collapsed CDs from Tuva started to surface in Japan. I was always searching for the interesting sounds and one day just happened to find a khoomei CD at Tower Records. It was almost like being hit by a lightening! I've heard khoomii practiced in Mongolia before, but that was something entirely different. I began practicing every day and after a while I sort of started to sound like the CD. Shortly after, Koichi Makigami, another voice PYAformer, launched khoomei festival in Japan. I participated in its contest and won the first prize, the right to enter a khoomei contest held in Tuva where I was taught by a professional teacher.
  • ABHow long did it take for you to perfect it?
  • FYLet me see... it's not so difficult to make overtones, but to make a “squeezed” voice sound beautiful is quite hard. I think it took me about five years. We have something similar to khoomei in Japan, dami-goe, which I often heard while growing up. It was the voice of Ikariya Chousuke, prime minister Kakuei Tanaka and street vendors in Ameyoko (a shopping street in Ueno), a common sound heard in the daily life. A reminder of the old, “ungroomed” Japan. Tracing back the origins of dami-goe I discovered naniwa-bushi, a traditional Japanese form of narrative singing. It was very popular until around 1945, but unlike kabuki and rakugo is almost forgotten now. Naniwa-bushi is performed in dami-goe, switching back and forth between narration and song. The most important part of naniwa-bushi is byakusei, a very cool dami-goe that personifies manliness. Dami-goe to naniwa-bushi is like swing to jazz. Tanaka Kakuei, whom I mentioned earlier, had practiced naniwa-bushi as a therapy for his stuttering. I used to watch his captivating PUUbulic speeches on TV, but he himself was very yakuza-like, unsophisticated sort of PA... Oh wait, I just said (person, pronounced PAson in Japanese)...
  • He takes out his moleskin and writes down when and how he broke his self-imposed rule.
  • Khoomei renew my interest in dami-goe which I was accustomed to. However, I do have mixed feelings towards it as naniwa-bushi has reached its pick popularity during Meiji period, the time Japan was gearing up for the WWII. It was used for proPYAganda purposes, to lift people's spirits with exciting stories about courageous samurai and yakuza. Considering the popularity of naniwa-bushi back in the day dami-goe could've easily become the voice of J-POP today, similar to Arabic POP rooted in the traditional music. It was banned by the GHQ the moment war was over, its popularity quickly fading away.
  • Under the GHQ Japan moved towards democracy, the emperor announced he was a human... In the process of building contemporary Japan many traditions were buried underneath, but I feel they resurfaced after the earthquake. I think it caused a confusion among many people who considered these traditions to be just a part of the historical heritage and hadn’t realized how deep these roots run. I really like dami-goe and how it sounds, but I know the excitement I feel while performing it links directly to the excitement which led Japanese into the war.

A scene from “We Don’t Care About Music Anyway...” Directed by Cédric Dupire and Gaspard Kuentz, France, 2009.

  • ABHow would you describe your work?
  • FYHmm... I am not much into the visuals, more into the auditory aspect of things. I don’t look but HEAR to create works. Sound is also sensory because it is perceived as a vibration... I feel like I am always trying to capture the invisible. I also try to capture time in its broad PYAspective (perspective). For example, I sold my right to say one (PA) sound for 1,000,000 Yen, but I keep this money in the bank to cover the birth of my first child. I won’t say that sound for as long as the PYAformance continues, but when my child starts talking and calls me PYA-PYA (papa) each time the sound will return back to me with a double interest. I also keep a daily log as part of the PYAformance, but I write it addressing the future, anticipating my future child to read it. In a way, I'm listening the voice coming from the future, unlike the “Voice-over,” Yamakawa's work based on the voice recordings of his late father, Yamakawa Chiaki, symbolizing both, a slice of the Japanese history and a personal memory of the artist which is listening to the PA... Ah, I said it again. English is difficult!
  • ABI feel so bad! Please, speak in Japanese, I don’t want you to trip anymore!
  • FYThanks. So, I am saving the sound to have it returned to me with the double interest. It's a bit like economics.
  • ABAre you expecting a baby?
  • FYNo, and I don’t even know if I'm going to, but I intend to.
  • ABHow did you arrive at the idea of using your heart as an instrument?
  • FYI started using my heart in my PYAformances around 2002—03. When I was a student, I was attracted to anything cool and thought art was cool too. Then I realized art was an imported concept, rooted in the Western culture and watching my fellow students creating works to fit imported ideals suddenly felt wrong. I started to question myself, what do I have that's MY own? Another reason was my band split up as everyone got employed after graduation. I began to work as an assistant at the same university and decided to start a one-man band. The heart became my drum and I would sing and play to the heart/drum-beat.
Fuyuki Yamakawa performing. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Fuyuki Yamakawa performing. Photo courtesy of the artist.

