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Interview with Yamaguchi Katsuhiro

Throughout a career that spans the late 1940s to the present, Yamaguchi Katsuhiro has consistently proven to be one of Japan’s most visionary artists, distinguished by his restless curiosity about new media and means of artistic expression, and a powerful intellect that has been expressed not only through artworks but also through the organization of exhibitions and symposia and in numerous analytical and discursive publications synthesizing wide swaths of international art history.

In 1951 at the age of 22, Yamaguchi was one of the founding members of the Tokyo-based intermedia avant-garde art group Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop), which was brought together and named by the influential poet and critic Shuzo Takiguchi. Including Yamaguchi, Jikken Kobo comprised twelve artists, composers, and musicians, as well as a lighting technician and a writer. During the roughly seven years the group was active, its members produced performances, stage sets, and audiovisual events, including a series of works from 1953 made with the newly introduced technology of the auto-slide projector, which allowed for slide shows of still images to be synchronized with sound recordings.

Following the disbandment of Jikken Kobo in 1957, Yamaguchi continued making works on his own as well as in collaboration with other artists. Investigating the interactions between artwork and viewer, his 1950s-era Vitrine series of graphic abstractions distorted by rippled glass covers led, in the 1960s, to fabric assemblages and sculptural works incorporating the use of colored light that destabilized the architecture of the gallery space. Together with Yoshiaki Tono, in 1968, Yamaguchi premiered Japan’s first art video event at the multiday symposium “Expose 1968: Say Something, I'm Trying.” This was followed in 1972 by Yamaguchi's establishment of the collective Video Hiroba (Video Plaza), along with twelve other artists, to further innovate in the use of video in Japanese contemporary art.

Below is an interview conducted over two sessions in 2010 by Iguchi Toshino and Sumitomo Fumihiko of the Oral History Archives of Japanese Art. The Japanese version can be accessed through their website.

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Yamaguchi

Yamaguchi Katsuhiro

Artist After making a series of works called Vitrine that used layered glass in the 1950s, Yamaguchi joined Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop) at the time of the group’s... Read more »
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Oral History Archives of Japanese Art

Established in 2006, the Oral History Archives of Japanese Art is a not-for-profit organization devoted to conducting interviews with individuals involved in the field of... Read more »
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Interview with Yamaguchi Katsuhiro

Throughout a career that spans the late 1940s to the present, Yamaguchi Katsuhiro has consistently proven to be one of Japan’s most visionary artists, distinguished by his restless curiosity about new media and means of artistic expression, and a powerful intellect that has been expressed not only through artworks but also through the organization of exhibitions and symposia and in numerous analytical and discursive publications synthesizing wide swaths of international art history.

In 1951 at the age of 22, Yamaguchi was one of the founding members of the Tokyo-based intermedia avant-garde art group Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop), which was brought together and named by the influential poet and critic Shuzo Takiguchi. Including Yamaguchi, Jikken Kobo comprised twelve artists, composers, and musicians, as well as a lighting technician and a writer. During the roughly seven years the group was active, its members produced performances, stage sets, and audiovisual events, including a series of works from 1953 made with the newly introduced technology of the auto-slide...

Show More

Throughout a career that spans the late 1940s to the present, Yamaguchi Katsuhiro has consistently proven to be one of Japan’s most visionary artists, distinguished by his restless curiosity about new media and means of artistic expression, and a powerful intellect that has been expressed not only through artworks but also through the organization of exhibitions and symposia and in numerous analytical and discursive publications synthesizing wide swaths of international art history.

In 1951 at the age of 22, Yamaguchi was one of the founding members of the Tokyo-based intermedia avant-garde art group Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop), which was brought together and named by the influential poet and critic Shuzo Takiguchi. Including Yamaguchi, Jikken Kobo comprised twelve artists, composers, and musicians, as well as a lighting technician and a writer. During the roughly seven years the group was active, its members produced performances, stage sets, and audiovisual events, including a series of works from 1953 made with the newly introduced technology of the auto-slide projector, which allowed for slide shows of still images to be synchronized with sound recordings.

Following the disbandment of Jikken Kobo in 1957, Yamaguchi continued making works on his own as well as in collaboration with other artists. Investigating the interactions between artwork and viewer, his 1950s-era Vitrine series of graphic abstractions distorted by rippled glass covers led, in the 1960s, to fabric assemblages and sculptural works incorporating the use of colored light that destabilized the architecture of the gallery space. Together with Yoshiaki Tono, in 1968, Yamaguchi premiered Japan’s first art video event at the multiday symposium “Expose 1968: Say Something, I'm Trying.” This was followed in 1972 by Yamaguchi's establishment of the collective Video Hiroba (Video Plaza), along with twelve other artists, to further innovate in the use of video in Japanese contemporary art.

