Tradition never dies: Japanese sculpture with Gakushi Yamamoto and Yusuke Nishii – interview

Hitoshi Ohashi of Tobin Ohashi Gallery discusses the work of Gakushi Yamamoto and Yusuke Nishii, exploring the state of contemporary sculpture in Japan.

Manga and Japanese kawaii culture are widely known, but Japanese contemporary sculpture is not. Art Radar interviewed a Tokyo gallery owner about two of his represented artists, Japanese sculptors Gakushi Yamamoto and Yusuke Nishii, to learn more about their work and the state of sculpture in Japan. 

Gakushi Yamamoto uncrating his work at the Tobin Ohashi Gallery. Image courtesy artist.

Gakushi Yamamoto uncrating his work at the Tobin Ohashi Gallery. Image courtesy the artist.

Post-war Japanese sculpture is often seen as influenced by the Japanese traditional spirit and by Buddhism and Shinto philosophies. Exhibitions like 1990’s “A Primal Spirit: Ten Contemporary Japanese Sculptors” and the 2012 “The Power of Japanese Contemporary Sculpture” highlight the traditional hand techniques and the natural materials used in creating the sculptures.

Young sculptors Gakushi Yamamoto and Yusuke Nishii are continuing in this fashion, creating work by hand rather than hiring assistants. Their usage of traditional sculptural materials is equally important.

Gakushi Yamamoto

Gakushi Yamamoto was born in Los Angeles in 1981. His father, a Buddhist priest, moved the family to California to start a temple. However, the family soon returned to Kyoto, Japan where Gakushi grew up. At Tokyo Zokei University, he received his B.F.A in 2008, and M.F.A in 2010. Before Gakushi studied sculpture, he studied both graphic and furniture design. One of his jobs was sculpting exhibits at Tokyo’s Disneyland.

Yusuke Nishii

Yusuke Nishii, born in 1985 in Nara Prefecture, works mainly with wood to create figurative wooden sculptures. He received his B.F.A. and M.F.A. degrees from Tama Art University in 2010 and 2012, respectfully.

Hitoshi Ohashi, Co-owner of Tobin Ohashi Gallery, the gallery representing the artists, answers Art Radar’s questions.

Please describe the two sculptors you represent: Gakushi Yamamoto and Yusuke Nishii.

Both artists are unique. They are young, around the age of thirty. Their art lies somewhere between realistic and abstract works, and also represents our humanity and stimulates our imagination.

Gakushi is the son of a Buddhist priest who started one of the first Buddhist temples in California. There is a serenity in his work.

What attracted you to their work?

I have never seen anything like it in my life. For both of them, you have to dig deeper to understand their work. The motto of our gallery is: show us something we’ve never seen before.

Bob Tobin [Tobin Ohashi co-founder] goes to many of the art school graduation shows, and when he went to Zokei University’s show, he was impressed by Gakushi’s work, calling it “a showstopper.”

I knew Yusuke since he was a friend of another artist we know. We went to see his group show and Bob loved his work too, so we put Yusuke into one of our group shows.

Yusuke Nishii's wood sculpture. Image courtesy artist

Yusuke Nishii,  ‘Prohibition of double-headed’, 2010, Japanese cypress, 1500 x 400 x 300 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

What are the strengths of their work, their vision?

Japanese people are not so talkative, so the work does the talking. Both Gakushi and Yusuke’s work are soulful. The more you look at their work, the more is revealed to you, so you keep on looking when you see their work.

The sculptures really reflect their diverse personalities and emotions perfectly. Their art is truly an expression of their character. Yusuke is very energetic and friendly while Gakushi is very quiet, shy and strong.

Yusuke creates figurative sculptures carved out of wood. For Yusuke, our bodies and our souls are together as there is a connection between our spirit and our bodies.  Many people consider his work erotic, as does he.  Through his carvings, he is expressing his own eros and sensuality.

Gakushi created chairs in bronze. He believes the chair leaves a trace of the person who sat in it before.

Gakushi Yamamoto, untitled. Image courtesy artist.

Gakushi Yamamoto, untitled, 2010, bronze. Image courtesy the artist.

Why should the viewer be interested in their work?

