Interview: Kohei Nawa

Interview and portrait: Andrey Bold

Kohei Nawa doesn't come across as your stereotypical artist. His neat, reserved presence and the uniform of choice—playful multi-patterned Comme des Garçons shirts—would make him right at home in architectural circles. In fact, architecture is something on his mind a lot these days. Since his quick rise to stardom with instantly classic PixCell series, Nawa's projects rapidly increase in scale and complexity, often into the architectural realm.

One of the most prolific Japanese artists is in a good place right now—the progress is catching up with his futuristic vision, giving him tools to mold it out of otherworldly materials. The art of tomorrow is a straight thought-to-product process, without a trace of human touch on its perfect surface.

Artist Kohei Nawa

Artist Kohei Nawa

  • ABWhat is your background?
  • KNI was born in 1975 in Osaka. I studied sculpture at Kyoto City University of Arts and graduated with master's and doctoral degrees. While at the university I went to RCA in London, as a one-term exchange student, for about 7 months.
  • ABHow did you get interested in art?
  • KNI don’t remember when, but I always liked drawing and making things, even before kindergarden. During high school I joined a painting workshop, which my older sister attended, and decided to enroll the art university. I also became interested in architecture and physics around that time, but eventually chose art university as I could keep my own pace there. I didn’t know what I’m good at. I had thought of specializing in painting but quickly realized that sculpture suits me better.
  • ABWhat's on your mind most these days?
  • KNMy new works. I want to utilize a new technique involving oil, but can't come up with a solution yet.
  • ABHow do you start your day?
  • KNI have trouble waking up. I hate it. [Laughs] I set about 6 alarms. Since my childhood I had trouble falling asleep, and in turn I can’t get up, regardless what time I go to bed.
  • ABAre you a night owl?
  • KNYes, but now that I have my studio, SANDWICH, I have to get there by 9 a.m. for “Radio Gymnastics” (morning exercise) with other members. Since I started the studio I found morning to be very productive, for the first time in my life.
  • ABWhat made you think of assembling a team?
  • KNI started SANDWICH 5 years ago, after 3 years of my previous studio. I didn't plan on having a studio, but once I started many large scale projects poured in, so I couldn't manage them otherwise. Some people choose not to have their own studios and turn to production companies instead, like some of my friends. In my case, I participate in the whole process, from research and development to the final execution. I need to have my own team so I can share everything intuitively.
Direction, Ether. Installation view of “mission [SPACE×ART]—beyond cosmologies,” 2014, Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. Photo by Nobutada Omote/SANDWICH

Direction, Ether. Installation view of “mission [SPACE×ART]—beyond cosmologies,” 2014, Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. Photo: Nobutada Omote/SANDWICH

  • ABWhat is the most important quality for an artist?
  • KNKeep on making art. To have a free flow of ideas without looking for what to make next. I like people with original vision, those who connect with the world, as opposed to straightforward self-expression. You mentioned gravity, I think of expression as such—a natural phenomenon.
  • ABThat's something I wanted to ask, your approach is rather impersonal, almost detached.
  • KNI think it's not enough to just express oneself in art today. Art as self-expression has been already over-exploited by former generations. I think we're heading for a different type of art, not where artists convey their own narratives, experiences and ideas within one’s closed shell. I think of self more like a filter, or a catalyst of one's own experiences, a platform for expression. Self is no longer a theme, not even necessarily an individual. We can work in a group, with people from entirely different fields. I see it happening everywhere, it changes the very core of art making.
  • ABDo you have a hobby?
  • KNAll work and no play... but I love rugby. I practiced it for 15 years since junior high, until I graduated from the university. I like martial arts too. I did karate and used to do kung fu in Berlin. I'm interested in body motion, hence my interest in sports. Rugby is the best. In the high school I was really crazy about rugby and thought it'd be fine if I die in a game. Insane. [Laughs]
  • ABWho did inspire you the most?
  • KNI was influenced by many, depending on my interests at a moment. In childhood I admired Katsuhiro Otomo, he inspired me a lot. Speaking of architects, I was in Antoni Gaudi's research group, his works are both, architectural and sculptural. When I became interested in body and its portrayal I met Min Tanaka and went to his place as an apprentice for nearly 6 years every summer.
  • ABIt's interesting you mentioned Gaudi who made a use of gravity in his works.
  • KNYes, that’s something I like about them.
  • ABDo you think Japanese artists have a different perspective?
  • KNIt’s difficult to say. I feel Japanese are more attuned to materials, but artistic ideas and concepts are very diverse, so I don’t like to group them just as “Japanese.”
Trans-Rio (Stroke), 2012. Courtesy of Arario Gallery/Scai the Bathhouse.  Photo by Nobutada Omote/SANDWICH

