Bananas are a Funny Fruit: An Interview with Yuichiro Tamura
In February of 2011 at the Japan Media Arts Festival, I saw Yuichro Tamura’s brilliant video installation, NIGHTLESS. Made entirely from still images captured from Google street scenes, a mysterious and absurd, yet haunting image of a disjointed world, always under the harsh light of the sun mesmerized me. I had to find out more about this artist. The usual research and cyber-stalking led me to him. We met in late spring at the Tokyo Wonder Site in Shibuya where he was involved in an art installation – Is this world continuous or not. The installation involved turning a small gallery into a workshop, a cinema and a sort den for activities that involved working out, building tools and structures, documenting and showing the processes of the making of the stuff of the installation – which involved the hand-made manufacture of a beautiful mirror, building of exercise equipment out of pipes and clamps, letter press printing and a visit to Tohoku. In broken English, he generously shared his thoughts and ideas about making connections of the things of this world. I left our meeting even more impressed in Tamuru’s high tech art povera, looking forward to seeing new photos, installations and films by this smart – and funny – artist.
Ever a prankster, Tamura had managed to get published on a few websites that he was born in Germany. He wasn’t.
NV: So, you weren’t born in Germany?
YT: In 1998 I started studying photography. And that year, a German photographer, very famous in Japan, came.
NV: Who was that?
YT: Tomas Ruff. And Gursky, Bishofff, more.
NV: You were studying photography? Were they here? Was there a big show?
YT: All together at the National Museum in Tokyo. So I saw his work. I also looked at photo books.
NV: You’re own photography – I’ve only seen the banana piece (on your website).
YT: I studied photography in college and afterward I started working for a publishing company as a cameraman. I did lifestyle photography. I shot cooking, sewing, interviews and lifestyle. I had been shooting for so many years while I was working, so I stopped. I went to university to study art, film and new media so I feel it’s difficult to shot photographs. I moved to another category, new media and film. Last year I wanted to make some photographic works and I had the chance to go to France – Nantes – for a 10-day residency. It was a short time. And on the very last day we installed some works and came back to Japan. When I arrived in Nantes – on the first day – I visited the market in the town center and went to a banana “cave” on the Ile de Nantes. It’s a warehouse now renovated into a big gallery. In Nantes’ history, slaves and bananas were imported from Africa. They were bought and sold. I thought 10 days was a very short time to make an installation. But the next day I bought some bananas. Every morning I took a shot and by the last day I was there they still hadn’t turned yellow. I wanted my gallery installation to have pictures of the bananas changing from the first day, to the next and so on. They never changed color (laughs).
NV: I know. I was looking at it online and I thought the banana’s looking a little older, but in the end the banana looks about the same.
YT: Yeah yeah. I wanted to talk about changing. Bananas are a metaphor of Nantes history, The Asian mentality meets a banana. Funny. Bananas are a funny fruit.
NV: Was the banana “cave” ever used for slaves?
YT: No, maybe it was in some other place. European cities have slave histories and maybe Nantes and other cities. Liverpool had slave history, but Nantes is… well… there are textbooks. They are open about their slave history. Nantes. Yeah.
NV: About your photography. When I saw the piece online. It looked like commercial photography. Do you have some commercial photography influences? I know about the Germans. Are there any Japanese photographers who have influenced you?
YT: My favorite Japanese photographer is Naoya Hatakeyama. He was born in Tohoku in Iwate prefecture. Everything there is made of concrete. His works, dynamiting concrete mountains. His work is a little more like European photography. I don’t like Japanese photography. It’s not, I don’t like it… I like Sugimoto Hiroshi. I like conceptual works, but almost all college my friends don’t work in that style.
NV: Are you from Tokyo?
YT: No, Toyama.
NV: Or Frankfurt?
NV: When you were younger, were you interested in art and photography?
YT: No, Kanazawa is a very boring town. Nothing. Like the United States. Like South Dakota. Wyoming. A very nothing and boring town.
NV: Have you been to Wyoming?
NV: I lived there for a year. It’s boring.
YT: Very it’s beautiful country and has good food.
NV: The food’s OK.
YT: But boring. Like the art culture. Nothing
NV: How long have you been in Tokyo?
YT: Maybe 15 years.
NV: And now you’ve gone on to graduate school in film?
