The Last Call, 2015 Installation/Performance Courtesy to the artist and Take Ninagawa, Tokyo Photo: Takehiro Iikawa All images courtesy of the artist
Aki Sasamoto’s work consists of large installations that include careful arrangements of found objects. She often alters these objects and activates them through improvisational performances. Aki sees art-making to be therapy and often time creates work in response to her environment. For Living Content’s current issue I met with Aki on a sunny Sunday at her house, to talk about her practice, her background in liberal arts and dance, and how humor, her friends, mistranslations, and even stress, have been an ongoing source of inspiration for her work. Aki was born in Yokohama, Japan, and she is currently living and working in New York.
Living Content You were born in Yokohama, in Japan, and you lived both in UK and in the U.S. Can you tell me a bit about your trajectory and how you started making art?
Aki Sasamoto Initially, I was interested in having a liberal arts education in the U.S. because it was a system that has been somewhat imported to Japan as part of the post-war americanization, but it wasn’t working in the same way in the Japanese university system. I was curious–it sounded like a much better model–so I applied for a scholarship that gave me the opportunity to apply further to any liberal arts college in the States. That’s how I got here. It was very random in a way, at the time I was more interested in international politics and social sciences.
LC Interesting… So how did you start making art?
AS Growing up I was making art as a hobby. It was never a profession for me. When I moved to UK from Japan, I didn’t speak much English and I was enrolled in an international school. By default, I took an art course because I didn’t have to write, and also by default, I made artsy projects to make friends. But it wasn’t specifically visual art, I was in the choir, I was into theatre and so on. When I was in undergraduate, it made sense to keep making art on the side. I think it was when I started to take dance classes that I got really hooked… Somehow it was all a random combination of circumstances and meeting cool artists I guess…
LC That makes sense, and making art can also be a kind of coping mechanism when you’re outside of your comfort zone. So your practice started from performance then?
AS I wouldn’t call it performance, I was really thinking dance. But in retrospect, I always had objects in my pieces. At the time, I was probably looking at them more as costumes or different materials to work on stage for inspiration. Like throwing paper and then dancing with it. In my head it was very much about dance. When I came to New York after graduation, I was actually seeking opportunities in theater, and honestly I wasn’t even thinking about galleries. It was just the timing that made it that people were interested in performance in the visual art world. For instance, I was dancing in this alternative space and I noticed that it was talked about as performance rather than dance. And I continued noticing that through conversations with people who saw my work.
LC It’s interesting you mention the way you were using objects as part of your choreography. Objects are now an essential part of your performances, and in the installations you create they work like words in poems: a lot of free association, sometimes they function as metaphors in their own right, or even as puns. Can you tell me more about this process and the way in which you use language?
AS Sculpture wise, I start from the existing object and what it refers to. The whole metaphorical or conceptual aspect of it is always linked to the representation of the object. And linguistically, because English is my second language, I’ve noticed that a lot of mistranslations come out as being poetic. So I always enjoy those moments, I let them linger a second longer, and then I hold on to that humor. This humor gets married to the metaphor that’s projected on the object. It’s a process that I enjoy a lot, and that works in parallel with the way the body is in the performance, which skips language altogether. So I do have these two parallel ways of thinking that somehow meet in the installation.
LC Can you tell me more about the internal narratives that you fuse in your work? You combine both universal and personal anecdotes. For instance, in your show at The Kitchen “Yield Point”, you look at elasticity and how it is defined in physics, but you also use it as a metaphor to how resilient we are as humans. Can you tell me more about how you use these two perspectives in your practice?
AS You know how textbooks always have an appendix or a footnote? That’s how I see those personal stories: as the appendix. That’s how I personalize what I hear and see. When I was growing up, I loved school, especially the class setting. Imagine kids listening to their geography teacher while looking at her hairstyle: linking what she’s talking about with her weird hairstyle. I have to link information to other things in the same way. I only remember the geography class because of her hair. I still enjoy making these kind of associations, so I am intentionally going to choose as a “base” for my work a basic, fundamental knowledge, and link it further to another narrative, in a more tangential way.
LC And they work well because they are relatable ?
AS Yes, I would say so. I’m doing this because I want a wide entrance into the work. In a way, I’m just one person of the audience performing in my installation. I want it to come across that my performance is one way of interacting with the installation and of establishing a personal relationship to the objects. So I want to make that ‘entrance’ really huge.
LC So when you’re performing in the space how do you see the viewers in relation to the installation and to the objects?
