Brian Paul interviews L.A.-based artist Naoki Sutter Shudo about the processes behind his practice. With his work encompassing sculpture, photography, and installation, Naoki describes how these formats come together, and how he further conceives his exhibitions. He talks about his admiration for Bataille’s writing, and for the philosopher and founder of the Mingei Movement: Soetsu Yanagi. As a co-founder of the space Bel Ami, in Los Angeles (2017-present), Naoki also talks about the relationships and the infrastructures that resulted through and out of this experience, and about the impact that this has had on his artistic career. He highlights the importance of friendships and implies the necessity of a support structure for any young artist working internationally.
Naoki Sutter Shudoi was born in 1990, in Paris, and lives and works in Los Angeles.
Brian Paul: Do you usually think of your projects in series? The photos and the sculptures?
Naoki Sutter Shudo: I wish I didn’t but I tend to. This is the single biggest trauma from art school: we got taught to think in series as if that’s more effective to get your point across. But I’m instinctively more attracted to instances of accidents and unrepeatable moments, like one-hit wonders, sudden mutations, or things that can only exist within a very very short time period. It’s also a false problem to worry about whether one’s body of work is cohesive enough or not, ultimately something of the artist’s energy comes through in everything. I wish we could be more chaotic as individuals, but we’re pretty easily legible, our patterns are easily predicted, unfortunately.
BP: Your photographs are often complemented by objects on their periphery, sometimes balanced on their colorful frames. What kinds of contradictions are present in the photographic side of your practice?
NSS: I never used digital photography seriously until I started documenting shows at Shanaynay, then Bel Ami. I was very anti-digital, pro-analog, and my favorite camera is still an analog medium format one, the Mamiya RZ67. My father got me into photography early on. I still have all my analog equipment but everything is so expensive nowadays and the choice of film and paper is more and more limited, unfortunately. Through producing documentation for galleries, I got into retouching, excessive distortion, completely fabricating things on photoshop, etc. Most of my photographs are still life scenes shot around the house, and I don’t necessarily set things up very tightly. It’s actually a lot about just finding something nice by accident, like a particular pile of mess. But then I retouch and edit a lot, and if you look closely you can sometimes tell the perspective is really off, or the image is contradictory like the light doesn’t make sense, or the texture of some real objects looks completely fake. So, in a way, it’s like making something real look very staged, instead of staging something to make it look real. But questions of real and fake seem to matter little now. If anything can look “interesting”, what really deserves to be looked at? I don’t know.
The way I play with my photographs is similar to how I work on documentation for galleries. Actually, I think people don’t really pay close attention to details in photographs now, so you can kind of do really crazy edits, no one cares. I don’t care about technical quality as long as it feels right. Also, I don’t care about the image looking like the real thing; it should look better.
It’s nothing new, but this Instagram moment that we’re in is very strange. My photographs can almost feel parodic of the current mainstream way of creating content, which implies a carefully curated “self-expression.” It seems like there is no other way of being heard, judging by how everyone on all political sides is using the exact same strategy of representation; everything is branding. I would love to get off of Instagram but I have too much FOMO (FOMO really is the malady of our times).
The photographs, when framed in enameled wood with sculptural elements on them, hopefully, become like little stage sets, like dioramas. Hopefully, the distinction between a three-dimensional thing and a two-dimensional image becomes insubstantial. I often have the sad suspicion that the world is a stage and we just play different parts, without a core, like everything is surface, even if I choose to believe otherwise.
BP: Bataille’s excesses are enjoying recent attention. Can you expand on your thinking about ornamentation?
NSS: Bataille is endlessly fascinating. A biopic of him would have beautiful scenes. I don't think it's a good moment right now to publicly think and write in a complex way like he did, claiming some things in written format, doing other things in real life, contradicting himself, not making his position necessarily crystal clear at all times. The beauty of some of Bataille's passages makes me very sad/emotional. Some of his writing is too rich and makes the world a richer, more difficult thing to grasp, but all with precision. It's the opposite of how I intuitively feel the world most days.
I don't have a pro or anti stance on ornamentation. When I was a kid, I often fantasized about having every inch of every available surface in the world covered with drawings and patterns, like a wallpaper. The denser the better. Ornamentation happens naturally in the world, which is why it’s also probably a deep human instinct. For me, good ornamentation must be straightforward, it must make sense within its own logic. In my physical work I actually try to avoid decoration for the sake of decoration, everything that ends up being used/added is a crucial element, I rarely distinguish ornamentation from function or whatever.