YT: My graduate school has film, animation and new media – three categories. My master’s degree is in new media. Just now I joined a PhD course in film and new media. I do some work with film people. Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takeshi Kitano are some professors. Maybe Takeshi comes down 3 times a year.
NV: The film department there is more for the commercial film industry. Do you study art film or avant-garde film?
YT: No no no. I don’t study film. Just new media.
NV: New media is experimental.
YT: Yes, the film course is very traditional. I want to work with students in the film department, but they’re very busy. They’re a very busy working in the traditional system. I can’t make this commitment. My department has only 5 people in it. There’s one student from the film department. He’s an editor. I offered just now to help him. So he’s helping me with my installation.
NV: Let’s talk about your movies. It’s been showing at small festivals in Europe, yes?
YT: That film? Last year I showed it in Australia. At an experimental art festival. Maybe Oberhausen next month will be the first time in Europe.
NV: Will you go?
YT: I will go.
NV: So you will go back to your home country. Have you ever been to America?
YT: Yeah yeah yeah, but that was 14 years ago.
NV: Did you go to Nebraska?
YT: No no no.
NV: Let’s go to NIGHTLESS. I like it very much. What I liked about it was its experimental avant-garde nature, but also it was a very touching film to me. I felt moved by it. So, let’s talk about… what inspired you to make this movie from Google images.
YT: Maybe this film is not strongly inspired by other works. I made it just 2 years ago after summer vacation. After summer vacation we had to show some works. What did you do for your summer vacation? I didn’t do anything. But I had to make something. I had 2 or 3 days. I saw Google images and I was interested in them, because my work was a bit based on photography… but I didn’t want to use photographic technique and I was tired of taking photographs. But I liked anonymous images I didn’t shoot myself. I like… canned images. Things like that. It has very low-tension feel because it’s really just driving a car. With a hamburger and a coke. Looking at the map. From low-tension works to a very high potential – only from Google street view images. For example a very nice still image can be found. I think it’s a difficult image, not moving. I must do something additional to make it connected. I feel a movie is connected photography. Stopped images. Actually a film is 30 frames per second, 24 frames per second. I just connected images with high potential. Google street view. After that, I thought of a screenplay and I added it. The first part was easy. My professors thought this was a fantastic work, but if I had to add more footage. So after I added more.
NV: What’s the name of your professor?
YT: Masaki Fujihata. He’s a media artist.
NV: And so, you started off just short. I’ve seen different version of it. How long is it now?
YT: Just now it’s… I have many versions. The Ebisu Film Festival is version 6. I’m changing it for the Japan Film Connection.
NV: So it’s always changing.
YT: Yes, for every theater, for every festival.
NV: Are you changing the narrative and the sound?
YT: Yes, I change the sound and the narrative. I’m adding some new footage in some parts.
NV: There’s a cut of it on Media Arts Festival site. There’s a guy speaking about growing up in Nebraska. He talks about Nick Nolte with his father and his father tells him that Nick Nolte is a famous Nebraskan. Then he talks about moving to Chiba. Is this a story you made up for this?
YT: Yes yes yes. It’s my original screenplay.
NV: And so was this inspired by the images, or did you have this idea in mind before?
YT: The script was made afterward. The first was the images… shooting the images… screen shots. It was very hard work. One night of grabbing screen shots made one or two minutes of footage.
NV: And so, for example, why did you choose these different areas. Was there a thought or was it just random? Is there a reason why you chose Nebraska?
NV: Why did I choose Nebraska?
YT: I clicked and I clicked. Click click and it was Nebraska. Only that. No reason.
NV: And Chiba?
YT: I had to connect Nebraska to some city. I feel that Nebraska is very dry. I searched in Asia. Tokyo is not dry. Other cities aren’t dry. I feel that Chiba is dry. I’ve never been to Chiba yet I thank that maybe it’s dry. And the people from Chiba say their town is very dry
NV: So the United states footage. Is it all from Nebraska and the Midwest or did it come from different places?
YT: The United States in Nebraska and Alaska.
NV: Where in Alaska?
YT: I don’t remember.
NV: There’s a scene that looks like it’s going through suburbs. That’s probably Nebraska. And there’s a scene going through a narrow road with trees.
YT: That’s Alaska.
NV: And it’s raining.
NV: A wet place.