Below is an interview conducted over two sessions in 2010 by Iguchi Toshino and Sumitomo Fumihiko of the Oral History Archives of Japanese Art. The Japanese version can be accessed through their website.

Oral History Archives of Japanese Art, Interview with Yamaguchi Katsuhiro
Interview 1: March 7, 2010
Interview 2: April 7, 2010

Interviewers: Iguchi Toshino and Sumitomo Fumihiko (Transcribed by Sumitomo Fumihiko and Narisawa Mizuki; Translated into English by Christopher Stephens)

For the Japanese version, please visit the Oral History Archives of Japanese Art website.

Yamaguchi Katsuhiro: Things are different now, but back in the days of Jikken Kobo [Experimental Workshop], lots of different people worked together. Sogetsu’s Teshigahara Hiroshi, for example, used to take part in Okamoto Taro’s Avant-Garde [Geijutsu] Kenkyukai [Avant-Garde (Art) Research Society]. And around that time, I remember Abe Kobo excitedly showing me that one of his texts was published in Kindai Bungaku [Modern Literature]. Teshigahara directed the film version of Abe’s Woman in the Dunes, and I told him that the sand dunes in Hamamatsu, where we had made Ginrin [Silver Wheel, directed by Matsumoto Toshio] would be a good place to shoot.

Sumitomo Fumihiko: Did you watch a lot of movies at that time?

Yamaguchi: Yes, during the Jikken Kobo period, I did see lots of movies. There were various people on the periphery then. Orpheus, the film based on Jean Cocteau’s script [1949, written and directed by Cocteau] was especially memorable. In one scene, a Paris glassmaker walks around selling his wares as he says, “Vitrier!” and that inspired my work Vitrine. Takiguchi [Shuzo] also saw it.

Iguchi Toshino: You mean, he was also inspired by the film.

Yamaguchi: There was also a song in Jules and Jim [1962; directed by Francois Truffaut] that Fukushima Hideko sang with a stocking over her head. The name “Jikken Kobo” is perfect for the twenty-first century because it’s virtual. There isn’t really a workshop, but it seems as if there is. I decided I wanted to start doing Jikken Kobo again, so I came up with a plan called the “Imaginarium.” Then there’s somebody like Matsumoto Toshio, who’s a truly cross-disciplinary artist. While I was in Jikken Kobo, I went with him to the dunes in Hamamatsu to make a movie. Matsumoto is a Surrealist.

Sumitomo: Was that when he was shooting Ginrin?

Yamaguchi: That’s right. I also went to Hamamatsu with him to shoot I Am Nylon. After that, I stopped using video, and the work I did in my later years, like the Collabo-Art I did at Aichi Arts Center, dealt with themes like the audience. I thought a lot about how I could draw the audience into my Collabo-Art performance. There’s a documentary tape of that, too. I did that with a dance and a video made by the video group IKIF [the duo formed in 1979 by Kifune Tokumitsu and Ishida Sonoko].

Iguchi: In the Jikken Kobo era, you also put ropes around the viewers’ seats, didn’t you?

Yamaguchi: We did that to create an unexpected situation.

Sumitomo: In terms of stage productions, didn’t you also work with the dancer Hanayagi Suzushi?

Yamaguchi: Hanayagi was friendly with Bob [Robert] Wilson, and she was tremendously helpful with the stage direction.

Sumitomo: Did you also have an interest in her dance?

Yamaguchi: No, I was asked to work with her after Jikken Kobo was through. We also worked together after that at Jean Jean Theatre in Shibuya. We did things together a number of times, including a foreign tour with video and dance. First, we did a performance at Jean Jean in Tokyo, then we traveled to the art center [MC93 Bobigny] in Bobigny near Paris, Teatro Litta in Milan, Circulo de Bellas Artes in Madrid, the Chekhov memorial new theater [The Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre] in Moscow, and finally to the Asia Society in New York. That severe critic from the New York Times also wrote about this performance [Jennifer Dunning, “Experiment With Mirrors and a Dancing Camera,” New York Times, June 18, 1988].

Sumitomo: Did you make the stage sets, too?

Yamaguchi: We put the monitors down on the stage. That way she could watch her own dance as I simultaneously shot her dancing with the camera.

Sumitomo: In other words, you used it as a kind of feedback device. Did you start using that kind of approach in the “Expose 1968: Nanika ittekure, ima sagasu” [Expose 1968: Say Something, I’m Trying] 1 event at Sogetsu Art Center?

Yamaguchi: Yes. Later, the group Video Hiroba [Video Plaza] was founded, named by Tono [Yoshiaki]. The idea was that video could replace the public square, agora. We could call it Video Agora. Tono conceived the direction of “Expose 1968” himself, and he asked me produce it. That’s why he had such a thorough understanding of the video medium. Since Tono wasn’t appearing on stage, he made himself up like a woman in the dressing room. Akiyama [Kuniharu] was also still very healthy at that time, and he watched me go through various changes. But it wasn’t only Tono; everybody really made good use of Sogetsu Art Center.

