Tokyo Loop 2014, Video. Filmed by: GHANI

I met with Tsubasa Kato at his gallery, Mujin-to Production, to discuss his practice, his current and upcoming projects. His wife, also an artist, was there with their baby, and after a brief introduction, we gathered around a laptop to delve into a series of works he has completed in recent years.

One of Tsubasa’s most known projects is perhaps "Pull and Raise," a series of performances that began in 2007 and continues to evolve globally. Through this work, he invites different communities to join in constructing and deconstructing significant architectural structures such as houses or towers, which hold symbolic meaning for the locals. Depending on the associations these structures hold, they are either erected or toppled, enabling the entire community to engage in a cathartic process of collaboration. For each performance, Tsubasa thoroughly researches the location, engages with the community, and tailors the script to suit the specific context. In our discussion for Living Content, Tsubasa elaborates on the complexities involved in such an ambitious endeavor: from engaging everyone in the  community both physically and emotionally, to managing expectations, to documenting the performance, and preserving its impact through installations and videos in institutional or gallery settings.

Tsubasa also shares insights into "Songs While Bound," another series of performative acts involving musicians performing national anthems while physically linked together. This results in a striking deconstruction of national anthems, which, as the artist discovered, can sometimes be met with disapproval by authorities in different parts of the world. For instance, in countries like Vietnam or China, these performances have had to be reinterpreted in a more subversive way to take place in institutions. Tsubasa’s practice explores both the positive and negative aspects of collective consciousness, while being rooted in the cultural richness of his Japanese heritage. 

Living Content conducted a series of studio visits and interviews with artists living and working in Tokyo and beyond, as part of a three-month-long research trip in Japan, supported by CCA Center for Contemporary Art and Peace Winds Japan (PWJ).

Tsubasa Kato (b. 1984, Tokyo), ‘s multimedia projects involve performance, structures, and video, and often rely on spontaneous participation. His works have been widely exhibited in STAND [The Watermill Center, New York, 2022]; Turf and Perimeter [Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, Japan, 2021]; Scratching the Surface [Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, 2021]; They Do Not Understand Each Other [Tai Kwun, Hong Kong, 2020]; BECOMING A COLLECTIVE BODY [MAXXI, Rome, 2020]; Aichi Triennale 2019 [Japan, 2019]; Reenacting History [MMCA, Gwacheon, South Korea, 2017]; Uprisings [Jeu de Paume, Paris, 2016], amongst others.

Issue №:

Living Content: Your practice delves into the realm of social tensions within both individual and group dynamics. Through your Pull and Raise series, you orchestrate the convergence of communities to either erect or dismantle structures. These ephemeral edifices, that you often craft from reclaimed materials, carry profound symbolic weight for these communities, serving as fleeting monuments. Could you tell me a bit about how you started this series and why it has evolved into such a pivotal undertaking for you?

Tsubasa Kato: I started the Pull and Raise/Topple series in 2007. The first subject of the series was my apartment. I had been living in the same apartment, sharing it with ten friends. The idea was to measure our apartment carefully, make a structure the same size, and recreate it on my art university's ground field, like copying and pasting in a computer program. But when I got around to building it, the structure size was too big to handle by myself, so I had my apartment mates help me finish it. That's when I realized that a private space has mass. Nothing could be more private than my own room, yet because of its size, I couldn't recreate it alone; I needed to get a team together to help me. Then I thought, what if that process itself was the goal? That's where the idea of pulling ropes together to conquer the mass of a structure came from. The heavier something is, the harder it is to move, requiring more energy. The structures in Pull and Raise/Topple are designed so that it is immediately apparent that more than a handful of people will be required to achieve the goal of raising/toppling them. Bystanders are thus inspired to help with the action. The mass of the structure itself is a trigger. In other words, because the mass and gravity of the structures are important, Pull and Raise/Topple is essentially about the conversion of energy. In the early stages of the project, I used multiple structures modeled after houses to convert my family and friends' relationships into energy. Currently, the project has transcended national borders. The motifs of the structures have evolved into themes that relate to various social issues and circumstances, and we perform with anyone who jumps in. While I reveal the mass of challenges that I must overcome with my collaborators, I can also participate in that energy to share a piece of this world with them, even if it is far from my territory.

Break it Before it's Broken, 2015, Lambda print. Photo: Yukari Hirano
Magnetic S, 2022, 2-ch video with 4-ch audio. Filmed by: Dongseok Park and Kisuk Kim

LC: I was looking at "Songs While Bound," another series of works where you invite a group of musicians to perform their national anthem while physically tethered to each other by ropes that impede their ability to play their instruments. The performance makes not only a striking choreography but also a deconstruction of the anthems they are tasked with performing. You've tailored this concept for countries such as Japan, Korea, the US, and China, encountering various challenges along the way. What kind of resistance did you face, and how do you interpret such reactions to this piece?

TK: In this series, one of the rules is to perform the national anthem, yet in the case of Hong Kong, The Day to Break the Silence (2022), the anthem could not be the sole option. Post-2020, using the Chinese national anthem or any Hong Kong protest songs in this manner became challenging. Thus, I reached out to The Interzone Collective, a Hong Kong-based band, to collaborate on crafting a new composition. Together, we delved into the nuances of individual and collective experiences amid Hong Kong's local socio-political landscape. Today, as social bonds within groups and communities face increasing strain, "Songs While Bound" serves as a satire on the conundrum of connection versus restriction, portraying our collective resistance.