BP: Cigarette brands like Camels and Gauloises and Nag Champa incense appeared in a body of work in 2017/2018. These smoky objects seem a far cry from the finger puppets riding the Truth Trolley in your 2017 show at Bodega. Your choice of subjects seems to be intuitive, what does your process look like when you’re choosing which images to become artworks?
NSS: The finger puppets are actually stuffed animal toys torn apart by my dog. They're sort of idyllic critters–like you would see in a children's book about life on a farm or something. Except they've all been ‘abused’ by a real animal. So, in a way, they're these remnants of some instinctive aggression. Maybe that's their truth.
The smoky stuff comes out of a smoker's need to romanticize/intellectualize the addiction, and I could go on and on about it. Now I've quit smoking, after having been a human ashtray for half my life. But in those specific works, the packaging design of Gauloises/Nag Champa and Camel Wides/Papier d'Arménie seemed like good pairings. I was imagining the incense canceling the cigarette smoke, and vice versa, neutralizing each other.
The objects and images I use, mostly come from my own collection of things. I like antiques, flea market finds, and just all sorts of objects. I like object-ness. I have things around the house that I look at for a while until they become part of a work. In a way, it's like curating a lifestyle magazine spread. I've always been sensitive to displays of social class, manners, what different objects signify, etc. At the same time, my understanding of objects owes a lot to Soetsu Yanagi’s writings and his idea of Mingei, folk anonymous functional arts. Yanagi was a Buddhist thinker and how he talks about collecting is deeply spiritual. Beauty is immediate and by contemplating it you can exist in the pure present, cutting away past and future. He talks about every new encounter with a beautiful object as being a new first love. Encountering beauty must be unmediated, it’s almost a platonic way of thinking. The Mingeikan museum in Tokyo, which he created, is perfection.
When I'm composing a show I work very intuitively. I would love to compose shows like sets for characters, with specific atmospheres. It can be very controlling but really it’s just an intuitive process: I don’t fully understand everything until long after it’s finished. I try to trust my taste.
BP: THEORY and THEFT appear spelled out and become objects multiple times in recent shows, including in Moeurs at Crèvecœur gallery. But only limited indication is given as to how the viewer might relate to these concepts...
NSS: The word “Theory” has appeared in three successive iterations: first at Bodega, where it was arranged as a perimeter around other works that spelled “Truth”, “Theft”, like a theoretical field. These green letters were blooming as if it was springtime. Then the letters were reddened, reduced, and encapsulated in a dome as if it was winter, and finally, the word shriveled and dried out. Later, at Crèvecœur, the word was completely illegible, as each letter was further reduced and dismembered into bits and parts; in the sculpture the word became a weight supporting a starry sky-patterned element. These words can be molded to mean more than they say, perhaps to even contradict themselves. You can own things that are contradictory but they both sit on the same shelf in your house, and then you can move them around so they have different relationships to each other.
BP: In the same exhibition, Moeurs, and elsewhere, rooms and concepts as such also shift to the scale of tabletop sculpture. What attributes of this scale keeps you coming back? And does that relate to the ‘ambivalences’ mentioned above?
NSS: The small scale allows for a one-on-one relationship with the thing in front of you. When you really look at something of that scale, the surroundings disappear. It’s just you and the thing. The viewer is like a god playing with these words-turned-things, you can examine these models as if you’re on a cosmic scale. It’s a good distance to see nuance, both materially and figuratively.
BP: You ran Shanaynay in Paris and co-founded Bel Ami – were they connected?
NSS: I became aware of Shanaynay in early 2012, very shortly after it opened, through word of mouth. I think it was Louise Sartor who told me about it first. It was the first "project space" (that seemed like the most commonly used term at the time) that I witnessed opening in Paris in real time, right when I was starting to see how social circles operated in the art world. That was also the moment when Kim Farkas and I were starting Holoholo, a publishing house. I was making some art, but not really showing it to anyone, I had a lot of ideas but very few physical outcomes.
Jason Hwang and Romain Chenais, Shanaynay's founders, were around and we would see each other at various gatherings. Jason had moved to Paris from LA, where he had studied at the Art Center College of Design; I went there in 2013 for a semester, as part of a study exchange program, and had a great time, mostly thanks to Bruce Hainley who taught there. I also met Alexandra Noel at that time. When I came back to Paris, Jason and Romain were working on opening High Art gallery (along with Philippe Joppin), and wanted to keep Shanaynay open, involving a new team to run it. At the time, I was contemplating dropping out of art school: I was in my last year of the graduate program but I was a total slacker, pretentious too. I felt like I would be doing something art-related no matter what, and that school wasn't primordial. I was more interested in going out, dressing up, and consuming culture than being in a studio. I was never at school. That's when Jason told me that Shanaynay was the best school in Paris at the time and that I should join it, which sounded fun. So I did that and I dropped out before graduating. In retrospect, I did learn so much more while at Shanaynay, it really was the best school for me.