Sumitomo: I understand that you and Tanikawa Shuntaro also formed the Etcetera to Jazz no Kai [Etcetera and Jazz Circle] [and did events with its members at Sogetsu Art Center]. What other Sogetsu events were you directly involved with?

Yamaguchi: It was really only those jazz events and “Expose 1968.” And there was a theater piece written by the French dramatist Jean Tardieu. I was asked [by a Japanese theater group] to make the stage set [for The Keyhole, a collaborative performance by the Sogetsu Experimental Theatre and the Group NLT in 1964]. It was about a voyeur. After it was over, Mishima Yukio come up and said, “[Actor] Kitami Harukazu looked like he was having a hard time performing with his rear to the audience, which is your direction. If I were you, I would have had him peek into a different room so that he would not turn his rear to the audience.” When I heard that, I thought, “Ah, this guy is a real theater person.” In Jikken Kobo, we also did Mishima’s play, so that sparked his interest, and he often came to see our rehearsals. When we did the Schoenberg piece, we also did a Mishima play called Aya no Tsutsumi [The Damask Drum], directed by Takechi Tetsuji [both pieces were shown at A Night of Original Drama for Theatre in the Round, an event held at the Sankei International Conference Hall in 1955]. That’s why there are some photographs of Mishima with members of Jikken Kobo. They’re in the Kitadai [Shozo] Archive [at Taro Okamoto Museum of Art in Kawasaki]. Mishima knew me well. We watched the rehearsals together. We did Aya no Tsutsumi together with Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire at the Sankei amphitheater [Sankei International Conference Hall]‬. That’s why Takeji was so nervous.‬

Iguchi: Were there any other links between Mishima and Jikken Kobo?

Yamaguchi: No, nothing else. As far as the theme of “the audience and the work” is concerned, I came up against a huge problem after the expo [Expo ’70, the world exposition held in Osaka in 1970]. The reason why I started doing things like the Video Hiroba was connected to the problem of communication. My work Vitrine had a form that triggered communication by simply looking at it. In other video works like Las Meninas, as well as in the Video Hiroba projects, I considered the problem of communication.

Iguchi: Why did this kind of problem come up after the expo?

Yamaguchi: In effect, there wasn’t any communication between the expo audience and me. When I oversaw the Mitsui Group Pavilion at the expo, I was thinking about the flow-line montage theory. I also wrote about that in Bijutsu Techo. Eisenstein had developed his montage theory after seeing a Japanese Kabuki production. With flow-line montage theory, I tried to create the relationship between the audience and the stage, as you’d find in a strip club, which was based on a Kabuki or Noh stage. The stage protruded out into the audience—that’s a uniquely Japanese design. Then I applied one of Takiguchi’s theories about environments. You can find something about that in a special issue of Bijutsu Techo called “From Space to Environment.” I also did something with public participation in the Noge area. Dentsu [an advertising and public relations firm] was completely bewildered by it. I was working as an adviser to a company called Total Media, which was a subsidiary of Toppan Printing Co., Ltd. And then I did a showroom for the Niigata branch of Tohoku Electric Power.

Iguchi: In that case, since communication was the basis of those projects, they were different from your artworks. Can you explain your idea?

Yamaguchi: That’s why I devised something like Las Meninas.

Iguchi: Did you start using video synthesizers after that?

Yamaguchi: Yes, it was an NEC synthesizer, the same kind that Matsumoto Toshio uses. He makes both films and videos.

Sumitomo: To go back just a bit, the “Electromagica” event [International Psytech Art Exhibition “Electromagica ’69”] was held in 1969, just at the peak of video and spatial installations [in Japan]. Around the end of 1967, you had already started taking part in the Environment no Kai [Environment Society, a group formed in 1966 that consisted of thirty-eight people from various fields such as art, architecture, music, photography, and design]. Then “Electromagica” was held on April 26, 1969, at the Sony Building in Ginza. Were you the person in charge of planning the exhibition?

Yamaguchi: No, I wasn’t the main one.

Sumitomo: Was there someone else in charge?

Yamaguchi: Electromagica was ultimately conceived by Sony. Since Sony didn’t take part in the Osaka Expo, and the Sony Building had just been completed, the idea was to do something like an expo at the building.

Sumitomo: So it was kind of a prelude to the expo, which started exactly one year later.

Yamaguchi: Ishioka Eiko was in charge of graphic design for the Sony event. She made a poster with computer graphics that was printed on a silver sheet of paper.

Sumitomo: Oh, yes, I’m familiar with that.