YT: Yeah yeah yeah. This is Google street view. All images are from the street. Only images from the street. It’s very limited. It was all done inside my room. I had to create some atmosphere. I thought of suspense. Like Hitchcock. So, do you remember going through that narrow space and after seeing that one house. It’s a very normal house but the shot is so magic. And I focused for house and… there’s a feeling of suspense. It’s scary and you ask, “What’s happening?” Maybe I’m inspired by Psycho. It’s a same thing with photography. Photography for some works as suspense. If you go to Tohouku. Let’s say you visit a house and find a photograph of the people who lived there. This family photography gives you a very alt-scary feeling. You don’t know if the family is alive or dead, but the photo give you a feeling of scariness. Photography works toward alt-scary. I get a similar feeling from Psycho. One house, one home.
YT: Yeah my voice.
NV: It’s great because it doesn’t sound like somebody from Nebraska.
NV: Part of what I like about this film is you see these impersonal images from the web – they aren’t your images. You found them. And then there’s this story and everything seems wrong. The guy says he’s from Nebraska but he has a different accent. Then he talks about going to Chiba and the story gets sort of crazy. Everything is disjointed. Nothing is connecting correctly.
YT: I feel the fantastic is the focus of my art works. The fantastic… connected. That’s what I want to do.
NV: Then it changes to what sounds like a police radio. Is that correct?
YT: Correct. From youtube.
NV: So it’s just a policeman getting information. You just found that and put it in there?
YT: Why did I put it there? Before I was talking about suspense. I had an idea for another way to tell a story. I chose suspense so I used police radio and I… It’s connected the narrow space, the narrow road and woods and after that the house and after that digging – a woman digging a hole and back shot of a guy and then the house. I had to join the images together.
YT: I made a festival version that was 12 minutes. Then I made a 22-minute version. After that I joined it to a story about a sister city. Recently I’ve been researching sister cities. I think Sister cities are very funny and are pretty meaningless. For example Yokohama and Lyon. Lyon is its sister city. I feel there’s potential. There’s no meaning but I want meaning. Maybe the new footage is focused on sister cities. You know Eisenhower? He started the sister city movement. Now I’m interested in Eisenhower, too.
YT: Yeah, yeah yeah yeah. Eisenhower footage is the focus I’m also using Nebraska, Alaska and Chiba. There’s no meaning but it’s similar to sister city. This footage was put together using, for instance, radio, scary, horror, atmosphere. It has to focus on Eisenhower.
NV: Do you have some favorite films or influences?
YT: I like B films. I like Torimasu (Tremors), a Kevin Bacon film. It’s a 1989 film by Ron Underwood. Torimasu is about warriors in New York. I like that style. I’m inspired by mainly Torimasu. I like some other, for example, Paris Texas. I like some famous films. But I like to make a film inspired by B movies. When I was a child, in primary school we came home from school at 2 or 3 pm. We’d go back home and watch B movies on TV. In the evenings, for example on Friday and Saturday nights at 9 pm we’d watch something famous. But the afternoons were the time for low budget films. Night film was for watching with the family. That was a very special time I think. I like to focus on that time.
NV: The avant-garde tradition of found footage. For example Connor and Baldwin. Are there Japanese filmmakers who work like that?
YT: I don’t know.
NV: You made this film without being the “director.” Are you interested in continuing with doing more things with found footage?
YT: My attitude’s like this. I think that maybe photography is the best for appropriation. Painting and sculpture is not appropriation. Photography is appropriation and representation. I think it works very similarly in film. My works focus on appropriation. Very simple representation isn’t good. So I take some footage and then add a screenplay and see how it all connects. Then representation becomes the main focus of the work. Shooting isn’t important for me. And basically I like these anonymous images.
NV: You were involved in the Otto Manheim Gallery.
YT: Oh yes. It’s already closed.
NV: Who is Otto Manheim?
YT: It’s a fictional name.
NV: Does he have a personality?
YT: At first my conception of Otto Manheim was as a person, a rich man. He opened a commercial photography gallery, but had some difficulty. It wasn’t commercial. We didn’t have that talent. I don’t have management talent.
NV: How long did the gallery last?
YT: Maybe 2 years.
NV: Were you the director?
YT: Yeah, I was the main person.
NV: What sort of work did you show there?
YT: My friend had a lot of talent using that gallery so he mainly used it. He used mainly for talk events. Artists and curators and researchers. There were so many people who joined in the events. So many talk event groups.
NV: I saw online an installation with a car and screen.