By then, a loose group of friends and a regular public had formed around Shanaynay, and I started there along with Sabrina Tarasoff (who had been an assistant at Shanaynay for some time), Louise Sartor, and Guillaume Maraud. We still consulted with Jason and Romain who were good mentors. This group evolved with people leaving, people joining, and now it's run by people I never worked directly with. (I think this "passing the torch" element is probably what defines Shanaynay now.)
After having lived eight years in Paris (having moved there from Tokyo, my hometown), I knew I wanted a change of scenery and finally moved to LA in July 2015, the same week that a Shanaynay-curated show (organized by Sabrina Tarasoff) was opening at Fahrenheit in LA (the space doesn't exist anymore). I got married to Alexandra. Sabrina also ended up moving to LA after many back and forth trips. We started talking about starting a gallery, without anything specific in mind, and we first started existing as BelAmi when we participated at the last edition of the Paramount Ranch fair in 2016. Soon after, we joined forces with Eric Kim to open a physical space in Chinatown. Since then, Sabrina has left to focus on writing, which has always been her core practice, and I've been busier with my art making. Lee Foley is now the main director, and we do things organically.
BP: What are your thoughts about showing your work alongside your wife, Alexandra Noel?
NSS: Alexandra and I share a room in the house as a studio; we have two identical tables side by side but, in reality, I work all around the house (a lot in the kitchen). We end up using a lot of the same materials, sharing tools, and going supply hunting together. I’m actually getting a larger studio soon, so we won’t be working side by side as much. We have done two collaborative shows so far, first at Jessica Silverman, where we showed two portraits of babies, based on faces generated by mashing our own baby faces together. We were joking that having babies would be like the ultimate collaboration. At the Steak House DOSKOI in Tokyo, which is a kitchen, we hung makeshift curtains and pinned a lot of brooches on them. This is actually something we do at home on our bedroom curtains. Living with someone will inevitably lead to working together. And we have this ongoing group of drawings we make together. Those will probably end up becoming a book.
BP: What are you watching right now? Reading? Listening to?
NSS: I haven’t been watching much recently… I watch rap music videos every day, that’s the most consistent watching habit I have. Sometimes I obsessively watch traditional craft videos (mostly Japanese ones), and cooking videos. Weirdly I haven’t properly watched films in a really long time. But this is a cycle.
I read a bit of everything, several books at a time. A lot of novels (recently it’s mostly been Japanese authors), a lot of magazines, less theory/philosophy than I used to, some Buddhist writings, comics. I write short stories sometimes. I listen to everything, I like intense music when I’m working, but right now this second I have the French public radio in the background, some nonstop rap mix, it’s alright.
BP: Which websites do you spend most of your time on?
NSS: eBay, Drouot (Parisian auction house), Yahoo! Auctions (Japan) are the trifecta. YouTube, a lot of Japanese blogs (I miss unregulated blogs before the Internet became basically 3 websites), online magazines, plus the usual art blogs/platforms, I do the rounds every day (I really miss blogs like Joshua Abelow’s art blog art blog).
BP: What are you looking forward to? (anything you want to plug?)
NSS: I’m getting a new studio which I can’t wait to turn into something real cozy. I almost don’t want to do anything else and just spend time on renovating it. I saw an electric organ on craigslist, being given away at a church, I might try to get it in the studio, that would be fun.
At the end of August, Louise Sartor and I have a duo show at Crèvecœur in Marseilles, we’re going to live and work there for the summer. We’ve been close friends and have worked together in different capacities over the years, so it’s really cool. Mostly I’m looking forward to the Mediterranean.
In November, Soshiro Matsubara and I have a duo at XYZ in Tokyo. I love the XYZ crew. We’ve done a few things together actually, not always publicly, but it’s also a family kind of thing. Soshiro lives in Vienna far from home, and there is something about his work that contains a sort of nostalgic and pleasant sadness, which I also identify with. He has impeccable taste. I have the intuition it will be a sexy show. It’s also an occasion for me to show in my hometown, which I miss.
I actually want to do things in a slower way. Make time to read some books, cook laborious dishes, go swimming. I want to consume.