Yamaguchi: The tickets were also printed on silver paper. The ticket and the graphic design by Ishioka became the talk of the town, and then “Electromagica” started. The first ones who were deeply involved with the event were Ito Takamichi and Ito Takayasu. Their names were very similar. Takamichi later became a professor at Tokyo University of the Arts, but Takayasu died not long after the expo. At first, we discussed how we might make a 3-D magazine. In other words, the first thing that popped up was the idea of making the building into a kind of a magazine. That was something I proposed. Since the Sony Building was basically a showroom, we tried to come up with various topics related to that. And we decided to refuse any kind of newspaper or media sponsorship. Sony took care of the planning and paid for everything. Then we invited several foreign artists to submit works and asked KLM [Royal Dutch Airlines] to sponsor the event by bringing the works over.

Sumitomo: In other words, you decided to make the Sony Building the medium. You’ve spoken in the past about 3DM, a combination of the visual, audio, and print media, but is that the same as the 3-D magazine?

Yamaguchi: That’s right. And even though we didn’t use any kind of media sponsor, the event succeeded.

Sumitomo: That was quite unusual, wasn’t it? In most cases, people produced events with the support of a newspaper company.

Yamaguchi: In this case, it was exactly because we refused the newspaper companies that we succeeded. As I’ve already mentioned about the expo, there is a single route that led from the beginning of the event to the point where visitors left the venue. All of us tried to come up with various plans. First of all, we decided to make use of the elevators in the Sony Building. This was because there was a Do-Re-Mi staircase in the back of the building. As you climbed the stairs, a different sound in the musical scale was emitted. In front of the stairs, there were some elevators. We decided to put the audience on the elevators and take them not directly up to the main hall [on the 8th floor], but first down to the basement. There was a parking lot down there, so they would go down to the basement first, and then the elevator doors would open, and there would be a work on display there in the parking lot. It was Ito Takamichi’s work. We let them see the work, and then the elevator would shoot straight up to the eighth floor.

Sumitomo: Did you and Ito come up with this plan?

Yamaguchi: Yes.

Sumitomo: In that sense, it seems as if your guiding plan for “Electromagica” was a direct precursor to the idea you later used at the expo.

Yamaguchi: Yes. For “Electromagica” we made a 3-D magazine with a fashion show and other events on each floor of the building. We advertised the products of the sponsor on each floor. As you perhaps already know, the Sony Building is a spiral; it had a very similar appearance.

Sumitomo: It curved around and around like this…

Yamaguchi: That’s right. You would go straight up to the top and then start going slowly back down. That was the flow line in the building, and because that was interesting we wanted to make use of it. We took people up as high as they could go, and then had them walk down. At that time, Toyota and Japan Tobacco had showrooms there, too.

Sumitomo: At the beginning you mentioned that the event was a success because you didn’t have any newspaper companies as sponsors, but as far as PR goes, if a newspaper had been involved you would have probably been able to get the word out to a greater variety of people. So why did intentionally refusing sponsorship make the event more successful?

Yamaguchi: There was a guy called Kada [Yasuhiro] from Sony who was in charge [of “Electromagica”], and he was working for the Sony Enterprise Company, which was located near the Sony Building. Sony hadn’t simply built a new building; they made something that would get their name in the media and advertise the company. To help realize this, they created the Sony Enterprise Company to handle PR. When you went into the front of the Sony Building, there was a little vacant lot to the left that they used for various events. In the summer, for instance, they’d have a water tank with goldfish swimming in it there. They were really good at using the media. All of the projects at the building were very closely linked to the media. Anyway, Mr. Kada was our contact person at the company. Sony’s president and vice-president such as Mr. Morita [Akio] and Mr. Ibuka [Masaru] [came to know about the event]. In the end, Ishioka’s graphics for the poster and ticket generated so much interest that they became a kind of status symbol. And everybody started talking about going to Sony.

Sumitomo: It was an advertising tool that also had a really cool design.

Yamaguchi: Her computer graphics were very stylish and reminiscent of Ginza. But I originally had a different idea. I said mimeographed fliers would be fine, and I really wanted to go with something that had a cheap feel. You can find its design in that book [points to the catalogue for the exhibition Yamaguchi Katsuhiro: Pioneer of Media Art, From Experimental Workshop to Teatrine, held at the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura, in 2006]. This is what I suggested at the start. And after a while, people started lining up at the entrance to the building. That was proof of our success.

Sumitomo: So even without a newspaper company, you got plenty of PR.

Yamaguchi: Exactly. We realized that Sony really had a lot of courage. The company’s pre-expo had been a great success. Do you have that document about Nicolas Schöffer’s [a pioneering cybernetic sculptor] silver object?

Iguchi: Do you mean the kinetic light work?

Yamaguchi: Yes. I told them it would be good to show Schöffer’s work, and it actually attracted an audience. There was Schöffer’s work and [Martial Raysse’s] neon sculpture.

