Interview: Makoto Aida

Interview and photography: Andrey Bold


Perverse, bizarre, violent, grotesque... A quick Google search only confirms Makoto Aida is no stranger to controversy. On the contrary, he makes a career out of it.

We meet one of the most important and influential Japanese artists living today in his tiny, run-down and out of Google Maps reach bar in Kabukichō. Weathered tape graffiti on the door reads 芸術公民館 (Geijutsu—Art, Koumin—Citizen, Kan—Center). Our host leads us up a narrow staircase to the second floor, asks for a drink and proceeds a floor higher to a tatami room upstairs. A sip from the glass, “So...”

Artist Makoto Aida

Artist Makoto Aida

  • ABYou have a solid artistic base (Aida graduated Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music with MFA in painting). Did the school have any affect on you?
  • MAWhen I was a student, university would let us do whatever we wanted to. I wasn’t taught much there, just experimented with various styles on my own. I entered one of the stricter courses for my master's because I actually wanted to learn something. I studied traditional European oil painting techniques and materials there. I feel it became a part of who I am.
  • ABWho influenced you?
  • MAI think I was influenced by Yukio Mishima the most. It goes all the way back to my high school years. Yes, he's a writer, but I empathize with his view of art. It may explain my erratic behavior. [Laughs] Mishima was a very complex person. Many consider him to be an ultranationalist, but he was much more than that. Someone to learn from really. Originally, I wanted to become a writer, not an artist. That’s why I mostly draw inspiration from literature.
  • ABThat explains why your works are more concept based.
  • MAWhat attracts me is storytelling. I never actually wanted to be an artist, but once I realized I have no talent for writing I had no choice but to give up. Somehow, I was always good at drawing even if I didn’t care for it. There was a gap between what I wanted to and could do, so I ended up like this. [Laughs]
  • ABWhat excites you?
  • MAHmm... Twitter. This year is special for me, I have a big show coming in November. To prepare for it I had to retreat to concentrate on painting. I chose Twitter to be my only link. Whenever I get tired of painting I read tweets. After the March 11 earthquake Twitter has become a mirror for the weary souls of Japanese people. That's pretty much this year for me—work and Twitter. To tell you the truth, I really want to get out. Maybe climb a mountain or something.
  • ABBelonging to a group is essentially Japanese, yet, people seem to praise originality. Everyone is craving for more freedom, not least of expression, but few exceptions aside continue to follow the usual, “don't stick out” path. How do you explain this paradox?
  • MAHmm... Interesting question. It's the first time someone asked me a question like that... Well, I'm a wacko by Japanese standards. I’ve always been an outsider, it's a part of who I am. At the same time I also value traditional Japanese small village mentality, particularly coming from Niigata prefecture where farming is much more crucial, than say in Tokyo. Both feelings are equally strong within me. I'm probably the best example of the paradox you described. I think I'll never be able to solve this conflict until I die.
  • ABJapanese are so good at improving things, even if they seem to function well regardless. Why doesn’t anyone try to change that?
  • MAHah... Dunno! [Big laughter] To answer in two words—hyakushou konjyou. Now, how can you translate that into English? Farmer mentality? [Another big laughter] That makes it sounds so cool! I want to make a t-shirt out of it! But yes, when I say hyakushou konjyou, I mean a strong peasant-like mindset rooted deep in our history. Japanese are used to being controlled. They also benefit from that. To say this is a part of our DNA is probably too much, but it does make for a big part of who we are. At least as far as the common folk is concerned.