AS One possible answer–because I don’t really know–it’s just that I see myself as one of them in a way. I’m definitely utilizing the delimitation between performer and audience because it wouldn’t work if everybody would do everything at the same time, but they could be doing it in their own head. So if I feel less like a performer and they feel less like an audience, but still on the same spectrum, that’s already like we’re walking a bit towards each other. I do enjoy the theatre setting as well, but the performance needs to be planned very differently. When I don’t have chairs in an installation and I’m moving around, I’m hoping that the audience either physically, or at least in their imagination, are moving around with me. So even though I look like the only performer, it’s not so much about my ego. In fact, what I’m talking about might not even be about me, even when I use ‘I’. I just put ‘I’ on it for the time being. It’s like a surrogate. Conceptually. Physically, I also can’t allow other people to take over the installation because I make spaces and holes that are for my size.
LC Do you ever rehearse your performances?
AS Not really, only parts of it. I don’t think I run the whole thing fully until it happens. But I do test the interactions in the space.
LC Like the performance “Delicate Cycle”, at Sculpture Center, where you fit yourself in a washing machine that starts running?
AS Yes, I definitely tested that.
LC How does it feel to be performing the same piece over and over again? Does it feel like a closure or does it feel that you’re opening it up more towards another project?
AS It depends… You know, it’s good to read certain poetry or certain books several times. So when a piece is good, I like to perform it multiple times so then I can pick up on different details. It’s about getting deeper into the content–as an experience. And because there is never a script, there is always the possibility that the work can change while I perform it: sometimes I’ll add or subtract what I’m saying. In the last few years I’ve been trying to repeat a work more often just so I can get deeper into it, with the hope that it will change. The changes may not even be drastic, a drastic difference I experienced only a couple of times.
LC In what way?
AS The order of the story changed completely. That’s why I say that it’s completely structured, but it’s still improvisation. I like playing the same songs because it never feels the same. Context is the same, but the stress in the narrative changes. Lately, it feels more locked in. So in the last show at The Kitchen I invited two musicians at different times: sometimes I was solo, sometimes I was with a saxophonist, sometimes I was with a singer. It doesn’t veer away completely from the context of talking about the topic of the show: that of elasticity, but I can change what factors are involved.
LC It’s interesting because by expanding it, it slowly becomes multiple variations of itself.
AS I’m very interested in that variation in performing. That also happens when I make the diagrams that come out like drawings during the performances. It’s slightly different each time because I forget something or I end up explaining everything in a different order. And, again, going back to the geography teacher: she must have taught how a volcano is formed hundreds of times, always wrote it on the same blackboard, erased it, and in the next classroom did the same thing all over again. How different would this class be depending on a sunny day or a rainy day? That’s why I like doing multiple performances.
LC Do you have a question, a feeling, or a subject that you’re investigating next?
AS It hasn’t settled in words yet. It has something to do with spinning, thinking about staircases, thinking about ghosts. I’ve been wanting to allow myself to float in life instead of steering myself. It’s just a different attitude in life. This is so vague …(laughs)… but it often starts like that. I can look back and I can do a Jungian reading on where I was when I think about a certain piece. It’s really reflective of what I’m going through. I don’t know, for me art really is like therapy I guess.
LC Of course. I’m thinking about your show at The Kitchen again: it’s relatable in so many ways. For instance, for someone who is an artist and who lives in New York, it shows the pressure of having a practice and making a living. And other objects that serve as subtle metaphors: like the empty containers, the elasticity theory spelled out during the performance, the small walnuts on the elastic strings, plus a myriad of other things that indicate both how people act under a breaking and a making point.
AS Yeah, I’ve been a full time professor now in the last three years, and I freaked out. (laughs)
LC Do you enjoy teaching?
AS Yes, I do, but that balance is tough. I have to be OK with not giving 100% all the time. Which is what I really pursue in any project. It’s hard, but I also know that I can actually work really well under pressure.
LC Do you think New York is still a good place for an artist to live and produce work?
AS It’s good for me. Maybe not forever, but it’s a good place to be for a career. I respond well to stress. Even if I’m problematizing stress, I respond well to it. If I’m actually in a good place, I don’t think I can make art so easily because art is like therapy. So, yes, I have to always be troubled (laughs). Of course, when I say ‘troubled’ I mean it in a more pragmatic way, not in an existential way. I can use art to console but not to solve problems.
LC What is a continual source of inspiration for you?
AS Watching my friends very closely. All my friends are possible specimens that I can observe for long periods of time. This serves as my material in a way. With friends I can see multiple perspectives to a story. You know, news is too thin–I need entire biographies… It’s interesting for me to boil it down to cause and effect because I feel that real life is too layered to grasp anyway, and the gallery space is the perfect lab for me to extract these few examples.