Sumitomo: Where were the works you made, like Image Modulator and Water Modulator, shown in the building?

Yamaguchi: At the very top, in the hall on the eighth floor.

Sumitomo: It looks like they were installed in a pitch-black room.

Yamaguchi: Everything, from the hall to the corridor that led from the elevator to the hall, was decorated with neon.

Sumitomo: So in addition to the works, you designed the neon that led up to them.

Yamaguchi: You can find the photo published somewhere, either Interior Design or Bijutsu Techo. And we also did a fashion show.

Sumitomo: Fashion show? Inside the hall?

Yamaguchi: Yes, on the eighth floor.

Sumitomo: Whose designs did you use? Was that one of the events?

Yamaguchi: Yes.

Sumitomo: Were there also other events held in the hall?

Yamaguchi: No, that was it.

Sumitomo: The works were just there on constant display, then. Did you, with Ito Takamichi and others, come up with the idea of showing works that used light and movement?

Yamaguchi: Yes.

Sumitomo: And you also decided on the content of the project?

Yamaguchi: Yes, and Kikunami Joji, a member of the Gutai group from Kansai, was also involved. Since the Jikken Kobo era, I had been quite close with the Gutai artists. I also showed a work in an international event they organized called the “World Painting Exhibition” [The International Art of a New Era: Informel and Gutai, Osaka, 1958. The show was later seen in Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Tokyo, and Kyoto]. I hand-carried my work Vitrine to the venue because there wasn’t any express package services back then [laughs].

Sumitomo: Did you do anything else with the Gutai artists between the time of the International Art exhibition and “Electromagica”?

Yamaguchi: No.

Sumitomo: So during that time you weren’t involved in anything else?

Iguchi: By the way, did the name “Electromagica” have anything to do with the Laterna Magica theatre in Czechoslovakia?

Yamaguchi: Yes, we took it from there.

Iguchi: Oh, you did. I thought it seemed very similar.

Sumitomo: Were you the one who decided on the name?

Yamaguchi: Everybody decided on it.

Iguchi: I seem to remember that the Czechoslovakian pavilion at the Montreal Expo had an exhibition about it and that you went to see it.

Yamaguchi: Right, it was about the Laterna Magica.

Sumitomo: Did Ito Takamichi and Ito Takayasu go with you, too? Did everyone go and inspect the expo?

Yamaguchi: All of us went so that we could understand the exhibition. [At “Electromagica”] a young artist proposed an interesting work that used video. [This seems to refer to Sakamoto Masaharu’s Time Sharing TV (1969).] The first video equipment had finally been released by Sony, and tape, or open-reel video, had become available.

Sumitomo: It happened to come out just at that time. “Electromagica” was sponsored by Sony, but you also had a friend at Sony back when you were involved with Jikken Kobo, right? Did you maintain a relationship with the technicians and workers at Sony after that?

Yamaguchi: No, not really.

Sumitomo: Then it must have been quite a long time until you used an automatic slide projector at “Electromagica.” When you look back at old issues of Bijutsu Techo from that period, there seem to be lots of features on light and technology. Not long ago [on February 13, 2010 at the National Art Center, Tokyo], Miyazawa Takeyoshi gave a talk about his time as chief editor at the magazine, and apparently around that time they really started to put a lot of effort into the magazine. It was also right around that time that younger people started working in the editorial division. There was also an increase in the series that you wrote. Was it around this time that you had the closest relationship with the editorial staff at Bijutsu Techo?

Yamaguchi: In terms of media, there was SD, which was put out by the Kajima construction company. It dealt with literature, art, and music. Takemitsu [Toru] wrote articles for them. And there was a new ikebana magazine called Shinfujin [New Woman] that started around that time. Shinfujin was connected to the Kyoto-based Ikenobo school [of ikebana] and I wrote a series for it called “Futeikei Bijutsuron” [On Indeterminate Art, which was published as a book by Gakugei Shorin in 1967]. Shibusawa Tatsuhiko and I both did columns for Shinfujin. [Teshigahara] Sofu’s Sogetsu school of ikebana also put a lot of energy into publishing, and I often wrote for Sogetsu.

Sumitomo: During that period, there were ikebana magazines like Shinfujin and Ikebana Ryusei

Yamaguchi: I also wrote a lot for Ryusei.

Sumitomo: I see. At that time, you wrote articles for Sogetsu, Ikebana Ryusei, and Shinfujin. And you also wrote for Shoten Kenchiku [Shop Architecture] and Interior. Not only the art magazines, but lots of others, too.

Yamaguchi: Interior was an imitation of the Italian magazine Domus.