  • ABHow much of your work is aimed to provoke a public reaction, compared to the pure artistic expression? Is provocation your ultimate expression?
  • MAI pay a very close attention to the artistic qualities, especially for the more provocative works. I aim to keep a 50/50 balance.
  • ABI understand you have something of a cult following among people normally not interested in art. How do you feel about that?
  • MAHmm... Okay let me think... Unlike the West, Japan does not have a bunch of art-hungry rich people. As long as I stay in Japan I don't have to trigger such customers. I'm after young and those interested in subculture. Not for the money—a young guy who may like my erotic paintings will not necessarily buy one. What interests me is having many people looking at and appreciating my work.
  • (A plate of seemingly over boiled cabbage is brought from the bar downstairs. The man asks if Aida needs a fork. Aida declines and digs into the cabbage with his hands.)
  • ABHow do you think Japanese art will evolve, with Japanese pop culture having a clear edge over fine art. Do you think we'll see them merging more and more?
  • MAHmm... I think foreigners should pay closer attention to the actual manga and game creators, instead of artists like Takashi Murakami and myself. Perhaps Japan is entering a dark age in its history, or perhaps it’s degenerating—but even if that is the case I think we are about to witness some interesting changes.
  • ABYou might be surprised to learn that Japanese manga artists and game designers are often better known than Japanese artists.
  • MAI think that’s how it should be. Some artists, me and Murakami included, use Japanese subculture and we'll continue doing so but I think we are not a battlefront. The battlefront is the Japanese otaku subculture itself. I just borrow from it and blend it with fine art.
  • ABWhat is your relationship with Murakami?
  • MAOh well [Long pause]... Um, wait a little... Well... Hmm. How do I answer this? We used to see each other often twenty years ago. Now, I only see him maybe once in two years.If the international art world was a marathon, Murakami would run in the first batch. I might be in the second or the third one. I can only see the back of Murakami’s head on a long, straight road... That’s how I see my standing with him. Frankly, I have always held mixed feelings towards Murakami but this has also become a motivational force for me in my own work. Simply put, I think we have a good relationship. I feel lucky to have Murakami running ahead and don’t necessarily wish to catch up with him. I prefer to find my own route, different from his. It’s not that I don’t like him. Although I don’t necessarily want to support him either... You know, it’s a complicated relationship. [A long swig of whisky]
    Artistic ideas aside, Murakami runs his own company. There is almost despairing difference between his output comparing to mine. I hardly ask people to help me until the last minute while Murakami has a Koons/Hirst production scale. He is head-on into commercial art. Output-wise, I think I'm no match for him. Also, he is a better showman than I am. Of course, I have my own reasons for staying domestic and I'm not upset for not making a big international splash but... Sorry, I’m rambling! [Laughs]


  • ABOk, back to you. What is quintessentially Japanese?
  • MAHmm... Japanese-ness... I’ve always been interested in this but it is a difficult concept to tackle with. I often think of the Japanese as a mixed race comprised of Eurasians and those who traveled along the Pacific. Japanese tend to think of themselves as a pure race but they are actually extremely mixed, maybe much more so than say Koreans. Maybe that's why there is no concrete Japanese-ness and the Japanese themselves are in a constant search for what makes us Japanese. To a degree it's a focus of my works, as I find this ambiguity much more interesting than a definite answer to Japanese-ness.
  • ABDid living in New York change your perspectives?
  • MAUm... I gave up becoming a cosmopolitan? [Big laugh] I stayed there for eight months when I was around 35. I’m glad I went, but my anti-Western mindset remained unchanged.
  • ABMay I ask where your anti-West stance come from?
  • MANot a stance, more of a complex feeling towards the US. All Japanese including me, and Mishima too, hold both pro and anti-American sentiments since WWII. Japan has a very deep relationship with the US, almost too deep. Although the two countries are almost antithetical in comparison.
  • ABYou met Ellie before Chim↑Pom was formed.
  • MAShe came to my exhibition wearing her schoolgirl uniform. I thought she's cute so I talked to her.
  • ABYou're notorious for recognizing and supporting young artists.
  • MAI don’t have an eye for young talents. Sometimes ambitious kids approach me thinking they may be able to use me. Some of them succeed later on. That’s all. I guess I’m a little lower in rank compared to Murakami and easier to reach.
  • ABYou seem equally at ease painting, or using your body. How do you choose which one to use?
  • MAHmm... I wonder... Wait a minute... [Long pause] Well, I don’t see myself as a video artist. Videos, you may refer to, are often just add-ons to my exhibitions. I don’t put too much effort into it.
  • ABYour wife, Hiroko Okada, is an accomplished artist in her own right. How do you coexist, are you competitive, or rather supportive?
  • MA[Takes a swig of whisky] Frankly, this marriage is a failure. [Laughs] Actually, I should’ve married someone who'd be my manager. I was hoping she'll succeed commercially, but sadly I'm yet to see it. I'm joking of course. Being married to a fellow artist is less stressful despite recurring financial issues.
  • ABWhat about your relationship with Mizuma-san (Aida's gallerist)?
  • MAI try not to discuss art too much with Mizuma san. Of course, he has his own ideals in terms of art, but he is a businessman and I think of our relationship as a business one. I try to keep it that way by not discussing artistic tastes—to have totally shared ideals could lead to conflicts too. We only contact through Eriko-san (an employee at Mizuma Art Gallery). I don’t think I'd make it through the day without her.
  • ABIf you weren't an artist, who would you be?
  • MABar owner. [Big laugh] If I weren’t an artist, I'd live here.

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Translation: Chisako Izuhara

Makoto Aida solo exhibition at Mori Art Museum starts November 17th.

Special thanks to Eriko Kusaka and Rika Fujiki.