Interview: Tadanori Yokoo

Interview and photography: Andrey Bold


Credited with everything from reinventing contemporary poster design to premeditating Superflat, Tadanori Yokoo has had a head-spinning 50-years-plus career. Closely associated with Yukio Mishima, Yoko Ono, Shuji Terayama, Nagisa Oshima and Yayoi Kusama he's one of the few survivors of the post-war Golden Age. Famously retiring from the commercial field in 1981, after seeing a Picasso retrospective at MoMA, Yokoo concentrated on painting which remains his main focus ever since. His latest project, Teshima Art House, Yuko Nagayama redesigned funeral home, is set to be completed in the spring of 2013, just in time for Setouchi Triennale 2013. It reflects artist's lifelong fascination with death, as in “Living well is dying well,” and will house his permanent exhibition.

Yokoo agrees to meet at SCAI THE BATHHOUSE, which holds a pre-Teshima exhibition of his works. While arranging the meeting I'm warned that Yokoo may not want to talk at all, apparently his mood swings are legendary. On the morning of the interview I receive a nervous e-mail requesting to change the time. It is still unclear whether Yokoo will feel like talking. The artist arrives. There are no courtesy greetings, or any indications of the mood he's in. The tension is high. Surprisingly, after making a few random circles around me in what seems to be a silent conversation with unseen counsellors, Yokoo himself offers to start the interview and despite an awkward prelude remains highly engaged until I run out of questions.

Artist Tadanori Yokoo in front of his work

Artist Tadanori Yokoo in front of his work

  • ABDid your attitude towards death change over the years?
  • TYNo, it did not.
  • ABWhat's your objective?
  • TYI don't have any. No goal either.
  • ABWhat has been your biggest achievement so far?
  • TYI'm not the one to say. I'm only interested in what I do now and how it shapes my future. The past doesn't mean much.
  • ABDid you ever encounter an extraterrestrial?
  • TYAll the time.
  • ABDo you stay in touch?
  • TYYes, but it's deeply connected to my life and has nothing to do with this interview.
  • ABYou've been involved with many 60s icons...
  • TYMost of them are dead.
  • ABAnyone you can relate to these days?
  • TYSure, business-wise. I'd rather not name anyone, it won't be fair to some of my friends. It may make them feel bad about themselves.
  • ABDo you miss Mishima?
  • TYI feel even closer to him now, after his death.
  • ABDo you feel his presence?
  • TYWell, yes, but I mean things he has thought me. It lives in me.
  • ABTell us about your concept of continuously revisiting/retouching an artwork.
  • TYWhat's the word for it in English? Repetition? It is something of a necessity to me... slowly creeping forward... like a caterpillar. There is a Kiyoko Suizenji (famous Japanese enka singer) song about it. I think it's important to look back sometimes and draw from it.
  • ABWhat keeps you in Japan?
  • TY...?! Weird question... Fate? I had to be here for my work.
  • ABWas the spirituality always a big part of your life?
  • TYThis is something you're born with. Spirit cannot exist without a body and vice versa. I can't set them apart.
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  • ABAny plans for afterlife?
  • TYI don't think I'm up for another reincarnation. If I did... I'd be an actress in Takarazuka, acting as a man. You saw the painting downstairs (The Primitive Universe), right? There are three figures of women, two dressed as men.
  • ABYes I noticed. You like to joke...
  • TYJoke is a supplement for my life.
  • ABTell us your favorite one.
  • TYI constantly joke. There are at least two jokes within this interview already. [Chuckles]
  • ABThe most exciting thing has ever happened to you is...
  • TYPainting.
  • ABDo you undertake any spiritual practice.
  • TYI did. A year in a Zen temple.
  • ABNot anymore?
  • TYJust that one year.
  • ABDo you feel upgraded?
  • TYI feel downgraded, but it is just as important to grow down! [Laugh]
  • ABGoing back to reflecting, do you ever think you'd do something differently given another chance?
  • TYI never regret anything. I approve everything.
  • ABGreat. Do you sing?
  • TYI'm horrible at it. I have asthma, can't keep the note.
  • ABYour favorite dish?
  • TYAnko. [Laughs]
  • ABYou like sweets?
  • TYTaiyaki, dorayaki, zenzai, love that stuff! But not western sweets, like shortcakes.
  • ABThat's why you chose Japan!
  • TYExactly.
  • ABYou can't get a good anko in New York.
  • TYYou've got some good jokes. [Laughs]
  • ABHow did acting experience affect you?
  • TYI was disappointed not to win the best lead actor award. [Laughs]
  • ABSad.
  • TYOh well, it was directed by Oshima... an artistic film. I'd rather be in an entertaining one.
  • ABFrom early on you put yourself and your personal experience up-front, where does it come from?
  • TYIt comes from “Advertisements for Myself” by Norman Mailer, I even borrowed his title. A motivation to create something comes from oneself, not from the others. It's vital to know yourself. I start with myself and ideally end up blank.
Tadanori Yokoo before the opening of his exhibition

Tadanori Yokoo before the opening of his exhibition

  • ABWhy pink?
  • TYPink is cute.
  • ABI don't think it was used as much when you first started.
  • TYI used to wear a pink t-shirt in high school.
  • ABLove pink.
  • TY(Pulls his leg up) I wore pink socks in the morning... but I changed.
  • ABIs it still your favorite color?
  • TYI think pink is an adorable color, but I don't use it much in my paintings anymore. In fact, I prefer black. I used it heavily in the 60s, in my nude paintings. (Grabs a book of his works from a bookshelf)
  • ABMen or women?
  • TYWhat an absurd question, of course women! [Laughs]
  • ABDo you approach painting and design differently?
  • TYI don't design much these days, only my exhibitions posters. I can't separate the two.
  • ABThe collage-like technique is something of your signature.
  • TYWhen I was a kid I studied from masterpieces, then, I stopped copying and started collaging. I like connecting two mismatching objects together. It's a surrealist practice called dépaysement, Duchamp practiced it.
  • ABYou prefer dark background.
  • TYI like darkness. It's my origin and my terminus.
  • ABWell, I ran out of questions, and time. Are you happy now?
  • TYAbsolutely. Don't know about tomorrow though.
  • ABYou're really moody.
  • TYThere will be many people here in 10 minutes (We meet on the day of his exhibition opening).
  • ABExcited?
  • TYNo, no. [Laughs] I want to escape.
  • ABGood, let's go!
  • TYWith you? Now?!
  • ABSure! [Laugh]
  • TYSorry about last time at MoMA, my throat was sore and I couldn't speak. I liked your questions a lot.
  • ABThank you.

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Translation: Mei Matsubara