Sumitomo: You wrote a huge amount during that period. Some things you wrote by yourself, and then there were other things, like dictionaries, that you did with other people like Tono [Yoshiaki]. The January 1969 issue of Bijutsu Techo ran a feature called “To Understand Art for the Tomorrow.” Even now, it’s a really amazing feature. It says that you were the one who selected the artists. It’s amazing that you were able to do so much as a critic while also making your own artwork.

Yamaguchi: Yes, I’m surprised too! [laughs]

Sumitomo: Besides your own work, you were writing quite lengthy articles like the one on Robert Morris [“Robert Morris: The Purest Form of Inductive Sculpture,” Bijutsu Techo, March 1969). So, unlike regular artists who only made their own work, you had a very substantial career in that you also stayed focused on other people’s works, especially art that hadn’t been introduced or assessed yet in Japan.

Yamaguchi: Times are very different today. Now magazines and the rest of the media are completely hopeless. First of all, there aren’t any critics. There aren’t any good architectural critics. Back then Kawazoe Noboru was writing reliable criticism. Then there were magazines like International Architecture that was published by Bijutsu Shuppansha. It featured articles with lots of new information. For example, they ran a comprehensive introduction to [Frederick John] Kiesler. There were those architecture magazines, and I often wrote for a fashion magazine, too. The chief editor was a man called Toyota Sentaro. Toyota was a classmate of Takiguchi Shuzo’s at Keio [University]. They had started a coterie magazine called Yamamayu [Wild Silkworm]. Another one of Takiguchi’s classmates who was involved with the magazine was the French literature scholar Sato Saku. Toyota also published a magazine called My Kimono to help promote the fashion designer Ito Mohei. Japanese clothing was based on the two-dimensional cutting method used to make kimonos. Ito was a leading figure in the fashion world who tried to introduce the three-dimensional cutting style used in Western fashion. And Toyota was head editor at My Kimono. The president of the company [Towasha] was Uchiyama Motoi, who was married to one of the daughters of Uchiyama Hyakken, the famous essayist. I read lots of his books, and Hyakkien was one of my favorites.

Sumitomo: In a magazine industry like that, with so many people with a profound knowledge of literature and the arts, there must have been a steady stream of interesting features.

Yamaguchi: That’s right.

Sumitomo: Did you have any special interest in fashion?

Yamaguchi: Toyota was an interesting person. Even after he turned 60, he would go to discos, and we’d go dancing together. He was a “modern boy.” Toyota was born in Korea while his father was working there. His wife was from Ooi, near my house, and she liked classical music and had her own Noh theater.

Sumitomo: Was your interest in fashion connected to technical aspects like three-dimensional cutting?

Yamaguchi: If you read my book Futeikei Bijutsuron, you’ll have a better idea.

Iguchi: You also made your own fashion designs. I remember seeing them in some of your old sketchbooks.

Sumitomo: Oh, you were also involved in fashion design?

Iguchi: There were some things that looked like space suits.

Sumitomo: In the end, you were involved in everything from fashion to architecture.

Yamaguchi: At a certain point, the name My Kimono was changed to the French Mode et Mode. Even after it changed, I wrote lots of articles for the magazine. When I discovered something, they would run it. For someone like me with a journalistic bent, having a variety of media filled me with a burst of energy.

Sumitomo: As you mentioned, you wrote quite a lot in Mode et Mode during that period, and later you also did a series for Nippon Display [Japan Display]. For example, this article, “Spring/Humor/Spring,” is about Kuramata Shiro [“Craft: Spring/Humor/Spring,” Nippon Display, no. 1, 1968].

Yamaguchi: Yes, I wrote about Kuramata’s chair designs.

Sumitomo: This is from 1968, so it’s about the same period as “Electromagica.”

Yamaguchi: I wrote a great deal about architecture around that time, too. People like Seike Kiyoshi and his student Sakamoto [Kazunari] did exhibition displays for me at Wako [in Ginza]. After that I asked Tange Kenzo to make one, and he did some sketches for me. I wrote lots of short articles on architecture.

Sumitomo: Was your work with the Environment no Kai the first time that you were actually involved with a group of architects?

Yamaguchi: Yes, but the architects in the group weren’t really very vibrant.

Sumitomo: The only real architect was Isozaki Arata, right? Most of the others were designers.

Yamaguchi: There was one other architect [Hara Hiroshi].

Sumitomo: But there were lots of designers, people like Awazu Kiyoshi and Fukuda Shigeo.

Yamaguchi: When I was frequenting the CIE library [the library in Tokyo run by The Civil Information and Education Section of the General Headquarters of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers], I read a magazine called Arts & Architecture. It was from the West Coast. That was during the time of the Case Study House movement, which was also very famous in Japan. They were making modern-style houses.

Iguchi: In America?