"The Day to Break the Silence" exemplifies this tension. From the outset, I anticipated a political undertone in the "Songs While Bound" series due to its engagement with national anthems. However, I hadn't foreseen a political climate where handling the national anthem would become contentious. Inspired by "The Day to Break the Silence," this series not only scrutinizes the dynamic between the group and the individual but also challenges our freedom of expression. Consequently, in socio-political contexts like Hong Kong, presenting this work in museums or galleries can pose challenges for curators.

Elevating the political dimension of artworks isn't necessarily negative. Once an artwork is completed, it remains unchanged even as socio-political circumstances evolve. In this light, our creation of "The Day to Break the Silence" also reflects a vision for Hong Kong's future.

The Day to Break the Silence, 2022, Commissioned by CHAT (Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile), Hong Kong, 3-ch video with 4-ch audio. Performed by: The Interzone Collective. Filmed by: MA Chi-hang, CHUENG Pak-ming, and MAK Chi-kwan

LC: Tell me a bit about your creative process. How do you start your research when you deal with such diverse global communities?

TK: When I start a project, my focus is understanding the social issues prevalent within the local community and the ideals it upholds. Delving into why the realization of these ideals and the resolution of problems prove challenging shows the relationships between underlying causes and the region's historical, geographical, political, or economic contexts. It's common to encounter conflicts between our ideals and the stark reality we face. I dissect the elements shaping this relationship and establish performance rules and objectives in the simplest terms possible.

I always collaborate with local individuals on projects: whether it’s involving the local carpenters to create a structure, engaging the local musicians to perform, enlisting the local shooting crew to record, or collaborating with the local curators and gallerists. I always listen to and respect their opinions.

Black Snake, 2017, Lambda print. Photo: Yukari Hirano

LC: A lot of your works also reflect on our relationship with nature through social and political circumstances. I'm thinking about "Black Snake", for instance, a performance from the series "Pull and Raise" that you enacted for Standing Rock in 2017. How do you feel that your cultural background influenced your artistic exploration of ecological themes, and in what ways does do you feel that it contributes to your practice?

TK: Animism in Japan recognizes everything as a subject with a spirit or soul: natural objects such as plants and rocks; places such as mountains, rivers, and oceans; natural phenomena such as weather and natural disasters; artificial things such as houses and vehicles; even languages and abstract concepts. Also, its characteristics do not distinguish between the immaterial soul or spiritual world and the material world. In Japanese spirituality the definition of the divine is fluid. Immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, I conducted a project in the disaster area in Fukushima. I collected wood from destroyed houses, I created a structure modeled after a local lighthouse damaged by the Tsunami, and performed with the local community. This performance represents not only the victims who died in the Tsunami but also the destroyed homes, the damaged community, and the ocean. From an animist perspective, what is sacred at this time is not the structure that has become the totem of performance but the phenomenon and state in which it is pulled and raised. 

In filming this performance, I shot from a human view and installed a camera on the structure to capture the phenomenon of the structure slowly moving from the structure view. By incorporating this non-human perspective into my work, I am integrating unexpected things into the work. By doing so, I try to give the viewer a space that can be interpreted from multiple perspectives.

The Lighthouses - 11.3 PROJECT,
2011, Lambda print. Photo: Kei Miyajima
Installation view: Turf and Perimeter, 2021, Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, Japan. Photo: Kenji Morita

LC: It’s interesting that you say that: the work is highlighting the importance of the performance itself as a transformative act. It seems like this dynamic interaction between the performance, the participants, and the environment, becomes, in communion, a kind of spiritual action - and you can see that when you look at the video documentation. Through this perspective, how do you see that your practice has evolved with time, and what are you most excited about next?

TK: My first motif was something concrete and personal: my room. Over time, my work has shifted to immaterial themes, such as concepts that question the untranslatability of language and explore the dynamics and tensions between individuality and collective identity. Having had my son this year, made me think more than ever about the cycle of life and death. Also, my interest in death has been marked ever since the passing of my teacher. I studied painting under a local artist couple until I was nine years old. While I was studying with them in art school, something tragic happened: they were hiking on Mount Nantai in Japan and were caught in a blizzard. The rescue team found their bodies attached to one another by rope at 1800 meters elevation. This event always made me think on the fleeting nature of life but also how the most defining moments of our lives are rarely caught on camera or otherwise recorded. Having my son made me want to create a “definitive” self-portrait. As an artist who has always depicted social landscapes, creating a self-portrait is challenging for me, but I am excited to explore new methods of making art and venture into a new field.

LC: What is a special landscape or natural place that inspires you in Tokyo?

TK: I was born in Saitama, outside of Tokyo, and grew up in Tokyo, crossing the river daily by train. Transferring trains itself inspires me. Even now, my activities are the basis of traveling from place to place for projects. As a symbol of the fluidity of Tokyo's landscape, I love the scenery of the Metropolitan Circular Expressways that surround Tokyo. I also staged a performance, Tokyo Loop (2014) on this expressway loop line. 

A truck drives on the Inner Circular Route (C1) and projects footage of a traditional Japanese cheerleader cheering onto the back of the truck. In the video, the truck travels around the city center, and this cheering man travels around Tokyo forever. The quake and Tsunami that struck Japan in 2011 brought to the surface some challenging issues Japan has had for years and talking about them presented the potential to change some societal aspects. This work was meant to send an encouraging cheer, while simultaneously satirizing a Tokyo that was yet to achieve true transformation.

Drawing for g.g.g.(grand all, ground, gladiator) 1, 2007, Colored pencil and ink on a paper
Interview by

Adriana Blidaru

Curator, writer, and founding editor of LC.