It entirely depends on the individual viewer, but many people say they get passion and energy from the two sculptors’ work. Also in Japanese, the phrase wabi sabi, translated as “perfection in imperfection” is an element in their art.

When some people first see Yusuke’s work they think it is a bit scary, but after two minutes of viewing they can’t stop looking at it. Yusuke’s work provides the viewer the opportunity to see into the soul of another person. The same thing can be said of Gakushi’s work.

How do these two artists fit into Japan’s art scene? And, the international art scene?

Gakushi and Yusuke belong to a young new generation of sculptors, and they are just beginning to enter the international scene. Gakushi has exhibited in Los Angeles and received a review in Asian Art News.  Yusuke has exhibited in Taiwan numerous times.

Yusuke Nishii, untitled, wood and nails. Image courtesy Tobin Ohashi Gallery.

Yusuke Nishii,  ‘Questions and Answers’, 2011, wood and nails 950 x 450 x 400 cm. Image courtesy Tobin Ohashi Gallery.

How important is tradition in their work? their choice of materials? their techniques?

Gakushi used to work in glass, stone and wood, but he prefers iron now because he says it is softer.  He had a show in the Iron and Metal Museum in Chiba.

Yusuke’s use of rusting nails, show the natural progression and ebbing of life.

How is the market in Japan for sculpture?

Most of Gakushi’s small works have gone to corporate collections and private collections, and his large works have gone to individual collectors with large outdoor spaces. Yusuke’s works are in private collections, including our own.

Gakushi Yamamoto, installation. Image courtesy artist.

Gakushi Yamamoto, untitled, 2011, bronze installation. Image courtesy the artist.

What is the situation in Japan for contemporary sculpture?

For small works, both Gakushi and Yusuke are very accessible, price-wise and space-wise for small Japanese homes. People here tend to collect the smaller works.

How is the overseas market for Japanese sculpture?

One client told us that Gakushi’s work should be in the Hirschhorn Museum. Foreigners in Japan really like their art work too.

The two artists are great representatives of younger sculptors in today’s contemporary art scene in Japan.

Gakushi Yamamoto, detail of bronze sculpture. Image courtesy Tobin Ohashi Gallery.

Gakushi Yamamoto, untitled, 2011, detail of bronze sculpture. Image courtesy Tobin Ohashi Gallery.

Gakushi Yamamoto has said he considers his work like a jigsaw puzzle- “only 80% complete”. Can you explain what he means by that?

The work is, of course, complete, but the viewer brings his or her own perspective and interpretation to the work. According to the gender or age of the viewer, the perception of the work will be different. As Gakushi does not render realistic portraits, the symbolic meanings will vary with each viewer.

Gakushi sometimes includes human forms in his work, but never detailed faces; why this anonymity?

The face gives the answers to what the person is feeling, and Gakushi’s work stimulates the imagination.

Gakushi Yamamoto, table. Image courtesy Tobin Ohashi Gallery.

Gakushi Yamamoto, untitled, 2010, bronze table and chairs. Image courtesy Tobin Ohashi Gallery.

Yusuke Nishii, 'Donju', carved wood. Image courtesy artist.

Yusuke Nishii, ‘Ponderous this World’, 2011, carved Zelkova wood, 400 x 300 x 400 cm. Image courtesy artist.

Pimp Studio, exterior. Ideal for artists working with heavy machinery and toxic materials. Image courtesy Yusuke Nishii.

Pimp Studio, exterior. Ideal for artists working with heavy machinery and toxic materials. Image courtesy Yusuke Nishii.

Yusuke Nishii is also involved in Pimp Studio; can you explain what Pimp Studio is and how working with it influences Yusuke’s practice? 

Pimp Studio is a group of young artists who have a studio space which used to be a factory before. They sometimes hold shows together but their work is separate and they do not collaborate except for shows.

Gakushi also belongs to a group and has a space together- again, they are friends but they don’t collaborate on work and in Gakushi’s case, they don’t do shows together. They respect each other very well.

Yusuki Nishii at work in the studio. Photo (c) Ayumi Kawamura. Image courtesy artist.

Yusuki Nishii at work in the studio. Photo by Ayumi Kawamura. Image courtesy the artist.

Susan Kendzulak

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