Yamaguchi: The West Coast of America. Arts & Architecture was a really great magazine. There were lots of good articles on architecture in it. Before I started studying law, I went to the College of Science and Technology at Nihon University. And since I was studying design there, I would often look at Arts & Architecture along with many other students in the school. The college was in Ochanomizu, and all of my friends were reading Arts & Architecture. I remember making lots of plans for houses during that period. There were some books about houses in my house, and I made plans by copying things from them. The designs were made up of elevation surfaces and planar surfaces. When I was studying airplanes and battleships, I also enjoyed making designs, also with elevation and planar surfaces for them, too.

Iguchi: That’s how you came to make the Vitrine table, right?

Yamaguchi: Yes, that’s right.

Iguchi: There’s a bar in Nagoya called Momotaro where you can still see some of the tables you designed.

Yamaguchi: They have them in a storehouse. I went to check on it myself. Momotaro is run by Makino Yasuko…

Iguchi: I’ve been looking for design magazines from the ’60s, but I’ve also come across lots of non-art periodicals from that era. They add depth to criticism related to things like contemporary art, fashion, and art and technology.

Yamaguchi: There’s a model named Maeda Hibari, and in Bijutsu Techo [in the October 1967 issue], there is a photograph of her in a bikini, onto which I projected images using a slide. Instead of clothing, I made a slide projection.

Sumitomo: What year would that have been?

Yamaguchi: I did that series right after Futeikei Bijutsuron.

Sumitomo: In Bijutsu Techo?

Yamaguchi: Yes, in the series called “The Living Avant-Garde” [that appeared between January and December 1967].

Sumitomo: That must be in 1967. We can find the photo of your slide projection in the 1967 volume. That series is interesting because you dealt with completely different themes from most art of that period—things like cutting and proliferation. I imagine there weren’t many people who wrote on themes like that. Since you were always exploring organic forms, it doesn’t seem at all unnatural for you to deal with those kinds of themes, but it would have been a very unique focus for another artist. Did you continue to mull over the themes as you wrote the series that year?

Yamaguchi: I made some works that were suited to the theme for the color pages in the magazine.

Sumitomo: Your series have a lot of illustrations, don’t they?

Yamaguchi: Before that, at Geijutsu Shincho, which published a special feature on my selection from contemporary architecture to contemporary art, I learned about editorial methods from Yamazaki Shozo, who became the chief editor later. He has since passed away.

Sumitomo: You did a lot of experiments with the arrangement of the photographs and the texts.

Yamaguchi: I did design for all of the features at Bijutsu Techo. I did everything including editing the pages, choosing the photos, and inserting the texts. Everybody said that they couldn’t do it, so I did it. Then Shinoda Takatoshi was assigned to edit my articles for Bijutsu Techo when I was doing my piece on Kiesler, and I taught him a variety of things about editing and graphic design. When I worked for Shinfujin and Mode et Mode, I did most of the graphic design, too. That’s why when I went to teach [at the University of Tsukuba]—I could teach more about other things than Sogo zokei [Plastic Art and Mixed Media, the section he belonged to at the university] [laughs].

Sumitomo: This reminds me of one of your articles called “Cybernetics and the Arts” in the special issue “Human Beings and Technology” that came out around the time of “Electromagica” [Bijutsu Techo Zokan, May 1969]. In that article, you say that cybernetics is a system in which one’s behavior adapts to and changes with an environment…

Yamaguchi: I was thinking of the means of establishing a more precise link with [the American mathematician] Norbert Wiener’s ideas.

Sumitomo: Instead of something abstract, it was a more concrete vision.

Yamaguchi: It is all about theory. I had read books on phenomenology since the time I was in high school. I was fond of things like phenomenology and Husserl. This amused my father no end, and he asked me why I was reading those kind of books. [laughs]

Sumitomo: I see. So you had long been interested in Husserl, and then in the ’60s, cybernetic theory came to be a popular subject in Japan, and that inspired you to write “Cybernetics and the Arts.” That theory has a lot in common with Metabolism, and your article is really interesting. As you mentioned at the outset [before the interview began], the reason that artists like Olafur Eliasson capture your interest is that there is still something very intriguing about these subjects. They never seem to grow old.

Iguchi: In Jikken Kobo, you made plastic or paper models, took photographs of them, and used them in automatic slide presentations. Then you applied the ideas to graphic designs. That is, you would lay these things out, make a collage out of them, and use them as a graphic base. The idea is that one element is expanded into a large whole.

Sumitomo: And although only a small portion of your works were shown in museums and galleries, you actually did similar kinds of work in many different places.

Iguchi: That reminds me of [László] Maholy-Nagy. Chicago’s Institute of Design is still doing that kind of research. If you make a sculpture in a sculpture studio, you would bring it to a photo studio to take pictures of it as an experiment with light, shadow, and silhouettes, which can be related to stage designs…

Yamaguchi: I did the same kind of thing a lot at Tsukuba [university]. When I took pictures of my work, I would light them with Otsuji [Kiyoji] and others, and then shoot a certain part of the work. I was doing the same kind of thing. Things look completely different depending on the way you light them. By the way, did you know that I was once on the verge of going to Maholy-Nagy’s Institute in Chicago?