YT: This is the second variation. The installation had a car like a drive in theater. Last year I researched how you see… the systems for watching films – kanshou houhou in Japanese. A dark room with a white screen is the main system for viewing films. It’s very strong. But before there were other systems, experimental systems. Film was born in the 19th century and in the 20th century… and now the system that remains is collective movie theater experience. But before there were some funny system. One system is the drive-in theater.
NV: Have you ever been to one?
YT: No no no. I want to go.
NV: There aren’t that many left.
YT: In Japan, there aren’t any now. Last year they stopped. The last was in Kanagawa near the seaside. You have been to drive in theater?
NV: Yes many times when I was growing up. All the time. One time I went with a bunch of boys for all night scary movies.
YT: So I made an installation where you could see the film from a car. It was very interesting. I don’t have experience of a drive-in theater. But I created a similar experience to a drive-in theater. This film is all images from the street. It made a funny and very interesting connection with the film and from inside a car it’s very funny experience. Very different.
NV: Do you drive a car?
YT: I can drive, yeah.
NV: America is famous for people driving long distances. Hours of driving. Very much an American image and idea. It’s interesting, but it’s boring. Maybe through Google you’ve found some very American style images.
YT: You actually drive in the United States. We don’t have the experience of driving, but we have, here, in the cinemas, in films – and as I said, going back home after school… alone… so it’s like in low budget movies… almost all United states films… low budget films are filmed in Nebraska or… it’s a role model, the United States film. We got our experience through movies.
NV: The new installation?
YT: So, this is another interest. I’m interested in animism. Before Christ. Before the Christian religion. Before Buddhism. The primitive ages. So, I think of film, and the movie image and connecting animism and primitive images. Do you know Shinichi Nakazawa? He’s a writer. He writes on cinema, on cinema systems. It’s like a cave in some ancient age. A group… a group of men… go to a cave and have initiation rites and afterward they build a fire an then make pictures, like cows and hunters, Lascaux… cave walls… it all connects. So now people go to a theater and see a film. The film images and stories are modern… and not often that normal. We don’t have experience in actually modern. Human beings want to see not a normal life in a cave in a cinema. Mr. Nakazawa say is very connecting. I think inspiring. I’m thinking of connecting the primitive and the ancient with movies. I also have this inspiration of muscle building. It’s scary. It’s only men. No women. (laughing). We’re here Thursday and Saturday mornings. We’re getting people together to exercise and work out. Just now, it’s only me. I want to make it like Fight Club. I get some people to come an be filmed working out. Then I’ll edit it and show it on the screen in the same space. It’s an experiment, but I like making this connection to body building. It’s very funny thing. There’s no meaning. Body building itself is a meaningless activity, but I think now, after the earthquake it’s more meaningful. You know after the earthquake, Tokyoites walked home. They walked for 6, 8 hours. We had to go home on two legs. Maybe next day, most people and felt… “ow.” I think things have change a little.
NV: So you want to be strong.
YT: It’s meaningful now, I think.
NV: I see you had pictures of Mishima working out.
YT: Yes, I don’t want to be Mishima. He was crazy. But maybe by changing his body, he changed too. Recently, I saw Uncle Boonmee. Apichatpong Weerasathakul’s film style is very interesting. His style is working forward without a completed screenplay. He traveled with his young cast and crew in Northern Thailand filming, eating, playing. He focused on animism and ghosts, sleeping people, unconscious people. Very interesting. Unconscious and anonymous… close to what I’m doing. I film the same way. Working from the unconscious. Concentrating on making muscles and making machines from iron bars. Simply. There’s a funny connection between making films and making machines and making bodies. I want to try to find it.
NV: There’s the mirror you’re having manufactured by traditional mirror makers. The mirror will be delivered so you can see yourself. The window and the mirror. We see the he process of it being made.
YT: It’s a very important metaphor. We’re using camera and film. It’s a very strong connection. It’s not only screening the film. It’s an installation that makes new connections… the installation place and the screen. Images and actual materials. I want to connect in some way editing image and making film, making a narrative, seeing actual material and the screen makes funny connections. I believe this world is continuous or not. It’s a bit funny, but I want to say, continuous or not? Just now I’m focused on the continuous.
A clip from NIGHTLESS is online at http://plaza.bunka.go.jp/english/festival/2010/art/NIGHTLESS/