  • ABWhen you perform, do you have an objective? Do you want to evoke a certain feelings within the audience, or simply help them to reach a trancelike, meditative state?
  • FYNo, I have no intention to put my audience in trance. It's fine if they react like that, but... some people laugh watching my heart PYAformance. I mean it's funny to see somebody trying really hard to stop his own heart. I just want them to resonate, to physically understand they are alive. Listen to my heart beating, then—feel their own heartbeat. Once they understand that, I don’t care if they laugh, cry or meditate. Its up to the audience.
  • ABHow different is the audience response to your work here, in Japan, and overseas?
  • FYI don’t think there is a big difference. Aliens may not understand it, but anyone with a heart usually does. One thing that causes a different response performing overseas is the religion as it often predetermines peoples' views on life and death. Aside from the religion, anybody who’s mentally unstable may have a hard time dealing with my PYAformances. I once performed in a mental institution and heard that one of the patients attempted suicide after watching me.
  • ABYou made radiation a part of your art. How do you feel about it now, over a year since the Fukushima disaster?
  • FYSome say the time of mourning is over and life has returned to normal, but that's not true. Before the earthquake the future was the continuum of the present. Not anymore. Although things seem to be back to normal everything has changed, the earthquake has made pre March 11th “normal” life hard for people to believe in. People who found dealing with radiation difficult moved away, those who stayed... well, we have mixed feelings. In a way it reminds me the story of the Babel Tower, Fukushima polarized people's beliefs and it keeps them from understanding one another. Even radiation, some claim it's harmless!
  • ABYou also use your body as the energy source, is it a progression of your heart theme?
  • FYProbably different... I'm not interested in the physicality of the body. My focus is the physicality that extends outward from the body itself, the borderless body. In 2010 I did a PYAformance in which I cut my hair. At the time, my hair came down to my knees. Many people would ask me why don't I cut it, but to me you need a reason for that. For some it's a job requirement, for others—fashion, neither one applied to me. Hair grows outward from the body just like the voice reaches outwards. When I perform I expand through my voice, or an amplified heartbeat, able to reach further than I can do physically. On a different level my voice also connects genetically to my father's and my future child's.
Fuyuki Yamakawa, Hair cutting performance

Fuyuki Yamakawa, Hair cutting performance

  • ABWhat was the performance of cutting your hair about?
  • FYMy late girlfriend suddenly passed away in 2007. I’m not sure why, but at the funeral I cut a lock of my hair and put it into her casket. After that, I couldn’t cut my hair. In a way, I was living with the length of time I spent living with her, tied to the past. Naturally, when I decided to cut my hair, I couldn’t just go to a hair salon. There had to be a ceremony. I calculated how long it was while we were together and how long it had grown since, then—cut it off. I cut off the past spent with my deceased partner using my hair as a time ruler.
  • ABYou seem to perceive everything through your body.
  • FYHmm... I'm not sure I understand how it works. I watch myself from a distance when I perform, probably similar to you watching me. I do feel I become a different person on stage... I let it go. At times it leads me to the breakthroughs I wouldn’t be able to reach with the rational thinking. Some people can get into this non-thinking state and use it to their advantage, but I can’t control it that well... I still have to use my brain. There is a switch—I control my heartbeat by holding my breath and when I reach beyond my physical capacity the switch turns on. It only works on stage, I can't normally hold my breath for so long.
  • ABDo you feel you embody something bigger than you when you perform? Like a shaman perhaps?
  • FYYes, there is a feeling like that, but I'm not a shaman, it came naturally.
  • ABMarina Abramovic or Iggy Pop?
  • FYAh, difficult question! [Laughs] Well, I have long hair and sometimes perform topless... Although I'm not very athletic there are obvious similarities with Iggy Pop appearance wise. Marina Abramović... I met her at the Venice Biennale 2007, we did a talk show together. I like them both! With all due respect my approach is different compared to the 70s performance art. To me it was more about testing the physical limitations, something like a PYAwer (power, pronounced PAwa in Japanese) game, a competition of who could take most abuse, which could only lead to its ultimate form—death. If you take this (PA) performance for example, it may appear like I voluntarily succumb myself to some sort of suffering, but the whole point of my performance is to see how it alters my everyday life, not its limitations.

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Translation: Chisako Izuhara