Trans-Rio (Stroke), 2012. Courtesy of Arario Gallery/SCAI the Bathhouse. Photo: Nobutada Omote/SANDWICH

  • ABI have a theory—Japan has centuries long appreciation for crafts and their level arguably of the highest quality. Contemporary art however, being rooted in Western philosophy, religion and history, with its dualistic values, never really got a grip here. All that makes it nearly impossible for the Japanese artists to compete on the international level—they simply don't share the same values. So if the Japanese are to succeed it's very likely with a different approach altogether.
  • KNThat’s something I researched at the university—the roots of Japanese folklore and religious identity. During the heyday of religious art, Japan had produced many stunning masterpieces. I think what Japanese had done utill Edo period—sensibility and technique they reached in arts and crafts—is exceptional, something we're all rightly proud of, but from Meiji restoration on—the age of confusion. There are hardly any good pieces from that period.
  • I want to attain this level of focus in art today, both spiritually and technically. As we’ve been already modernized and americanized, it’s clear that we can't just go back. So I think we have to pursue new fields to reach new creative heights. I think we, Japanese, have animism, Shintoism and Zen embedded in our DNA, the question is how to unlock/activate it. I want my sculptures to reflect that, but I don’t want to limit myself to Japanese roots only. That’s why I went to Europe to study medieval religious art and architecture. Religious art is rarely about self-expression, which might be one of the reasons I like the genre.
  • I agree with your theory that Japanese have very little in common with the rest of the world's art heritage, it’s been only 50—60 years since Japan imported Western gallery system and contemporary art. It wasn't firmly rooted. However, in the last 15 years, globalization has synchronized the world, so wherever you are, you can take a part in the global art market.
  • ABIf you were to become a Prime Minister what would be the first law you'd pass?
  • KNLaw? That's a difficult question. I’m not good at laws. [Laughs] Well, I don’t like the current legal system that regards everything artists produce as taxable properties. It even views prototypes as such, it’s bad. Too specific? [Laughs]
  • I think we should change our education system, especially art, because artistic sense can't evolve much once you're old enough to enroll a university. I think this skills must be developed earlier. Japanese compulsory art education system is very week in that regard, I want to enhance it. I believe the time limit, up to the age of seven, is particularly short.
Foam, 2013. Courtesy of SANDWICH and Aichi Triennale 2013. Photo by Nobutada Omote/SANDWICH

Foam, 2013. Courtesy of SANDWICH and Aichi Triennale 2013. Photo: Nobutada Omote/SANDWICH

  • ABWhat is your favorite sci-fi film?
  • KNI rewatched “Blade Runner” recently, still very impressed.
  • ABWhat is it about sci-fi that you find most appealing?
  • KNSci-fi is a way to see the world through a different lens, to envision the future of our current society, or alternative paths we could have taken. It is a sort of thought-experiment and can target something like urban studies and design to hint at latent possibilities of our technologies. It has so many aspects to enjoy, even though a story is often nonsense. [Laughs] I love “Akira,” it almost predicts our current robotic society. It's not just a fantasy, it's a social commentary. I like that kind of sci-fi.
  • ABHave you ever thought of making a film?
  • KNIt sounds interesting, but I'd have to fully devote myself to it. I will make a decent film if I have enough time to concentrate over a stretch of time. I love films.
  • ABYou look very focused, do you practice meditation or any other form of self discipline?
  • KNI don’t practice meditation, but making art is very similar, no? It makes me jump in a completely different passage of time. What you feel while drawing is similar to diving underwater. You have a completely different experience until you're back to normal breathing.
  • I’m good at concentrating since my childhood. Once I make up my mind I can instantly dive into it. The feeling you experience making pictures continues even when you pause. I can immediately start working on paintings that I have not finished yet, it doesn't matter how old they are. I remember the moment and can resume where I stopped.
  • ABWould you rather have a museum solo show in a major capital outside of Japan or build a massive monument?
  • KNA museum solo show. The show is the best format to make my work understood by an audience on the deepest level. As with a film, the exhibition can build up “experiences” to the smallest detail. It's really fun.
  • ABWhat is your biggest ambition?
  • KNKeep on creating. I have no specific goal. It takes time to complete a work, if I only had more time.
  • I want to blend art and architecture. The relation between the two interests me the most. I've done only 10% of what I want to do.

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Translation: Masamichi Tamura