Iguchi: No, I’ve never heard that before.

Yamaguchi: What happened was Tange Kenzo told me about the school and asked me if I’d like to go and teach there—he introduced me. But I’m very sensitive to the cold. [laughs]

Iguchi: When was that?

Yamaguchi: Around 1970, I guess. I was out having fun with Tange and everyone—we went barhopping. There was a bunch of us: Domon Ken, Tange Kenzo, and Kamekura Yusaku—a group of very prominent figures.

Iguchi: That was before you started to teach at Tsukuba?

Yamaguchi: Yes, we went barhopping from one cabaret to another in Shinjuku [laughs]. That’s why it was so easy to ask Tange to do a display for me. I just called him up.

Iguchi: Amazing! Just a single call to Tange! [laughs]

Sumitomo: Not only that but you asked him to do an exhibition design, not architecture. [laughs]

Yamaguchi: Yes, just one call. Tange was at the university, and I walked from Ochanomizu and called him from a coffee shop in front of the University of Tokyo. He was at his busiest around that time. Isozaki Arata was still only studying with Tange.

Iguchi: Ishimoto [Yasuhiro] actually did study in Chicago, but when did you first meet him?

Yamaguchi: I met Ishimoto in the Jikken Kobo days. He was part of Graphic Shudan [Graphic Group]. Both Jikken Kobo and Graphic Shudan were named by Takiguchi. In other words, graphics were also considered to be an important thing. Jikken Kobo had a tendency to be a little too artistic. So to offset this, he formed a group for photography and graphic design. At any rate, Takiguchi was that kind of person—a planner and a strategist.

Sumitomo: If we could do an introduction to your work, I’d like to have a comprehensive exhibition that included your graphic works and the interior designs you mentioned earlier. But at a museum, things like sculpture and two-dimensional work have a way of becoming the main focus.

Yamaguchi: Curators today are worse than they’ve ever been. Do they have the ability to oversee the graphics and edit a catalogue?

Sumitomo: You think it would be nice if they did. Now there’s a complete division of labor.

Yamaguchi: In the Jikken Kobo days, I wrote the catalogues and everything else—by hand. I wrote the name “Jikken Kobo” in Mincho style. In those days, there wasn’t a font like that; everything was handwritten. It was the same with the magazines.

Iguchi: At that time, it was called lettering, wasn’t it?

Sumitomo: The Jikken Kobo pamphlets have a really stylish design. They still look fresh. You continued this way of integrating different things for a long time, but most people just concentrate on their own works. In your case, the fact that you were constantly involved in graphics is a crucial part of your practice. To return for a moment to the late ’60s, some documents show that you did the exhibition designs for the Crosstalk / Intermedia festival in 1969. In that event, there was a variety of performances and film projections staged one after another. What part of the event were you actually involved in?

Yamaguchi: Only one part. I wasn’t very closely involved.

Sumitomo: Is that right? Jikken Kobo’s Imai Naoji was in charge of the lighting, but weren’t you also involved in organizing the performances and the multi-speaker system for the event?

Yamaguchi: If you’re really going to do a full-fledged Jikken Kobo exhibition, you should ask Imai to do a lecture on the lighting. He studied with Oba Saburo. Oba was a lighting pioneer who did Japanese lyric dramas and theatre revues.

Iguchi: Is Imai still in good health?

Yamaguchi: He should be. The additive-color-mixing technique of lighting that he learned from Oba is different from just putting colors together. If you just mix colors together, you end up with gray. But in lighting, you can combine everything, red and purple and blue, and then take out one color and suddenly end up with a different one. That was the kind of magic he worked with lighting.

1.

The event title is translated elsewhere as "Say Something, I'm looking for something to say." Taken from a phrase in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Beckett's phrase in English is "Say Something! I'm Trying." However, the title of the event plays with a process of translation and mistranslation resembling the telephone game, where a circle of children whisper a phrase from one to the next until it comes back to the one who started it off, by which point it has usually changed unrecognizably. Nanika ittekure, ima sagasu ("Say Something, I'm looking for something to say") is a translation of Beckett's English that changes its meaning, and when it comes back into English, it is in a completely different form. 

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Interview with Yamaguchi Katsuhiro

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Hi

Posted on 18 Dec

I am doing a research essay on Mr. Yamaguchi

I am attempting to find out more about his sackcloth sculptures done in the early 60's, but a part of my focus is on how he came about the materials (the sackcloth) that was used. Was it intentional or just random??

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I am doing a research essay on Mr. Yamaguchi

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This Interview is part of: Sogetsu Art Center